We booked to stay 2 days in Luang Prabang and ended up staying for 5 days and still feeling we could have stayed longer! Basically, we LOVED it. Laos is chilled, and life is slow, but in Luang Prabang the old Royal Capital of Laos, it also has a touch of class and intrigue. There are boutique hotels galore, EXCELLENT restaurants and bars, the streets are clean, the buildings French Colonial and the opportunities to partake in so many different activity options is immense.
Spend an entire day exploring the old town itself: Temples, the Royal Palace and Monasteries await. We’d seen temples all around South East Asia, but some of the ones in Luang Prabang were exquisitely decorated and well maintained. There are many beautiful flowers in the courtyards and monks were friendly and welcoming.
Climb Phousi Hill for sunset. We think it’s a must do in Luang Prabang but be prepared to spend the time at the summit (after around 300 steps) jostling for a space to stand and having smart phones and expensive bits of fancy camera kit blocking out the sunset view for most of the time. We got some drinks and arrived earlier than the main rush and found a spot to sit with our books. We tried not to get too stressed by the fact that people stood on our feet or literally planted themselves in front of us so that at one point my face was almost in someones bottom!
Do a cooking course. After visiting the three most popular cooking schools on offer, we chose Bamboo Tree Restaurant and Cooking Course. It was roughly £20 per person, when we booked (fairly late in the day the day before), we made the group size six- people so we were confident it wouldn’t get any busier and therefore sounded like a fantastic group size.
In the morning we arrived at Bamboo tree restaurant around 830am and had a complimentary coffee, met our group and had to decide as a group which five dishes we wanted to make before being driven by mini van to the local market. Mark and I were a little frustrated that the rest of the group didn’t like spice, but the chef said we could add our chilli afterwards and it wouldn’t affect the flavour of the dishes. As a group we chose: tofu spring rolls, pork and crispy rice salad, chicken sweet and sour, lemongrass chicken and chicken laap. We spent around 1.5 hours here being taught about ingredients, smelling, sampling and making notes
Back at the restaurant, we prepared the ingredients for the dishes all together around a large table, finely chopping vegetables and re- chopping them when they didn’t meet the chefs exacting standards! We were provided with drinking water, a refreshing juice, and aprons and chefs’ hats! We all looked tremendous of course. Then outside to cook, someone did each dish, for example the making of the aromatic coconut sauce for the lemongrass chicken, deep frying spring rolls and hand mixing salads. When we were finished we all sat down together, with a complimentary alcoholic cocktail. The chef included a dessert too of bean curd and pumpkin rice which was delicious, more coffee, then shots of Lao whiskey for anyone brave enough (all of us!!!). We also left with a printed cookbook of not only the recipes we had made but all the other recipes we could have chosen from (around 15 dishes in total), which will be great to try at home. Excellent value for money, amazing food, convivial atmosphere and we also met some great people we then spent more time with in Luang Prabang.
Big Brother Mouse and/or Big Sister Mouse. I had read about this place before we visited and wanted to go. BB mouse is a facility where volunteers meet with Laotian people eager to learn English and converse with them, sometimes read and write together. We went along one afternoon to do just this then also saw BS mouse advertised so did this too. Big Sister Mouse was a completely different experience – it’s a school around 20- minutes- drive into the countryside, set up by an American man in partnership with Laos people, who want to encourage reading and writing and general education in a country where the education system is, very poor. We spent the morning joining in games and being placed with two children per person to practice English – with the use of picture cards “TOMATO” and children’s’ books. Lunch was included. In the afternoon we sang songs with the children, taught them the ‘Macarena’(!) and engaged with very small pre-school children. The organisers asked for a donation or suggested gift of $12 USD; we gave $12USD between us rather than per person as we were on a budget, and noticed other people were giving less than the $12USD suggested. I think this was a fair amount, as other than a basic lunch and a mini bus ride, we were helping the teachers at the school and the children, as well as learning a great deal ourselves from Sasha – the American man whose idea the project was, as he accompanied us on our visit. I enjoyed the experience. With no teaching background- or even being in an environment with multiple children before; I was quite daunted when we arrived and were ‘thrown in at the deep end’ with just two or three examples of questions we should ask the children, but we soon got the gist of it. I didn’t warm to Sasha – when I asked him questions I found his body language and responses to be abrupt and defensive; maybe the project has been criticised in the past by visitors and its become a habitual way of answering? Who knows. We are told he doesn’t often accompany visitors to the school though and it is left to the capable teachers, who are Laotian, to integrate volunteers for the day.
Saffron Coffee – Morning tour of coffee processing plant– bean to cup and tastings including tasty baked good from their coffee shop. We were recommended this tour by a couple we met at the cooking course and were so glad we also joined in. Saffron offer these tours currently on Tuesday and Wednesday. Saffron are a Coffee shop that use only locally grown coffee and sustainably support coffee farmers, paying them more than Fairtrade rates and teaching them how to farm coffee well, providing them with baby coffee trees to cultivate and grow. There’s the opportunity in the coffee shop to ‘buy a tree for 1 USD’ as well, if you don’t have time for a tour and feel like doing something good! https://saffroncoffee.com/
We met at the coffee shop at 8am and after a complimentary coffee of our choice were taken to the training plant/coffee nursery/processing farm, where baby coffee trees are cultivated, coffee beans are extracted from the coffee cherries and then dried and sorted into size and quality of bean. Even the cherries (the outer shell of coffee) aren’t wasted as Cascara tea is made using them! Then to the roasting plant where we witnessed beans being roasted to order then to the tasting room where we learnt how to taste and assess flavours on our palate. We tasted three grades of coffee, all roasted slightly differently, as well as trying Cascara Tea. I preferred the medium roast and Mark preferred the high grade dark roast. The tea was also pleasant.
The tasting was accompanied by some excellent baked goods such as tamarind and apple tart (the flakiest most delicious pastry I’ve ever tasted outside my Grandmas’ house!), cheesecake topped brownie and carrot cake. The tour was around £15 per person and, if you like coffee, I would thoroughly recommend. I drink coffee most days but I’m no expert and I don’t profess to tell the difference between different beans and qualities, (I just know if I like it and if I’m having a one sugar day, or a skinny cap or a soy cap day or not!!), compared to Mark who loves coffee and will ‘get hints of chocolate of berries’ etc when drinking it… and I still found it really educational and interesting. So, give it a go! (Even if just for the tamarind and apple tart!).
You know we like our food and drink and there were some stand out places in Luang Prabang:
1) BOUANG – our favourite place; we ate there 3 times – try the thai green curry gnocchi – it sounds like it shouldn’t work but it does! The mango fresh spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce were also outstanding.
2) Dyen Sabei – across the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river; great little atmospheric restaurant that serves Laos cuisine. We were too hungry to photograph our food here, but we had a divine smoked eggplant dip with sticky rice. All the tables have a hole in the centre for the Laos grill – Sindad – where the waiter brings hot coals and a metal grill dish that fits in the centre of the table; you cook your protein and veggies on the hot part then pour water in the bottom and place rice noodles there to cook, making a perfect sharing experience – great for families and getting children involved in cooking and eating too!
3) Utopia bar and restaurant; great in the day to chill on the day beds/ mattresses and read with a smoothie, and in the evening reggae and fairly lights make it a hedonistic little spot with a varied clientele. We had pizza here (I know naughty, but we were craving!) – we chose bacon, apple, blue cheese and caramelised onion pizza and it was personally the best pizza I have ever eaten!! Better than any in the UK! Mark enjoyed but not as much as me (Mark – The Carne at Lavo NYC)!
4) Three Nagas – this flashy spot is mostly famous for its vintage Citreon parked outside its French Colonial exterior, and dinner is by reservation, but its happy hour was pretty epic! We had two for one Tom Yam cocktails – vodka, coconut liqueur, sugar, lemongrass, chilli and ginger made this an aromatic and toxic delight! **hic**
Kuang Si Waterfalls! Of course! The most visited spot by tourists who come to Luang Prabang. These aquamarine blue tiered waterfalls and the smaller tiers flowing away downstream with swimming pools, are just a visual delight! And unsurprising VERY VERY BUSY. Pictures we had seen on social media were of hordes of people in front of pretty falls, obscured from view by selfie sticks and tour groups. Our new friends from our cooking course had also heard this, so together we met up at 7am, flagged a tuk tuk, haggled for a price (around £18 between the 4 of us – so therefore worthwhile trying to get a group together is on a budget) and set off on the roughly one hour, 30km, bumpy journey…
WE WERE THE ONLY PEOPLE THERE. As we left around 10am, trickles of visitors started making their way into the site, but for around one hour or more we were totally alone, the four of us. We took some great pictures, we SWAM ALONE in the most beautiful natural pools which are normally swarming with visitors and enjoyed the tranquillity and bird song at the same time. It also meant we got to see the Moon bears, at the free of charge sanctuary at the entrance to the falls (you have to walk through it to access the falls) first thing in the morning and they were really active and interested in us being their first visitors of the day (… or maybe they’d just not yet been given their breakfast!). Moon bears and Sun bears are captured and kept in horrific conditions in tiny cages where they are repeatably subjected to having long needles inserted into their abdomens whilst conscious to extract their bile, which is believed to have healing powers in Chinese medicine. THIS NEEDS TO STOP!!!! The sanctuary and associated charity seem to be doing a decent job in re-educating local people and its location at the entrance to the falls is great as it means every visitor must see the display of cages and information as well as the gorgeous rescued bears. Go toss some change in their donation bucket as you walk through!
Night market. In the evening, the road is closed to traffic and there is a brilliant night market, selling a variety of handicrafts and arts such as paintings, woven bags and clothing, hand crafted wooden bowls, table cloths and trinkets for the home, as well as lanterns and food. Well worth a look. Even though we were terribly sad we couldn’t buy anything as it would mean carrying it around for 4 months!
All in all Luang Prabang is a great place to visit on holiday or as a great way to slow the pace and sit back, relax and soak up the atmosphere of this fab town. Laos is such a chilled country, slow paced and beautiful. We love it, and we think you might too!