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The Inside Word on… Luang Prabang, Laos

  • Tamarind
  • 1 July 2011

With so many destinations in the WHL Group’s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their neck of the woods. This month, we’re in the loop with the culinary masterminds behind the Tamarind Cooking School in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang, once the royal capital of ‘The Kingdom of a Million Elephants,’ retains the beauty of its regal and French colonial past. Well-preserved buildings and a plethora of glittering Buddhist temples nestle at the confluence of two picturesque rivers and against a backdrop of densely forested mountains. The natural beauty and architectural preservation earned the town a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995. Since then, development has been carefully restricted to the joy of a steady flow of foreign visitors keen to explore the town’s charms.

Luang-Prabang-Elephant-Trekking

What better way to explore the jungles and forests around Luang Prabang, Laos, than from the regal perch atop an elephant? Photo courtesy of Stanislas Fradelizi

Exploring the laneways and riverbanks on foot or by bike, admiring the golden temples and chatting with friendly novice monks eager to improve their conversational English are some of the best ways to enjoy the relaxing vibe of Luang Prabang. Of the many splendid temples, the most famous is Wat Xieng Thong, where stunning, intricate mosaics portray temple myths and scenes of every day domestic life. Other attractions include a royal palace, now the National Museum, and the compact but fascinating Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. A sunrise or sunset climb to the top of the town-centre’s hill, Mount Phousy promises wonderful views of the town and its setting.

Day Trips

With so much to do in Luang Prabang, we’d need more space to recommend everything. First up would have to be a cooking class with us at Tamarind. There is no better way to get insight into the local culture than through a trip to the market and lesson about Lao food.

Anyone looking for a bit more adventure must try some elephant trekking; booking through a responsible local operator is essential, of course, and we recommend the Elephant Park in Ban Xieng Lom.

Finally, if you yearn for beautiful, photogenic scenery, a trip out to Kuang Si Waterfalls is a must.

Shopping

Be sure to leave space in your bag for the great mementos to be found shopping in Luang Prabang. The main street transforms after dusk into a wonderland of bright colours at the Night Market.  Amidst the Beer Lao t-shirts, fisherman pants and imported cheap products, you will find handwoven Lao silk scarves in jewel colours, hilltribe crafts of naïve embroidery and handmade bed linen in traditional ethnic patterns.

Luang-Prabang-Night-Market

The night market is a central feature of Luang Prabang, Laos, and a source for some good bargains, as well as some fine handmade local crafts. Photo courtesy of Stanislas Fradelizi

For more upmarket fair-trade local crafts and products, seek out retail outlets OckPopTok, Caruso Lao and Kopnoi.

Around town, keep an eye out for Mulberry “sa paper,” strewn with leaves and flowers, often fashioned into albums and paper lanterns. Silver is another regional speciality, delicately worked by former royal silversmiths. You can also find an excellent range of jewellery and ritual objects.

Restaurants

Dining options range from street stands to fine eateries and restaurants in Luang Prabang. If you’ve got a strong stomach and adventurous spirit, try the night market takeaway food: grilled fish, meats and spicy local delicacies. Daytime stalls outside the post office provide excellent value-filled baguettes.

For mid-range dining, try Tamarind, our user-friendly introduction to Lao cuisine, and Big Tree on the Mekong for tasty Korean. Coconut Garden is airy and attractive with an extensive menu of Lao and western dishes, while Joma Bakery caters to those seeking the comfort of Western food and le Banneton has a selection of French patisserie treats.

Splurge at Blue Lagoon for international cuisine, L’Elephant Vert for vegetarian raw food or Apsara, renowned for their fish in tamarind sauce.

Local Treats

For a delightful walk, follow the peninsula shoreline along the Mekong riverside road, past the confluence with the Nam Khan River and back into town along that bank. This affords wonderful glimpses of Luang Prabang domestic life. In the dry season you will see locals working their prolific vegetable plots in the rich riverbank soil. The laneways within this Old Quarter, particularly on late afternoons and weekends, reveal intimate scenes of the relaxed social life of residents against a background of fascinating architecture.

Luang-Prabang-Tamarind

As part of Tamarind's Cooking Course, a trip to the local market in Luang Prabang, Laos, often includes a glimpse into the more traditional life of the local population. Photo courtesy of Stanislas Fradelizi

Foodies must not skip a sindad, the local cook-it-yourself meal that is a cross between Korean barbecue and Chinese steamboat. You can identify restaurants specialising in this highly popular cuisine by the stone tables with central cavities for the cooking fire.

Lastly, though no visit to Luang Prabang seems complete without observing the monks’ dawn almsgiving ritual, it has sadly become something of a tourist circus. By all means observe respectfully by keeping out of the way of locals and monks and not buying rice from the insistent street sellers.

Night Out

With an official curfew of 11:30pm, Luang Prabang is hardly a wild all-night party town. However, behind Mount Phousy, you will find a variety of bars and drinking establishments dedicated to good times. Hive, the longest established, has an ethnic fashion show followed by talented local teens dancing hip-hop. Nearby is Lao Lao Garden with an open fire, extensive menu and inexpensive cocktails. Other popular spots are the tropical Utopia, which looks like a setting for Survivor, and the fun new Lao Lao Karma Bar. On the main drag, look for the compact Pack Luck Wine Bar or along the Nam Khan River try the scenically located Blue Ice, both expat favourites.

Desperate to beat the curfew? Head to the fluoro-lit bowling alley. It serves Beer Lao and is open until late. Dancing is also possible at the Dao Fa, a local club packed with youngsters that plays western techno. Or, join locals at a Lao disco: Muang Swa has a live band playing Lao dance favourites. It’s fascinating to watch, easy to learn and always fun to join in.

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Tamarind: A Taste of Laos

Tamarind: A Taste of Laos is a restaurant and cooking school that introduces visitors to the intriguing foods and customs at the heart of Lao cuisine. Located on the banks of the Nam Khan River, it is renowned for delicious sampling platters, helpful informative explanations and convivial banquets. The cooking school, in a stunning lakeside location, is a memorable highlight of a Luang Prabang visit.
Tamarind: A Taste of Laos
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Asia, cities, food & drink, handicrafts & shopping, inside word, Laos, local knowledge, markets, personal experience, South-Eastern Asia, WHL Group newsletter, whl.travel, world heritage,

2 Responses to “The Inside Word on… Luang Prabang, Laos”

  1. John Gibbs says:

    I went to Luang Prabang Feb 2011. Beautiful and interesting place. I stayed 6 nights and just looked around, but this article describes much more to do.
    I much recommend getting there by boat (down the Mekong) from north Thailand. It is a comfy lovely 2 day trip.
    Fly back takes 1 hour (to Chaing Mai) – and you can WALK to the airport !
    Laos immigration needs $25 US dollars and a passport pic to get in.

  2. Lee Sheridan says:

    A great insight into Luang Prabang, and Tamarind restaurant in one of my favourites. Their tasting platter and and their fruity drinks are delicious.

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