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Activities in Luang Prabang

Now, you may just be happy sitting in a cafe and reading a book to while your time away.  While I certainly do enjoy a nice relaxing afternoon, don't miss out on the numerous area activities.  These range from the just as relaxing (in my opinion) exploration of the temples around town to the more active kayaking and hiking in the Lao countryside.

Here are some of my favorite things to do:
Offering food to monks in Luang Prabang
Exploring Phou Si Hill
Visiting the Royal Palace Museum
Photographing Buddhas at the Pak Ou Caves
Kayaking the Mekong and Nam Ou
Diving into the cool turquoise waters of the Kuang Si Waterfalls
Hiking through Hmong and Khmu villages

NOTES:
If you are going on a trip or adventure tour with local guides, you can rest assured that the company will provide food and water.  If you are taking a guided trip to the Pak Ou Caves or Kuang Si (the two most popular trips from Luang Prabang) by yourself or in a tuk-tuk, you may want to pack food and water.  You can buy food items and bottles of water on the main strip in town.

One thing you will need, no matter whether you go on a trip with guides or do-it-yourself, is bug spray.  The insects out of town (and even in town by the Mekong) can be quite brutal.  You can pick up OFF! bug spray from one of the stores on the main strip of Luang Prabang.


OFFERING FOOD TO MONKS IN LUANG PRABANG
This serene ritual was highlighted on Anthony Bourdain's trip to Laos on his television show "No Reservations."  At dawn, Buddhist monks file through town on the way to their respective temples.  Locals kneel down and present offerings of food (usually sticky rice) to the monks as they walk down the sidewalk.  Tourists may participate in this offering procession, but must remain respectful of the ceremony.

Some visitors may notice signs posted up around town warning them what not to do.  Basically, when monks pass, make sure to bow or kneel down so that your head is lower than theirs.  This is especially important when offering them food.  Also don't get in their face with your camera, but remain a respectful distance away.  DO NOT try to stand and pose just in front of the monks as they walk past, as they would much rather you stay away so that they can go on with their business. 

Bottom line: If you have any questions on how to behave, stay back one morning and watch and learn from the locals

Many guidebooks and forums warn visitors to beware of the ladies selling them sticky rice in the morning.  At dawn, when the monks file through town, the restaurants and food stalls are still closed.  The only place to get food to offer the monks at this early hour is from the ladies walking around and hawking baskets of sticky rice. 

Unfortunately, some of these ladies are selling old sticky rice from the night before (or even older!) and monks have gotten sick from this food.  So watch out for these rice vendors and make sure you are buying something fresh to offer the monks. 

Instead of falling into this sticky rice trap, I went to the food market the night before I planned on offering food to the monks, and bought a couple dozen oranges and apples.  While these might not be part of the normal offering, they are certainly healthy, you know they will be fresh, and they are still within the monks' dietary restrictions.  Trust me -- even if some of the locals look at you quizzically when you kneel down with a pile of fruit in front of you as the monks start coming by, the monks will definitely take the fruit that you offer to them.

As for location, I generally found that the best location was in front of the Royal Palace Museum, which was quite convenient to my hotel.  At this location, you will encounter at least a couple lines of monks traveling both ways along the street to get to their respective temples.  Again, if you have any questions, just look for the locals kneeling down with rice ready -- you know the monks will show up soon afterward.  Once the monks have passed, if the locals remain there, then be prepared for another round of monks.  If the locals get up to leave, you can rest assured that there won't be any more monks at that location.

One last note: the monks really do get up and start walking at dawn, so if you're even a few minutes late, you may miss the whole procession. 

   
   

EXPLORING PHOU SI HILL
Phou Si hill lies right in the heart of Luang Prabang.  At the top of the 328 stairs leading up the slope is Wat Phou Si, a Buddhist temple built in 1804.

I recommend you take the stairway directly opposite the main gate of the Royal Palace Museum.  Visitors must pay an entrance fee of about $2.  This "stairway to heaven" takes you straight to the temple at the top, where you will have a wonderful panorama of Luang Prabang and the Khan River.  You will also find a Russian anti-aircraft gun, rusted and out of use.

From the top, you can descend down the backside route, which takes you through a zigzag of stairs, Buddhist statues, and relics all the way down to the bottom.  Take a look at our Luang Prabang Gallery for more photos of Phou Si hill and other sights.

     
     

VISITING THE ROYAL PALACE MUSEUM
Luang Prabang was for hundreds of years the capital of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang.  When Laos became a part of French Indochina, Luang Prabang remained the royal residence, and became the capital of the Kingdom of Laos when the French left in 1953.  In 1975, when the Pathet Lao communist party took control of the Lao government, the capital moved to Vientianne.

The Royal Palace, built in 1904, is now a museum with displays from Luang Prabang's royal past.  It is centrally located along the main strip in Luang Prabang, lies between Phou Si hill and the Mekong River.  Entry to the museum costs $2, and the self-guided museum tour takes you through the various furnished royal rooms and past exhibits memorializing the history of the monarchy.  Of course the museum fails to discuss the murder of the royal family when the communist party took over the country.

 

   

PAK OU CAVES
The first "must-see" destination outside the city are the Pak Ou Caves, which feature hundreds of Buddha statues.  These caves, located approximately 25km north of the city, lie an the juncture of the Mekong and Ou Rivers (this will often be called the Nam Ou -- Nam in Lao means River, therefore the Nam Ou means "Ou River"). 

The hundreds of Buddha statues in these caves are the results of centuries of local townsfolk depositing their old or damaged Buddhas in these caves. 

If you are traveling to the Pak Ou caves with a guide, he should take care of the entrance fee.  If you travel up to the caves on a do-it-yourself trip, you will have to pay the $1 fee. 
 
For those do-it-yourselfers out there, you can easily arrange a boat ride up the Mekong with one of the locals at the docks along the river in Luang Prabang.  A boat which seats 4-5 people should cost around $10 for the 45 minute trip up the river and back.  You can also take a tuk-tuk to the village opposite the Pak Ou caves, and then pay for a ferry ride across the Mekong.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend taking the boat ride as it is far more scenic.  Take a look at our Luang Prabang Gallery for more photos of the Pak Ou Caves and other sights. 

     
     

KAYAKING THE MEKONG AND NAM OU
A third way to see the Pak Ou caves is via kayak. 

One of the local outfitters, Green Discovery, offers kayak trips to the Pak Ou via the Ou and Mekong Rivers.  Although there are numerous adventure tour companies in Luang Prabang which offer everything from elephant rides to jungle treks to whitewater rafting, Green Discovery is notable because it is the only outfitter that is Lao owned and operated.  The prices are quite reasonable, and the local guides have a great command of the English language and offer wonderful insight into the local customs and history.

On this particular trip, a van will dropped us off on the Nam Ou above Pak Ou, and we floated down the river to the caves.  After this stop, where we looked at the caves and had lunch (food and water included as part of the trip) we continued on down the Mekong until our take-out point. 

I did this kayak trip at the end of the dry season, so the river waters were low and a little bit slow, but it was still a good ride.  The rivers weren't very rough, with several Class II rapids to add a little bit of fun to the ride.

Green Discovery offers both private and group trips, and give each person a dry bag to help keep your possessions high and dry.  The tour guides was professional and the while trip was well planned and executed.  The van was waiting to pick us up at our take-out point, and the while experience was very smooth.  Take a look at our Luang Prabang Gallery for more photos of the Pak Ou Caves and other sights.

     
     

KUANG SI WATERFALLS
The other "must-see" attraction outside Luang Prabang are the Kuang Si Waterfalls.  These multi-tier waterfalls are a 50 min - 1hr ride out of town, which should run you approximately $6 (tuk-tuk half-day rental).  There are posted signs outside the internet cafes in town advertising group trips to the Kuang Si waterfalls, but it's just as cheap to hire your own tuk-tuk and be on your own schedule, rather than at the mercy of others.

The Kuang Si park starts out at the very bottom of the falls, where you must pay the $1 entry fee.  A winding trail then takes you past a small enclosure displaying Asian black bears rescued from poachers.  This trail continues on through the woods past several turquoise-blue pools of water and small 10-15 foot high cascades, before you reach the top where you'll find a 180 foot high waterfall. 

There are changing rooms and picnic benches at several of the pools, and there is a deck area with more benches at the top waterfall.  The whole area is shaded and cool, although the water is a bit cold.  Kuang Si is a great destination for a hot afternoon, but be sure to bring a towel with you. 

You'll find other visitors getting their thrills by jumping off of the shorter cascades, or off a tree whose branches extend out over the water.  The ground is a little slippery with mud, so watch your step.

To the right of the 180 foot waterfalls is a steep trail that leads up to the top of the waterfalls.  This trail is extremely slippery, and you'll need proper shoes to climb to the top.  At the top you'll be able to cross over the waterfalls and look down to the pool of water below.  This route is also the way you will come if you take the Green Discovery hike to Kuang Si.  Take a look at our Luang Prabang Gallery for more photos of the Kuang Si Waterfalls and other sights.

     
     

HIKING
Local adventure tour outfitters offer various treks, ranging from true jungle treks in Pha Thueang to shorter hikes in and around the Luang Prabang area.

I booked a hike to Kuang Si Waterfalls with Green Discovery, which was a little bit of an adventure.  A van dropped us off with our guide just outside a Hmong village an hour or so drive outside Luang Prabang.  We hiked through the village, and the guide pointed out the different styles of houses that the Hmong and Khmu villagers had built.  Apparently each ethnic group builds a different type of house.

The hike continued on through rubber trees and into a series of open valleys.  Afterward, the brush closed in and we were walking through some dense brush before the vegetation opened up again and we found a road to walk along.  We continued hiking down to the river above the waterfalls, and crosses the river at the edge of the falls.  This was pretty cool as we could peer over the side of the cliff and see the water tumbling down into the pool almost 200ft below.  Once we crossed the river, we clambered down a steep and slippery slope beside the falls to get to the bottom, where we could swim in the pools and take pictures of the waterfalls.

The hike from the village to the falls took about 3 hours, and was steep at some parts, especially at the very end.  It was rough going walking through the brush and bug repellant is a must.  The best part, by far, was actually getting to the waterfalls, and truth be told I wish we had more time to relax at Kuang Si. 

Overall, I would not recommend the hike.  The next day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us straight to the falls so we could spent more time swimming in the pools and jumping off the waterfalls.  The falls are the highlight and by far the most fun part of the trip, and I would just as well have skipped the hike and spent more time in the water.  Take a look at our Luang Prabang Gallery for more photos of my Kuang Si hike and other sights.

     
     

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