Your Ultimate Guide to Chilling Out in Luang Prabang, Laos
No city in Southeast Asia charmed me more than Luang Prabang. And I’m sure that after one wander through its misty, Bayan tree-lined streets and one small bite into those flaky, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, this beautiful Laotian town will enrapture you too. I spent two glorious weeks in Luang Prabang and by no means was I ready to leave. I could have easily spent months getting to know more about Laotian culture, sampling every single patisserie in town and enjoying nightly strolls along the Mekong. But, most of all, I wasn’t prepared to give up those zen-like vibes that somehow managed to permeate their way through my being.
If you’re planning a trip to Luang Prabang, I can’t recommend enough that you book enough time to really soak in and appreciate the city’s tranquil energy. Of course you don’t want to miss the classic hotspots (Kuang Si Falls are hands-down some of the best waterfalls in Asia) but what’s likely to hit you most are those seriously good vibes. So buffer some time in to really slow down, relax and enjoy that laid-back tropical living.
Here are my top travel tips for not only making the most of your time in Luang Prabang but also leaving the city feeling like you just stepped out of your hot yoga class.
1. Splash around in Kuang Si Falls: So let’s start with those epic falls. Make sure you reserve an entire day for these beauts. Seriously. You don’t want to rush this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and if you plan it right, you can work up the perfect sweat hiking around the falls before cooling off in those silky blue waters.
Kuang Si Falls are about an hour out of town, so you can either grab a tuk-tuk or book a shared van with a few fellow travellers. We opted for the tuk-tuk. Mostly because we planned our trip a little too last-minute. But also because we wanted raw and rugged jungle views from the comfort of a (very bumpy) open-air ride. Just make sure to barter on the price because this is the most popular tour in the city and savvy drivers know how to rip you off.
Once at the falls, start with a hike. There are only a few trails, all of which lead to the same spot up top where you can cut across a few rock pools and overlook the cliffs. Just be sure to wear proper hiking shoes (parts of the walk are very slippery) and prepare to give your quads a serious run for their money. Once you’ve completed the hike (it’ll take you less than a hour), then head back down for a dip. Kuang Si Falls has three tiers to swim from. And, if like us, you arrive very late in the day, you might get lucky enough to have them all to yourself. And milk our solitude we certainly did. We had an absolute blast jumping off cliffs, getting massaged by the water and having our feet throughly cleansed by those funny little fish that are ubiquitous throughout Asia. Or as I like to call them: Mother Nature’s Spa.
2. Try all of the crossaints. Er I mean, cafes: As a former French colony, so many parts of Laos have a trés Parisian feel. There’s that beautiful French architecture, romantic bistros tucked in little alleyways, and - my personal favourite - delectable patisseries. Everywhere you turn you can grab yourself a croissant and a strong black coffee. Honestly, I was only missing my Breton top and a beret. So stumble into a few that strike your fancy and pick your own favourites. I particularly loved Kaogee Cafe, Novelty Cafe, Saffron Coffee and Le Banneton.
3. Walk along the Mekong and across the Bamboo Bridge: Oh, how I miss the sheer bliss of walking along the Mekong at dusk. Luang Prabang is so serene, and nowhere more so than along the banks of its two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. And if you time it just right, you can enjoy this simple pleasure as the sun starts to fade behind all those frothy palms. From day one in this sleepy town, this became my daily ritual. And because these rivers encompass the city, you can choose different paths and explore different pockets each evening. Just make sure you to stop along the Bamboo Bridge at least once. You’ll pay a small fee to cross but you’ll get some epic views over the water, and if you’re so inclined, you can cross over for dinner on the other side of town.
4. Spend the afternoon in a traditional Laotian spa: Shortly into my stay, I befriended a lovely Aussie shop-owner and told her all about my blog. She kindly recommended a few local beauty experiences and as soon as she uttered the words “Laotian spa,” I was sold. I immediately signed my brother and I up for an experience at the Lemongrass Sauna, a little gem tucked away in the back alleys of town. The space itself is nothing to write home about, but the experience is one-of-a-kind. Upon arrival, we were handed traditional Laotian cloth wraps to slip into before entering their lemongrass and Kaffir lime-infused steam rooms. As the only non-locals in sight we received some rather quizzical looks, which only excited us more. Once sufficiently supple, and after enjoying a cup of local tea, we were led to open-air massage beds and coated in coconut oil ahead of a deep-tissue massage.
5. Sip cocktails or a classic Beer Lao at Utopia Bar: This one’s on every single blogger’s Luang Prabang hit list. But rightly so. This lovely little backpacker bar is perched on stilts and overlooks the beautiful Mekong. The best time to go is at sunset, though you’ll need to get there a little earlier if you want to grab the best seats in the house - those cushioned chaise lounges that epitomise Southeast Asia. Once you’ve found your perfect spot, order a Beer Lao and nod off to the chill electronic beats drifting from the bar. And if you’re craving a bit of a party, stick around after dark as the crowds start to filter in.
6. Go watch a film at L’Etranger Books and Tea: Despite my love for Luang Prabang’s countless cafes, none came close to topping this adorable little French teashop. Located not too far from Mount Phousi, this little spot not only has divine local teas but also fantastic food. And you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a treehouse, as you’re asked to leave your shoes downstairs and climb a wooden ladder to the top floor. There, you’ll find old copies of National Geographic and local artwork. Don’t miss ‘film night,’ held literally every evening, where the owners pick their favourite indie films and you can watch them for free. We enjoyed a screening of Call Me by My Name which I absolutely loved.
7. Splurge on dinner at Tamarind: It’s 100% worth it. This delicious restaurant offers such a unique, sensory experience of Laotian cuisine. You pay for a set menu and sample the most interesting selection of local dishes and flavours. We tried lemongrass-infused fish tied in banana leaves, crisps made from river seaweed and the most delicious local jam. As a true blue foodie, my brother was in heaven. Tamarind is also a cooking school, so if you really want to get under the skin of Laotian cuisine, sign up for a course as well. This is certainly more off-the-beaten path than the more popular Chiang Mai Cooking Schools - though I did love those too.
8. Explore the city’s lesser known temples: There are countless Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang - and plenty of blogs that recommend them. I’m here to suggest that you go beyond the biggies and discover the less popular temples in more hidden pockets of town. Because I promise they’ll be the ones you remember most. It was among the quieter, nondescript temples that I spotted an older monk washing his robes, a few young monks in the middle of an English lesson and that evening light sparkling across the bellies of a row of golden buddhas. Hire a cycle or just head out on foot and peak over the walls of the city’s smaller temples. You won’t be disappointed.
9. Hike to the top of Mount Phousi: If you feel like you’ve had more than your fair share of lounging about, then squeeze a little workout in and climb to the top of Mount Phousi, located right in the heart of town. You’ll pay a small entry fee to be admitted to the temples up top, but you’ll get the chance to walk among the beautiful buddha statues and admire the monks in their stunning saffron robes. I got lost (no surprise there) and ended up walking a footpath alongside the monks’ living quarters, which was simply spectacular. Luckily, I did manage to find my way back to the top where I joined the crowds to watch the sun set over the city and the glorious Mekong.
10. Browse (and probably get lost in) the Night Market: Luang Prabang’s Night Market is not for the faint of heart. It’s massive - and easy to lose your fellow travellers in. I lost my brother countless times. But like the rest of the city, it’s still incredibly zen. Spend an evening walking among the vibrant hues of its paper umbrellas, paintings and textiles. And try and find a treasure that will forever remind you of the city’s tranquility.
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