24 Hours in Luang Prabang
Even before you land, you know you are arriving somewhere special. The undulating, forest covered hills, and the bright green of the rice fields that surround this ancient former capital give way to the temples and stupas of the city, where monks wander and tourists gather and everything is peaceful and relaxed.
There’s a magic about this Buddhist city in northern Laos that is clear from the start. To really understand the people of Luang Prabang, and the importance of their religion, start your day by witnessing the alms giving. Locals and visitors offer alms to the hundreds of monks who inhabit the temples of Luang Prabang peninsula . This is a religious practice where alms are offered to the barefooted monks who wander the town as night turns into day. If you do wish to join this ceremony, it is important to do so respectfully. You should look reasonably smart and have clothes that cover your knees, shoulders, and everything between. You need to be lower than the monks, ideally kneeling, and you mustn’t touch the monks or their robes. This is particularly important for women. Above all, be respectful and polite. If you wish to take photos, do so in a way that is unobtrusive and courteous.
As the monks return to their temples to eat their first meal, take advantage of the coolness of the morning to climb Phousi Hill. Throughout Laos you will find an odd number of steps leading anywhere important. This is because the good spirits live on the odd numbers and Phousi Hill is no exception. At the top of the 323 steps is a small stupa and temple with stunning sunrise views. It is a great place for sunset too, but much more crowded later in the day.
Head back to your hotel or sit alongside the river for breakfast and watch as the fishermen cast their nets into the Mekong River. The Belle Rive Hotel has a great terrace for this.
The (former) Royal Palace
Luang Prabang is named after the Prabang Statue that, according to folklore, Chao Fa Ngum brought with him when he established the Kingdom of Lane Xang. This statue has a suitably grand building to house it, so head over to the former Royal Palace, which is now a museum. In the grounds is Hor Prabang where you can view the Prabang, before heading into the residence. In particular, check out the throne room, decorated with mosaic murals formed from Japanese mirrored glass, where the king and queen’s crowns together with various accoutrements of office are on display, before heading over to check out the vehicles which include a jeep and the speedboat he used to visit his orchards.
A short stroll from the Palace is the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) where not only can you see the clothes, the jewellery and even a replica home from various ethnic groups, but you can also listen to some of the songs on the headphones dotted around the exhibition. If you want to learn more about the fascinating ethnography of Laos, then this is the place to do it.
Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens
For an amazing lunch, take a boat trip 15 minutes downstream to the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden which is one of the lunches featured in Forbes Magazine’s Top 10 Table-to-Farm dining experiences. Served in a sala in the midst of a 15 hectare garden, it is surrounded by themed gardens including those growing plants especially for women’s health, for digestion, Buddhism plants, a ginger garden with over 350 species of ginger, and, in this land once known as the Land of one million elephants, there is also an elephant health garden.
The 10 course ethno-botanical menu featuring botanical herbs is an amazing dining experience and afterwards you might want to trek up to the cave in the mountain, although in the rainy season a hermit monk often takes residence here so it’s out of bounds. Pha Tad Ke is temporarily closed to individual visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic but are available for group bookings with prior arrangement, so please get in touch via their Facebook page.
Whilst on this side of the river, you might want to pop along to the pottery village and learn the techniques that have been passed down through the generations with a tour with Lao Pottery House, or maybe take a forest walk alongside the temples and visit Tham Sakkarin Cave whose holy waters are said to be able to wash away the bad from your life and bring good luck in the future.
Ock Pop Tok
Head back over the river and splash out on some souvenirs at Ock Pop Tok which is a living crafts experience and offers multiple weaving classes and a beautiful Mekong Villa, or maybe treat yourself to an ice-cream at 3 Nagas, from the spot which was once the Royal Family’s official ice-cream parlour.
Then, as the sun drops in the sky, relax over a Beerlao or three on a sunset cruise along the Mekong with the Khopfa Mekong Cruise and take in the sights as evening falls. And finish your day with a meal and artisan cocktails at The Spirit House, Luang Prabang. Here they work with artisan producers and social enterprises to provide food and drinks that are fresh, delicious, and provide a direct income to local farmers and producers in a space that has been tastefully decorated with traditional artifacts from Lao history.
Heading to Vientiane? Check out our recommendations for 24 Hours in Vientiane!