First Timers: 5 things to do in Luang Prabang

First Timers: 5 things to do in Luang Prabang

It was my 40th birthday and it was time to check off another item from the bucket list …….

So I said, let’s go to Laos!

The ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang is situated in northern Laos. in 1995, the charming town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Considered by many travelers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is nestled between mountains and is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. With a population of about 400,000, this charming little town will leave a lasting impression in your heart.

Luang Prabang (LPQ) is about an hour flight from Bangkok via Thai Smile Airways, Bangkok Airways or Laos Aviation.

Hotels in Luang Prabang are charming but if you expect the global brands like Marriott or Hyatt, you’re out of luck. Do your research thoroughly.  Most hotels include breakfast, evening reception and mini bar access, however, pricing for hotels can be very expensive.
We stayed at The Belle Rive Hotel which is right on the banks of Nam Khan river that provided a great breakfast view every morning. Our accommodations included all of the above as well as a VERY SLOW WiFi.

The 5 things to do in Luang Prabang

1. Visit the temples

If there is a must see, it is Wat Xieng Thong, considered the finest in all of Laos and one of the most important in Luang Prabang.

The town was designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and houses many historic temples.

Wat Xieng Thong is located at the tip of the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet and was once the ceremonial gateway to the town, with soon-to-be-coronated kings arriving via these steps. The buildings are elegant and stately, with gorgeous details, elegant roof and a famous “tree of life” in glittering mosaic. Wat Xieng Thong continues to be used for special ceremonies during Pi Mai (Lao New Year) and the Lai Heua Fai (Boat Lantern Festival) procession. Admission is 20,000 kip.

Across the main street is Wat Souvanna Khili, the Temple of the Golden Mountain built-in the 18th century in a rare Xieng Kouang style. Wat Khili has recently undergone meticulous restoration thanks to the Buddhist Heritage Project. As they explain, Wat Khili “holds a special place in the pantheon of Luang Prabang’s Buddhism, largely due to the revered monk Pha Khamfan Silasangvaro, an intellectual, writer, artist and architect who was Abbot of Vat Khili from 1931 until his death in 1987.

Built in 1804 and restored in 1914, Wat That Chomsi, the small stupa atop a mountain, is the most popular spot in town to catch the sunset. Visitors who hike up the 328 steps are rewarded with a pretty panoramic view of the rooftops, mountains and Mekong. It’s considered a Luang Prabang must-do but keep in mind, it could be pretty touristy at times. The sunset is memorable, however, those who dislike crowds can try going at off-hours.

When visiting a Wat, it is important to follow the proper etiquette. Both men and women should dress respectfully (covered shoulders and knees), and remove shoes before entering the inner sanctum. No hugging, kissing or drinking alcohol is permitted on temple grounds. Don’t point your feet towards the Buddha, so when sitting, tuck the feet under and away or cross the legs. Women should not make physical contact with monks. Always ask permission before photographing a monk up close. Avoid entering the sim if chanting or meditation is in session. There are important days in the Buddhist calendar when temples become busy with devotees making offerings and special ceremonies.  Lastly, not everything is a photo-op. Be respectful.

2. Stroll through the “Day” and “Night” markets

What’s exotic and unique to some may be the common to others. In the morning “Day Market”, vendors brings fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and grains to the market to sell and trade. You’d be amaze at some of the stuff you’ll see from buckets of frogs, fresh catch of the day from the rivers, banana blossoms or live chicken.

The Luang Prabang “Night Market” is considered one of the best of its kind in the world. There, you can find trinkets, local arts and crafts, hand-woven fabrics and delicious street food. Be sure to bargain and bring lots of Thai Baht or U.S. dollars as it’s preferred over local currency.

3. Visit Kuang Si Falls

About one hour by boat or tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls are a great day trip to escape the city. The Kuang Si Falls has three-tier with most visitors staying around the first level. There you will find tables and chairs set up for a picnic lunch, beautiful pools of turquoise water reminiscent of beaches in Southern Thailand where you can take a refreshing dip.

If you’re up for an adventure, hike up the trails to the upper river where you can catch a view of the pools below.

4. Volunteer at  “Big Brother Mouse” School and help local students practice their English

Wondering where to volunteer in Luang Prabang? Stop by the “Big Brother Mouse” School and help young adults practice their English conversation skills. Students both locally and from nearby provinces come to the school, sometime after attending school and working in the fields all day.  They will ride a bus or walk for hours just to practice English conversations!

There’s no need to reserve or make appointments, just stop by. Hours are 9:00 a.m. for the morning session and 5:00 p.m. for the evening session. Tips for effective learning: most visitors speak too fast, utilizes many difficult words, or don’t speak clearly. Students will be polite and smile but they won’t get much out of it. Start off slowly at first. Ask questions that invite a full sentence for an answer, not just yes-or-no questions. You’ll have the greatest impact on them.

5. A must do! Alms Giving Ceremony

As the sun rises around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, yet still today locals wake early to prepare and wait quietly by the roadside to offer their offerings and receive blessings. Although the main purpose is for locals and tourist to give alms to the monks, at times, you will see small children kneeling with baskets in the hope that the monks will share their alms with them so that they can take food back to their family.

Alms Giving Ceremony is one of the most peaceful things I’ve done in my travels.

When attending Alms Giving, there are some etiquette to follow: First, shoulders, chests and legs must be covered in modest clothing as a mark of respect. You should also remain at a suitable distance from the monks and do not interrupt the procession. Yes, I know it’s a photo opt and you want to share it with your besties on social media but be respectful when taking pictures. Photographs may be taken, but from a distance and never use a camera flash. Please! Don’t shove the camera in front of the monk’s face.

When seated, shoes and socks must be removed with your feet tucked underneath as you observe the ceremony in absolute silence. Female attendees must not talk to or touch the monks at any time, even when making an offering. Suitable offerings include some simple food which you can probably arrange at your hotel or buy from a local market en-route, if you buy alms on the street do not negotiate on price as this is also considered highly disrespectful.

The town of Luang Prabang to me feels like a village that’s stuck in time and in a very good way. No tall buildings, bustling traffic or mega malls this town left such an impression in my heart. The locals are warm, caring and kind and you will see it coming through the smiles on their faces as you pass by.

 

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