It’s already been 2 months since I got back from my last holidays in South-East Asia so it’s high time I tell you more about the country I visited after my short stay in Bangkok!
I flew from Bangkok on to Laos, which had been on my to-visit list for a few years! I read up a lot about Laos in the months before my trip: a combination of travel guides and stories from other blogs. I found it very helpful reading stories about the places others had travelled to, how they travelled and their recommendations.
A few facts about Laos (some of which I learnt while preparing my trip):
- Laos has the lowest population density in Asia: 29.4 people per square kilometre. As a reference, the population density in neighbouring Vietnam is 286.9 people per square kilometre, while it’s 133.2 in Thailand!
- Laos gained independence in 1949 after a period as a French protectorate.
- Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world per capita: over two billion tons of bombs were dropped in Laos between 1964 and 1973, during the Vietnam War. That represents more than all of the bombs dropped on Europe during World War II. An estimated 30% of the bombs didn’t explode.
- Laotians are the world’s biggest consumers of sticky rice.
My itinerary in Laos was not fully defined when I set-off. In the end I went to the following places:
- Luang Prabang, a city recognised by the UNESCO for its rich architectural heritage
- Phonsavan, home of the mysterious Plain of Jars
- Vientiane, the largest city in Laos and its capital since 1563
- Pakse, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Champasak
- Si Phan Don, also called Four Thousand Islands, a group of islands in the Mekong River in Southern Laos
My experience in Luang Prabang
Today I’ll tell you more about my experience in Luang Prabang, which I visited in January! Fyi November – February is the best time of the year to visit Laos, because it’s dry and not too hot. Temperatures in Luang Prabang were pleasant during daytime, but I needed a extra layer of clothing after sunset or when the weather was overcast.
Luang Prabang was the only destination in Laos I had decided I would visit for sure. It’s always described in guidebooks as a must-visit destination, with a fusion of traditional architecture with European colonial architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries. It has been recognised by UNESCO for its remarkably well-preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage.
Buddhist alms giving ceremony “Tak Bat”
I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony “Tak Bat”, which takes place every morning at sunrise. Buddhist monks collect food donations for their one meal of the day. Locals give them sticky rice, fresh fruit and traditional sweet snacks. Although this procession has become very touristy, I was interested in seeing it. But things didn’t work out as planned…
I intended to head out to see this procession on my second morning in Luang Prabang, but when my alarm clock set-off at 5am, the sound of pouring rain made it clear that there was little point in getting out of bed so early! On the next mornings I was just too tired to even consider setting my alarm to such a time… So in the end I didn’t see it..
Luang Prabang temple hopping
Instead of seeing the Tak Bat ceremony, I did a (self-)walking tour of Luang Prabang’s old town and its many temples… would you believe there are at least 34 temples located within the town centre?!
I walked up the 328 steps leading to Mount Phu Si, which offers a good view point of the surrounding temples and hills.
One thing that struck me in Luang Prabang was that the old town is entirely geared towards welcoming tourists: you will find hotels, guest houses, restaurants, bars and tour booking offices, but locals don’t seem to live there. I enjoyed renting a bike for a day and riding out of the town centre: this gave me a little insight into where/how people from Luang Prabang live.
Hiking through Luang Prabang’s lush and varied jungle
Some of the most advertised activities around Luang Prabang include trips to Pak Ou Caves, to Kuang Si Waterfalls as well as elephant riding / bathing activities. I wanted to avoid booking a trip that would just involve taking me to those places & back: I am not a big enough fan of caves and waterfalls to enjoy that! I ended booking a trip which involved hiking through Luang Prabang’s mountainous jungle and farmland. I did this on the day I had planned to go see the Tak Bat ceremony… I was really really hoping the rain would stop before we set off, but it didn’t! I was very thankful the owner of my hotel ran out after me that day to give me a rain poncho! 🙂
We drove up the mountains to the starting point of our hike, about 20km away from Luang Prabang. We passed through Hmong and Khmu hill-tribe villages and first walked to the source of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, then to the top of the falls before walking down the steps next to the falls. The 4-hour hike took us through lush and varied jungle, which I would probably have looked at more carefully & taken more photos of if I hadn’t been so concentrated on avoiding to slip on any of the slippery slopes!
We stopped for lunch near the source of the falls and were very amused by the fact our guide would have preferred us to have lunch sitting at a proper picnic table, in the rain, rather than sitting on the wooden floor of a wonderful shelter protected from the rain!!
The rain had stopped by the time we reached the Kuang Si Falls, which made our group look particularly scruffy (with our muddy trousers, and with thick 3cm layers of red mud on our shoes) in comparison to all the people who had directly travelled to the falls by bus!
I must say the falls were indeed very pretty: the pools of water at the bottom of the falls looked so clean and turquoise!
There is a bear rescue centre right beside the falls which is really worth spending time. You can watch some of the bears rescued by Free The Bears and learn about their stories and what they like to do.
Ock Pop Tok centre
When riding out of town, I rode past Ock Pop Tok Living Craft centre, a social enterprise working in the field of textiles, handicrafts and design. The centre is beautifully set in a tropical garden by the Mekong and serves as a learning centre for textiles, crafts and culture.
I really enjoyed their fibre2fabric exhibition explaining first how silk is made (& you can see silk worms at different stages), showing the traditional Lao natural colourings used for fabric. At one of the other stations you can learn how the weaving machines are operated, etc.
If there’s one thing I regret not having done in Luang Prabang, it is possibly not to have participated in any of the half-day or full day weaving or natural dye classes offered at the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre.
What about ice cream in Luang Prabang?
If you’re craving for ice cream while in Luang Prabang, I suggest heading off to Le Banneton French café. Their ice cream is home made. It’s not the best ice cream ever, but it’s the best in town! I wanted to try their rosella ice cream, since I’d never heard of this before. Turns out it was raspberry ice cream that had been labelled as such by mistake. I have since then found out that rosella is a variety of hibiscus. I tried the coconut & passion-fruit flavours instead! I also recommend La Banneton’s salads & their pain au chocolat!