“I’m staying.” That was my immediate thought when we first arrived in Luang Prabang. It’s lush, green and scented with Bougainvillea; butterflies hover in clusters over flower-heavy bushes which run from the side of the pavement, all the way down the hill to the wide, low river. In the river fishermen, and their children, spend hours wading through the flow with their nets spread between them.
This is a heritage town, its classic Portuguese architecture intertwined with monasteries and temples, reflecting its past. The yellow shuttered buildings and climbing cobbled alleys remind me of a southern European city, and yet the smells, sounds, and the man carrying a jar full of vodka with a dead snake pickled within, assure me I’m not in Europe. Luang Prabang’s peaceful, laidback ways and friendly calm inhabitants attract many tourists, so don’t be lulled into thinking this is untouched; but it is a sanctuary, far from the bustling, raucous Vietnamese cities I had encountered on my trip thus far.
Utopia bar, hidden down winding cobbled streets and over looking a river, is the perfect haven. Food and drink here was great, and at some points in the day they also have volley ball and yoga, but the real win was the atmosphere. Just a garden, sheltered by an open bamboo roof and natural vegetation, it’s always quiet here; a platform made of bamboo leans out towards the river and people are laying on mats and cushions, in various states of snooze, with fans and drinks peppered between them. No one at this restaurant, or in the town itself, is in any rush to go anywhere.
Possibly the most magical thing about Luang Prabang for me was the market, or markets should I say, a seemingly never ending treasure trail that runs through the streets, glowing in the darkness. Everything here is bright and beautifully coloured, the shop fronts either side of the street stalls are glowing with soft warm light too, all the bars feel like faries’ gardens, and I wanted to buy simply everything I saw.
Crafted goods, jewellery, tshirts, rugs, paintings, bowls, incense – everything. And food too – eating in the street markets was one of the best ideas we had. Here you could buy everything from dumplings, to enormous bowlfuls of veggies, to eighteen varieties of rice, half a chicken on a stick, something which may or may not have been rabbit… the only thing which isn’t in abundance in Laos is seafood but I’ll let them off since they don’t have a coastline. You can find some fish though, Mekong catfish or other river dwellers (there my fish knowledge ends abruptly). We found one stall where, for a couple of pounds’ equivalent you could fill your plate as full as you liked from a huge selection of buffet foods.
It was definitely the lights, the delicate buildings and the relaxed atmosphere that made me fall in love with Luang Prabang, it was just a world away from anything I’d known before.
To eat: In Laos definitely try Laap, it’s a kind of ground beef, slightly spicy, salad and I adore it. I could have eaten that every night. We also sampled duck’s blood salad while we were there and, well, it was bearable. I wouldn’t eat it again given a choice, but it was an interesting experience if you just grit your teeth and do it. I can also highly recommend the street food – it all tasted amazing, although a few times we had stomach issues, I have no idea if that was food, anti-malarials, travelling, water or just a combination.
To drink: Beer Laos is great and so cheap.
To do in Luang Prabang: Mount Phousi (Pu-si…yep), giving alms to the monks (early!), visit Utopia, shop in the markets and eat some street food. Visit a Wat… pick one or get through a couple, depending on how temple-d out you’re feeling, they’re all unique and pretty.
Day trip: Kuang Si Waterfalls and Bear Rescue
Fancy hearing more about my trip round South East Asia? (I’m working on writing about it all!)