We arrived in Luang Prabang not really knowing what to expect. Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of Laos, which lies in a lush green valley between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s a popular stop for tourists which means there’s some good accommodation options if you want to splash your cash. We had 5 nights in the city so jumped around, spending a couple of nights at Belmond La Residence Phou Vao which sits peacefully just out of town with a beautiful pool and views of the surrounding mountains and temples that dot them. The hotel won the award for the comfiest beds we slept in during our Laos travels and featured a pretty special breakfast which included cheeses made form the hotels very own buffalos and goats spotted wondering the grounds. More importantly it promotes responsible tourism by helping the local orphanage, hospital and prison with everything from food to towels and sheets.
We also spent a couple of nights in town at Maison dalabua a pretty hotel in the centre with a cracking restaurant attached; Manda de Laos which is set around 3 Lily ponds registered a UNESCO world heritage site. Here we had a very civilised dinner of local dishes such as the Luang Prabang sausage; a thick sausage seasoned with herbs and chilli and our first Larb, a spicy salad usually with minced meat, onions, mint, lime juice, chilli and fish sauce which actually originated from Laos and not Thailand like many might think.
The next morning we hit the morning market and it was unlike anything we had seen before and man we have done the rounds of the Asian markets, eaten in places where we’ve spied rats run scurrying about and gone down and dirty in search of good local flavours but this was an assault on the senses. BBQ’d rat seemed to be a delicacy as did squirrel, live frogs, bowls of beetles, birds and all kinds of your usual offal. As a Traveller there isn’t really that much to eat in the market, it’s more of a show, tell and snap, so we left in search of breakfast.
Khao Soy was one of our favourite dishes to eat, a noodle soup found in Northern Thailand only the Laos version is spicier and comes with minced pork in a tomato chilli sauce – you’ll fast learn they eat pork with most things but as long as it’s not rat we’re OK with that. Our fave places for soup were Khao Soi Mueang Sing and Laos Coffee, both popular with locals – just look for the line of mopeds outside any restaurant to tell if it’s a goodie. Laos coffee served fresh ground pork in theirs too and they do a mean fresh banh cuon too (it’s Vietnamese we know but man it’s delish).
At the night market we had our first papaya salad – another dish which originated in Laos (we prefer the Thailand one as Laos is a bit heavy on the fermented fish paste). We also tried crispy rice salad, more larb and more sausage at the stall at the end of the market which was good, albeit a little Westernised so not mind blowing spicy which we usually go for…
There’s delicious local dishes at Joy’s restaurant (particularly the duck larb) and the social enterprise Ock Pop Tok Silk Road Café is worth checking out. The views and the setting by the Mekong plus the fact you’re helping a good cause mean you can forgive the dumbed down flavours in the local dishes that have been made using organic local ingredients but created for Western mouths – give us the fresh chillis! Another social enterprise Saffrons Coffee (two locations) provided our daily caffeine fix. As well as developing new coffee plantations in Northern-Laos the company’s profits are reinvested for the benefit of Lao people. It’s the best coffee in Laos hands down – there’s even a flat white.
One morning we took bikes and cycled over the other side of both rivers; the Mekong side you’ll need to jump on the car ferry with your bike, this has a more village feel to it, whilst the Nam Khan River side is accessible by bridge and home to the well heeled of Luang Prabang. Another morning we took a ride up the Mekong to the Kuang Sui waterfalls, hiked around the top, made some donations to the Free the Bears sanctuary and listened to the amazing work they were doing.
Due to the many wats and temples in the area – including Mount Phousi which is in town and worth the short climb to the top for the views – every morning at 5:30am there’s an Alms Giving ceremony. This involves a line of monks in orange robes walking through the town to receive gifts from people – usually sticky rice, a tradition that’s 600 years old. It’s a humbling experience and one well worth getting up for, something you can also participate in should you wish, however it’s worth reading up the customs and rules beforehand.
On our final night we ended with a bang and treated ourselves to messages at Amantaka followed by dinner in one of the most romantic settings, under the stars with a carpet of candles in the pool.
Luang Prabang is the perfect first destination to allow yourself to ease in to Laos, no matter which direction you decide to go next, especially if you’re coming straight off a long haul flight. A beautiful town, with an almost village style feel to it and some incredible French architecture left over from when the French lived there.
Top tips – avoid JBD banks they will charge you 3% instead use any other machine and you’ll be charged 20,000 kip to withdraw a max of 1,500,500. One of the few times you’ll be a millionaire.
A Laos visa is 35 dollars each when you’re coming from the UK, PLUS 1 dollar service fee which no one else mentions anywhere – don’t make our mistake and just take the right dollar otherwise you’ll have to go outside to the ATM and come back in. Unless the kind souls in the queue behind offer it up. God bless ‘em.