When I began planning my honeymoon last year, Laos was not originally part of the itinerary. It was only after hearing rave reviews from friends and family that I decided to look into it. I hated nothing more than the thought of going all the way over to Southeast Asia and missing what my travel agent described as a “magical experience.” I mean, would you want to miss that?
Luang Prabang is a small, dream-like town on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, in a beautiful mountain setting. It is well known for its plethora of Buddhist temples and monasteries. It’s also a UNESCO world-heritage site full of enchanting things to do. After spending five days here, these are are some of my favorite.
Almsgiving aka Feeding the Monks
Every morning hundreds, if not thousands of monks meander through the streets and partake in “Almsgiving” or collecting of alms. Visitors and locals alike participate in this tradition by awaking at sunrise and offering the monks sticky rice with their bare hands.
The experience was described to us as “magical” by several friends. While I did immensely enjoy participating in this and witnessing all the orange-robe-clad monks peacefully wandering the streets at dawn, it wasn’t as spiritual as I was told. For one thing, monks are a bit grumpy as it turns out, at dawn. At one point, I, the virgin alms-giver, apparently wasn’t moving quickly enough, giving out their rice and I got an eye roll. Yep, a good, old-fashioned, sarcastic, New York eye roll. I was floored. I had to keep from laughing during this silent ritual. All the way in Laos and I felt right at home for a moment. Not to pull an “US Weekly” but I guess Monks really are just like ‘US’.
Despite my sarcasm, I did find this to be really interesting and definitely worth the early morning wakeup call. It was an enlightening and moving experience for the most part. I didn’t let my one experience taint the rest.
Luang Prabang Night Market
The Luang Prabang night market in particular was one of my favorites and I didn’t see it coming. Everyone raves about the markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand and in Bangkok but this turned out to be my favorite. Unlike other markets, there seemed to be unique goods here. Believe it or not, many of the markets throughout Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia somehow seemed to sell very similar goods. My favorite purchase here were my surprisingly high-quality t-shirts and tank tops. If you’re looking for my professional fashion opinion, they had the best selection and they are in shockingly GREAT condition almost a year later. Great souvenirs!
Get to Know Your Guide
One of the most enriching parts of Laos for me was spending time with our guide, Khamla, or as he told us to call him, “La.” The best part of being all the way in Laos was learning about the culture from him as opposed to a guidebook. La was truly such an inspirational man. He went above and beyond his tourism duties, taking us to meet his sister and children, telling us about his life and values. We really got along well with him and our tip definitely reflected that. He was trying to start a business and we wanted to be the first investors (I’m not trying to sound like a baller, trust me, you wouldn’t have flinched if I gave it to you). The next night La showed up at our hotel bearing gifts for us from his sister’s shop to commemorate our time we had together. This was one of the most memorable experiences for us. It even brings tears to my eyes remembering it now. If you’re in Laos, you should absolutely look him up to be your tour guide. His name is Khamla and his email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Definitely take a boat trip one day along the Mekong River en route to Pak Ou. Along the way you will have a chance to observe rugged limestone formations along the banks of the river, as well as the lush forest and the fishing villages on the way. We even stopped off and met a couple who was mining for gold. This was a particularly interesting experience. Even though they didn’t speak English, our guide translated for us as they showed us what to do. When it was time to go we tipped them five dollars for taking time out of their day to speak with us. The woman nearly cried and our guide explained that it’s because he said it’s possible they wouldn’t make that in a month. This made my heart heavy.
Tham Ting, Tham Teung & Pak Ou Caves
Your boat ride will take you to these caves, which house nearly 4,000 Buddha statues. Locals have assembled the Buddha statues here for centuries because it is considered disrespectful to ever destroy a Buddha image. These caves have now become sacred.
Whiskey Village (Ban Xang Hai)
This village is also on the way to the caves. Stop here for a bit and see how local Laos Whiskey is made. Sample some if you’re brave enough. Stay away though from the whiskey that has snakes, bears, bugs and more, fermenting inside the bottles. Many of these animals are endangered and by sampling this stuff you’re supporting the wrong message. It’s disgusting really, they forced my husband to sniff the bear-foot whiskey and it nearly laid my husband out. I ran out of the shop when they nudged the bottle in my direction. Gross! On so many levels. There are various other arts-and-crafts shops but none that are that unique.
Wat and Temple Central
There are so many temples in this town you must spend at least a bit of your stay exploring them. Our personal favorites were Wat Visoun, a 16th century temple which serves as
a small museum for religious artifacts; and Wat Aham, built in the early 19th century temple and Wat Xiengthong, a 16th century temple which epitomizes all the elegance and grace of Luang Prabang architecture.
One of my favorite experiences here was having La tell my fortune. There are bunch of sticks that he had me choose from, after that he read me my fortune. I know it sounds juvenile but the fortunes that they read are very interesting. I kept mine (since it was that I would receive good fortune). I have the piece of paper framed in my living room.
This is a National Museum. Here you can view precious exhibits that used to be owned by the former Laos Royal family. The treasures held here are definitely worth seeing. I must say that all I could think of for much of my stay here was the appalling lack of security.
Climb a mere 328 steps to reach the top of this hill where you can witness a romantic sunset over the town of Luang Prabang and the two rivers and hills that border it. Definitely a must-see experience.
Beer Lao & Lao Cuisine
I must admit that the food in Laos was not my favorite. Especially the riverweed (made locally from the weeds growing in the (ahem, brown) rivers. My husband loved this stuff though. He really couldn’t get enough of it. Yuck! He also found the food to be VERY tasty at Tamarind, down by the river. Laos is known for its coffee too so be sure to get a couple cups. I stuck with Beer Lao, which I happen to adore.
Things to skip if you’re Short on Time:
Paper Village, which is pretty much just a paper shop, though I did get some nice stationary for souvenirs for my family. Ban Pak Ou, which is a restaurant our guides all raved about. Ick, the bathroom is in the owner’s house. I literally had to step over someone who was sleeping on the floor in their living room to get to the restroom, which was covered in an inch of water on the ground. Oh did I mention they make you remove your shoes before entering? Disaster. Also skip the carnival if it’s in town.
If you’re not going to do one elsewhwere, I would recommend an Elephant experience of some sort. We had already set one up in Chiang Mai but it looked really fun here. You could ride the elephants through the river.