Luang Prabang

Picture of luang_prabang_aerial From Siem Reap, we flew to Luang Prabang in neighboring Laos. The central city is located on a long peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers (the Mekong being the large one in this photo). Luang Prabang isn't the easiest place to get to, we heard stories of 8-9 hours by bus from Vientiane (on a good day) which is largely why we decided to fly.
Picture of lpb_airport This unassuming building is the Luang Prabang airport. It's a relatively easy process to enter Laos here, buying a VISA in the process (bring US dollars or hope the airport ATM is working). On the outbound side, it's a spacious terminal. A lot of the flights seem to be charters for Chinese tour groups. There's not much in the way of air conditioning in the terminal but there is an outdoor food court and an extremely reasonable massage room if you have a little extra time before your flight.
Picture of lp_street We arrived in Luang Prabang just about exactly the same time as tropical storm Son-Tinh. We were in Laos for three days and it rained almost the entire time. That was actually not a huge deterrent to enjoying the town, there isn't much sunlight in our photos though. The peninsula section of Luang Prabang has a lot of French Colonial influence. It's a very walkable area although there are almost always tuk-tuks around if you tire of that.
Picture of lp_wat The main thing to do in Luang Prabang is... really nothing in particular. You can stroll along the rivers. You can soak up the ambience. There are a lot of impressive wats around. If you're planning on visiting any of the wats, there is a general dress code, typically shorts and short-sleeved shirts are not acceptable.
Picture of nam_khan The Nam Khan is the smaller river in town but it's just as scenic as the Mekong. There are some hotels and guest houses on the peninsula but it seems like most of them are just off of it. There are ferries across both the Nam Khan and the Mekong.
Picture of luang_prabang Somehow crammed into the tiny peninsula area there is a sizeable hill as well, known as Mount Phousi (spelling varies). There is a wat on the top and shrines all the way up. It also seems to be ground zero for day tour groups in Luang Prabang but don't let that deter you. It's absolutely worth the climb for the views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Picture of luang_skyline Laos is extremely green. Perhaps it was the tropical storm dumping rain on everything but it just seemed like much denser jungle here than anywhere we went in Thailand or Cambodia. Despite its importance, the city is not that large, the surrounding villages are tiny and the jungle is never far away.
Picture of night_market The building here is the wat attached to the royal palace in Luang Prabang. The best views of the palace and its out buildings are from the stairs on Mount Phousi. Pictures are not allowed in most of the compound so take them from here. There are trails up Mount Phousi on both sides. The Mekong / palace approach is basically a staircase straight up the mountain and seems to be more popular (crowded). The Nam Khan side is more winding with switchbacks, and we felt it was more scenic. The tents in the foreground here are the night market setting up for the evening.
Picture of palace Luang Prabang has a royal palace. Only five monarchs ruled from here, all of them during the 20th century under French auspices. The palace is now an impressive museum (dress appropriately). Along with the throne room and several living areas, you can also visit the garage out back which houses the car collection of the kings who lived here.
Picture of naga There is also the royal wat on the premises. There's a ticketed admission to the entire complex. The wat is impressive to look into but entry is forbidden. It has nice views of the palace and nagas like these.
Picture of grill Back to the night market now. It is of course exactly what it sounds like. The long street in front of the royal palace fills up with tents where you can find any Laotian souvenir you might be looking for. This doesn't appear to be a general purpose market used by locals so much, most of it was aimed at tourists. At the base of the peninsula near the visitor center there is a tiny alleyway branching off of the night market and the hot food stalls are mostly inside that alley. You'll find any number of grills that look like this. We quite enjoyed having dinner here which is basically a point and eat sort of arrangement. Just outside the food alley we found a vendor selling tiny coconut pancakes. These exist in Thailand as well but we only had them in Laos. They are fabulous and incredibly cheap. We bought a set of 5 every time we walked past.
Picture of lao_bbq There are plenty of restaurants around as well. One of the more common types is Lao barbeque which is one of those styles where you end up doing all the work. This is a long slow meal but the food is out almost instantly. In this case we have an electric grill, a plate of raw meats (lower left), and a plate of vegetables and noodles (upper right). Chile sauces in Laos are several levels down from chile sauces in Thailand which means you can eat them and still taste something else.
Picture of flood We mentioned that it rained the entire time we were there, right? This is what the roads looked like outside of town. In this case we hopped in a truck (covered) which is the Lao equivalent of a song-thaew. Our destination was the Kuang Si waterfalls.
Picture of waterfall_bridge We knew it was going to be wet. Very very wet. It hadn't stopped raining for two days so our plan was to put on quick-dry clothing and a rain jacket and carry almost nothing at all with us (except a waterproof camera). This worked out relatively well, as expected we were completely drenched but at least we were appropriately dressed. The bridge that David and Alaric are standing on here normally spans a small side creek. It's useless at this point as the entire trail is also a creek.
Picture of kuang_si1 It's worth going out and looking up the Kuang Si waterfalls on the internet search engine of your choice. You will see lovely turquoise water running over yellow-green rocks. It looks absolutely nothing like this. Normally people swim in several of the pools, there are picnic tables (all of them submerged on our visit) and a restaurant with changing rooms. Obviously there was no safe swimming during our visit.
Picture of kuang_si2 This is the common swimming area at the falls. Obviously it does not normally look like this. Kuang Si is about 45 minutes to an hour by truck from Luang Prabang. There is a small village of food and souvenir stands at the entrance where tickets are required. From there it's a short hike through the jungle and a bear rescue center before you reach the falls. There are many waterfalls, even at normal water levels.
Picture of kuang_si_walkway Walkways like this one branch off to get you closer to the falls. We were closer than normal without the assistance of walkways. This one is about knee deep on the adults and with considerable current.
Picture of kuang_si3 The main falls is about 60m high. You can only see the bottom of it in this photo. There is a lovely bridge out across the river that lets you get more of a view of the main falls but the spray was so intense at this water volume that it was like standing in a shower and it was difficult to even look in the direction of the falls.

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