Searching for Something Special in Luang Prabang

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,...

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.)

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

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.

Luang Prabang

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.

Kuangsi Waterfall

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.

Steph and Tony at Kuangsi Waterfall

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?

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26 comments Leave a comment

  1. OH MY…. I want to go back to Tamarind NOWWWWWW. Such a good restaurant. I did love the peace of Luang Prabang… when we were there, for whatever reason, we were one of about 40 tourists in the whole town and it was lovely and serene and just a nice place to unwind, eat well, and enjoy life.

    Apr. 29 2014 @ 5:22 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      If we could have afforded to eat at Tamarind every single day/meal while in Luang Prabang, we absolutely would have. SO GOOD. As it is, I’m glad we got to experience that one phenomenal meal!

      While we were in LP, it was shoulder season, so while we didn’t have the town completely to ourselves, it wasn’t completely overrun by tourists either. Definitely a nice place to unwind for a few days and enjoy the finer things in life!

      Apr. 29 2014 @ 10:56 pm
  2. Seriously blown away by the waterfall. Just like you guys, I’ve always found the waterfalls in Asia a little underwhelming and served with a side of trash – but that must’ve been the bluest, cleanest waterfall I’ve seen in that part of the world. Nice find!

    Apr. 29 2014 @ 6:28 pm
    1. jill author

      Yes, completely agree! Normally there is so much trash strewn about these places, but the folks running Tad Kuangsi definitely have their act together because it was remarkably clean. So nice to be able to enjoy the loveliness here without competing potato chip bags and all that other rubbish. Splashing around here was a complete delight; I hope you get to visit it at some point, because as nice as the photos are, they only capture a snippet of its beauty.

      Apr. 29 2014 @ 10:59 pm
  3. We visit Luang Prabang in January and honestly, the town itself was a disappointment for us. We found the market too touristy… But we went to see Kuang Si waterfall and this made up all ! Did you make it to the top of it? We liked that small hike a lot! What we also found interesting was Big Brother Mouse Project, where we volunteered for one day, or rather 2 hours. You might like it 🙂
    Happy travels , guys!

    Apr. 29 2014 @ 9:29 pm
    1. Ivana author

      Yes, the market and the downtown area was definitely touristy and not really our cup of tea, but the waterfall was truly excellent and worth all the hype we had read from other travelers.

      Thanks for mentioning Big Brother Mouse Project—we really wanted to volunteer/check them out, but somehow managed to run out of time and didn’t manage to make it over to them (isn’t that always the way?!). They’re definitely a great organization, and their projects—spreading literacy and improving locals’ spoken English—are certainly ones worth promoting.

      Apr. 29 2014 @ 11:02 pm
  4. Oh wow, I want to take pictures like you guys! Those waterfalls = amazing! Thanks for sharing this about Luang Prabang – actually I had no idea what there was to see, but I had heard of a lot of people who had gone there, so it’s great to “put a face to the name” so to speak. And that food is making my mouth water! Have safe travels in Sri Lanka, I can’t wait to hear about your next adventures!

    Apr. 30 2014 @ 1:28 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Some of these waterfall shots required wading across icy cold pools and hoping we wouldn’t stumble and drop the camera, so never let it be said we don’t suffer for our art over here! 😉

      There’s actually tons more to do in LP than what we highlighted here… We were just really bad travelers by the time we arrived, so we skipped most of what other people tend to focus on when they visit!

      Also: Sri Lanka posts are on their way!

      May. 3 2014 @ 2:34 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        Sometimes that happens though, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it. If you’re satisfied with your time in a place, then it doesn’t matter whether you “did it properly”. Racing around and trying to tick off tourist sights isn’t what travelling should be about, and it can actually spoil your time in a location.

        May. 4 2014 @ 1:57 am
        1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

          Agreed! The longer we travel, the less we care to run about in a bid to work our way through as much of our guidebooks as possible. Much more enjoyable to just take our time and see fewer things, but actually enjoy them!

          May. 5 2014 @ 9:24 pm
  5. Nooooo, how could we have missed the bears? They look so cute, we didn’t know about them at all 🙁

    Luang Prabang was pretty indeed but a bit too touristy for us, it almost didn’t feel like the rest of Laos. We went to do some English speaking with some local boys and monks at an association called “The Big Mouse”, it was to help them to improve their English (not sure how that went with my strong Italian accent), it was very interesting for us too to listen to them, to talk and learn more about their lives and the Laos traditions.

    Apr. 30 2014 @ 1:28 am
    1. Franca author

      Even though you missed the bears (which makes me so sad because they were so cute and you would have loved them!), I am glad you got to go show some support for Big Brother Mouse. It was actually something we wanted to do as well, but somehow time got away from us and we just didn’t manage to get to it. That’s my one main regret for Luang Prabang, because it seems like a great organization and definitely one I would want to support.

      May. 3 2014 @ 6:52 am
  6. I’ve heard great things about Luang Prabang, but that was from a girl who volunteered teaching English to monks, so she probably saw some heartwarming and non-touristy stuff while there. I guess it’s a place that all depends on your perspective.

    The waterfalls look amazing though!

    May. 1 2014 @ 1:00 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      I know plenty of people who loved Luang Prabang, although I think just as many people find it a bit too “staged”. I think if you liked it and really settled in, you could certainly discover a different side to the city that would probably be a lot more authentic; meeting the locals always helps.

      And really, even if LP was a total dive (which it’s not), that waterfall would make up for A LOT. So good.

      May. 3 2014 @ 6:53 am
  7. The pictures of your dinner at Tamarind are making me so hungry. And I love the waterfall pictures. So beautiful!

    May. 1 2014 @ 8:16 pm
    1. Kendra Granniss author

      The pictures are making ME hungry too, so I feel your pain! Tamarind is definitely one-of-a-kind and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang. And the waterfall was just so astonishingly gorgeous… it didn’t seem real. 😀

      May. 3 2014 @ 6:56 am
  8. Those waterfalls looks amazing! So beautiful… I don’t like bears though! I don’t want them to be slaughtered by the Chinese but I also don’t like them sniffing around my tent while sleeping… Laos seems quite beautiful though.

    May. 2 2014 @ 9:59 am
    1. Rebekah author

      I was a bit worried about the bears too, but these ones are not at all like the ones you are thinking of. First, they were small and chubby, and second, they honestly seemed more like dogs than bears. I wouldn’t go up and give one a hug, but they seemed to be perfectly content living a life free of ravaging tents! Give these bears a chance! 🙂

      May. 3 2014 @ 6:58 am
  9. I think the falls were definitely our most favourite part of Luang Prabang (Ewan had thought I was a waterfall hater when I merely went ‘meh’ at Niagara…I think the over the top cheesy tourist stuff ruined it for me, but Kuangsi had me wide-eyed and super-impressed!).

    Also – we ALWAYS love your photos but I think some of our favourites are in this post. The waterfalls = National Geographic. The two of you = absolutely perfect. The bear sitting nonchalantly hugging the stump = hilarious.

    May. 2 2014 @ 6:37 pm
    1. Emily author

      Maybe it’s because Niagara is right in our backyard, but I’ve just generally found all other waterfalls pretty underwhelming during our travels. I wasn’t consciously comparing them to Niagara (which isn’t, like, my favorite thing of all time or anything, but I can see that it’s pretty nifty), but perhaps I was and that’s why so many seemed lacking. But these falls are, without doubt, the best we have ever seen. Perfect for swimming and just absolutely gorgeous. I think I’ll probably veto all future waterfall excursions because I don’t see how anything else can compete!

      And thanks for the compliment on the photos! I love that one of the bored bear too!

      May. 3 2014 @ 7:00 am
  10. I have to agree, Steph! I was a bit underwhelmed by Luang Prabang in general, especially after hearing gushing reports from other travellers we had met along the way. But agree also that there are some points of interest worth the time.

    Glad that you had a “path” to follow at Kuangsi Waterfall. The day we went there was torrential rain and the paths became part of the falls. Almost lost one of my flip flops for good! haha

    May. 11 2014 @ 9:24 am
    1. Jessica - Notes of Nomads author

      It’s always a bit of a crapshoot when a place has received so much blogger/traveler love—it’s hard for any place to be that good, no matter how inherently awesome. I don’t regret the time we spent there, as we obviously found some things worth seeing and doing while there, but I’m not sure I’ll be racing back any time soon. (Though I wouldn’t mind getting to spend more time with those bears or at that waterfall!)

      May. 12 2014 @ 1:49 am
  11. The bear sanctuary! Oh my goodness, what a wonderful place. I’ve heard about the awful treatment of the bears at the bile farms and I’m so glad that these ones could be saved from that “life” … I would have tattled on the tourists that were throwing stuff at the bears too, how awful! They aren’t there to entertain people.. and on another note,.the waterfall is quite beautiful, too!

    May. 18 2014 @ 4:56 pm
    1. Lauren author

      We’ve tried to do our research on this trip and only visit animal “attractions” that actually promote the well being of the creatures in their care, and I definitely think this sanctuary is a worthwhile visit (& investment) for any traveler. Just so long as they don’t go and taunt the bears and throw garbage at them. Seriously, I was SO MAD! Thankfully there was that beautiful waterfall afterwards to help me bliss out…

      May. 19 2014 @ 1:53 am
  12. Great work on the photos, especially the long exposures of the pristine falls. We know all about “suffering for the art” but as Jessica mentioned, it looked more like the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just less fantastical and from Augustus Gloop’s horrifying perspective 😉 Fun times though.

    May. 23 2014 @ 1:32 pm
  13. Paul Kuehn

    Those waterfalls are sooooo beautiful!!!!It mustve been hard to leave them,and the little bears are so cute,looks like they have a good home.Where are you guys now?

    May. 31 2014 @ 8:33 pm

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