SIGHTS IN LUANG PRABANG
There are 34 major Buddhist temples among Luang Prabang's colonial and Chinese architectures, all set in a backdrop of lush green mountains. The Mekong River frames the town's western border, and it remains an important commercial and recreational transportation link. Vibrant cultural traditions, rituals and distinctive artwork such as temple murals, woodcarvings and pottery make Luang Prabang an attractive destination for a wide range of interests.
Luang Prabang boasts a variety of Lao, Tai-Lue, Burmese, Chinese and Taui architecture. The Night Market offers a large variety of street food and traditional goods. The town is famous for its unique textiles and beautiful mulberry paper. Famous foods in Luang Prabang are “Aur Lam” (a thick stew made with the forest herb “Sakhan”, meat and eggplants), “Jaew Bong”, a sauce made with hot chillies and buffalo skin and “khai Pan” dried river weed lightly fried with sesame seeds and garlic.
Than Xieng Tong is the main thoroughfare in Luang Prabang. It is filled with cafes and shops filled with backpackers, and shophouses with French colonial windows and door and blue, white and brown paint jobs. King Kitsarath Road follows the Khan River. here you can often see children swimming and leaping into water from overhanging trees.
Phu Si (at the city center opposite the Royal Palace) or “scared mountain” is the 140-meter-high geographical and spiritual focus of the city. Believed to have once been the dwelling plac of a powerful naga, it is regarded as a miniature version of Mt. Meru. At the top is a golden stupa and a recently reconstructed wat. Two other wats are located on its slopes. There good views from the top. Phou Si is one of the major landmarks in the city. It is a good place to catch the sunset or sunrise. Mt Phu Si (also spelled Phousi or Phousy) has three sets of stairs that allow you to reach the top from three different parts of town. One set of stairs has 328 steps, Along the way you pass several old temples representing health, teaching, prosperity and the names of the weekdays.
Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Luang Prabang offers a range of experiences for spirit and psyche. To get our bearings, we climbed the 328 steps to the top of Mt. Phousi, Luang Prabang's best-known landmark....As we entered from the Nam Khan side, the shroud of low-hanging clouds added to the mystical quality. Along the way, several old temples housed Buddhas. At the top, we were rewarded with a panoramic vista of Luang Prabang and surrounding hamlets, including the gold-domed landmark Wat Pa Phon Pao (sometimes spelled Wat Pa Phon Phao) that UNESCO says "is in perfect harmony in the natural environment." [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
“We spent three more days sampling spas and visiting temples, monasteries and the national museum, once the royal palace of former King Sisavang Vong. Designed by French architects, the single-story, double cruciform-shaped structure is, like many buildings in Luang Prabang, a mixture of Laotian and European styles. For me, the most interesting room was the diplomatic gift hall. Among the usual dishes, portraits and royal knickknacks is a moon rock, a gift from then-President Richard Nixon."
Luang Prabang Old Town
Luang Prabang OLD TOWN is one of the most charming and best preserved old towns in Southeast Asia. There are many French colonial houses scattered in every corner of the city and small alleys. Some have bougainvillea flowers in front of the houses, cafes with dim lights and cute outdoor terraces. Haw Kham, the former royal palace, (now the National Museum) is among the most well-known historical sites in the city.
The commercial buildings are grouped along the Mekong, interspersed with private houses. The temples and royal residences line one side of Avenue Pavie, which runs the length of the peninsula, the other side being occupied by traditional and colonial houses. The administrative buildings are for the most part at the crossroads with Rue Gernier. The monasteries generally consist of: the cult buildings (shrine, chapel, library, stupa, stone post), ancillary buildings and buildings for inhabitants or visitors (monastic communal buildings, cells, refectory, etc.). Most are simple shrines with three aisles and a single porch. Their interior furnishings comprise a pedestal or throne for the main Buddha image, a pulpit, a terrace and a lamp. Most are elaborately decorated with carved motifs but the wall paintings are relatively simple. The Luang Prabang chapels are simple structures for housing images; they may be open or walled. [Source: UNESCO]
The traditional Lao wooden houses are basically divided into spaces: the private rooms and the public terraces. They are usually raised on wooden piles, giving a space beneath for working and for shelter for both men and animals. Walling may be of planks or plaited bamboo on a wooden frame. A developed form of this house makes use of brick, following the French introduction of this material, but conserving the general layout and appearance of the traditional house. Finally there are the administrative buildings, which more or less successfully blend traditional elements with European materials, techniques and uses.
''Luang Prabang was preserved because there was no money to change,'' a local historian told the New York Times. ''People didn't have money to fix a door, so the door stayed the same.'' The city was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995, so many of the doors will remain unchanged. But when the money from tourists did start coming in the late 1990's, Luang Prabang began struggling with the same issues of cultural integrity that many Southeast Asian cities now face. The new capitalism has brought with it silk shops and Internet cafes, in which you will find tourists and monks side by side, tapping away at the computers. [Source: Amanda Hesser, New York Times, July 13, 2005]
Luang Prabang Architecture
According to UNESCO: Luang Prabang reflects the exceptional fusion of Lao traditional architecture and 19th and 20th century European colonial style buildings.” It “is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble built over the centuries combining sophisticated architecture of religious buildings, vernacular constructions and colonial buildings. The unique townscape of Luang Prabang is remarkably well preserved, illustrating a key stage in the blending of two distinct cultural traditions.
”The richness of Luang Prabang architecture reflects the mix of styles and materials. The majority of the buildings are, following tradition, wooden structures. Only the temples are in stone, whereas one- or two-storey brick houses characterize the colonial element of the town. The many pagodas or "Vat" in Luang Prabang, which are among the most sophisticated Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, are richly decorated (sculptures, engravings, paintings, gilding and furniture pieces). Wat Xieng Thong, which dates from the 16th century, comprises an ensemble of the most complex structures of all the pagodas of the town. It is remarkable both from the archaeological point of view, and from the Lao iconographic and aesthetic viewpoint. Many traditional Lao houses remain; they are built of wood using traditional techniques and materials introduced in the colonial period, such as plaited bamboo panels coated with wattle and daub. Brick colonial buildings, often with balconies and other decorative features in wood, line the main street and the Mekong.
”The built heritage of Luang Prabang is in perfect harmony in the natural environment. The sacred Mount Phousi stands at the heart of the historic town built on a peninsula delimited by the Mekong and the Nam Khan, domain of the mythical naga. Ceremonies to appease the nagas and other evil spirits, and Buddhist religious practices (Prabang procession, the monks’ morning quest) perpetuate the sanctity of the place. Natural spaces located in the heart of the city and along the riverbanks, and wetlands (a complex network of ponds used for fish farming and vegetable growing) complement this preserved natural environment.”
ROYAL PALACE (Sisavangvong Road, between Than Xieng Tong and Thanon Khem Kong) is rather modest for a royal palace and is still lived in by members of the royal family, who occupy the relatively small sleeping quarters. The public courtyard is huge; the reception areas glisten with gold and brocade; and the gilded reliefs that adorn the palace walls depict scenes from everyday village life as well court life in palace. The monarchy was outlawed by the Pathet Lao in 1975. From time to time the wife of the crown-prince performs the bocci ceremony for foreign visitors.
The palace mixes French colonial and Lan Xang styles, and features an entrance shaded in palm trees. It was the home of the royal family until the Revolution in 1975 when the Pathet Lao turned it into a museum.
The palace was started in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family during the French colonial era. The bulk of it was built after 1920. After the death of King Sisavang Vong, the crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his family were the last to occupy the palace. They occupied it until they were was taken to re-education camps in 1977. The palace was neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair until the 1990s when the government began promoting tourism and realized the benefits of making the mansion a tourist attraction. The palace was then converted into a national museum and opened to the public in 1995.
Located in the city on the other side of the road from Phou-Si mountain, the palace is in walking distance of all main hotels and guest houses. In the palace compound, there are several buildings including the Royal Barge Shelter, a conference hall, and Haw Pha Bang (a ornate pavilion) that houses the standing Buddha statue called Prabang. In the pass the Prabang statue and many other religious artifacts were housed in the palace, the front wing.
At the entrance gate is a pagoda. The two golden serpents that form the balustrades are representations of Naga, the serpent king that protected Buddha when he sat under bodhi tree before his enlightenment. At the Royal Palace don't miss the town's most famous resident, the ancient, 32-inch-tall gold Pra Bang Buddha; it's behind a door on the building's right-front corner.
Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “More than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who's inside. Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch's howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]
Royal Palace Museum
Royal Palace Museum (within the Royal Palace) contains a respectable collection of furniture, wooden drums, wooden and gold-leafed Buddhas, crystal Buddhas, golden murals inlaid with semiprecious stones, a golden sword with a Naga head handle owned by the king, elephant tusks engraved with Buddhas, embroidered silk screens, classical musical instruments, an elaborately decorated fly whisk, gifts from heads of state (including some moon rocks given by Richard Nixon in 1972), a metal chair used for riding on elephants, and objects owned by the royal family.
The museum also houses the city’s most sacred Buddha image, known as Prabang, which is source of the city’s name. This Buddha is 83 centimeters tall and weighs 43 kilograms and cast from gold, silver and bronze allow. According to legend it was made in Sri Lanka in the A.D. 1st century and given to the Khmer king Sirichantha, who in turn gave it to King Fangum, the founder of first Lao kingdom. The statue has Khmer features and more likely it was produced around the 13th or 14th century. Twice it was carried off by the Siamese 1779 and 1820 and was give back to the Lao monarchy in 1867 by the Siamese King Momgkat (Rama IV).
The most interesting thing in the museum is a room whose wall are covered entirely with a glass mosaic of mythical images and scenes from everyday life. The room was built for the coronation ceremony of the king in 1963. The mosaic took eight people three years to make. There is also a an Art Nouveau wooden bed used by the king. It has images of three royal elephants carved into the headstand. In the relatively modest royal car collection are mostly American cars from the 1950s to 1970s. Behind the garages is another building which has a gallery for rotating exhibitions.
The Royal Palace Museum is also known as “Haw Kham”. It can be roughly divided in three main parts: The front wing, consisting of reception areas; the throne hall (in the middle); and the back wing that was once residential area. The King’s reception hall at the right of the entrance now displays busts and paintings of the Lao monarchy along with two large gilded and lacquered Ramayana screens. The walls of the room are decorated with murals depicting scenes of traditional Lao lifestyles, painted by a French artist back in the 1930s. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]
The room next to the right of the King’s reception hall displays a collection of the palace’s most prized art including a cast of the prized Pha Bang buddha statue in gold, silver and bronze. On the left of the entrance hall the former secretary’s reception area now houses gifts from various heads of state to the Lao monarchy. Displayed objects are grouped by “socialist” and “capitalist” countries. The room to the left of the secretary’s reception was once the Queen’s reception room. It now displays paintings of King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamphoui and the crown Prince Vong Savang. Also displayed are friendship flags from China and Vietnam, and replicas of sculpture from the National Museum in New Delhi.
The throne hall connects the reception wing with the residential wing where the royal family’s bedrooms and living quarter were. The walls of this room are decorated with cut mirrored tile mosaics similar to those seen in the town’s oldest temple, Wat Xieng Thong. Displayed in the throne hall are the throne of the king and queen, the king’s elephant chair and glass cases containing many crystal Buddha images that were removed from Wat That Makmo.
The back wing was the royals’ residential area and includes bedrooms, a dining room, a library and a music and dance exhibits area displaying Lao classical instruments and masks. The residential area has been preserved more or less as it was in 1975 before the royal family departed.
Opening Times: 08:00am-11:30am, 1:30pm-4:00pm. Open daily except Tuesday. Entrance Fee: 30,000kip (US$4), Children under 10 free of charge. No photography is allowed inside the museum. No bags allowed, so you must leave yours in lockers provided near the entrance Shoes must be removed before entering the museum. Dress conservatively. Women with short shorts or skirts are required to put on a Lao skirt before entering (Lao skirts are available for hire on spot).
Wats in Luang Prabang
By one count there are 34 major Buddhist temples (wats) in Luang Prabang. Other say there are over a hundred. They include Wat Mai (New Temple), which has a bright red five-tired roof and 18th century gold relief doors and embraces a shelter for two long racing boats that were spared during the 19th century Chinese invasion; Wat Pa Ke , with golden frescoes depicting the arrival of the Dutch in 17th century; That Chomsi , a golden pyramid, surrounded by nine ritual umbrellas, emblems of the royal family. Wat Xieng Muan has a workshop where young monks carve Buddhas from wood. It's a UNESCO program to revive traditional arts that were squelched in the early communist era. At the small shop visitors can buy lithe Luang Prabang-style Buddhas to support the monastery's work. The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos has descriptions of some of the other wats.
Wat Xieng Thong (northern tip of the peninsula formed by the Mekong River and Nam Khan) is Luang Prabang's most famous temple. A classic example of northern Lao architecture, it was built in 1560 by King Saisetthalit and spared by the Yunnan invaders, whose leader was reportedly so overcome by the temple's beauty he became a monk. The complex contains 20 buildings, most of which house stunning Buddha images. The tiled roof of the main temple slopes downward at a steep angle and almost touches the ground. It has three levels which overlap one another. Opening Time: 08:00am-5:30pm. Open daily. Entrance Fee: 20,000kip (US$3).
Wat Xieng Thong means the Golden City Temple. The ridge of the roof has a golden "Cho Fa" , which is a model of universal belief. Its walls are decorated with murals, sculpture of local legends and colored glass art. On the exterior is a wildly colorful mosaic of the “Tree of Life.” Locals often pray inside and bang gongs. Nearby is a golden building called the "rong mien kot" (place to keep the urns) where there are many ancient woodcarvings of Buddha and a royal chariot with seven naga heads, and teakwood panels carved with images of Rama, Sita, Ravana and Hanuman, and other characters from the Lao verson of the Ramayana.
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most interesting examples of Buddhist art and architecture in Luang Prabang and arguably one of the most beautiful temples in Asia. The ornate carved and gilded funeral vehicle of the former king is kept in one of the buildings in the temple grounds. This temple was used for the most important Royal ceremonies and houses the bones of King Sisavangvong. Gayle Keck wrote in the Washington Post, “The main building, the sim, sports dazzling exterior mosaics similar to those in the palace throne room; inside, Buddhas large and small, sitting and standing, await worshipers amid regal, gilt-stenciled surroundings. Another temple structure holds the ornate, gold-leafed royal funeral carriage and a clutch of life-size standing Buddhas with the eerie aspect of exotic department-store mannequins. [Source: Gayle Keck, Washington Post, July 27, 2008]
Wat Visounnarath was built in 1503 to house the prabang, which is now in the Royal Palace. It features a watermelon-shaped pagoda, dome-topped roof which resembles a budding lotus flower, a finely-carved wood, Xieng-Khong-style doors, and numerous Buddha images.
Wat Long Khoun (across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang) is where the Lao monarchs mediated in solitude for three days before their coronation. Reached after a one hour hike, the well-preserved temple is beautifully set among fruit trees. It contains original interior wall murals and two frescoes on a gold-stenciled facade. There is a beautiful view of Luang Prabang from the veranda.
PLACES NEAR LUANG PRABANG
If you are into natural travel, there are numerous lovely sites to visit and many activities where you can get at one with nature. Falls and caves are just about an hour away from the city. You can see a cave in the morning and swim at one of the falls in the afternoon if you're tight in time. However, to fully enjoy what this charming city has to offer you should allow at least a few days. Numerous of operators offers tours, treks and river trips. Tiger Trail (Sisavangvong Road; http://www.trekking-in-laos.com) has a reputation for socially responsible tourism. Elephant ride, visit to Tad Sae waterfall and a so-so lunch was $35 per person; add kayaking or rafting for $10. Tad Sae is not as impressive as Kung Si Falls but still nice. It is only a 30 minute tuk tuk ride from Luang Prabang.
Ban Phanom (three miles east of Luang Prabang) is a Thai Lu village, famous for its cotton and silk weaving. The stilted wooden houses contain wooden looms which the female members of each household use to make weaving that sell from $5 to $25. Nearby is the tomb of Henri Mouhout, the “discoverer” of Angkor Wat. He died of malaria in Luang Prabang in 1861.
On her day trip out of Luang Prabang, Julie L. Kessler wrote in the New York Times: “We took a motorized long boat across the Mekong and entered the venerated Pak Ou Caves at the base of a towering limestone cliff. Inside this home of river spirits thousands of Buddha statues stand precariously in the cave's crevices. Although the caves are not as impressive as others I've visited in Asia, the cool darkness was a welcome respite. [Source:Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
”Driving about 20 minutes farther, we came to Xang Hai (Laotian for "jar making"), nicknamed Whiskey Village. Here, local women make 50 proof whiskey that is said to increase sexual virility. This whiskey, made from sticky rice in enormous glass jars, takes about three weeks to ferment. Items locals consider delicacies, such as whole scorpions, bear paws, spiders, geckos and snakes, are added to the liquid. We were offered whiskey samples to taste (called lao lao), through bamboo straws, and although admittedly curious, I worried about leaving my children orphans, so we passed. I don't think it hurt business, which appeared robust.
”Driving an hour southwest through tropical greenery and rice paddies, we arrived at the multitiered Kuang Si waterfalls and pools. After lunch, we started on the trail. At the entrance to the lower pools is a bear reserve started by an Australian organization. The Asian black bear, or moon bear, population in Laos is declining as a result of illegal hunting, human confrontation and deforestation. (In Asia, bear bile is used in traditional medicine, and bear paw whiskey and soup are seen as status symbols.) We saw two dozen orphaned, rescued and happily frolicking bears.
”From there we continued up the easy trail to the first of three swimming ponds where the refreshingly cold water flows over otherworldly limestone formations. We stopped at the second pool and found its waters ideal for taking the sizzle out of the heat (as did many saffron-robed, iPhone-carrying monks). We enjoyed the views, swapped travel stories with other visitors and swam in the pond for the better part of the glorious afternoon.”
Luang Prabang Province
Luang Prabang Province lies in the heart of the mountainous region of northern Laos. It shares border with Oudomxay and Phongsaly Provinces and Vietnam to the north, Vientiane and Xayaboury provinces to the south and southwest, and Xieng Khuang and Huaphan provinces province to the east. The main ethnic groups are the Hmong, Khmu, Tai Lue, and Lao. Natural Protected Areas: Nam Et and Phou Louei National Protected Areas. For those planning to visit an ethnic village in Luang Prabang, start or end your trip at the Traditional Art's and Ethnology Center. There are many other areas of Luang Prabang Province that have yet to be traveled by tourists, including the Nam Et/Phou Louei National Protected Area and the province’s northeastern region near the border with Vietnam, a remote rural area with many traditional Hmong communities.
There are some good treks in Chomphet district located close to Luang Prabang Town. Kwangsi Waterfall, typically visited by car, now has an alternative walking route that follows a foot path through forests, fields and ethnic villages. Ngoi Kao Village is a new, relaxing destination reached by a trek operated by the villagers themselves. They offer bungalow accommodation on a peaceful, remote stretch of the Nam Ou River. From Ngoi Kao you can also take overnight excursions through mountainous terrain to nearby ethnic communities. For those looking for a scenic alternative to bus travel, boats can be taken downriver from Muang Ngoi to Luang Prabang.
Elephants Near Luang Prabang
Elephant Village and Camp is a government-approved camp where rescued or retired elephants are cared for humanely. Have an easy going scenic elephant ride around the village and through the river. Get closer to the elephants by bathing them. You may get to learn words of command and use them to guide the elephants. You can go there on a tour (half-day, one-day, two-day or three-day), or just get to the village independently.
Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From Luang Prabang, we booked a full-day excursion to Pak Ou. Kai-ying, our English-speaking guide, and a driver picked us up at our hotel in an air-conditioned minivan and headed north for an hour on a mainly paved road. At the Pak Ou Elephant Reserve we met Eva, a gentle Asian elephant. Eva dutifully carried us for over an hour through a village dotted with tiny homes. Seeing us, children playing outside gleefully practiced their one word of English (hello, hello, hello). [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]
“Eva then took us into the lush areas edging the Mekong River, where a few cows and chickens meandered and we often had to duck our heads on the hilly areas to avoid low-hanging palm fronds. Seeing this part of the world from atop a majestic elephant is even more breathtaking than by foot. At the ride's conclusion, we gave Eva her just reward: green, unpeeled bananas that she gently took from our hands and immediately devoured whole, along with entire coconuts she deftly split in half with her front foot.”
Mekong River Trips from Luang Prabang
Pak Ou Caves (20 kilometers south of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River) contains thousands of Buddha statues, many of them sitting on little ledges overlooking the confluence of Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers. One of the holiest places in Laos, it contains images that may date back to the 14th century. Local people visit the caves during the Laotian new year, a tradition that was probably started 500 years ago by King Setthathirat (1520 to 1548).
The lower cave is a sloping, partly-open space with fine views of the river. Most of the Buddhas here are made from wood and bronze and are under a foot tall. There are thousands of them and they are clustered in groups. Some are inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones. During the Lao New Year pilgrims flock to the site to bath the Buddhas to earn merit.
A flight of stairs leads to the dark upper cave. Illuminated with flickering candles and perfumed by incense, this caves has several life-size Buddhas. Many of the statues have been stolen. Australian excavators counted 8,000 statues in 1989; today there are less than 3,000. The dominant feature is a gold, medium-size pagoda. Small candles are lit and placed at the base of the pagoda, They light up the dark cave.
Across the river from the caves is Ban Pak-Ou a beautiful place situated at the mouth of the Ou river. Surrounded by sheer thousand-foot-high limestone cliffs, it has an 18th century pagoda with some of the finest wall murals in Laos.
Mekong River Boat Ride to Ban Pak-Ou Caves passes by the Whiskey Village, with some beat-up distilleries where you can get Laotian moonshine, mountains, pine and bamboo forests, sandy islands, and men and women in straw hats panning for gold. A long-tail speed boat ride cost around $20. This can be split among however many people take the boat
Mekong River Boat Ride Between Bam Houei Sai and Luang Prabang covers 300 or kilometers. The downriver journey from north to south begins in Bam Houei Sai peacefully enough with glimpses of rich vegetable farms on the rivers banks, bathing women and children and fishermen working from canoes. After a couple of hours, the current quickens and the journey becomes dicier as the river passes through a narrow valley and heads east away from the Thailand border.
Travelers can travel between Bam Houei Sai and Luang Prabang in one day at 30 miles per hour in long-tail speed boats or in two days at 10 miles per hour in wooden cargo boats that are around 65 feet long and have an eye painted on the bow for good luck. The cargo boats carry things like palm sugar, sesame seeds, tobacco, mulberry tree bark, water buffalo and other farm animals. Passengers often sit on the roof of the cabin because that is only place with adequate space. On the speed boat passengers sit on wooden benches and wear life jackets and crash helmets.
The pilots of the cargo boats keep their eyes peeled on the river for much of the entire journey for submerged rocks and sandbars that can sink or ground a boat. Churning water and dips in the water indicate obstacles that should be avoided. There are no navigational markers and the channels are always changing, particular after a period of heavy rain. For spiritual guidance pilots keep pictures of Buddha and special monks and alters with offerings to the river gods in their cabin.
Waterfalls near Luang Prabang
Kuang Si Falls (30 kilometers from Luang Prabang) is one of the most popular sites in the Luang Prabang area. It is a lovely terraced waterfall with many swimming holes in the upper terraces. Carved out of limestone rock and built by limestone deposits, the falls are a wonderful place to spend the day relaxing. Adventurous visitors might try to climb to the top of the falls. At the very bottom of the falls there are several blue pools of water and small cascades (3-5 meters high); some of the falls are multi-tiered. Most of the pools are open for swimming (one is closed as being a sacred site) though the water is a bit cold because this area is shaded by big trees. This makes the falls a popular cool-off place among locals and tourists alike during the hot season.
There are small wooden huts to change in. Picnic benches are also available all around the park. The whole park area is shaded and cool that makes it perfect for a relaxing family outing and picnic. Sitting under the shade watching children swimming or jumping up and down in the pools can be relaxing and enjoyable. Jumping in the pool yourself can be fun too. The site is well maintained with walkways and bridges to guide the visitors.
There are also trails to climb to the top of the falls where there are more natural pools for swimming. The trails are steep and can be extremely slippery, especially in rainy season…so you’ll need proper shoes to climb to the top, but the climb is well worth the effort. However it not suitable for unfit people or small children. Don’t forget to take a bottle of water with you; I’m sure you’ll need it. If you climb up to the top at the left hand side (of the entrance) trails you’ll arrive at a huge and very impressive pool and its source. At the top you actually cross the top of the falls and this is a great place to get a good view down. If you want to recharge your energy after exhausting yourself exploring the trails or swimming, there are many stalls selling food and drinks near the picnic area at the entrance to the falls.
The road to the falls winds through hills with spectacular natural views, including terraced rice fields, which make the trip a memorable one. On the way to the waterfalls, there is a Hmong village where the old ladies still wear Hmong traditional costume. It is famous for its hand-woven handicrafts.
To get to the falls there, you'll have to travel by songthaeaw, tuk tuk or by boat and tuk-tuk. The fee varies ranging from around $5- $10 per person and the journey takes about 50 min – 1 hour by tuk-tuk or songthaeaw. Everywhere in cafes and travel agents in town there are signs advertising group trips to Kuang Si falls. If you prefer to follow your own schedule rather than have to fit in with others, you can hire your own tuk-tuk for around $15 for half-day rental. Most travel agents can help you with this though it could be more expensive than dealing direct with the tuk-tuk drivers. Walking through street you may be approached by tuk-tuk drivers offering their services, if not you can ask your guesthouse or hotel, I’m sure they can recommend someone.
There are two mini buses daily, running between Kuang Si Falls and Naluang Mini Bus station (opposite side of the road to LPB southern bus station). You can board the bus at the station or in town (no pick up fee). If you buy your ticket at one of the many travel agents in town it is usually more expensive, though they arrange a pick up at your hotel or somewhere that is convenient for you. You'll go to the falls and come back to town by the same bus. The bus waits at the falls. They usually give you around two hours. If you prefer to stay longer, you'll have to find a transport back to town by yourself. Departure time (from the Naluang station): 12:00 and 14:00 Cost: 40,000 per person round trip (more expensive if you buy tickets through travel agents) You can charter a mini bus for 350,000kip (max 6 people), or 400,000kip (max 11 people). This way you can stay as long as you want at the falls
If you hire your own tuk-tuk or mini van you can ask the driver to stop there on your way. It's worth to stop by to see the Hmong village, its handicrafts or the way of life of the villagers. If you fancy taking photos of girls in Hmong costume, beware that you might be asked to buy their stuff in return and some can be a little too pushy. When you get closer to the falls you will feel that the weather cooler and fresher, because the area is high and covered with forest. To enter the Kuang Si Park everyone must pay an entry fee (20,000kip). From the entry you can walk through a forested area where there are enclosures housing Asian black bears rescued from poachers.
Kwang Si Waterfall Walk (accessible from Luang Prabang town) is four to five hour walk to Kwang Si Waterfall that passes through Hmong and Khamu villages, green forests and mountain tops before arriving at the falls. Trekkers depart Luang Prabang in mid-morning for a 30-minute drive to Ban Nong Heo, a Khamu village where the village guide joins the group to lead the trek. Hike through community forests and farming fields for 1.5 hours to Ban Long Lao, a Hmong village. After lunch and learning about traditional Hmong textile production, trekkers climb through thick forests to the top of a mountain offering excellent views of the surrounding area.Descend from the hills to a natural spring for a brief rest and afternoon swim. The trail then arrives at the famous Kwang Si Waterfall, Luang Prabang's most popular natural site. Return to Luang Prabang by car in the late afternoon.
Luang Prabang Area Treks
Hill Tribe Villages Near Luang Prabang include those occupied Lu, Yao, and K'mu tribes. The nearby Yao village contains a rusted Soviet-built tank.
Chomphet Trek (accessible from Luang Prabang town) is a challenging two-day trek into the hills of Chompet district across the Mekong River, with some difficult climbs on the way to green forests, views of Luang Prabang, farmers' fields, a cave and three ethnic groups: Hmong, Khamu and lowland Lao. Day 1: Ban Moungkham - Ban Houaypong - Ban Phuluang Tai: Depart Luang Prabang in the early morning for a 30-minute boat ride up the Mekong River to Ban Moungkham in Chomphet district. From here, walk 2 hours on a forested trail to Ban Houaypong, a Khamu Rok village. After lunch, the trek begins an uphill climb to Ban Phuluang Tai. The trail is steep for 2 hours, before reaching a ridge. The path follows the ridge for 2 hours, and offers sweeping views across the mountain range and valleys below. Arrive in Ban Phuluang Tai, a Hmong community, by late afternoon. Phuluang Tai also has beautiful night views of the lights of Luang Prabang in the distance. The village offers optional services such as drum and kaen musical performances and selling traditional embroidery. Visitors spend the night in the village guesthouse, which is constructed in traditional Hmong style and managed by the community.
Day 2) Ban Som - Tam Nang Anh Cave: The a trek down to Ban Som that takes a little over 1.5 hours. The steep downhill trail passes the Hmong village, Ban Mok Prai. The path leads to Ban Som, an idyllic Lao Loum village surrounded by rice paddies, a creek, and mountains. Trekkers then leave their bags behind for the 30-minute uphill hike to Tam Nang Anh Cave and a swim at a small waterfall at the base of the mountain. After lunch in Ban Som, the final 3-hour hike back to Ban Moungkham os on an easy road and trail. From here, a boat returns the group to Luang Prabang for an early evening arrival.
Muang Ngoi Trek is a two-day trek from Ban Ngoi Kao on the Ou River that involves spending the night in a Khamu village guesthouse. Day 1) Leave Ngoi Kao by foot at about 1:00 pm and hike to Tam Gang and Tam Pha Keo Caves, which are situated about 30 minutes from the village. These cool, water-filled caves are several kilometers in length with waterfalls and rock formations inside, and were used as bomb shelters during several wars. Leaving the caves, the trail continues for 1.5 hours through fields and towering limestone cliffs before arriving at Ban Houay Sens. After a short break at a village rest house the hike continues to Ban Kiew Kan on a two-hour climb through primary forest with beautiful views of the limestone peaks. At Ban Kiew Kan, a friendly Khamu village, visitors watch baskets being made, take photos of the traditional Khamu homes, bathe in the natural spring, eat a locally-prepared meal, participate in a baci eceremony and sleep community guesthouses, constructed in the Khamu style.
Day 2) Trekkers journey three to four hours to Ban Hadsapeuy on the Ou River. From Ban Kiew Kan, the trail makes a brief climb before descending through the forest and fields to arrive at a stream. The next hour is spent on a shady walk in the river, before emerging to hike a small group of hills to Ban Hadsapeuy. After a fresh coconut trekkers a local boat for a stunning 30-minute trip down the river to Muang Ngoi. Kayaking back to town can also be arranged.
Nam Pa that is a small river that meanders through rugged mountains north of Luang Prabang and has some excellent rapids as well as opportunities for birdwatching. This Nam Pa is ideal for short, one-day trips into some remote villages and forest. Most people paddle the Ou just above Luang Prabang but its upper reaches near the Chinese border are more pristine, cutting through the undisturbed Phou Den Din NPA in which there are few villages. This is the longest inbound river in all of Laos is well known for its spectacular karsts formations and natural scenery.
Nam Xeung is a river takes you through limestone landscapes northeast of Luang Prabang with some swift rapids. It is best from July to October. Rafting is possible in the rainy season only between June and September.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020