In 2014, an old man selling books on the side of the road in Bangkok tried pitching me a tattered guide to Laos by telling me of his time spent working in Luang Prabang. Intrigued by the notion of a city reputed to have greater rustic appeal than much of the Asian countryside, I found myself booking a flight to Laos just a few weeks later.
After a nerve-racking flight in a prop plane, I arrived late morning as countless monks were retreating from collecting daily alms. I checked into my hostel and crashed, waking up just in time to get a taste of city’s nightlife.
Confession time: I’ve been to way more than my fair share of bars throughout Asia. Naturally, each creates its own distinct atmosphere, but Utopia in Luang Prabang has by far the most relaxing and chill vibes of any I’ve been to. Utopia is an open-air bar overlooking the Nam Khan River, filled with shin-high, candlelit tables surrounded by stacks of pillows. During the day they offer yoga and volleyball, while at night you can enjoy great food, drinks, music and shisha pipes, or startup a friendly board game tournament with fellow expats—believe me, Giant Jenga is harder than it looks!
Of course, Utopia closes at the town’s 11:30 PM curfew so you can always call it a night and get an early start in the AM. For those brave expats willing to break curfew there is one place open for another three hours—a 16-lane bowling alley. A parade of tuktuks begin carting off truckloads of travellers from every bar to a venue that in all honesty is a fairly run-down barebones bowling alley…not so much as a poster on the wall. However, when the crowds from different bars and hostels begin mixing it turns into a party every night, showing how it’s often the people and not the place that matters.
Naturally, there’s much more to Luang Prabang than bars and bowling. One of the biggest tourist draws are the Kuang Xi Waterfalls, and for good reason.
The falls themselves are breathtaking, with tier after tier of warm, deep pools perfect for swimming and vast enough as not to be crowded. The largest fall is over 60m high—the climb to the top is indeed difficult and the trails are extremely steep and slick, but once you’ve reached the top you won’t regret it. Standing at the edge of a 200ft drop as the water rushes round your ankles tugging you forward is just as terrifying as it is exhilarating, finding yourself transfixed by the turquoise expanse below you.
If you’re looking for a bit of Laos culture, the Night Market in Luang Prabang is a great place to start. Beginning around 5:00 each evening, the market consists of a huge, horseshoe-shaped setup of tented stalls on a kilometer-long stretch of road. Here, you can peruse literally thousands of handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs, sample whiskey and wine, and watch artists at work. One of their most famous products are paper lanterns filled with pressed flowers, adding a unique ambiance. The crowd and crafters themselves are much more mellow than many of the hectic, bustling markets one usually encounters, with no one hawking their goods or aggressively haggling and competing.
In a city brimming with temples, choosing where to start can be difficult, especially if pressed for time. However, some are not to be missed:
Wat Haw Pha Bang is located on the palace grounds, housing a 14th-century Buddha statue covered in gold leaf. Of course, the palace itself is beautiful—containing everything from the Crown Jewels of Laos to a piece of moon rock, it also functions as a haphazard museum.
Wat Chomphet is a small, tidy building that more resembles an old prairie house than a temple, yet it need not be flashy to be impressive. Most memorable is the experience of arriving via a 123-step staircase near the edge of town, a climb more than worth the view.
Wat Pa Phon Phae is a great stop for those feeling burnt out with the similarities between temples—its distinctive form is reminiscent of adobe-style architecture and it is filled with elaborate murals.
Luang Prabang can easily be overlooked on the backpacker route, yet its diverse historical, urban, and natural landscapes allow it to appeal to the most colorful of crowds.