Temple luang prabang laos

A Little Photoessay… Stories of Culture & History in Luang Prabang, Laos

The pace of life in Luang Prabang, Laos is so very charming. Charming is the only one-word description I can come up with for this low-slung city with wide streets (unnatural for much of Southeast Asia), French inspired post-colonial architecture, monks clad in sunny saffron robes, and a humming buzz of relaxed tourism. I wrote earlier about the changes three years and more tourism brought upon this sweet, sleepy country set between Vietnam and Thailand, but what cannot change in the intervening years between my visits,  is the history. Laos was the first travel destination I took my niece Ana to see once we left our apartment in Chiang Mai, and beyond the elephants, the river, and the Laotians, I really wanted her to experience a relaxed week enjoying the various elements of Luang Prabang.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1024"]A slow morning on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos Hours before the night market clogs the main tourist street in Luang Prabang, Vat Ho Pha Bang shines against the ultramarine sky and purple bougainvillea within the pristine National Museum complex. The city retains a rural and small-town feel despite it’s place in history as a royal capital in the 8th century, and an active trading hub on the Silk Road for many succeeding centuries. Now, it’s a UNESCO world heritage city, but no longer the capital of Laos, which I think is a very key reason the city has remained small despite globalism and tourism.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on this trip Ana and I spent simple days watching, observing, and talking about history and how it may have shaped the town, what it might have felt like when Laotian kings walked the streets. I find myself slowing down a lot more with Ana in tow, instead of spending the evenings with a beer at the bowling alley (hugely popular with the backpackers in the city back in 2009), we found a coffee shop on the river. The shop’s well-worn cushions and knee-high, woven bamboo tables were cozy and comfortable as we sipped our tart, icy lime drinks. We people watched for a bit while the boats hummed on the river below, then wrote in our journals of the day’s sights, me encouraging Ana to draw pictures, note specific moments and feelings.

I realized as we sat there that I too rarely reflect on my travels offline and via a handwritten journal. I documented my round the world trip in a journal, but that ended somewhere along the way. Ana was quick to point out that I was a hypocrite for making her document her personal thoughts and journey when my fingers jetting over the keyboard with a clatter rather than the soft hiss of putting pen to paper. I know that I think best on paper, but I am so caught up in what I still need to do-plan-work on that I rarely step away from the computer without conscious effort.

And so, I made more of an effort to unplug, I mostly stopped blogging for a bit and since Ana and I found ourselves in Luang Prabang for several extra days, I found I still loved visiting this pretty little city. We had a beautiful guesthouse with a friendly proprietress who spoke English, so I had Ana read our Laos guidebook and pick interesting activities, then ask for advice from our guesthouse owner. And even three years later, I still love the temples, smiles, and food. The people, monks, and tourists. All these combine into a city with charm, heritage, and personality that I knew I loved, but needed a reminder to stop and enjoy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A steaming pot of soup for a traditional breakfast in Luang Prabang, Laos Tiny stools jut onto the sidewalks in the misty hours of dawn as locals sip a steaming soup adorned with herbs and spices before they took their tuk-tuks and mottos for a full day of work. Though western breakfast shops bracketed this tiny soup-stand with croissants and lattes, it was just as easy to hunker down with the locals, point and smile at the soup, and within minutes be happily slurping down fragrant broth and noodles.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Early morning fruit shake stands set up in Luang Prabang, Laos My breakfast was complete only after purchasing a 5,000 kip (about 60 cent) fruit shake from the corner stalls displaying colorful cups of pre-chopped mixed fruit ready blend into a condensed milk, ice, and fruit concoction that defies logic on its tastiness! Smoothies are my go-to snack in Southeast Asia, and as we had our shake blended, numerous mottos zipped up to the stand to also grab a blended beverage before zooming on their way![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Excited hellos from the children in Luang Prabang, Laos With some poppy traditional music blaring from the truck speakers, these kids were happily clapping, singing, and shouting hello. I suspect this was a parade of sorts, or class trip perhaps, since several truck-beds passed by in the late morning with the cheery children, all of whom were giddy with excitement to wave to us as we paused and watched them gently roll down the road, the driver careful not to jolt the truck too much![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]This cute little girl found her mom's high heels! Luang Prabang, Laos With a freedom distinctly uncommon in the United States, this little girl independently toddled down the street on her mother’s high heels, stopping at nearby vendors, grabbing her morning snacks and hugs before heading back to the shop where her mother sold fair-trade crafts and scarves.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]An elderly man stokes and tends the breakfast fires in Luang Prabang, Laos. One of the things I love about Luang Prabang are the family compounds that also act as guesthouses. In many cases, each guesthouse is also the home for several generations of Laotians. This grandfather on my street stoked the early morning fires, cooked breakfast and minded his grandchildren while the middle generation took care of us tourists, cleaned the guest rooms, and generally ran the business; every member of the family feeling useful and needed to balance the dynamics.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A tasty array of vegetarian street eats in Luang Prabang, Laos The night market walking street comes alive with long buffets of food. Vegetarian buffets were present even back in 2009, and for just over a dollar US we piled our bowl with a variety of flavorful vegetarian dishes. Nearby skewers of meat appeased the omnivores (including Ana), and buckets of cold drinks, snacks and treats were all sold with the quiet soft-sell and placid smiles from vendors.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Grilled fresh fish from the river in Luang Prabang, Laos Freshly grilled fish was easy to find, and while not something I eat, it fascinates me to see the fully recognizable fish skewered and prettily presented for eating. I find food in the US is often purposely packaged to disassociate itself from the animal it actually is, while  culturally in Asia, they often consume and enjoy nearly every part of the animal![/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A morning coffee shake in Luang Prabang, Laos After just three mornings of a habitual coffee to start my day, the vendor would smile and wave as I approached. On the fourth day, he beat me to the punchline and happily parroted out my precise coffee order, remembering my explicit instructions “noooooo sugar,” which pegs me as so un-Asian since they adore adding condensed milk and sugar syrup to just about every single drink they serve.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]A tuk-tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos The calls for service from the tuk-tuk drivers pelt out into the day like a woodpecker making his home in a new tree. Every time we passed one of these shared taxis, the driver was quick to list out all the possible tourist activities for the day, and though it could have gotten annoying, I rather like the consistency of their chant, quite unchanged from the one I heard recited several years ago on the very same street corner.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Pretty close up of paper umbrellas in Luang Prabang's nightly street market, Laos. Colorful paper fans glowed from the rattan mats lining sidewalks of Luang Prabang’s night market. The bright pigments do a fantastic job of drawing the tourists closer to the variety of wares. Like bees to a brightly colored flower, my niece and I followed the magnetizing draw of crafts and conversation humming on the city’s crowded street and dug through the kitsch to find quirky coins and beads for Ana to make into bracelets.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]The sprawling city and countryside around the heart of Luang Prabang, Laos at sunset from Mount Phousi. From Mount Phousi, the highest hill in the center of Luang Prabang, Ana and I watch the sunset over the hills and rivers encircling the world heritage city center. We visited in late November, just as the region’s rainy season finished, and the reward was a landscapes so verdant it could inspire poetry in those more inclined to flowery words than myself. Low-slung streets, shining golden temples, tall palms and quiet river waters make this city an enduring riddle that seems both supremely touristy and yet unchanged throughout the past hundreds of years since construction of the first temple. The city has seen much history, but is so humble.[/caption] [divider]

I find myself oddly drawn here, and Ana asked me if I wanted to maybe live in Luang Prabang, to become an occasional expat in the city I waxed poetic about even before we arrived. I surprised her by answering “no.” No, I don’t want to live in Luang Prabang. I love the lazy sunsets enjoyed at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. I love the ability to spend several days biking around the streets, eating a crusty warm baguette (a remnant of the French influence), and visiting temples and waterfalls. The city is compelling, but no, I don’t actually want to live there, a visit every few years is enough, for now.

Rice Paddy in Hongsa, Laos

A Little Trial … Travel Versus, Well, Travel

Hats off to the traveling parents out there, the homeschooling, road-schooling, traveling adults with children in tow because man, it’s harder than I first imagined. My niece and I are a month into our trip and the pace of life has changed significantly for both of us. As a serial solo traveler, this past month plus was so much harder than syncing travel rhythms with another adult; instead I plan and plot out our days around school-time, downtime, fun-time, educational time…

So many “times” to figure out each day!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]rice paddy laos Rice paddies and thatched houses outside in the rural parts outside of Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

Our first month in Thailand was the trial run, and for the past ten days Ana and I have shouldered our small backpacks and we traded easy days spent in our Chiang Mai apartment for the dusty roads, slow-flowing rivers, and long travel days in Laos. The rusty waters of the Mekong River were our constant companion as we journeyed into the quiet center of Laos, stopping in sleepy villages and remote towns until we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, at which point we plopped down for several days to enjoy this riverside city that offers a slice of ambling locals, quite streets, and a peek at a modern-day Laos echoing strongly with hints of the country’s hilltribe culture, post-colonial influences, and a “baw pen nyang,” or rather “no worries,” pace of life.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Mekong River, Laos The banks of the Mekong River and surrounding hills on the slow boat down to Pak Beng.[/caption]

And throughout these past ten days we navigated the even more difficult trails of actually traveling. That first month in Thailand was a baby-step into travel; we have a small but comfortable apartment, a television (though very few English channels thankfully), and a routine with old friends, new friends, and familiar restaurants. The kiddo is happy in Chiang Mai, she quickly acclimated to the nuances of westernized Thai culture suffusing Chiang Mai and made some assumptions about Asia in general from these first glimpses.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Hongsa, Laos Definitely not raised in the country, these cows and the pretty hills of the Sainyabuli province in Laos captivated Ana’s attention, especially when the dog ran into the fray and started herding them![/caption]

And then our visas expired and the real adventure started. I warned her, Laos is not like Thailand. It’s slower and less Westernized; the country comes across in waves of rural towns, poverty, unexpected smiles and happiness, few healthcare options, less English, and endlessly long travel days on uncomfortable transportation plodding down sometimes unpaved roads riddled with potholes and stray animals.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Tourist slow boat on the Mekong River A long wooden slow boat, filled with old bus seats for the long trip down the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

She has taken it all like a champ even though those first days generated dozens of thoughtful questions, plaintive complaints about the transportation, and surprisingly perceptive observations about the new things we’ve seen and done over the past ten days.

On my end, the entire process of traveling with Ana is so much more time-consuming than I once imagined. And this is not an “oh woe is me, let’s pity Shannon,” but rather an observation that kids are hard work on the road! I am still working as we travel, which forces me to be more effective each day than in the past—between my job, writing posts, photo-editing, and actually schooling Ana, it’s been a lot of work and I am endlessly glad I initially decided to use Chiang Mai as a base, it was a good call on my part.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]mekong at sunrise A hazy and cool morning on the Mekong as we board the boat in Pak Beng on our way to Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

Ana and I have just five more days left in Laos before we return to Chiang Mai, and boy, do we need a rest! This two-week trip into Laos was essentially a visa-run so we can stay in Thailand for several months now and it proved to me all of my long-held beliefs about slow travel are even more true with children—slowing down and spending several days (or a week) in each place is far more effective for not only learning about everything we are seeing and doing, but stopping for the week here in Luang Prabang (instead of our plan to cram everything into two days) has saved Ana’s sanity and my own!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]fruit shake luang prabang laos Ana enjoys the routine of daily street-side fruit shakes in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

All of that said, Laos is just as special as I remember and I’ve found a bit of inspiration that was missing these past few weeks (i.e. why the blog has been so sporadically updated). I hope all of my US friends had a wonderful long weekend over Thanksgiving (Ana and I ruthlessly hunted down a slice of pumpkin pie here in Luang Prabang on Thanksgiving and enjoyed every morsel of it), I anticipate penning more Laos stories on our epic 10 hour bus ride down to Vientiane tonight :)

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]sunset mekong river The sun slowly sets with a tangerine sunset over the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]
Pak Ou Caves Buddha Statues

A Little Reflection… Finding the Retired Buddhas at Laos’ Pak Ou Caves

Travel experiences begin to blend and morph under the constant stress of “newness” when you’re on a long-term trip. When I traveled around the world for a year, even though my pace was slower than some, I went to fast to process all the moments and sites. Laos was one of my favorite countries to visit both then and now, and it’s only in the years since I first visited that I am fully processing the moments and memories.

When I first visited, I was on a whirlwind of visiting everything from the famed waters of the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng to the stunning turquoise pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang. At the time, I found the Pak Ou Caves underwhelming. Compared to the high adventure of other day trips, I was happy to have spent the day doing something interesting, but I thought that it was skippable in the long run. I even wrote that phrase “skippable.” Ouch! That’s a harsh assessment, but it was my honest opinion. In the craziness of traveling and constantly moving locales, the Pak Ou caves weren’t “Holy cannoli, that rocks my world.” In the years since, however, I find myself coming back to those caves—and the things I learned.

Buddha Images
Buddha images of every shape, size, and style line the Pak Ou caves near Luang Prabang, Laos.

Laos’ Pak Ou caves sit above the Mekong River as just a dark blip in the rock as we approached by boat. The position of the caves allows indirect light to enter as it bounces off of the river’s muddy brown waters.

There are two main caves, both embedded into the limestone cliff. The lower cave is reachable from a staircase that ascends from the riverbank, while the second caves is higher, the entrance is surrounded by trees. Once we disembarked, no one had to tell us to use hushed voices as we ventured into the small, dark recess in the rock. As we entered, our gazes caressed hundreds of Buddha statues. Buddhas in every position, every era of life, and every size line the cave walls. More than 6,000 Buddha statues and images fill the caves. Damp earth assaults the nostrils, even the brush of bodies as tourists enter and leave doesn’t stir the air.

And yet, there are the statutes. Each tiny Buddha was perched with loving care into the cave’s crevices and natural shelves.

Discovreing the Buddhas of Pak Ou Caves in Laos

Devotional energy reverberates through the caves. Recent additions glisten in the muted light, while the cobwebs cover the oldest statues. Some of these have sat in the Pak Ou caves for hundreds of years. Nearby villagers, and pilgrims from all over the world, use this cave as a place to retire damaged and old Buddha statues. Local Laotians deposit the Buddha statues in the cave instead of tossing them, a practice that speaks to their devotion and commitment. These caves provided an answer to the question I had never before thought to ask: Where do retired Buddha statues live?

Which then begs a related question that I hadn’t considered: What happens to the many statues of a Crucified Jesus that rest in every Catholic church? Surely you can’t simply toss those either.

Quick Travel Tips: Visiting the Pak Ou Caves

Where: Less than two hours from Luang Prabang, Laos; about 25 kilometers upriver. Also accessible by tuk tuk.

How to Get to Pak Ou Caves: Boats leave every morning (early) from Luang Prabang’s main dock and make a two hour scenic ride down the Mekong River. Join a tourist boat, or charter your own. Tuk tuks take an hour to reach the nearest town, which is just across the river from the caves. You’ll then have to hire a boat to ferry you across. Tours also run from Luang Prabang and they will arrange the boat and guide—but trust me, it’s fairly simple to arrange for yourself.

How Much: About 20,000 kip to enter the caves. Joining a shared boat is about 65,000 kip per person, or you can charter a boat for 300,000 kip. The tuk-tuk is a bit cheaper since the journey is shorter, with bargaining you are looking at about 200,000 kip minimum. Note that prices can often rise even within six months of past travelers having visited.

Insider Travel Tip:  Consider the tuk-tuk ride if you have already taken—or if you plan to take—the two-day slow boat between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. While the Mekong is beautiful, the ride is redundant if you’re already spending days watching the life that happens along the banks of the Mekong. The boat will also stop at a few villages where you can sample whiskey and enjoy a bit of shopping.

Guidebook: I used the Lonely Planet guides during my time in Southeast Asia and they are my go-to. While the guesthouses they recommend are usually overrun, the Laos guide offers a good bit of history, as well as the nitty gritties on transport around the region.

Accommodation: Agoda is the best booking site in Southeast Asia and I use it to research and book guesthouses if I am in town for just a few days. Otherwise, I love Airbnb and it has some truly gorgeous properties in the region.

Backpacking Southeast Asia

A guide to everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia—consider this the ultimate beginners guide for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!

Should you visit the Kuang Si Falls in Laos?

A Little Beauty… Visiting the Stunning Turquoise Waters at Laos’ Kuang Si Falls

Visiting the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang, LaosAfter traveling from Thailand into Laos, and then taking part in a few adventures around Vang Vieng, I settled in the ever-so-charming Luang Prabang. The city has wowed me with it’s quiet pace of life, delicious and affordable eats, and countless new activities teaching about Laos’ history, culture, and people. I am quite taken with the Laotian culture and the sheer beauty of each new spot I’ve visited.

Luang Prabang is a city that encourages travelers to slip off their shoes and take a break. With two weeks at my leisure, I have ample time to see the best of nature and culture on the daytrips from the city. The local Laotians have insisted the the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls are spectacular. They’re proud of the clear waterfalls and ice-blue lagoons.

The backpacking trail through Southeast Asia is strong, and Laura and I ran into friends from Vang Vieng. The group of us shared a tuk tuk in search of the turquoise pools and an afternoon in nature.

Visiting the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls Near Luang Prabang

Getting to the waterfalls is half of the fun. Our tuk tuk wove through the Laotian countryside, over bridges, through rice paddies, and past work elephants. Vendors line the waterfall entrance and the first pools of beautiful turquoise water are just a five minute walk into the National Park.

The water color is unreal. These photos are straight from my camera, and even in retrospect I wonder if they’re doctored someone. We all had to reach out and touch the pools of water to even believe they were real, let alone a naturally-formed gift from nature.

Luang Prabang sits directly along the shores of the mighty Mekong River. But even the importance of the Mekong cannot overcome the fact that the river’s placid waters glisten an unattractive shade of muddy brown under the high sun. But just an hour from those dull waters, the icy-blue pools seem like a color best fit for a child’s box of crayons.

work elephant laos

Swimming area of Kuang Si Waterfalls

laos waterfalls

kuang si

blue lagoon

Our group left for the Falls early in the day, so we had hours to spend at the park. The first lagoon we found was gorgeous and a designated swimming spot. We all were sure we had just found paradise and we stopped for a while to wade into the frigid waters. Little did we realize that the path continued for another kilometer path even more grottos, pools, and gorgeous tiny falls.

We had spent about 40 minutes in the tuk tuk, which isn’t too far, but we were all feeling antsy and the water was too inviting to pass up. That said, it was freezing cold. Not just a tad chilly, but the lagoons are covered with forest and only dappling light filters through to warm the water. The group wasn’t daunted, however, and we all stripped down to our bathing suits and splashed around a bit. Then we dared each other to brave the cold water for long enough to hit the pocket of sunlight in the middle of the pool — Laura and I were game. And we even tried to make it look like our lips weren’t turning blue.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]visiting kuang si and blue lagoon Laura and I posed for a photo opp in the sparkling sunshine and blue waters.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]luang prabang daytrip Seconds after the first photo we are freezing cold and trying to conserve body heat — it’s chilly in late January![/caption]

[divider_flat]There’s no reason to rush, there’s not too much land to cover, so we meandered past the pools of water. We also hunted for the perfect spot to do an impromptu photoshoot. The spot had to have the perfect combination of waterfalls, lush tropical vegetation, and captivatingly blue water. My friend Shimi noted that the place oozed so much beauty that she thought it would be the perfect spot for a couple to propose marriage — I have to agree, it’s stunning.

Once we found a gorgeous spot, we decided to reenact the Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot that was here months earlier. Well, we kind of reenacted it. No one wanted to brave the chilly waters again so we all took turns rolling up our pant legs and voguing for the camera.

The results were both hilarious and completely unattractive, and also exactly what we had hoped to create. :)

voguing at the blue lagoon daytrip in Laos

posing at Kuang Si waterfalls kuang si daytrip from luang prabang daytrip out to see the Kuang Si waterfalls.

review of kuang si waterfalls

should you visit the kuang si falls in laos?

The Buddhas at the Pak Ou CavesThe waterfalls made a perfect day trip from Luang Prabang, and they were even more fun because we had friends in tow with whom we could chat and play with in the forest. It’s one of the better day trips from the city. Several days ago, Laura and I made the boat ride out to the Pac Ou Caves, which is another interesting day trip in the area.

The Pak Ou Caves are located upriver from Luang Prabang and it’s a very different experience than visiting the waterfalls. As I wrote about years later, however, the caves were memorable for their cultural importance, even if parts of the tour are lackluster. That post shares a bit more on the significance of the caves, as well as how to get there.

Laos has quickly become one of my favorite countries on the planet. There is no single part of traveling here that I can point to as “the reason” I love it, but it’s rather the collective whole of the people, cultures, and stories I’ve found while here. This is one of those spots I know I will return to again.


Quick Tips: Visting the Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Waterfalls in LaosGet There: From Luang Prabang, hire a tuk-tuk. You can find these all over town, and many wait for tourists on the night market street. They leave when they have either a full group, or when the occupants agree to pay about 180,000 – 200,000 kip round trip. If you’re solo, start the day early as you can wait for the tuk-tuk to fill and score a shared ride for around 40,000 kip per person. The driver will wait for you at the falls and drive you back to town — pay the driver once you are back in Luang Prabang. I’ve done the falls twice, and I rented a motorbike the second time, which is a good way to give flexibility and freedom to your schedule. Day tours and minibuses run out to the falls, but it’s probably easiest to just do it as an independent journey — the whole process is pretty straight forward. More options for getting there are covered in depth here.

Plan Your Day: It takes roughly 45 minutes to make the 23 kilometer journey out to the falls. Once there, you’ll want four-to-five hours at the falls so you have time to see the bears, swim in the lagoons, and even grab a snack. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip and includes visiting the bear sanctuary. Only swim in the marked pools as others are either unsafe or considered sacred by the locals.

Things to Bring: The temperature fluctuates a lot, so even a warm day might be cool in the shady forest. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes and bring a light jacket, that should cover you for anything you need. The pathways are cleared, tightly packed earth and there are no big hikes. You can definitely navigate in sandals.

Guidebook: I used the Lonely Planet guides during my time in Southeast Asia and they are my go-to. While the guesthouses they recommend are usually overrun, the Laos guide offers a good bit of history, as well as the nitty-gritties on transport around the region.

Onward travel: I’ve spent a lot of time in Laos, check out my favorite things to do in Luang Prabang, how to enjoy Vang Vieng, and more.