Editor’s note: it is always a brave thing for a travel writer to use the word “favorite.” So it really means something when Sam does so here. Make sure you check out all of his articles for more incredibly destinations!
The most annoying question you can ask me: “So, what’s, like, your favorite country you have been to?” Ugh. Everywhere is so different that it depends on what you are asking about; food, ruins, kindness of the people, nature, etc. However, ask me what my favorite city that I have ever been to is, and you will see me smile, look wistfully off to a random place in the distance and say the words, “Luang Prabang.” This is the story of the best travel decision that I ever made.
Southeast Asia is a must-do for many young backpackers, and I was no different. Of course, I wanted to go see Thailand. I hopped a plane from LAX, had a full day layover in Hong Kong (a future article!), and then found myself in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Thailand. While there I swung by Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat, but I had a few more days on my 15-day itinerary to fill and debated where should I go. Initially, I leaned towards the popular and trendy Chang Mai in northern Thailand, but I started to hear from a couple people about a town that I had never heard of before: Luang Prabang in Laos. I did some research and was so torn on which place I should visit, but then I read one internet comment that sealed my decision. “Luang Prabang is what Chang Mai was like forty years ago before it got overrun with tourists.” With that, I made my decision and figured it would be fun to get a new stamp in my passport, too!
As I flew into Luang Prabang, my jaw dropped from the view from the plane; I saw rivers cutting through lush green jungle and tall mountains, and then I landed at the modest airport of a place that is truly paradise on earth. One of the great travel bonuses of Luang Prabang is that it is very affordable; I got a room at a 3-star hotel run by a French couple for $16 per night. Meals are also very cheap and delicious; you can get an entire fish from the great market for only a few dollars, and on my last night, I treated myself to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town, buying an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and cocktail, all of which came to $18.
Landing at Luang Prabang
However, Luang Prabang’s two best factors are the sights and the people. Luang Prabang is situated where the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers intersect. Be sure to take a sunset cruise on the Mekong River and watch fishermen cast their nets into the river, and muster up the courage to cross the bamboo bridges to get to the other side of town over the river. For the most spectacular sunset that you will experience in Southeast Asia, climb Mt. Phousi, passing numerous Buddhist shrines and temples on the way, to get to the top and watch the sun dip behind the mountains and turn the Mekong into gold in the process.
A bamboo bridge
Sunset from Mt. Phousi
A short trip outside of town is the beautiful, tiered, turquoise blue Kuang Si Falls, which also includes a lovely hike and a sanctuary of sun bears rescued from farms where their bile was milked for eastern medicine traditions. The falls will take your breath away and will leave a lasting impression.
Kuang Si Falls
The town of Luang Prabang is a holy city for Buddhists, and the city is full of thousands of adolescent monks, some as young as ten, who have come for their training. On my first day in the city, I saw a flyer that said “English speakers needed to teach children” and instructed me to come to a temple at 7pm. I figured “Why not?” and showed up at 7 to find twenty boys with shaved heads and orange robes sitting excitedly and anxious to learn English phrases from me. Afterwards, we enjoyed a game of soccer together in what would become one of the most memorable nights of travel in my life. Yet, in Luang Prabang, you have to go to bed early – this is not the stay-up all night party culture of Thailand. No, you need to be up at 4am as the monks walk through town on their way to meditate and study. The monks, much as the Buddha had done before them, walk through town with empty bowls and rely on the kindness of strangers to put into the bowls handfuls of sticky rice and other treats, which are their daily rations. Though you have to wake up early, it is worth it for a truly unique cultural moment. As the sun rises, rent a bicycle and go through town and explore the various beautiful temples that are hundreds of years old, as well as the late 19th century French colonial architecture that runs along the Mekong River. Hop into one of the shops to get an hour massage for under $10 and enjoy your piece of paradise.
One of many temples
If you get too relaxed and need to make yourself busy, a fun, messy, and tiring option in Luang Prabang is to visit a rice farm and learn about the rice making process. Afterwards, kick your shoes off and hop into the mud and take part in harvesting rice yourself. As a staple food for much of the world, this half day activity will give you a new appreciation for your food.
This is a rice paddy!
Luang Prabang is truly a paradise away from the chaos of other places in the region; there is no better place to experience this calm than the appropriately named Utopia Café. This café sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Nam Khan River and is a great place to spend hours reading a book, surrounded by trees, with a phenomenal view and drinking fresh pressed fruit juices. But while there, the visitor is forced to confront the sad history of Laos. This tiny, peaceful slice of heaven is actually the world’s most bombed nation in history. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States government, to prevent the spread of communism, dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos in a secret campaign, nearly the equivalent of the 2.1 million tons of bombs dropped on all of Europe and Asia during World War II by the Americans. The use of cluster bombs has maimed and killed many in Laos, and continues to do so today when civilians step on undetonated devices. At the Utopia Café, the owners have taken shrapnel and shells from bombs and converted them into works of art that are throughout the garden. The contrast between the violent history and the peaceful setting is sad, touching, and thought provoking.
Sadly, this gem is being discovered by more and more tourists, and there are plans for railways to be built from neighboring China into Luang Prabang and other cities in Laos, which will bring in massive amounts of tourists, so try to go before that happens! Once you visit, you will see why Luang Prabang is my favorite city that I have ever backpacked through, and I have a feeling it will be one of yours too!
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