Laos is For Photo-Ops, But You Won’t Want to Take Out Your Phone
The 45-minute trip to the Kuang-Si falls takes you through the countryside.
The 45-minute trip to the Kuang-Si falls takes you through the countryside.(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Laos is For Photo-Ops, But You Won’t Want to Take Out Your Phone

The early bird gets the worm. Early birds in Luang Prabang are assured of the best photo-op as a couple of hundred Buddhist monks draped in ochre robes take over the city’s main street. It’s one of the many sights that has seen Laos’ cultural capital become a magnet for evolved global travellers who want a slice of South East Asia that’s not overflowing with tourists and away from the beaten track.

I discovered a city where everything moves in slow-mo – and ran into solo travellers from countries as diverse as France and South Korea.

Getting There

Located in Northern Laos at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan – Luang Prabang is an hour’s flying time from the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. But if you’re flying in from India, make the connection via Bangkok or Singapore (Silk Air offers seamless connections) that ensure you can reach your hotel just after breakfast.

Temple Trail

I didn't waste much time before hitting the road on a bicycle (most hotels offer free bicycles for guests). That’s the easiest way to get around this charming town where no ride is usually longer than 15 minutes.

The Wat (temple) Xieng Thong.
The Wat (temple) Xieng Thong.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

My first stop was the Wat (temple) Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most emblematic shrine. Constructed in 1560, this is one of the finest examples of Lao temple architecture with its two-tiered roof, precious mosaics and a dramatic ‘tree of life’ glass montage on the rear temple wall.

This temple has benefited from an ambitious restoration programme in the 1960s that saw its gold leaf gilding and gold lacquering restored. One of the highlights are the flower motifs and scenes from the Lao version of Ramayan – Phra Lak Phra Lam. With over 30 temples in the vicinity, you will be spoilt for choice.

Do make time to stop at the Wat Mai, an 18th Century temple that is best known for its Emerald Buddha.

Take in the Views

Phou Si Mountain.
Phou Si Mountain.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Hindu legends are a recurring theme in Luang Prabang. A short trek took me up Mount Phou Si located in the heart of the city and home to a Buddhist shrine. One local legend suggests that it was Lord Hanuman who transported this mountain here. He couldn't have picked a better place; this mountain offers sweeping views of the Mekong river and the city. It’s also one of the best spots to catch a sunset.

Phou Si Mountain with steps that create an optical illusion.
Phou Si Mountain with steps that create an optical illusion.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Night Spot

After taking in the sunset, I made my way down Mount Phou Si and straight to the evening market. There’s a busy vibe and yet it’s not overcrowded like its counterparts in Thailand and Vietnam where a lot of the produce is sourced from.

The evening market has a busy vibe without being overcrowded.
The evening market has a busy vibe without being overcrowded.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Keep an eye out for local merchandise that include fine silk stoles, silver jewellery and lamps. Of course, the market is also one of the best places to sample local culinary delicacies.

Eat Local

Whatever you do, don’t skip town without digging into Larb, a fiery meat salad and the unofficial national dish. It’s certainly not for mild palates though.

Larb, a fiery meat salad.
Larb, a fiery meat salad.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

My search for the perfect Larb ended in Pin Kai Zap, a nondescript local restaurant where my newfound friends from the Philippines were the only tourists. After a couple of epic ‘Lost in Translation’ fails with the waitstaff, I opted to stay within the city’s popular tourist zones where I stumbled upon l’Elephant with its tasting menus that give you a quick peek of Laotian cuisine.

A chilled glass of Laotian coffee.
A chilled glass of Laotian coffee.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

If you’re a self-confessed coffee hipster, I’d recommend a chilled glass of Laotian coffee – that combines a strong shot of coffee, condensed milk and milk foam, at Joma Bakery.

Of Early Mornings

You might be on holiday but do pick one day to wake up at 5.30 am. Locals line up with freshly prepared food – while tourists queue up for the perfect vantage point with their mobile shooters.

This is rush hour in Luang Prabang.

The city is a sea of saffron at sunrise.
The city is a sea of saffron at sunrise.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
The city is a sea of saffron at sunrise. Dozens of Buddhist monks walk through the heart of the city. The alms giving ceremony has been a tradition in this city since the 14th century. Locals shower the monks with rice, fruits and traditional sweets. Laotian Buddhist tradition recommends that monks should collect food for at least one meal a day.
Locals shower the monks with rice, fruits and traditional sweets.
Locals shower the monks with rice, fruits and traditional sweets.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

I was among the swathe of tourists who attempted to capture Luang Prabang’s most defining image – the alms giving ceremony.

Sights:

Three days is time enough to unwind, pause for an unplanned foot massage or cycle past French-era colonial buildings on Sakkaline Road.

The the 3 Nagas Hotel on Sakkaline Road.
The the 3 Nagas Hotel on Sakkaline Road.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

You can also stay in one of these buildings that have morphed into charming boutique hotels – like the 3 Nagas. If you want to experience a completely different side of Laos, I’d urge you to make the 45-minute trip to the Kuang-Si falls that takes you through the countryside. Luang Prabang is not a city where you strike off items on a ‘to do’ list but where the small moments count.

That’s the thing with destinations that stay under the radar, there’s no pressure to flood your timeline with those ‘been there, done that’ images.

(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)

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