I just wrapped up 3 days in Luang Prabang, Laos. Like those who went before me, I absoluetly loved it and expect it to be one of the places I rave about going forward. Despite increasing tourism, for now there’s still no clear delineation between the traditional way of life and what the tourist sees. At the same time, it has good infrastructure, preservation, and clean streets thanks to its UNESCO status. The way of life is unfortunately eroding, and in 10 years it might become the next Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, etc. It’s a place to see now before it changes for the worse.
Here are 5 things that made me fall in love with LP.
#1 – Stepping back in time
Being in LP is like being transported back in time. Make sure you have time to experience this (I’d say 3 days minimum). There’s the bustling morning market – partly wet and outdoor, set in the small alleys of charming old town. Saffron-robed monks are a frequent sight – not just in temples. When I kept getting a confused look from tuk tuk drivers and boat charters about “do you have Whatsapp?”, I finally realized they were all still using basic (non-smart) mobile phone. Perhaps most precious to me is the quiet and gentle spirit of the people. Such gentle people. It’s hard not to be sad knowing this precious spirit will shrink in the wake of mass tourism. History has not been kind to quiet and humble people, but I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
You need simply walk around old town (not just the main streets) to experience the Lao way of life. Or, pick a good spot, relax, and watch the world go by – slowly. My guesthouse, Manichan House, was in the perfect location directly on the morning market street. Whenever I had free time (and not minging with the other guests), I was in the outdoor chair enjoying the atmosphere, surrounded by beautiful colonial houses and garden.
#2 – Spiritual ceremonies
If you’ve seen only one picture of Laos, it was probably of monks in saffron receiving donation in the street. This is called giving alms, and it still happens for real every morning before sunrise, although part of the route is now a circus show for tourists who just want a photo. I posted a recommended route in my previous post. Here’s an updated route including where to avoid (based on personal experience).
Of the 4 alms ceremonies I witnessed, two broke me into tears. Watching an elder who can barely walk, be helped by his family so he can make an offering according to his belief to the barefoot monks, followed by a prayer, there’s no words for how it touches your soul. If it doesn’t bring you to tears at some point, you’re probably not seeing the real thing.
Also, don’t miss the evening chant in the temples. Doors are open to visitors to watch and/or participate. It started about 30 minutes before sunset. I saw the one in Wat Mai, which had a number of tourists. I preferred the ones in smaller temples for which I was the only visitor.
#3 – Kuang Si Falls
This tropical oasis will take your breath away – even with the crowds (which I’m averse to). It’s like Havasu Falls meets Hawaii. It has the magical turquoise and multi-terrace of the former, and the tropical backdrop of the latter. It’s not quite as mind-blowing as Havasu Falls or Huanglong in Sichuan, but it’s up there. You can swim in some areas, though temperature was only 60F on my day, but some still braved it.
I joined a minivan for 50,000 KIP (less than $6 USD), booked from my guesthouse.
#4 – Help Lao students practice English (and Chinese)
Life isn’t easy for the people of Laos. There’s not many opportunities for bright young minds. For perspective, one program asked if students want the school day to be one hour longer so they can learn more; 100% of students voted yes. Wow! The kids here really want to learn but lack the resources. This is where YOU come in.
I spent a morning practicing English with students at Big Brother Mouse. Interestingly, a lot of them are young adults, many already done with high school. The oldest one I met was 26. In all cases, they want a better future, so they come to this program to supplement their education. I’m SO proud of these “kids” – all of them were ethnic minorities (such as Yao and Hmong) from farming families; they are bright and eager, taking matters into their own hands to rise above the poor condition they were given. It’s deeply refreshing to meet such eager students – you don’t find many in the developed world. One can’t help but root for them.
I ended up practicing Chinese with a few students too. In terms of tourists, the # of Mandarin speakers vs non-Mandarin speakers (i.e. English) seem about equal, but Chinese arguably offers more opportunities for these kids. They tell me there’s a wealth of Chinese businesses in Laos, and there’s a chance to study at universities in China, which provides better education than what they get in Laos. I was extremely impressed with their Chinese pronunciation – even the ones who had only basic vocabulary.
To say it was time well spent would be an understatement. These students deserve so much, the least we can do is spend a few hours making a small difference in their journey for a better life. Big Brother Mouse is open from 9-11am and 5-7pm. No reservation required – just show up and talk to the students. They are so grateful for your time!
There’s also a program (Big Sister Mouse?) that takes you to the countryside to talk to the students there.
#5 – Morning and Night Markets
The night market is nice. The morning market is better. The former is just a less roudy version of the ones in other places, selling a whole range of crafts, clothing and souvenirs (some good stuff). The latter is more interesting – the range of produce and dried goods being offered is stunning, as is the sheer scale of the event. Much of what’s offered is for locals – fresh produce and “smelly” dried stuff. But there’s a fair amount that tourists can try – fresh fruits, snacks (grilled mouse, anyone?) and drinks. It reminds me of a simpler time in China, before supermarkets became ubiquitous, when people got their cooking material from the wet market similar to this one but with more action (such as live slaughtering of small animals).
- I like LP best in the morning, when the alms ceremony and morning markets take place. I also love watching preparation for the latter – real life on display. Jet lag is great for waking up early, so come here early on your trip.
- Lao massage is similar to Thai massage, but with more hand/finger usage. I prefer Thai massage a bit more, but it’s still very good. I had a great one at Fragipani Spa.
- I was charged 20,000 KIP (about $2.40 USD) for an ATM withdraw at airport. The rate was slightly below the exchange booths in the city. This matches the ATM-unfriendly practice in Thailand, where I use booth instead of being ripped off at ATM.
- There aren’t really any obvious “wow” factors like some other famous places. It’s more about the quaintness. If that doesn’t sound interesting, then it may not be for you.
In a Nutshell
I wholeheartedly loved my 3 days in LP. On the day I left, I was missing it terribly, which I can’t say about too many places. If I’m ever in the mood for a different way of life, I know I’ve got a good option, though how long it stays real is in jeopardy due to increasing tourism. Any questions? Ask me.