Unless one is well traveled or familiar with historical and cultural destinations in Southeast Asia, one might not have ever heard of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
Far from being one of the region’s best kept secrets (after all, it is a World Heritage City) Luang Prabang—situated at the confluence of Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River—is noted for its idyllic beauty and dreamy serenity juxtaposed with gleaming temple roofs and French provincial architecture.
To be sure, the name Luang Prabang alone conjures up classic images of Laos—from streets lined with colonial houses and towering palm trees to lines of saffron-robed monks gliding through an early morning mist to collect alms and longtail boats plying the muddy Mekong—images which have lured and captivated seasoned travelers over the years.
Additionally, the city’s royal mystique along with its rich Buddhist heritage makes Louang Prabang a city like no other in Laos.
I first thought about going to Luang Prabang in 2006 when I was traveling in Thailand after having left Korea. I wanted to go somewhere special for a few days before I returned to the States and was thinking about either going to Siem Reap and taking in the sights at Angkor Wat or Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, I was a little short on funds at the time and in the end it was more economical for me to go to Siem Reap.
When Aon and I were together in Vientiane at the end of December and early January we decided to visit Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, time not funds this time would be somewhat of a problem so we could only squeeze in one day along with the day it would take us to get here by bus and the day it would take us to get back to Vientiane.
First of all, one or two days are definitely not enough time for exploring Luang Prabang. It is enough time to take in some of the major attractions like Wat Xiang Thong, Wat Mai, and the Royal Palace Museum, but to fully appreciate this lovely city you need at least 2-3 days to leisurely stroll its streets and enjoy its rich cultural and historical heritage, not to mention its trove of restaurants, cafés, and shops.
We got in around 5:00pm, a little later than I thought we would. Buses from Vientiane stop at the Nanluang Bus Terminal—around three kilometers to old Luang Prabang and the city center.
Although we had booked a guesthouse at a travel agency in Vientiane, we had no idea where the guesthouse was located. Additionally, we also had to pick up our bus tickets for our return trip to Vientiane on Friday.
It was a little chaotic at the bus station with tuk-tuk drivers trying to hustle passengers. You have to be a little careful and try to bargain with them. It should only cost you around $3.00 or 27,000 Kip for a ride into the center of town, but some drivers wanted more. Have to play a little hardball with the tuk-tuk drivers and not give in. However, when you’ve just traveled for over nine hours the last thing you want to do is have to bargain with a tuk-tuk driver. Maybe they know that and try to take advantage of unsuspecting and tired tourists.
We called the travel agency’s office in Luang Prabang and got an idea where it was located before we took a tuk-tuk. Sure enough, it was only about a five-minute ride to the city center and from where we were dropped off, about another ten-minute walk to the travel agency.
Too late to do any exploring, after we got to our guest house we went out to find something to eat, which isn’t a problem given the preponderance of restaurants and cafes in the area. You can’t walk five meters without coming across another eatery. Most places are modest with more than an ample standard fare. Prices are, well a little pricey for Laos, but with more and more travelers coming here, it would be what you would expect. Of course, after nine hours on a bus, anything is going to sound good to eat regardless of the price.
The one ATM (one in 2008) seemed to be the hottest place in town with everyone queued up to get some cash.