If you combine the Asian with the French, you might find yourself with something a little along the lines of Luang Prabang. It was such a cool place; it gave us a fantastic first impression of Laos. Knowing so little about Laos meant it didn’t take long to pick up an awful lot. Here is just a few of the things I learnt, and will predict that you also didn’t know about Laos:
- It is a crime for a foreigner to have unmarital sex with a local.
- They have a curfew of 11pm – after this time, pretty much everything shuts down, and the thing to do is to go bowling (yes, correctly heard- ten pin bowling).
- The national dish is called Laap – and its basically minced meat, infused with a variety of herbs and spices.
Some of my favourite activities include:
- Utopia. If you are in Luang Prabang for even just a night, chances are you will hear of it. By morning, it offers yoga classes on the balcony overlooking the Mekong River (mesmerising experience, and great to do some exercise), by day it is a cafe offering a wide variety of seating and high quality food options. At night, it converts itself into the bar at which to be seen, with an outdoor volleyball court – and for those who know me, a huge source of entertainment. Alas, Utopia still shuts at 11pm, the time that the keener party-goers tie the laces on their bowling shoes.
- In terms of food, obviously Utopia (which caters extremely well to both Asian and Western appetites), the stalls at the end of the night-market were fantastic, offering a delicious range of baguettes, crepes and fruit shakes. We befriended a stall owner, and became VIP customers over those few days .We also ate at Joma (and would again whilst in Asia) which served delicious salads and shakes (more Western style). Le Banneton is a delightful French cafe, serving the most deliciously made pastries and coffee – located on the other side of town, close to the stunning view point at which the Nham Khan meets the Mekong.
- The night market. Come dusk, and the entire main street turns into a market – offering everything from food to art to whisky to jewellery and clothing, you could literally spend hours there. And unlike the markets we had experienced in Thailand, the vendors were far less pushy, preferring instead to just secure the sale. One morning Summer and I headed to the locals market, which sold fruit and veges, as well as all sorts of obscure treats (?!) including rats, squirrels, birds and catfish. We tried desperately to find a novelty food to try; I was on the hunt for snake, however with none of the aforementioned being overly appealing, we eventually settled (yet again) on some more foreign fruit.
- Watching the monk ceremony. An early start is required, in order to secure your place along the roadside before the monks arrive. Because monks don’t have a source of income, they get fed by the offerings they receive from the community. So what they do in the early hours of the morning is walk along the roadside, each with a huge basket, and tourists (and some locals) have the opportunity to donate them food (and sometimes, money). They end up getting so much food that they have to offload it at various stations along the way, so if you don’t want to see your food removed from their basket, it pays to be tactical about what you give. The first morning we had fruit, and we soon realised that it was highly inappropriate, as it was going to be hard to share amongst so many monks, as well as the fact its rather indurable. The second time round, we just followed the crowd and bought some sticky rice from some of the local women selling it in the early hours of the morning – I would advise doing this, as it was easy to share amongst many monks, and obviously it’s a staple to their diet.
- Pak Ou caves – a 27km scooter ride, the journey to and from was far more exciting than the cave itself. Whilst cool to see, I would probably drop this from the activity list if there is any time restrictions to be had. You had to catch a boat across to the cave, which was exactly that; a series of caves set in limestone cliffs, made slightly more interesting by the copious amounts of Buddha figurines dispersed throughout. It was beautiful sure, but basically a non-event.
- Kuang Si waterfall – located about 30km in the opposite direction, another fantastic scooter ride out and back. Don’t worry if you don’t have scooters though; every tuk-tuk driver will ask you if you want a ride. A multi-tiered cascade tumbling over limestone formations into menthol-green pools; the water was cold, but we just had to swim – and it was very refreshing. It was located through a bear sanctuary (which not only had the cutest bears, but was very informative about how bears are trafficked, commonly for the use of their bile in Ancient Chinese medicine).
- Big Brother Mouse – an opportunity to go and meet some local students, allowing them to practice their English. We went thinking that would be grouped with young children, however it ended up being two boys around our age – and it was incredible to discover how different their lives were from ours. They had never visited the Kuang Si waterfall (which would have to be the most well known tourist activity in the city), all money they made was sent to their family by bus (as no bank accounts) and one of them, despite being the younger twin, was considered the older brother. It was one of the most heart-warming things I had done in a long time, and not only did I learn a lot, it was a lot of fun.
- Right in the middle of Luang Prabang is a 100m high hill (known as Phu Si) and on the top is a Buddhist temple (known as Wat Tham Phou Si). It is definitely the view that is worth the climb, not the temple itself.
- A hot day saw us make our way to La Pistache – a swimming pool and bar which was about 10 minutes walk from town. It made for a luxurious afternoon, and we were grateful for the pool in the humidity.