Wandering the streets of Luang Prabang, I realized once and for all why the old saying is “Variety is the spice of life” and NOT “Variety is the spice of Laos.” Our fifth destination in the country and often the favorite amongst visitors, Luang Prabang is a town that is meant to impress… and yet, apart from having a slightly sweeter appearance, the city felt largely identical to everywhere else we had visited in the country and seemed to offer the exact same tourist diversions: non-threatening restaurants with an even mix of traditional and western food, night markets for all your souvenir shopping needs, and lots and lots of wats.
(Because when you’re in Laos, there are ALWAYS wats and they are beautiful. Message received, loud and clear.)
Prior to arriving to Luang Prabang, we had come into contact with the full spectrum of opinions about the place, from bona fide raves about its beauty to pessimistic claims that the city was overly touristified. True to form, we found ourselves agreeing with both parties: Luang Prabang is clearly the supermodel of Laos and to that end, it certainly has been manicured to appeal to western tourists; for some, this will be part of its charm, whereas for others, it will be off-putting. For us, it was both of these things and neither of them as well—Tony fell for the city’s charms, taking great glee in madly photographing its breezy beauty, whereas I felt the whole scene was a bit… bland. I certainly didn’t hate the time we spent there—indeed, It was the kind of place that one could easily spend a lot of time if one had a lot of time to spend—but, just as nothing about the town actively repelled me, nothing about it really urged me to set down roots and stay a while.
None of the conventional tourist sights and activities within the town really appealed to me—although the wats are supposedly incredibly lovely, most of them charge an entrance fee, and I simply couldn’t justify that after we had seen so many (too many?) of them for free in Vientiane and neighboring countries as well. If either of us had felt especially passionate about seeing some more Buddhist architecture, we certainly would have ponied up the money, but we were well and truly done with wats by the time we made it to Luang Prabang. So, instead, we made it my mission to find something else, something special, during our stay.
As luck would have it, we wound up finding FOUR special things worth celebrating in Luang Prabang. I’ve already told you about one of them: our wonderful stay at the Mekong Riverview. Tony and I don’t normally get to be pampered (and that bed definitely counted as pampering!) out here on the road, so the three days we spent there certainly were special.
The second special thing that we discovered in Luang Prabang, was the restaurant Tamarind. We stopped by our third night in town and promptly cursed all the other meals we had wasted not eating here. In addition to their à la carte menu, Tamarind also offers a series of set menus, including one for adventurous eaters! If it didn’t require advance notice, we clearly would have gone for that, but instead “settled” for the standard Lao sampling platter. We were treated to:
- A bamboo and vegetable herbal soup featuring boiled mango leaves
- A platter of Lao specialities including: Luang Prabang sausage, three spicy dips & relishes, sweet buffalo jerky (the Lao name for which means “food from heaven”), and fried river weed dusted with sesame seeds
- Herbed fish accented with dill and steamed in a banana leaf
- Fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken and deep fried
- Stir fried young pumpkin with kaffir lime and ginger
- Purple sticky rice dessert in coconut milk with tamarind sauce & crunchy rice crackers
- A bottle of Beer Lao & a ginger-lemongrass cocktail
Every dish we tasted was a delight and by the end of the meal we were practically bursting at the seams. This meal was probably my absolute favorite in Laos, not just because each course was explained in detail to us by our server—informing us about the local ingredients used and how to eat each one—but also because the flavors were so bright and unique. Many travelers reported to us that they didn’t really understand how Lao food was different from Thai food, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s certainly true that throughout most of the country the two cuisines intermix, and many Thai dishes are listed on menus purporting to serve Lao food. At Tamarind, every dish was something new and not something you would ever in a million years mistake for Thai food. I felt like it gave me such great insight into Lao flavors and the very different ingredients used in the local dishes, and helped us move beyond the standard sticky rice & larb dishes we had largely been relying on previously. At 120,000LAK (~$15USD) per person, our meal here definitely was one of the pricier ones we enjoyed in Laos, but given how much we learned and just how exciting the food was, we both considered this a worthy splurge and money well spent. Although there are plenty of upscale restaurants in Luang Prabang, if you’re legitimately interested in tasting authentic Lao dishes in an accessible setting, Tamarind is a must.
(They also offer a cooking course in which you can actually learn how to cook many of the dishes that we sampled. I considered taking it, but realized the likelihood of me executing most of these dishes at home—should I ever have my own kitchen again—was slim to none. For that reason, I figured I was better of simply sticking to eating, rather than cooking in this case.)
Our next special experience in Luang Prabang was actually located about 20km out of town. On our last day in town, we elected to rent a motorbike and zipped off to Kuangsi Waterfall. Truth be told, we almost skipped this whole thing because we have generally had such bad luck with waterfalls in Asia, rarely finding them worth the hassle they seem to require to reach. But this was different—the ride out was pleasant and relaxed, and the subsequent “hike” to the waterfall was an easy walk along a paved path.
Having seen photos of the waterfalls, we thought we knew what to expect when we arrived at the falls, but we were completely blown away by their beauty. Truly, photos cannot capture their magic and utter perfection. We spent hours gazing at the dazzling turquoise water, just ever-so-slightly milky and looking like the stuff that mermaids would loll about in. We braved the brisk waters to capture some epic shots and once the initial shock of the chill wore off, we found the time swimming about in the natural pools an invigorating and completely surreal experience. Neither of us could believe that so many flawless rivulets and cascades could form completely naturally, and with each new tier that we reached, we would gasp anew and take a new flurry of photos.
By chance, we happened to start our hike at the bottom, slowly working our way up to the main falls, and I think this is probably the ideal way to do it since each subsequent level was even more impressive than the last. As we stood in the cloud of mist formed as sheets of water plummeted from hundreds of feet above us, we were completely awestruck. After so long in Asia, we had finally found a waterfall that left us speechless and breathless and completely convinced that there could be no other better than this. Search completed, scratch that one off the list.
As if Kuangsi weren’t good enough in its own right (it was), admission to the falls also gains you entrance to a bear rescue center, our final special spot in Luang Prabang. Run by Free the Bears, the sanctuary provides refuge to indigenous bears (mostly Asiatic Black Bears—also known as Moon Bears) who have lost their homes due to habitat destruction, were being kept as pets, or have been rescued from “bile farms” where the bile from their liver is harvested for traditional Chinese medicine.
I wasn’t that interested in the bears prior to our visit and only stopped by because admission was included in our ticket fee for the waterfall. As we walked up to the pens, I was anticipating some big, black bears… instead, I found myself staring down at a bunch of tubby and tiny little bears, a bit like Winnie the Pooh come to life. The bears were legitimately adorable, so much so that we actually donated a few extra bucks to the cause. The only negative part of the experience was when a group of Chinese tourists began behaving very badly, throwing food and even a plastic water bottle into the enclosure, I guess because the bears just doing their own thing was boring for them. I was horrified at their behavior and promptly went and tattled on them to a volunteer who reprimanded them and sent them on their way. These bears have already had so much taken from them that they definitely deserve better than ignorant tourists throwing garbage at them for their amusement. But my indignation just goes to show how quickly my fickle heart flipped for those sweet little bears!
Although Luang Prabang wasn’t my favorite destination in Laos, these four things we experienced were definitely reason enough to make our visit worthwhile. Unexpected though all of these things were, we had been promised that a visit to Luang Prabang would be something special, and thanks to them, it was.
Tell Us: Have you been to Luang Prabang? If so, what did you think of it? Which of these special things would you most be interested in experiencing for yourself?