I'm always hesitant when talking to other travelers before visiting a city, of course I want to get some ideas: where to go, what to do and where to eat, but I also don't want their perception to alter or affect mine. The ideal destination for one person may be hell for another, this is especially true when the travelers are not encountering the city at the same time. There are way too many variables left unaccounted for: travel companions (or lack there of), accommodation, weather, length of stay, and the list goes on. Before arriving in Luang Prabang some told me that I'd "Absolutely love the city" while other were adamant that "You only need a few days", leaving me nothing but confused. I thought I'd lean towards the first end of the spectrum, especially after reading some great travel blogs, but there was only one way to find out.
I hadn't actually planned much for my visit to the city but for some reason envisioned myself camped out there for a while. I was thinking about trying to teach some yoga classes at Utopia and spend some time volunteering at Big Brother Mouse (BBM), but aside from that my plans were lacking. By chance I found myself a peaceful family run guesthouse which was located off the main strip, offering me the solitude I was looking for. My first full day in town I started with a morning visit to BBM and knew that I'd soon be returning. Volunteering there is actually how I spent a majority of my time in Luang Prabang but there were a few other things to mention.
I took the advice from a few of the boys at BBM and ventured up Phou Si hill for sunset, the only downside is that it caused me to miss the evening session at BBM. I arrived pretty early, like a few other tourists on top of the hill I greatly underestimated the time of sunset (or overestimated how long it would take me to get to the top) so I had some time to kill. After a brief walk around the top and a few pictures, I noticed some large storm clouds looming in the distance. Many visitors, including a crew of adorable Korean tourists (now in their 60's but apparently middle school alumni) decided to head back down the hill. Having nowhere else to be I decided to stick it out and I'm glad I did...
I spent hours between my visits to BBM exploring the city but only visited one of the many temples the city has to offer. Wat Xieng Thong is only a few blocks from where I was volunteering so I decided to stop there after one of the morning sessions.
The architecture and design is much different than anything I'd seen in the last few months (in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia) so I did find it beautiful although to be honest, I was a bit templed out. Thanks to the extreme heat and blazing sun though I didn't last longer than 30 minutes, eventually I had to call it quits and find lunch.
While in the city my daily post-volunteering, afternoon activity quickly became sampling one of the MANY restaurants in the city, both to eat and escape the heat! The city has reasonable western options (sometimes you just need to satisfy a burger craving) as well as traditional Lao restaurants (usually cheaper). Either way, they usually offer a great atmosphere, some of the best-being riverside (sunset view) while others offer you a great spot in town for people watching. Only two days before I departed the city I found one of my favorite restaurants, Bamboo, a small unassuming yet delicious place only meters from my guesthouse.
Another must in Luang Prabang is a visit to the night market, not so much because it's awesome but because it's in the center of town and almost impossible to avoid if you're out at night. My first visit was more about food than shopping which led me to the infamous buffet which if you ignore the potential sanitation problems is quite the deal. For only 10,000 kip you can pile your plate up with a variety of delicious vegetarian dishes (mostly just fried noodle in different forms), worth doing once but not highly recommend for a superb meal. There's a variety of other food vendors selling take away or sit down meals and of course, the long row of sandwich/shake women all selling the same thing but vying for your business. There's also the rows upon rows of vendors looking for you to buy their goods, selling everything from t-shirts, pants, and bags to paintings, jewelry, and coffee.
After a few days I decided to get out of town, again on the move, so that I could explore more of what the country had to offer. Luang Prabang was kind of like Vietnam in the sense that it just was, there was nothing spectacular in the city that REALLY made me want to stay there but at the same time, it was easy to stay. I made myself a bit of a home at my guesthouse, found some lovely restaurants, gave back through my time at Big Brother Mouse, and had plenty of entertainment options (temples, outdoors, waterfalls, bike riding, bars, day tours or simply relaxing). I didn't bother saying my goodbyes because after my trip south I knew I'd be back.
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.