I’ve been a little lazy with blogging of late, despite having buckets of time on my hands. I’m currently coming to the end of a three week stay in Luang Prabang, Laos’ royal city. I decided to stay for a little while, take a break from the road and do so some volunteering at the Mekong English Centre (MEC). I suppose you could say I am now a moderate connoisseur of this place, so here in no particular order are my top 15 things to do in this beautiful town…
1.Wander. Walk around town or hire a bike and explore ’til your heart’s content. You can rent a bike here for 20,000 kip per day (£1.60) – or 10,000 if you’re savvy enough to strike yourself a deal – and take your time gliding down LP’s palm fringed streets, popping in and out of the modest but charming temples and of course stopping for coffee and cake in one of the town’s wonderful cafes.
2. Cafe culture. The more I travel the more I realise I could probably be blissfully happy forever sat in a cafe with a good book or a bit of writing to do. LP is ultimately a tourist town and as such has developed its own handful of cafes from Le Banneton (traditional French patisserie with excellent pastries and great coffee) to the more modern take from Joma and Saffron (both now have two localities and serve a great range of cakes as well as western style lunches if desired. Don’t miss the frappes at Saffron!). These are also great wifi spots for those craving a decent fix not always provided by accommodation. Go to Indigo for the best connection in town!
3. Get a massage. Lao style massages are apparently a lot like Thai style massages (although I’m yet to have one of these and supposedly they can be quite brutal). I was going to take a gamble and go to one of the many “spas” offering massages and other treatments, but after hearing nightmare stories about being prodded with a finger or two whilst your masseuse talks on her phone, I plumped for a recommendation at L’Hibiscus Spa and had an incredible 60 minute massage for 60,000 kip (£4.80). The Lao style massage here was a dry massage, firm but fair and utterly blissful. I’ve been twice and will no doubt have a third visit before I leave.
4. Visit the waterfalls. For many this is the first port of call in Luang Prabang as those wanting to discover the nature of the surrounding area head straight to the impressive Kuang Si waterfall, stunning and complete with bear sanctuary (I was personally more fascinated by the bears than the waterfall but that’s just me). Tat Sae waterfall is also worth a visit and offers an opportunity for a variety of elephant based activities. Both can be reached by tuk-tuk (hire one for the day with friends) or some rent a motorbike (although this isn’t the most cost-effective option as rentals here are about 150,000 kip for the day).
5. Shop til you drop at the night market. Or if you are in the backpacker predicament of not being able to buy stuff for lack of cash or space in your rucksack, drool endlessly at the incredible variety of handicrafts on offer. This truly is the best market I have been to so far on my travels. The colours are utterly mesmerising and the experience really plays on consumerist desires. It’s tempting to send stuff home but for about $25 per kilo it’s perhaps worth resisting!
6. Night street food alley. Once you’ve worked up an appetite shopping, head to the little alleyway down the side of Indigo Cafe for some yummy street food treats. Here you can try all sorts of local snacks and dishes. My favourites are the sticky rice and the Lao style sausages (pork, beef or buffalo). Eat like the locals and grab a bag of sticky rice and a sausage of your choice to eat with your hands. Still hungry? Continue to the end to discover three or four different stalls which offer a vegetarian buffet for 15,000 kip (£1.20). You can add on some delicious grilled meat or fish for 10,000 – 20,000 kip to suit any carnivores needs. A great cheap eat for those with a giant appetite.
7. Baguette vendors. Opposite Indigo Cafe is a strip of very obliging ladies waiting to sell you their tasty baguettes, popular fruit shakes and crepes (from 10,000 kip). Another yummy way to grab a quick lunch or late night snack for pennies. I highly recommend the Lao style sandwich – a crusty baguette filled to the brim with egg, tofu, pork, salad, chilli sauce and mayo.
8. Volunteer. There are many ways you can lend a hand in Luang Prabang. Big Brother Mouse is a popular option as all you need to do is turn up and offer your conversational skills in English to the many young Laos people who are so keen to improve. This is also a great way to find out more about the local culture as well as discover the daily routine of novice monks. Music for Everyone School (MES) is also a lesser known opportunity as it is just out of the centre over the old bridge (rent a bike). If you’ve got some guitar or ukulele playing skills or even if you just fancy going for a nosey, this place is truly inspirational as it offers tuition to enrich the lives of the locals – an excellent reminder of why music is such a source of joy in the lives of so many. I’ve been volunteering for a few hours every evening at the Mekong English Centre (MEC) as a classroom assistant. You need to sign up on the website but really it’s quite a casual arrangement and another great way to help deliver quality English teaching.
9. Yoga. Utopia, the busiest scene for nightlife every evening, also offers great yoga classes every morning 7.30 – 8.30 (exc. Sundays) for 40,000 kip (£3.20). The perfect venue provides wooden decking facing the Nam Kha river for your practise – a perfect way to start the day. There are also evening classes available. Check the website for more info: http://www.luangprabangyoga.org/
10. Stay at Kounsavanh Guesthouse. Probably my favourite hostel so far, Kounsavanh offers outstanding hospitality and value. You can choose from four bed or eight bed dorms (privates are available too). I’ve been staying in the same eight bed dorm for nearly three weeks at a bargain of $5 per night, breakfast included – the best banana pancakes in Asia?! The guesthouse (with a hostel feel) is run by a very friendly Vietnamese family who really do make you feel at home. It’s the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon swinging in the hammocks with a book and making the most of the free tea and coffee. I’ve made so many great friends here – it seems to be a magnet for awesome people!
11. Wat Xieng Thong and The Royal Palace (and its grounds). You will hear many backpackers say that they are sick of temples. These two historical sights should not be missed however. The glass mosaics in both venues are spectacular adding a unique element to both locations. Ok so maybe you don’t want to make visits like these everyday, but make sure you wander around and absorb the calm atmosphere and exceptional beauty of these special places.
12. Cross the Mekong River. A short boat ride over to the other side of the famous waters for 5,000 kip (40p) will take you to another world. Unlike the polished UNESCO protected centre of LP, you arrive on the opposite bank to discover a small village along a muddy and brick strewn road where there are a few sights worth visiting. There are a couple of peaceful temples here but the excursion is worth it just to climb the steps to the top of the hill where you can look out over the Mekong and the whole of Luang Prabang town.
13. Take a cooking class. Laos food is certainly underrated. A great way to develop appreciation for it is to take spend the day cooking up some local dishes with Tamarind restaurant and cooking school. Set in a beautiful location just outside the town, you will learn to cook food you never thought possible – chicken stuffed lemongrass anyone?
14. Get up for the Tak Bet. Every morning the monks raise early to collect their daily alms. Find a quiet spot in a side street (ask around for a good spot) and DON’T be one of the idiot tourists who shoves their camera in the monks’ faces. Sit quietly at the side of the street and watch from afar with respect.
15. Find this dog… The best underbite I’ve seen and yes, his eyebrows have been drawn on.