One of the jewels of Southeast Asia and a Unesco World Heritage city, Luang Prabang offers wonderful food, incredible scenery and myriad cultural delights. By Eamonn Seoige
Where exactly is it?
The ancient city of Luang Prabang is located in the north-central province of the mountainous and land-locked Southeast Asian country, Laos. The mighty Mekong River, which connects many of the historically important cities in the region, has linked Luang Prabang through trade with the outside wold for centuries. Roughly translated, ‘Luang Prabang’ means ‘Royal Buddha Image Dispelling Fear’, which is regarded as the most sacred representation of Buddha in Laos. Unsurprisingly, Luang Prabang is famed for its many culturally significant Buddhist temples and statues. With a population of only 50,000, Luang Prabang is a compact and easily navigable city.
How do I get there?
Luang Prabang is not serviced by direct flights from Western Europe. The best value option is to take a scheduled flight from London to one of the major Asian hubs such as Saigon or Bangkok. From there, Air Asia offer excellent, year-round, low-cost flights direct to the diminutive Luang Prabang International Airport.
What language do they speak?
Lao, also commonly referred to as Laotian. The majority of Luang Prabang’s natives speak the Northern Laos dialect. However, Luang Prabang is also home to multiple minority ethnic groups such as the Laos Theung, who speak a Khmer dialect. English is widely spoken by persons in the hospitality and tourism industry.
What is the local beer like?
The local beer available in Luang Prabang is largely brewed by the Lao Brewery Company. Similar to its neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the vast majority of beer consumed is of the lager variety and, to a lesser extent, dark beer. Amongst the most popular brands are the crisp tasting Beerlao Original, which is also widely exported, and the stronger and more pungent ‘Beerlao Dark’ at 6.5%. Beer Lao Light is palatable, but only if served ice cold! Beer in Laos is brewed from Jasmine rice and imported hops and yeast from Europe. However, for something a little less ordinary, seek out a bottle of Golden Palm, a caramel and herb infused ale from the Batieng Brewery.
If the local beer doesn’t tickle your fancy, why not try some rice wine or rice whiskey? However, be cautious, the often nuclear-strength rice wine isn’t always produced under the strictest hygiene conditions. Nonetheless, once you locate the good stuff, a swift shot after dinner is an excellent digestif. Lao-lao, a type of whiskey native to Laos, has a slight vanilla flavour and is excellent when served on the rocks with a fruit mixer. Again, try to avoid drinking any backstreet distillations, unless you’re looking for a mega-strength hangover or a visit to the local hospital!
What is the transport like?
Some of the more adventurous travellers arrive into the ancient city from Northern Thailand via a boat journey along the vast and imposing Mekong River. Whether it’s by a snail’s pace slow-boat or high-speed longtail, it’s an amazing way to experience the epic terrain of this mountainous and lush country. The airport is only 4km from the city and is serviced by endless taxis and minibuses. When you’ve settled in at your hotel or guesthouse, there are a number of options for getting about town to the sights.
As with most Southeast Asian cities, Tuk-Tuks are ready and waiting on every street corner. However, this is a small city and it’s easy to get around on foot or bicycle. A number of bus companies offer a scheduled service to key destinations both in Laos and beyond, including Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). However, be forewarned! Due to poor roads, multiple stops and border crossings, a bus trip from northern Laos can become an epic event. For example, a journey from Luang Prabang to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam will take 40 hours, even though the distance is just over 250 miles!
What’s the food like?
The daily fare in Luang Prabang’s cafes and restaurants is broadly similar to Vietnamese cuisine, and is generally very wholesome and healthy. The classic everyday staple and most commonly available offering is sticky rice, which is served everywhere. Khao Poon is a type of spicy vermicelli noodle soup with added chilli, chicken and vegetables such as shallots and coriander. Or Lam is a stew speciality unique to Luang Prabang. It’s a broad mix of vegetables and herbs including lemongrass, basil and vines, with water buffalo meat sometimes added.
Tam Mak Houng, a form of spicy papaya salad, is worth a try, mixing strong tastes such as lime, hot chilli, fish sauce and salt. Lao-style barbeque known as sindad is widely available and normally consists of pork or chicken, cooked in the centre of the table on a hot plate. Larb is another local speciality, based around marinated meat or fish, often prepared raw, and served with a mix of vegetables and herbs. The influence of French colonialism in Indochina is still visible today, with croissants and baguettes widely served.
What’s the nightlife like?
Unlike the raucous party town of Vang Vieng, eight hours to the south, Luang Prabang is a relatively low key destination for anyone looking to party. There are some bars, but they tend to be quaint, mellow establishments with few late-night venues pumping out cheesy hits. However, as the authorities crackdown more on unregulated activities in Vang Vieng, it’s likely that Luang Prabang will increasingly look to cater more to European and Australasian backpackers.
No visit to this area is complete without trying a shot of snake wine! This is a rocket fuel strength drink, made from infusing a rice based alcohol in whole venomous snake! If nothing else, it’s a bizarre experience to view rows of large glass bottles, each with a coiled fermented reptile inside. The chief watering hole is Bar Utopia, which includes a volleyball court and tropical gardens. It serves decent food, projects movies and attracts a broad mix of customers. Oddly, the after-hours destination of choice is a bowling alley that serves alcohol late into the night.
Needless to say, the bowling is purely an afterthought…
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