Stray Laos: Hopping Off In Luang Prabang
Set at the confluence of two rivers that almost surround the town, and beneath a temple-topped hill, Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture - reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats (temples), decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains.
I have only heard nice things about Luang Prabang from people that have been there as well as from reading all the travel guides so it was a no-brainer for me to hop off the Stray bus here for a few days. It definitely does have a nice, chill vibe to it with friendly locals, plenty of things to see and do, and great food options. It really felt like Chiang Mai on a smaller scale.
There are basically two main roads running parallel to each other through the town - one along the river bank with posh hotels and boutique guesthouses on one side and lots of small open-air restaurants on the other side overlooking the river. The road running parallel to it is the main street in town where lots of tour offices and proper restaurants are located. It is taken over daily by the night market traders in the evening. The architecture varies a lot along both roads, but what really stands out is the number of temples, big and small, all over the place. Some charge falangs steep admission prices, while most are free to roam around.
Sun setting over the mountains with the Mekong river in the foreground makes for really beautiful sunsets. One of the evenings, we walked up to the top of Phousi Hill to enjoy the view. Unfortunately, it seemed like every other falang in town had the same idea in mind so it was really crowded up there. Coming down, we walked around the other side of the mountain to discover lots of Buddha statues and worship places along the way.
Another day, after coming back from our kayaking trip to Tad Sae waterfall, we walked over to the 'sunset bar' located at the end of the main street, across the Mae Kok river. There was a woman selling tickets to cross the bamboo bridge for 2,000 kip/$0.25, which seemed a bit dodgy but it was worth it once we got to the other side. It was not nearly as crowded as the Phousi Hill and the view of the river, with all the river boats on their sunset cruises, was a great one.
The 'secret alley' at the night market is definitely my favorite dinner place of my trip. The setup of vendors with their grills and 10,000 kip/$1.25 'all you can fit on a plate' buffets with tables set up in-between is as simple as it gets. Grilled chicken breasts and Mekong fish with some veggie spring rolls was my dinner of choice, complemented by one of the fruit shakes from the 'shakes alley' (all for about $7) or a banana split from Joma bakery (a bit more expensive thou).
On the other hand, I was pretty disappointed with the breakfast choices available. Being a fan of big, meaty breakfasts, I was not able to find one to the south of the night market. Delilah's (just a few doors down from Joma) came in close with their Smiling Breakfast with two eggs and three rolls of ham with a big baguette, but at 28,000 kip/$3.50, it was not nearly as good of a deal as the breakfasts I had in Chiang Mai.
Lunch was basically a choice between noodle soups and fried rice. Either was good at any of the non-western stalls along the main street, but both lucked any significant meat amount. The availability of cheap fruit shakes everywhere almost made up for it thou - even two-fruit shakes were just 5,000 kip ($0.60).
There is also plenty of western-style restaurants and some bars, the most popular hang out place being Utopia bar along the Mae Kok river, a bit away from the main portion of the town. I was all about the local food so I have not tried any of those places and can't say if they were any good (but they did sure looked pretty expensive).
Besides the temples, the second most touted thing in Luang Prabang is the trip to waterfalls in surrounding area. We checked out Tad Sae falls while kayaking one of the days and it was pretty amazing. But there is a reason it is also known as waterfall #2 - the Kouang Si waterfall was even more spectacular with multiple levels, each more picturesque than the previous one. Being easy to reach by road (albeit after an hour drive), Kouang Si is also a lot more touristy so it was hard to get a picture without some random kid in it.