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Have you ever arrived in a faraway place and known instantly that you were always meant to go there?
Nope, me neither.
But that’s exactly the feeling I got when I landed from Cyprus and first stepped off the plane in Luang Prabang, Laos.
I’m not sure how to explain it, really. It was somewhat surreal, more a sense of immediate familiarity and belonging. Perhaps that I’ve been here before – though I definitely haven’t.
But after catching a glimpse of the tiny town from the air, I can’t wait to start exploring.
Until 1989, Laos was closed to tourism leaving it virtually cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia. Since opening their doors to the world slightly over two decades ago, Laos now has a steadily-developing economy, reliant on tourism and regional trade.
What is Luang Prabang known for?
Situated in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is one of the richest and most visited provinces.
It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 meaning a blessed ban on buses and trucks. Most road traffic consists of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and those traveling on foot.
Luang Prabang is considered by many travelers and writers to be the heart of Laotian culture. This small and gentle town on the banks of the Mekong River is encircled by mountains. It sits at a lofty 2,300 feet above sea level, keeping its climate relatively mild.
In Luang Prabang, most locals are asleep by 10:00pm and enforced curfews shut the city down to a crawl for the remainder by midnight. Though the town is definitely full of the backpacker set, it is by no means a party destination.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
There are no large hotels (or large buildings of any kind) in Luang Prabang. So most tourists opt for one of many simple guest houses lining the Mekong River.
There are also a few small boutique hotels – which is my choice for this trip. The Queens House Hotel is charmingly unique, right in the center of town, steps from the banks of the Mekong and only $50US a night. Perfect for exploring the compact town center on foot.
The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to more than 30 glistening Wats (temples) on the tourist trail. It’s all set against a backdrop of French colonial architecture and extensive natural beauty.
This former Royal capital still remains the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos and despite the large number of tourists, there seem to be equally as many monks about town.
Exploring Luang Prabang
Once I make the quick trip to my hotel and settled in, I’m anxious to head back out and explore a little.
I’m dying to see the Mekong River and also hoping to squeeze in a hike up Phou Si Mountain to get a view of the town and visit Wat Chom Si before sunset.
The climb up to Wat Chom Si is well worth the effort for the incredible panoramic views from the top of the mountain. I spend some time taking it all in before heading over toward the Mekong River to relax for a bit and watch the sunset.
The night market and dinner
After an excellent sunset, I wander through the night market. The market’s colorful stalls take over the main road at dusk each day.
For dinner I find a trendy little spot near the market. It’s packed full which is usually a good sign. I enjoy a terrific meal and get to try a Beer Lao (one of Laos’ most popular exports) all for about $4US.
That’s another great thing about Laos – like Thailand, your dollar goes a LONG way. At dinner I chat with several other tourists. Like me, most have just arrived and it seems my immediate love for Luang Prabang is a common theme.
After dinner, the town is beginning to wind down so I head back to my room. I have yet to sleep since the overnight flight from Cyprus yesterday and despite my enthusiasm for the town, I’m fading fast.
Plus, I’m looking forward to getting a bright and early start. After all the real show in Luang Prabang starts well before dawn.
Morning Alms in Luang Prabang
What’s the #1 thing to experience in Luang Prabang? It’s the daily ritual of the monks leaving their temples en masse to receive morning alms.
A daily, pre-dawn event lasting about an hour, locals arrive in the dark to secure a spot on the street along the monks’ path. While tourists are allowed to participate in this event, it doesn’t seem right to me, so I choose to observe from a distance.
And it is a truly amazing spectacle.
Just as the morning sun begins to rise, monks and novices by the hundreds (ranging in age from 10 to 60+) materialized seemingly from nowhere. They stream through Luang Prabang’s historic temple district in flowing orange robes.
They make a perfect square around the block, filling their bowls with alms from the locals along one street.
Then, they turn the corner to return some of their take to the local children who wait patiently with bowed heads and outstretched baskets. It is an incredibly moving process to watch. Some in the town are obviously there to give, while others hope to receive.
What an awesome start to the day. And absolutely one of my top 30 most memorable travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
With morning alms complete, the monks disappear as quickly as they appeared.
I walk the few blocks back to my hotel to grab some breakfast. After breakfast, I spend the rest of the day wandering the streets of Luang Prabang and along the Mekong River. I do a little shopping and even try a Lao massage (priced similarly to the $6 Thai massages I love so much!).
It’s a perfect afternoon and I wish I could stay longer.
Wrapping up a terrific visit to Luang Prabang
It is impossible not to warm to the place. It’s one of the few countries I’ve ever been to that seems to be the genuine article. It has somehow managed to retain its authenticity from its pre-tourism days.
I fell in love with the small-town, welcoming feel of Luang Prabang. I’ve never been somewhere that doesn’t require any transportation other than to and from the airport. And honestly, I probably could have walked from there. It’s so nice to be able to walk anywhere I want to go.
And despite only being here 24 hours, I keep running into the same fellow tourists on the main street – which only adds to the small-town feel. I imagine if you spent a week here, you’d know the whole town by name.
I wish I had known when I planned this year’s round the world trip that I would love Laos so much, I would have planned a much longer stay. There are many things to see outside the city as well, beautiful waterfalls, caves, etc.
I will definitely be back someday to see more of what I believe is quite possibly Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and spiritual place.
But for now, it’s time to depart this magical place and head back to Bangkok!