Luang Prabang, Laos - The City of ultimate Zen!

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

I remember reading somewhere “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering into the unknown” and that couldn’t be truer in the case of my recent quest to Luang Prabang, Laos.

I learned about Laos existence somewhat lately, and before my travel here, I knew scarcely of the region. Laos is a Southeast Asian country traversed by the Mekong River and known for its mountainous terrain. Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos which is home to Sacred Buddhist monasteries, French Colonial architecture and dramatic sunsets over lush surroundings.

Crossing the border into Laos from Hanoi, Vietnam one feels the pulse begins to drop as your body relaxes into a new level of chill. The composed presence of monks, the alluring architecture or the genuine smiles of the spirited locals — all I know is that it’s almost impossible to travel here and not feel like you’re spending your days in a dreamy haze.

Luang Prabang consists of 58 adjacent villages, of which 33 comprise the UNESCO Town Of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site. The cultural heritage is a blend of the rural and urban developments that are remarkably well preserved over several centuries. You will witness a traditional way of life that is unaffected by modern perils. Or at least, it seemed.

Below are some of the random favorite experiences in Luang Prabang,

Disclaimer - The itineraries on this trip are determined by the aid of guidebooks that painstakingly highlighted all the attractions.

Alms Giving Ceremony

Tak Bat, known as almsgiving ceremony is a profound Buddhist tradition wherein offering of food to a procession of Monks happens every early morning in Luang Prabang.

I was told that it perhaps is the unique and beautiful experiences of Laos. To me, it sounded like a perfect introduction to the town and the culture. I wasn’t too sure if it was a parade for tourists or a true tradition and decided to check it out for myself. So, there are specific rules one needs to adhere to, to be a part of the custom.

1) Rise early to the sound of the temple gong, around 5:30 am and make yourself present before the monks arrived.

2) Walk through the streets quietly, and it is up to you whether you choose to be a silent spectator or take part in the ceremony.

3) If you choose to take part, remember to bring the offering (sticky rice) which are available in plenty for tourists around the ceremony area.

4) Tiny chairs are spread out every morning by the locals where you shall sit with your bowl of sticky rice.

5) Several monks will pass by and stop at your chair, and that is when you make a ball of sticky rice using your hands and offer it to the monks into their large pot.

6) You can take pictures as long as you refrain from using flashes and maintain a precise distance from monks.

This custom is not seen as an act of charity, more a spiritual obligation that connects the common man to the men of the cloth, the former providing physical sustenance, and the latter spiritual guidance. I felt the ceremony philosophical and rooted but at the same time not policing the tourists of their devious behavior takes away from the righteousness of the practice.

Walk or Bicycle around to admire the blend of the cityscape.

The Main Street in Luang Prabang is a pleasant setting filled with French architecture, Graceful temple architecture, a plethora of cafes and exquisite restaurants. Also, one can notice beautiful Villas available for rent amidst the lavish site.

Don’t Miss - Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most important monasteries of Lao and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art.

Lao Cuisine

Sticky rice to Laotians is so crucial that it makes its way to appetizers apart from the Main courses. Traditionally sticky rice is eaten using fingers, of course, they make exceptions for tourists. In the countryside, family members gather together and dine sitting on the floor, sharing a few dishes. Lao traditional food is dry, spicy and delicious based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and special herbs. A vegetarian and vegan diet is easily accessible and enjoyable too.

If learning about flavors or cooking interests you, consider attending cooking classes taught by local chefs to enhance your culinary skills.

Ah, the Coral Blue waterfalls (Tad Sae)

You could check any website or any guidebooks, and they all suggest the beautiful Kuang Si waterfall as a must see place. While that is gorgeous, I decided to wander through another waterfall namely ‘Tad Sae’ for two simple reasons, Less crowded and the possibility of a hike.

Tad Sae is located about 15 km from the Luang Prabang town (you can rent a bike or hire a tuk-tuk), and from there you need to take a 5-minute boat ride to reach the waterfall. It is an impressively broad set of cascades, with turquoise water gushing through the jungle over limestone rocks into a large pool where people can splash around. The hike can be strenuous, yet an enjoyable trek as you will have the trails all to yourself.

Sunset on Mekong River

Mekong river is a vital transportation route for cargo and passenger, the source of water supply for crops, and home to fishes which are an essential food in the diet of Laotian people. As for tourists or an explorer this river is central for various adventures. The most soothing experience is a boat ride during the sunset on the Mekong River. Another spot for watching the sun go down or rise is Mount Phousi. As it is a famous instagrammable spot, be ready to counter hoards of fellow travelers. Between the two, I’d any day pick the private boat tour on Mekong River for sunset.

The Night Market

While we all know that Southeast Asia is a Haven for markets, Luang Prabang has one of the best lively night markets and feels rather easy going. The vendors here are hill-tribe traders along with a few locals displaying their craft. Apart from the alluring colors and incredible handicrafts what stood out for me was the story of people’s lives without having to say much. Here was where I learned that Laos is the most bombed place in the world. I noticed a tent with a brief message on the bombings and how this artist creates jewelry made of recycled aluminum bomb parts.

Laos is the most heavily bombed place in the world.

The night market led me to understand that Laos is the most heavily bombed place as a result of US bombings during the Vietnam War. For nine years (1964-1973), the US dropped over 2 million tons of bombs across Laos, and around 30% of them didn't explode. This incident has today left Laos with a high number of unexploded bombs, rendering most of the land unusable for farming. There are numerous sad stories of village children discovering what looks like a toy metal object near their school and without knowing better, play with it, and it explodes in their face, decreasing them and those around.

The nationwide midnight curfew

In Laos, there is an official nationwide midnight curfew. In practice, this is not enforced on the people but more on businesses and more so strictly enforced against business in Luang Prabang to help it retain its UNESCO status.

Businesses open past the midnight curfew have usually obtained a ‘special license' (i.e., bribed the police enough to let them stay open).

It’s hard to describe Luang Prabang, mostly because it’s one of those places that you need to feel for yourself to understand. If I used words like ‘peaceful’ or ‘Charming,’ I’m not sure that does justice to this city of ultimate Zen. The closest description true to Luang Prabang that I’ve heard is ‘jewel of Indo-China.’ With fast evolving economic times, would it always remain the same is something left to be seen in the future? For now, I’m eternally glad to have stumbled upon Luang Prabang.

Photography Credits

Shilpa Srinivas @flohwithme

Travel Related Information:

Visa for Indians: On Arrival

Duration : 30 days

Purpose : Tourism

Travel : By Air

Currency : Laos Kip

The Alms Giving Ceremony

Hours | Sunrise, every day

Location | The alms procession begins in the main street of Luang Prabang before fanning into side streets

Cost | Free to watch, offerings can be purchased for a small fee

Dress | If you decide that you're going to participate in the ceremony, your shoulders, legs, and chest need to be covered

Wat Xieng Thong

Opening hours |  For the public opening hours are 8:00am - 17:00pm every day

Location | Wat Xiengthong is in the northern corner of Luang Prabang, on Khem Khong

Cost | 20,000 kip (~USD$2.50)

Night Market

Opening hours | 17:00 pm - 23:00 pm every night

Location | Luang Prabang night market is on Sisavangvong Road, right in the center of town

Cost | Free to wander, food is very inexpensive too.

Tad Sae waterfall

Opening hours | 8:00am - 17:30pm every day

Location | Tad sae is about 20km from the outskirts of Luang Prabang town

Transport |  45 minutes by Tuk Tuk from Luang Prabang to get to Kuang Si waterfall. You can go by shared tuk tuk, hire a bike or scooter, or jump aboard a minivan tour

Cost | 50,000 kip (~$5) entrance fee.