Last Updated: November 9, 2019
Ask any random Singaporean around, if they’ve been to Laos or would like to visit Laos. I bet their response is likely ‘no’ (to both or either). The beauty of this is that I could visit a place that isn’t influenced by others’ opinions and experiences, and with that, I allowed myself to see the country with zero judgement.
My initial plan was to simply have a relaxing vacation, but I returned with an immense amount of appreciation for Laos and as such, wish to share with you my eight reasons why the city of Luang Prabang is a Southeast Asian destination you should book a flight to soon!
Luang Prabang is unknowingly an introvert’s dream. Because locals are encouraged to wake up at sunrise to pray and provide offerings to monks (in an Alm’s Giving ceremony), there is a nation-wide curfew at midnight.
Sure, there are cities that blatantly ignore this rule (I’m looking at you, Vang Vieng), but generally, Laotian folks are early to bed, and early to rise. Their demeanour is also one of a modest nature, and it’s reflective in how calm their night markets are. There’s no excessive haggling to be seen nor screaming matches between vendors in an attempt to lure tourists.
Generally, the town is laid-back, chill and rarely known for heavy traffic, even during peak tourist season (which is during their drier months of October to February).
Speaking of night markets, their night market occupies the main section of Sisavangvong Road, which is closed to traffic from 5pm to 11pm daily. The sellers are locals from various ethnic groups, and hawk everything from handicrafts to clothing to souvenirs.
As mentioned earlier, Laotian residents are encouraged to rise at dawn for prayer, which is also why you may find some stalls closing early at 8.30pm or 9pm. Hence, it’s best to head down as early as you can, and align your mealtimes with theirs—10.30am is lunchtime here, while dinner is around 5.30pm.
The one thing that I’m having major withdrawals from is Laotian cuisine. Taking plenty of influence from Northern Thailand, their food is very homely and consists of plenty of clean eating. When I say clean eating, I don’t mean diet food.
I’m referring to how clean they prepare their food, from salads to stews and even minced meat wraps. I have discovered a new love for buffalo laap (a minced meat salad) and lam (Lao stew) includes either dried buffalo meat, beef, or chicken. Their dishes consistently burst with flavour, showing their use of a variety of herbs and spices.
Two notable restaurants I highly recommend are Tamarind and Manda de Laos. Both serve authentic Lao cuisine, but presented in very different ways. Tamarind will remind you of grandma’s cooking—honest, no-frills, and comforting—while the latter presents refined Lao dishes that will grip you by your tastebuds and leave you begging for more.
True story: I cried when eating a fish salad and chicken red curry at Manda de Laos, because it was simply that good.
Since cultivating rice crops is an integral part of the Laotian economy, buffalos are in abundance here. They have a dedicated buffalo dairy that produces milk and buffalo cheese on-site. It also serves as an educational centre for visitors who wish to have more insight into the buffalo-rearing industry.
They also run a programme with local farmers. A farmer with young calves can opt to loan his calf to the dairy farm for two years in exchange for USD$100 per month. During those two years, the farm will raise them and provide healthcare, while showcasing to visitors how the buffalos are cared for.
It’s part of an agreement in hopes of prolonging buffalo calves’ lives—many of them die young due to limited access to healthcare—and cross-breeding them to create stronger, more resilient buffalos in the long run.
I had a chance to sample some of the dairy products from the farm, as well as try my luck milking a female buffalo. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, that much I can say!
Elephant riding has been a hot topic in recent tourism news. There have been graphic images splashed all over the Internet highlighting the traumatising mistreatment of the gentle giants, so it was utterly refreshing to know that Luang Prabang is home to its nation’s first and only non-riding elephant conservation.
The elephants they rescue range from those previously enslaved in logging camps to babies taken away from their mothers to elephants who formerly served as entertainers in other riding camps.
The pair that I had the honour of preparing snacks for—a variety of combinations using sticky rice, tamarind, and bananas—were two females, aged 40 and 45, who had become the very best of friends at Mandalao. One of them had a missing tail and a huge scar on her back, no thanks to her life previously spent shifting massive hunks of logged trees.
There are four different tours open to visitors, and all involve a strict no-ride policy, with very small-sized groups allocated for each session. This is to keep every visitors’ experience intimate, personal and to avoid stressing the elephants. You’ll walk alongside them, get to pet them, feed them and take plenty of memorable photos to keep!
Not to mention, you’ll hear about how they’ve transformed from their heartbreaking past to their flourishing and most importantly, safe habitat.
Mandalao Elephant Conservation: Sisavangvong Road, Building 82, Unit B, tele. 305664014 ຫຼວງພະບາງ, 06000, Laos | Tel: +856 3056 64014 | Opening Hours: Dependent on tours | Facebook | Instagram | Website
I’m sure that once you’ve performed a Google search for ‘Luang Prabang’, one of the most prominent images you’ll come across is that of Kuang Si Falls. Its signature aquamarine pools are worth the short hike, plus on your way in, you’ll get to catch a glimpse of the adorable, clumsy rescued bears at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre.
The falls are a three-levelled waterfall about 29 kilometres south of Luang Prabang, and makes a great spot for families as the terrain isn’t a tumultuous one to overcome. The best part is the falls can be visited almost year-round, but do take note that during their rainy season, it can get muddier and more slippery.
The Bear Discovery Trail will not only allow you a glimpse into the rescued bears’ lives, but it also serves to educate visitors’ about the various black market trades that different species of bears are subjected to, from being harvested for their bile to body parts.
Be sure to set aside at least half the morning—because the earlier you get here the better—for a scenic and relaxing trip to see the bears and one of Luang Prabang’s most prized natural wonders!
A cruise down the Mekong River is a must when you’re in Luang Prabang. Whether you sit on a small boat for a half-day tour to visit the neighbouring villages or partake in a laid-back sundown cruise while holding a mai tai, the Mekong River warrants a visit.
One of the operators that use a grander and more imposing boat is Khopfa Mekong Cruise. They organise a day tour to Kuang Si Falls, and also hold an evening cruise that happens daily, starting from either 4.15pm or 5.30pm (depending on the season).
The explosive orange hue that warms your visage is a calming way to wind down for the trip, and at only USD$15 per pax (USD$6.50 per child, six to 12 years old), it’s a different way to work up an appetite for dinner!
The boat is bedecked in swatches of walnut-brown and cherry-red with a lower and upper deck, so there’s plenty of room for you to roam as you take unforgettable snaps of the lowering sun.
What good would it be to share with you all the great things about Luang Prabang, if I didn’t also divulge one of the best places to stay while you visit? I’m by no means a luxury traveller, but when I chanced upon a sweet deal on Pullman Luang Prabang, I couldn’t turn it down.
It’s only slightly more than a year old, and spans across 60 hectares of lush green land. The estate boasts two bars and a restaurant, an exclusive private lounge, three pools, a fitness centre, and luxury spa. It feels like staying in a ‘serviced village’ where rooms are far apart enough from the lobby to request a buggy, and I awoke every morning to ducks and rabbits who lived on-site in their quaint sheds.
The infinity pools are great for doing nothing, as it looks out to manicured rice fields, and I started to wonder, at which point does the land meet the valley of the imposing mountains that stood in my view? The answer didn’t matter, because staying at the Pullman Luang Prabang was the best kind of comfort to return to, especially when the scorching hot days showed no respite.
The beds are of standard King size, and my travel partner and I were fortunate to have been given an upgrade to their Premium Deluxe Room. The bathroom was massive enough to stage a choreography and with his-and-hers sinks, we didn’t have to fight over basin space. The balcony view was stunning, and I was more amazed that I could literally hear no one and no traffic, even when it was supposed to be peak tourist season.
The bonus was the free shuttle into Luang Prabang town (and back), although a drawback would be that you have to book your seat in advance as it’s only a minivan, and it’s based on first-come-first-serve. There’s not much to gripe about regarding my stay; I was more upset having to leave the hotel than the country when I checked out.
The biggest pull factor to visit Laos, more specifically Luang Prabang, was my desire to visit a country I’d never been before. I wanted to experience a new place with zero preconceptions and immerse myself in the food and sights completely.
I left Luang Prabang—or a place I now affectionately refer to as ‘LP’—with my curiosity piqued and me wanting to discover more of the lesser-known parts of Southeast Asia in my future adventures. With all that said, it also left me now wanting to upgrade my diminutive Queen-sized bed to a grand King.