Luang Prabang- A stunning small town

Most people I know haven’t heard the name of this city and hardly anyone has ever been able to associate it with Laos. I didn’t know much of what to expect when we drove in a little after dark. We had a room blocked off in a villa that was rated in the high nines on most 10 point ratings. It boasted of a Mekong view and a shared balcony in a local style room. The city looked a little dull as we were driving in, the roads weren’t crowded and the buildings were art deco in character. The narrow roads and low rise buildings gave it a small town feeling – but the cleanliness and restaurant at every corner gave it a very unique vibe. There were some charmingly lit cafes and restaurants, a quiet little market, and some well-dressed people walking around.

The European colonists left a lot of influence that got bastardized and lost over time. Some of that influence makes for lovely cafes, beautiful promenades, and to top it all, great food. In most other cases, these towns are overrun by tourists or are just a poor replica of what marketing would tell you. Ironically Europe at times is not always as enjoyable as some of these replica towns. There was Leavenworth in the US, Pondicherry in India, and many others – some were interesting but it was only in Luang Prabang where the idea that this could work well came to life.

The first good sign was the hotel! The car stopped in front of a small building just across the road from the Mekong river. John, the owner, and manager greeted us in the lobby and checked us into our highly authentic Lao room that was impeccably clean and surrounded by local houses. There was fresh fruit offered and it was delicious. John also gave a map with recommended restaurants and spas – and they were all pretty good recommendations.

A little later we walked out into the city and quickly fell in love with it. It was quaint and in some ways met the description of a quintessential European town in my mind. The two rivers that sandwich the main areas add to the charm and the art deco architecture is the cherry on the cake. No building is higher than 3 stories and the narrow streets allow usually just a single car to pass by. The streets are not lit, but some eclectic lights on the cafes and restaurants provide just the right amount of brightness. In most places, you would hear light music sneaking out from a nearby cafe. If nothing else, the sound of the Mekong could be music to a nature lover’s ears. Small shops in a market sold local wares, some clothes, pastries, and then some obnoxiously priced antiques. The streetscape was dotted with a number of temples, one every few blocks.

In the midst of all the charm, the one asset that was well hidden was the local Phousi Hill – a hike in the middle of the city to a viewpoint for a glorious sunset. Local houses, some spas, and small hotels were all blended in – there were houses turned into restaurants, hotels that had rooms spread across several buildings in the area, and lovely courtyards with a few tables just for that personalized service. What else do you need to fall in love with…

The first dinner in the city was a traditional Lao one, with a live dance performance in the room alongside. We were seated in a restaurant that would as some time been a house and hence there were many small spaces that came together, including a tiny balcony, where we sat. The food was a delicious mix of curries and rice – made so well that I could ignore the taste of lemongrass, a spice that doesn’t jive too well with me. We took a longer than usual stroll post the dinner and enjoyed the vibes of the city and the river. The walk back was across some tempting spas, a center for traditional storytelling, and some cafes that seemed even more amazing than the amazing one we had just eaten at. Making it a mental point to try a few later, we took off our shoes and walked up a single flight of stairs to a very comfortable room. For the following day, John had reserved us a car to take us to Kuang Si Falls, the highlight of the city, and some touristy things around it.

Even before we started the drive, the event of the morning was the breakfast in the hotel. It was served in a tiny courtyard overlooking the Mekong. There was no buffet – everything made to order along with probably the best coffee I have ever had. John blended the coffee himself from some high-quality Vietnamese stuff. After that finger-licking treat, we headed off to Kuang Si – a little earlier than planned with the hope of beating any crowds that may show up. It’s hard to find words to describe how beautiful the place it. Serene greenery all around and a stunning multi-stage waterfall. You start the main falls area at the lower levels and they are almost worth the visit by themselves. There were several ponds made by the fall that you can swim in and I decided to take the plunge. The water was chilly but very clear and it was such a beautiful view from the inside. There were no crowds and for a moment I was the only person in the pond. After that break, we continued our walk upwards to the main falls and every subsequent stage was just prettier than the last, and more than once we felt that we had reached the grand finale because it was mind-blowing enough. The main fall though was stuff that would take your breath away with multiple streams just flowing down from between clusters of trees and rocks. All stuff that would feel was made by CGI – and still a very small crowd.

After spending way longer than planned at the falls we walked back to explore other options- the butterfly park, the buffalo and cheese center, and the elephant breeding center were all on the way back and all had an exceptional tourist trap feel. We decided to check out the butterflies and skip the rest. The park was quite pretty with a large variety of butterflies and caterpillars and even someone to give a little information in reasonably good English. The downstream water for the Kuang Si falls also passed through this, making it quite scenic.

We had lunch at one of the wonderful cafes and it was worth the while to wait. After a lazy afternoon at a spa, it was time to try to walk up to the Phousi hill and catch the sunset. It was quite a hike – about 500 steps, I would think around a hill, right in the center of the city. The top of the hill and the viewing area is really small and that was the first time in the city we felt there was a crowd. The sunset was serene and the view stunning, but there was a rush of people fighting to be in the front row and take selfies. On the walk down we took a slightly different path that led to a beautiful temple that was looking even prettier against the blue hour sky. That was also the area of the night market. We walked around a bit and there were interesting trinkets to buy. I was keen to buy a good painting but we couldn’t find anything that would blow the mind.

The main city center was a short walk and was bustling and active – not crowded though. We made our way to the highly recommended Tamarind restaurant by the Nam Khan river. They were booked out for the evening and we could only make reservations for the following day and head back to look for a different place. We found another good cafe with yum Lao fish, rice, the curries, and the soup. On the way back John helped us book a boat ride up the Mekong river – a luxurious ride up to some cave about 2 hours upstream and then back with an onboard lunch.

After another glorious breakfast, we were picked up in a tuk-tuk to be taken to the boarding point which was nothing more than 15 minutes walk away. The boat itself was amazing, we had a table to ourselves right by the side with a full view of the river. The chairs were comfortable and it was a small cozy group – definitely looked more comfortable than the typical mass charters. It stopped on the way as a small village which sold local clothes and some local wine – which I tasted and bought a small bottle. The cave was a little further and there were 2 of them. The lower one was about 40 steps up and was a small cave filled with statues of Buddha. The other cave was a steep climb up and was much larger and darker. It also was filled with statues of Buddha. On the ride back we were served some delicious fish, rice, fruits, and ever beer for purchase. Overall a morning well spent!

We spend the day in the city and in the evening decided to take a tuk-tuk to a night market further away (about 20 min), a clear bad idea. There wasn’t much to do there and we promptly took another Tuk-tuk back to the Tamarind restaurant. We had a table waiting for us and the food was delicious – worth all the hype. Though by this time we were kind of getting saturated by the steamed fish and rice routine. Lao food is delicious but there isn’t much variety on offer. This also was out last day…next morning was a comfortable drop to the Airport followed by a long layover in Bangkok.

This was a city that I wasn’t going to get over anytime soon…

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