Laos, a French colonial, is squeezed between vastly larger neighbours – Myanmar, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. It has retained a lot of its traditions and rural life.
We’ve always wanted to visit Laos since we couldn’t make it when we visited Vietnam and Cambodia a few years ago. Luang Prabang came to our mind as we’ve heard good things about this place from those who have travelled there. There is no direct flight (just yet, at the time of writing) from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang. So, we chose to transit in Hanoi. It then took us 1 hour to fly to Luang Prabang. However, I’ve heard new route will soon be covered by one of the airlines from Hong Kong.
It was almost 8pm when we reached Luang Prabang. We were picked up from the airport. It took about 10-15 minutes to arrive at Sofitel Luang Prabang, which is built on a UNESCO-protected heritage site, a quiet residential quarter of Ban Mano. Previously the governor’s residence that has been transformed into this luxury all-suite hotel, where the mélange of Lao tradition and French elegance appear so naturally.
Check-in process was quick and smooth. The friendliness of the staff could be felt instantly.
I was really impressed when we go to our suite. The Heritage Suite was incredibly spacious (754 sq. ft), with high ceiling and carefully and tastefully decorated with Lao silks and artifacts. The bedroom and living area is separated by a wall, which serves as the dressing area. A garden with gazebo and bathtub add a great outdoor space. The hotel’s 25-metre mosaic-tiled pool is just a few steps away from our room. The surrounding is just calm and peaceful. It’s what we needed, a slow-pace and relaxing holiday.
Next morning, we had our breakfast at Governor’s Grill. A variety of pastries on display to choose from. There was no buffet. Hot breakfast could be ordered from the menu, freshly prepared from the kitchen. Being able to dine outdoor at the lush courtyard with swaying palms and bushes of wildflowers made us feel so closed to the nature. I had a traditional Lao dish, which was a steamed rice roll filled with minced pork, served with Vietnamese style “Nuoc Mam” dipping sauce, delicious!
Bicycles are provided by the hotel for its residents. It was great to learn they had a rear-mounted baby carrier, which was great for us to carry our little one on the bicycle. We cycled from the hotel to the old town, which took us around 10 minutes. We cycled around the old town and explored ancient temples and immersed ourselves in Lao spiritual life. Life is very slow pace.
Night market in the old town started from 17:00 until 23:00 at the beginning of the road at Wat Mai and run along Sisavangvong Road to Settathilat Road. The street is closed off to vehicles and the hill-tribe traders offer just about anything from various apparels, ceramics, bamboo, lamps, blankets, bed covers, handicrafts and silk scarves. Vendors often quote higher prices, so make sure you haggle politely or shop around first.
I’ve been asked if I wanted to join almsgiving the next morning which I had agreed to it. Almsgiving takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. The practice of getting up before daybreak to donate food to the orange-robed Buddhists of Luang Prabang is as ancient as some of the city’s temples; those who participate hope that by doing so they will earn a few credits that will help them come back as a higher life form. I woke up at 5am and waited at the reception to be driven to 3 Nagas.
By the time I got there, I saw many tourists already swarmed the scene. It didn’t imagine it to be so busy. I thought it was just gonna be a calm, peaceful and spiritual activity to experience an ancient Lao tradition but I was quite wrong. Warm sticky rice was prepared and laid in front of where I was kneeling. I handled out small portion of sticky rice to each of the who monk walked pass. It was a great experience! As soon as the procession came to an end, the town turned back to its peaceful and laid-back rhythm.
At Sofitel, they have kindly enrolled me for Lao cooking class at their kitchen. Chef John brought a few of us who joined the class for a short visit at a local market that is not too far away. It was such an eye opener to see what the local market has to offer. Different varieties of vegetables and herbs were on displayed. Chef John had kindly explained different types of ingredients to us.
We were brought back to the hotel and rested for a few hours before the class started. Chef John had taught a few dishes. Two of my favourite are fresh spring rolls (Naem Dip) and steamed mushrooms in banana leaf (Mok Het). Truly amazing and enjoyable experience!
Kuang Si Waterfall, which is about 1 hour to get to by Tuk Tuk. It is said to be a beautiful many-tiered waterfalls tumbling over limestone formations into a series of cool, swimmable turquoise pools. The water is blue-green, looking amazing on the internet. Well, we were not that lucky as it rained very heavily the night before so we were told that the water would look “brown”. So, that was the unfortunate bit and it turned out to be true. However, we were still happy to see this amazing waterfall though the flow was quite strong after the rain, looking quite impressive!
Mount Phousi is worth a climb – there is a total 193 steps to walk up and a small temple at top. From here, you can get an amazing view of Luang Prabang. For sunset, we chose to have a boat ride on the Mekong river, it was pretty relaxing and give a sense of how the locals live along the river.
Luang Prabang is loved for a reason. You can choose to do a lot or just take it easy at this very laid back and one of the friendliest place on earth! For me as a foodie, it doesn’t disappoint me! Below are a few places we went in Luang Prabang and highly recommended.
Where to eat in Laos?
L’Elephant – this restaurant is said to serve the most sophisticated cuisine in the city in a renovated villa. They offer traditional, as well as more creative, French and Lao cuisine made of local natural produce. I wasn’t very hungry so I ordered a Lao salad. It was a minced chicken salad served with a lot of fresh herbs. It kind of reminds me the Thai version of Larb Gai.
3 Nagas Restaurant – a fine dining establishment specialising in exquisuite Lao cuisine, made with fresh ingredients sourced from local farms. The indoor bistro setting is a cosy place to pass a warm afternoon, while the opposing al fresco courtyard is impeccable for soaking up Luang Prabang’s surreal evening atmosphere. The Lao tasting menu was a great way to taste some popular Lao dishes. I particularly love the fish soup with lemongrass & galangal (Tom Som Paa) – this dish has Thai influence and the flavours were just awesome with great balance of sour and salty. Steamed mushroon in banana leaf (Mhok Het) and Laotian chicken curry (Phaneang Khai) were delicious too! A coconut soupy dessert finished off our journey Lao cuisine, couldn’t have been better!
Xieng Thong Noodle Shop – one of the best and cheapest noodles I had in Luang Prabang was totally by chance. We cycled pass a little noodle shop that looked really simple from outside. It is next to Wat Xiang. The shop sells one dish – it serves the best kòw Ъęeak sèn (rice noodles served in a broth with pieces of chicken or pork). It’s open from 7 am until they run out of soup, usually by around 2 pm. It was pretty good for about US$1-ish.
Secret Pizza – We were craving for some nice pizza in the evening. Having spoken to a westerner who runs a bar in the old town and has been living in Luang Prabang for quite a while told us a secret place that is slightly out of the town centre. It’s called Secret Pizza. So not a secret anymore! Quite a lot of tourists or perhaps the expats in Luang Prabang flock that place pretty frequently. It is run by an Italian expat, Andrea and his wife. Andrea makes the best in Luang Prabang, and one of the best I’ve tried! I mean, we didn’t expect to eat such great thin crusted pizza in Luang Prabang, we were totally blown away by how good it was!