Other than having a really satisfying name that rolls playfully off the tongue, Luang Prabang is a small town located in northern Laos which was once the royal capital. It lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is home to many Buddhist temples and young monks in training.
After a 6am start following a disturbed sleep thanks to a group of young French tw*ts shouting and running around outside our room until 4am (at which point Tom went out to have a go), we left our hostel in Vang Vieng and squeezed into the only remaining seats on the back row of a very full minivan. Apologising for squishing the people next to us, we set off on our journey to Luang Prabang.
It was still raining heavily as it had done for the past three days but the views of the surrounding mountains and lush jungle were stunning. As we climbed steep roads winding round the hillside the views became even more spectacular, with mountains poking through the clouds below. We enjoyed the journey for this brief time and then things took a definite turn.
To say the path was treacherous would be an understatement. The steep, winding roads quickly became flooded and rain water was flowing down like a river. Sheer cliff edges dropped off either side with limited barriers along the route. The driver threw the van round corners with reckless abandon and went at a shocking speed, overtaking vehicles on blind bends and we were hanging on for dear life. With every single bump I hit my head on the roof and Tom and I both started to feel queasy.
It was at this point that we reached a traffic jam and had to pull in to allow three huge lorries and a car transporter to pass by – what on earth were they doing up here?! We turned a bend and came upon the reason for the traffic… a landslide had spilled mud and rock all over the road and completely wiped out a truck, knocking it over and coming to rest in the bushes at the cliffside. Our faces dropped and we urgently wanted the journey to be over. We passed 5 more landslides and after 6 hours we finally reached Luang Prabang, relieved to still be alive. We were dropped outside of town and transferred into a truck and made to pay more to take us to our hotel, but at this point we were just glad to be off the minivan so paid up and jumped aboard.
We arrived at the Singharat Palace Hotel in the afternoon to a warm welcome from the owners who lived in a small house opposite. We checked into our room – a well-equipped and spacious private double with ensuite, and we were brought refreshing homemade lemonade which was lovely.
Taking a stroll into town, we wandered down by the river and wound down with an al fresco beer, watching people browse the shops on the street. The area reminded me of Hoi An with its matching shop fronts, restaurants and cute gift shops and was very relaxed and pretty. We found a family run spot for dinner, Yongkhoune Restaurant, complete with grannies nursing babies and kids running around. I had fried beef and veg with rice and a banging banana milkshake, then we walked home in the rain via a street market selling all kinds of handmade souvenirs.
That evening we watched The Killing Fields film which wasn’t as shocking as I thought it would be (though I’m sure it was shocking at the time of its release in 1984) and then I Facetimed my parents and nan for a catch up.
The next morning I enjoyed a yummy breakfast at our hotel of an omelette and toast and a banana milkshake and we booked a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls via our hotel for £4 each. A minibus collected us at midday and we made the hour long journey to the falls via more windy roads, albeit not quite so deadly.
The rain hadn’t let up and was hammering down so, wearing flip flops, we slowly and carefully made our way along the slippery path towards the falls. It wasn’t long before the paths disappeared under floods of water and raised bridges were fully submerged.
The waterfalls are normally a beautiful aquamarine colour and you can bathe in the calm waters below. Our friend from London had been there only a few days previously and posted such photos. What we got was raging torrents of brown water, breaking its banks and spilling out to cover the surrounding area. A group of 4 hippy-looking travellers ignored the now roped-off swimming area and jumped from a large rock into the waters below, swimming frantically to avoid being washed over the edge.
We gingerly made our way upstream to a huge waterfall which spewed out so much water we were blasted from all angles as soon as we got near. After losing my flip flop (a young boy caught it downstream thankfully) we now made our way back down over slippery rocks barefoot. Taking care over a bridge, I noticed a twig on my leg so went to brush it off and realised it was in fact a leech. What the frig was I meant to do?! Tom shouted at me to leave it and get help at the bottom but the little sod was making its way up my leg, grabbing on with its mouth and tail, and before long it’d be at my hip. So, waiting until it was holding on only by its tail, I flicked it hard and it flew off into the water. I checked the rest of my legs and made a bee-line for the exit. Not quite the idyllic swimming experience we’d hoped for, but an experience nonetheless!
Our bus wasn’t due to leave for another hour and a half so we took shelter in a small café in the car park and shared a horrible dry sandwich and undercooked fries. Tom then slipped in the car park, covering himself in mud, so had to go and wash himself off using rain water flowing from a broken drainpipe. We had a cold, wet journey back to the hotel and climbed straight into the shower to warm up.
We spent the rest of the day planning our route to our next destinations and, after much deliberation, opted to fly to northern Thailand instead of taking a 2 day slow boat along the Mekong. In the evening we wandered the street markets once more, and tried coconut pancakes from a lady griddling batter over a bucket of hot coals.
The next morning I had another yummy breakfast of fluffy banana pancakes and a banana milkshake (could you tell I was into bananas at this point?) and made our way into town and climbed the steps to Phousi Mountain. The peak provides views across the whole town up to the mountains and down to the river below and has a small golden temple at the top. It wasn’t a difficult climb but the heat and humidity made it a struggle and we were sweating loads.
Whilst up there, a group of young monks in bright orange robes arrived, each holding a wicker cage containing a small bird. One climbed onto a rocky outcrop and released his bird, watching it fly off into the distance. You could buy the caged birds from a small stand on the mountain and I wondered if I could afford to buy them all to release.
After the mountain we climbed more steps to visit an imprint of the Buddha’s foot and a small cave where Tom got scared by a lifelike statue. We then descended and went to the Luang Prabang Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre where we learnt about the different tribes native to Laos and their various cultures, fashions and rituals. In their shop they had so many gorgeous items handmade by tribes people and we wanted to buy loads but they were super pricey, so we settled for a little indigo fabric elephant which we called Monk. (I also played dress up in the children’s area – there’s one for you Dad).
For lunch we headed to Le Banneton, similar to the one we ate at in Vientiane, but this one wasn’t as good and my ham and cheese baguette with salad arrived about half an hour after Tom’s bacon, potato and cheese baguette, which is fascinating as his had to be cooked! This happens quite often in Asia – don’t expect to eat simultaneously, we’ve both sat and watched the other eat on numerous occasions.
Running out of things to do in the small town, we strolled along the river once more and chilled at our hotel before heading back to Yongkhoune Restaurant for dinner. Tom tried a traditional Laoatian Lahp dish containing minced pork, mint, lime, chili and beansprouts and then we wandered back through the markets where Tom bought a couple of souvenirs.
Luang Prabang is a really lovely place and we saw a lot more people here who seemed to be on an actual holiday as opposed to passing through on a backpacking trip. Laos in general has been great (apart from the weather) and I’ve enjoyed its relaxed vibe and stunning scenery. I’m really glad we added it into our trip!
Next stop… Chiang Mai!
See ya later, Sophie x