If there ever needed to be a poster child for the glamour of French Indochine, Luang Prabang would be it.
Graceful two-story buildings from the 1920s and 30s line its streets, adorned with dark wooden shutters and luxurious balconies, flanked by gleaming, even sidewalks and lazy palm trees swaying their fronds over the tiled rooflines. Luang Prabang isn't just a nice place in Southeast Asia, it's so chic it could give Cannes a run for its money.
For starters, there are the sidewalks. The broad, flat sidewalks running along the streets, meaning you can peer into any of the upscale boutiques selling handmade jewelry, textiles, décor, or art galleries selling gorgeous prints and paintings, or cafés with freshly baked croissants and quiches, without fear of tripping and falling. (This, in Southeast Asia, is a very rare thing.)
Then there are all the shops I just mentioned, and all the cafés open out to the street, perfect for sitting back with a drink or a glass of wine. (Yes, there is even good wine here, another Southeast Asia rarity.)
When I got to Luang Prabang, I took one look around my nice hotel room and the glamorous little town, and decided I'd make myself at home here for three full days and four comfortable nights. (And yes, after some not-so-nice rooms over the past few weeks, I needed it.)
That first night, I wandered around the town, taking in all the charm and beauty, then settled myself down at a restaurant for some Laos food. Afterwards, I saw a sign for homemade ice cream, and treated myself to a scoop of mocha almond. Then, I strolled through the famous Night Market, where everything from colourful hand-embroidered pillowcases and purses to brightly-printed T-shirts are for sale. It goes on for at least four blocks and is a feast for the eyes -- much of the merchandise is handmade by local artisans.
The following day, I settled myself in at Novelty Café where I had a croissant and an iced latte for a late, lazy breakfast, then set out to take in the Royal Palace Museum and Wat Xieng Thong, an old monastery filled with some beautiful temples decorated with glass mosiacs. I strolled along the river, sipped a mango juice, then relaxed for a bit before heading out again for dinner. I first stopped by one of the outdoor cafés on the tourist street, enjoying a 2-for-1 mojito happy hour special, then walked to a restaurant near my hotel to give famous Lao laap -- a minced buffalo diced -- a try.
I'd heard that the famous Tat Kuang Si waterfall was worth a day trip and several tuktuk drivers had offered me rides for a cheap price, so yesterday (day 2) after another nice long lazy breakfast (obvs), I arranged for a tuktuk in the center of town, which I shared with a few other folks. The drive took about forty-five minutes, and we careened down winding roads at a breakneck speed (at one point we swerved out of the way because a child was running into the road ... eeeek!). But finally, we arrived at the base of the waterfalls and our tuktuk driver gave us 3 hours to enjoy the scenery.
I paid the entrance fee (about 30,000 kip) and headed up the hill, passing the Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, an organization that saves bears from poachers and keeps them protected in the forest. From there I continued walking and came to the first waterfall -- an enormous green pool of water with a handful of people swimming around, right up to the broad stream of water pouring over the rocks.
It's hard to find words to do the waterfalls justice, as each one seemed to be more dramatic than the next -- there are at least 4 or 5 pools total, with the pièce de résistance at the top, a very tall waterfall that seemed to just continue to go up and up and up. It's possible to walk 45 minutes up hill to see the waterfall's spring, but since I'd made the trip in flip flops, decided to give this workout a pass.
Instead, I worked my way through each swimming area from top to bottom, enjoying the cold water in the hot afternoon sunshine. About two and a half hours later, I headed back to the tuktuk and had some food before hopping back in the tuktuk to head back to Luang Prabang. After changing into some fresh clothes, I made the climb up to the top of the hill in the heart of Luang Prabang to check out the sunset from That Chomsi, a temple at the peak of the hill. The sunset wasn't that impressive but the views looking out at the mountains, the Mekong the red tile-roofed homes of Luang Prabang down below nestled among palm trees and the jungle, were spectacular.
Today I decided I'd make use of my nice hotel room and downtime and be totally, completely lazy. I'd say I was more than successful, too. I bought my ticket to head to Phonsavan tomorrow, then had a bagel, cream cheese and salmon at an upscale café. I picked up my laundry (there is not much I love more on this trip than getting my clean, fresh clothes, except maybe even, smooth sidewalks), wrote for a while, headed back out for lunch (a big fresh salad), came back to my room for more writing, then headed out about an hour before sunset to stroll along the river. I walked for a good hour and a half, stopping to take photos, wandering down little side streets, marveling at the charm of the architecture and how it all just looked so picture-perfect, like exotic, charming Southeast Asia of your dreams.