After our two day long slow boat ordeal entering Laos, we finally made it to Luang Prabang. As far as cities along the Mekong River go this has to be one of the most beautiful and historic, with much of the original architecture still intact despite the heavy bombing in northern Laos by the USA during the second Indochina War. It was also a former capital and the location of the Laos monarchy even during French occupation. Since the 1990s it has become a Unesco World Heritage site and has seen a resurgence in tourism. In fact, it was one of the cities president Obama toured while in Laos.
As a result of being quite possibly the most visited city in Laos, it is rather difficult to find budget accommodation here. Rachel and I had to scout several places before finding one but reservations were not necessary. Most of the budget guesthouses can be found on the side streets and alleys. There are quite a few cheapies that aren’t even in any guidebook, map, or Google search. We found our double for 70,000 kip with a private bathroom, fan, and TV (which we never turned on).
If finding a decent budget guesthouse was difficult then finding food was easy. There are loads of baguette and smoothie stalls, coffee shops, 15,000 kip all you can eat noodle bars, and plenty of nice restaurants along the Mekong River front, which also makes for a great spot to watch the sunset. All of the baguette stalls conveniently will make them “take away”so you can get them before the day’s adventure. We noticed a lot of other backpackers opting for this and then the noodle bowls at the night market. 15,000 kip for a giant bowl of noodles was probably the best deal we came across but of course, if you wanted meat that would be extra.
There are a lot of culturally and historically significant building throughout Luang Prabang but the most important would be the Royal Palace Museum (30,000 kip). It was built in 1904 and occupied by the royal family until 1975. There are items used by the family on display, murals painted by French artists, beautiful mosaics in the throne room, and the preserved bedrooms of the royal family with gifts they’ve received from foreign governments around the world (the USA gave the king a moon rock). It’s also possible to see the royal car collection including 1960’s Lincoln Continentals.
Phu Si, which is located across the street from the royal palace, is another cultural site worth visiting. The 20,000 kip ticket allowed us to climb to the top of the hill and see the stupa, temple, cave (don’t get your hopes too high), and foot print that the Buddha left behind. If what we saw was really the Buddha’s foot print he would have had some giant, horrible looking, sasquatch feet. Legend also says the hill was magically transported to Luang Prabang from Sri Lanka but I don’t buy it. It is a good spot for catching the sunset with the masses and offers some amazing views of the city.
If you are tired of looking at wats and need to get out of the city, Tat Kuang Si waterfall (20,000 kip) is the place to go. We rented a motorbike for the day to get there but it is possible to book a tour there by bus or tuk tuk. On the way up to the falls is a bear zoo, which acquired these asiatic black bears after being confiscated from poachers. The bears look a little sad but if they were to be returned to the wild there’s a good chance they’d be poached again. It’s too bad they didn’t set the bears free and cage the poachers instead. There’s also some nice swimming holes on the way to the falls with bright blue pools. At the base of the falls is a bridge and then two trails leading to the top. It’s an amazing view, just don’t lean over the edge too far.
One of the more moving sights in Luang Prabang would be the UXO (unexploded ordinance) Museum. On display are defused bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. It is referred to here as the Secret War because the USA denied the fact they were bombing Laos in an effort to break up the Ho Chi Min Trail. As a result of these bombing runs the USA made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. The most unfortunate part about this is that 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t explode, leaving a large portion of the country incredibly dangerous even today. About 300 people a year are maimed or killed by these unexploded cluster bombs, most of them children. In addition to the defused bombs on display are weapons used by US soldiers and the political factions they supported, landmines used, and examples of the techniques the Laos government is now implementing to clear the land. There are also short video documentaries about the maimed people and how their lives and families have been affected. The museum invokes a sense of humility and gives a harsh insight to the parts of American foreign policy that most schools in the USA rarely touch. Only the most contemptuous American could walk out of that place with their head held high and proud.
In addition to some of the higher profile sights in Luang Prabang, we also opted to see some of the lesser known and visited sights such as the grave of Henri Mouhot, the French explorer who was credited as being the first European to see the ruins of Angkor Wat. He died of malaria while in Luang Prabang and was buried along the banks of the Mekong River. His tomb was rediscovered in the 1990s and made for a fun side trip on the motorbike. Next to the tomb is a statue of Auguste Pavie who had the nickname of “The Barefoot Explorer”. Like Mouhot, Pavie was another explorer who photographed the Mekong from Cambodia up through China. Though our time in Luang Prabang was probably less adventurous it was nevertheless educational.