Travel/Experiences  •  Dispatch

DISPATCH: LUANG PRABANG

Continuing his exploration of SE Asia, model-turned-designer Philip Huang shares with 2Mag his secrets and must-do's for UNESCO Heritage town, Luang Prabang.

Text and Photography by:
January 04, 2018
Life on the Mekong has an underlying feeling of untamed adventure and exploration.  I often imagined myself as Huck Finn seeking out fantastical beasts and exotic insects drifting slowly down the river on a bamboo raft while snacking on juicy mangos. Our morning commute to the center of town consists of a short boat ride across the Nam Khan River or a walk across the bamboo footbridge from The Apsara Rive Droite.  It’s equally as charming to explore on foot or the preferred way of travel by bicycle.
SLEEP

The Apsara Rive Droite on the right bank of the Nam Khan River was comfortable and charming, the staff were wonderful and every time we came back after a long day it felt like we were coming home.

Staying on the right side of the river meant a peaceful escape and a journey home from the center of the city.  Its proximity to the center of Old Town was a 3 minute boat ride across the river on the Apsarian - inclusive with the hotel and runs till 12 midnight.  Conveniently the sister hotel The Apsara was directly across the river.
View from the back patio of our room at The Apsara Rive Droite
The rooms were so spacious, we stayed on the ground floor and had a view of the pool and trees with the river in the background. Waking up to chickens roaming across the lawn and light shining through the trees was special. To then walk over to breakfast with the best croissants out side of Paris with pastries from Luang Prabang’s most famous patisserie Le Banneton and tartines (toasted baguettes) from L’Elephant with homemade tropical jam. Then the coffee, from Luang Prabang staple coffee roasters, Saffron (who offer a coffee tour of their plantation), all in the comfort of our hotel.

The Assistant Manager, Mr. Hann was so helpful and made our stay very special.  He gave us great local tips that helped us streamline our plans and arranged everything for us with such sincerity and care.
EAT

The food in Laos uses much of it's local ingredients and is fresh, we ate really well. There is an incredible variety of food, it is almost like convergence of SE Asian food in one place with the unique flavors of Laos giving it an added splash. It's a small town so in the 6 days we were there, we were able to sample some of the best cuisine the town has to offer, couple this with my first trip there, I think I've covered most of the visitors to Luang Prabang's must-visits. I discovered this time that if you ask for something to be made according to Lao or Thai taste it will inevitably taste "stronger" and much more distinct highlighting the local flavors (and spicier too!).    

Dyen Sabai on the right bank near our hotel was a favorite, also fun to arrive by the rickety bamboo bridge. It's Laotian shabu and is delicious paired with Beer Lao in an outdoor space with dimly lit booths. The local buffalo dip is a local delicacy and we sampled it here for the first time.  Throughout the next days I discovered so many variations of how bufffalo meat is prepared, The Apsara's restaurant do an interesting take on buffalo and Luang Prabang hor d'oeuvres, it was also nice to dine next to the river.  For Luang Prabang food, many recommend Tamarind, I went on my first trip, this time I tried Bamboo Tree, the next door neighbor, not as crowded with delicious clean local food. The local bamboo soup was fantastic. The Silk Road's Som Tum Makrua when made the "lao" way was explosive and suitable for the late afternoon sun at Ock Top Pok Living Craft Village. Back in town, I also enjoyed the 3 Nagas (booking recommended), great food and wonderful atmosphere. Buong is a refreshing take on SE Asian fusion on the main strip, funky and fun, they can do the "fusion" just as well as they do the blog. Cafe Toui has fresh homemade local food, the fish wrapped in banana leaves was my favorite dish. Toui is a one-man show so expect a wait but for how fresh the food it, it's totally worth it. 

As for "street food" the Khao Soi noodles across from Wat Sensouk is not to be missed, go early and expect a queue, they usually run out by 11:30 (opens at 7:30 till noon). The Khao Piak at Xieng Thong Noodles (right next to the temple) is also delicous, have it with the crunchy rice cakes sprinkled on top.  

Luang Prabang coffee is fantastic especially at Saffron Coffee with a seat on the deck overlooking the Mekong. Don't forget to take some organic beans home. We were lucky that our hotel actually serves Saffron coffee (together with the best pastries from Le Banneton). On Sakkaline Road, Novelty Coffee was a nice place for a pit stop - cold-pressed juices, great coffee and delcious pastries and cakes. For a sundowner that's not on the river, Tangor is good fun to people watch with pre-dinner snacks and Beer Lao.
Som Tum Makrua from The Silk Road, Croissants and bread from Le Banneton via The Apsara Rive Droite, Luang Prabang hor d'oeuvre from The Apsara, Khao Soi from across from Wat Sensouk, Green Curry Gnocchi from Buong
RIDE

Th private boat from our hotel across the river is complimentary with our stay. Luang Prabang is not a big city so all by foot is possible and tuk tuks of course, fun and friendly. The last time I was in Luang Prabang I took a bicycle around, it’s the perfect city for bike-riding. Zipping around on a motorbike is also fun. 

For the Kuangsi Falls, we actually got a van since it was very dusty in the dry season and easier for the kids as it takes about an hour, though a tuk tuk if it weren’t for all the construction would have been fun.
Old car, motorbikes and tuk tuk.
EXPLORE

I feel that discoveries can be made with every step in Luang Prabang, although a small town, you can get lost in a temple and find hidden alleys with the most enchanting gardens. There is an old world charm and mystery, coupled with golden light the whole time we were there and the friendliest people, exploring Luang Prabang is great fun. The best is just wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere, stumbling into temple grounds and admiring the old heritage buildings.  There are so many temples in Luang Prabang. Wat Xieng Thong is the big grand temple on the Mekong, great to visit then have noodles next door and coffee at Saffron. Wat Sensouk across from the Khao Soy spot is beautiful, the children loved the lions with sticky rice in their mouths and the temple is home to the tallest standing Buddha statue in Luang Prabang. I'm sure everyone will find their favorite temple, we found ours in the center town after lunch at Cafe Toui, behind an abandoned colonial building and with stairs that connects it to Mount Phousi. 

The Royal Palace Museum is definitely worth a visit to get a sense of history of the town and relive the days when it was a kingdom. It is where the Pra Bang, the sacred Buddha statue upon which the entire province is named after is kept in a temple devoted to him at the front of the palace. The Palace is where the King of Luang Prabang lived and today is a museum worth visiting. Across the street is Mount Phousi, another landmark destination, the view is spectacular and worth its 320-step climb to the top of the hill to see a beautiful sunset and also free a bird. Not too bad a climb, a bit crowded at sunset but doable.  

I really enjoyed the Ock Pop Tok Living Craft village on the edge of town, last time I did a weaving course which was great, this time I just enjoyed being on the Mekong, having a great lunch and wandering around the property getting to know what the organisation does.

The Kuangsi Falls is not to be missed. Stunning waterfalls with a path to the very top where you see all of Luang Prabang and more, not an easy trek with three children but enjoyable nonetheless. If it were warmer we would have jumped into the crystal blue ponds!
The Royal Palace Temple with Pra Bang
SHOPS

Ock Pop Tok –  A one stop shop for textiles and gifts. A really special organisation that empowers villagers, particularly women around Laos using weaving and craft as a tool. As a result the most exquisite textiles are produced and knowledge is safe-guarded and shared. In their village on the edge of town weavers also weave there creating patterns that combine their knowledge with the advice of Ock Tok Pok co-founders Veo and Jo.
 
Passa Paa – Beautiful wood blocked natural dyes on fabric made in a studio in Luang Prabang (open for visits). Contemporary and fun. Great design. 

Night Market – More about the atmosphere and soaking this in but there is not much here but the 3D cards are fun if you have to get something as a souvenir.
TIPS

Luang Prabang is not a big city and all is pretty much accesible by foot, the children enjoyed walking around though particularly loved the Tuk Tuk rides. It is a very child-friendly place and you can pretty much take the children anywhere. The climb to the top of Mount Phousi is definitely kiddy-friendly, though the climb to the top of Kuangsi Falls not so much, it was dry season so not slippery but I imagine the steep way down could be disastrous in the wet season.

It's a heritage town so everything is protected (closes at midnight) and extremely organised and it's about tourism though it is still possible to see the local way of life when you are in the small streets behind the main road. It is peaceful and calm. Also you can see the rich vegetation of Luang Prabang and see how beyond tourism there is agriculture, craft and a local way of life.