Exploring Luang Prabang

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Exploring Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang offers a dizzying array of things to do, whether you want to peruse local crafts, explore the waterfalls, visit rescued bears, or experience traditional festivals and ceremonies. And don't forget to sample the local rice whiskey.
Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Luang Prabang is home to a number of waterfalls, which have become popular with visitors and locals looking to cool down on a hot afternoon. The Kuang Si falls are one of the area's principal tourist attractions and are just a short trip away by car or boat. South of town (not far from the Elephant Village camp) is Tad Sae. Smaller than Kuang Si, the falls are only accessible by boat and are a quiet—albeit still touristy—alternative. But if you really want to get off the beaten path, Tad Thong falls are a short car ride from town and they feature a lovely walking trail.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Alms Ceremony
    Nothing embodies the debate about the effects of tourism on Luang Prabang quite like its morning alms ceremony. For hundreds of years, local novice monks have walked through town with begging bowls to receive their ration of food for the day in keeping with Buddhist tradition. The sight of dozens of saffron-clad initiates walking single file past devoted townspeople in the morning light is stirring, which is probably why many tourists start clicking away like paparazzi and try to join in without learning proper etiquette. As a result, this beautiful ceremony is teetering on the edge of extinction. Thankfully, local hotels have spearheaded a Respect the Alms campaign and are putting up informational posters around town to educate visitors.
    Photo by Celine Laheurte
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    The Life of a Rice Farmer
    Nearly three-quarters of Laos’s 6.5 million people live off the land and agriculture has always been a major source of income for the country's citizens. Rice farming is central to the lives of many Laotians and a Lao-owned organic farm just outside of town offers a program for visitors to learn more about this way of life. The Living Land Rice Experience is a half-day program that immerses visitors in the experience of rice farming. Visitors are brought step-by-step through the entire rice-growing cycle: cultivating the shoots, plowing the field, planting, and even preparing the harvest tools and threshing and milling the mature rice.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    The Mesmerizing Mekong
    The Mekong can be a window into the everyday life of Laotians. Walk down the steep banks of the river and you'll see women washing their hair at water’s edge and local fishermen preparing their nets. You'll also find long wooden boats, ready to take you to some of the town's most beautiful sights. Upriver are the famous Pak Ou caves, filled with hundreds of discarded Buddha sculptures. Downriver is a scenic journey to Kuang Si waterfalls. If you want a guided tour with an English-speaking guide, try reserving ahead of time with an outfit like Banana Boat. You can also hire your own boat for a DIY cruise at dusk. For around $12–$15 you’ll have your own private view of a staggeringly-beautiful sunset; grab your beverage of choice and enjoy!
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Hmong New Year
    The Hmong are an ethnic minority with their own language, dress, and customs, and watching their New Year celebration is a festive introduction to the richness of Lao tribal cultural life. Hmong New Year lasts about 10 days and occurs in November, December, or January, synchronized with the end of the year's harvest. (Like many things in Laos, details are subject to change and are often spread word-of-mouth.) Some distinct elements of this joyful gathering include pov pob, a ball-tossing game played between young girls and boys of different clans as a sort of courtship ritual, and the display of colorful Hmong traditional regalia. Abundant food and group dancing make this an unforgettable experience for visitors.
    Photo by Alain Evrard/age fotostock
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    Double Trouble: Lao-Lao Whiskey
    Lao-lao is the homemade rice whiskey made in many villages throughout Laos. Though it seems to Western ears like the same sound repeated twice, it is actually two tonally different words which translate into a very literal name: “Lao alcohol.” Even if your words aren't doubled up, your vision certainly will be after sampling some of this incredibly potent local brew. The bottled varieties for sale at the Night Market often have snakes and scorpions floating inside, reputedly to enhance your "vital spirits." To see how Lao-lao is made, there's a village just outside town where you can watch—and smell—the fiery distillation process up close. (The village is often included as a stop on boat trips to the Pak Ou caves.)
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Natural Wonders
    Luang Prabang offers a variety of delights for nature lovers. Near the famous waterfall, Kuang Si, Butterfly Park is a beautiful, sprawling complex where you can stroll among brightly colored wings and flowers before stopping for refreshment at the on-site café. Continuing up the road inside the entrance to Kuang Si waterfalls, Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre is run by the Free the Bears Foundation, and is home to Asian black bears rescued from use in the manufacture of traditional medicines. Laos was once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but fewer than 1,000 exist today. Elephant Village (a short car ride south of town) is a privately owned camp that focuses on the care and rehabilitation of former logging elephants.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Learn to Cook Lao Food
    Learning how to cook Lao food starts with a trip to the market—and not the one that’s been cleaned up for tourists. Phousi Market gets going around 4:00 a.m. and is a short tuk-tuk ride from the Peninsula. You’ll find truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables along with fish, spices, herbs, and cuts of meat that seem a million miles from the styrofoam-wrapped aisles of your local supermarket. Luang Prabang has an abundance of cooking schools, most of them offshoots of local restaurants and hotels. Both Tamarind and the Tamnak Lao cooking schools include a market tour and will teach you to make Lao staples like mok pa. La Residence Phou Vao and Hotel de la Paix have teaching kitchens and classes on property for their guests, too.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Craft Villages
    There are a number of hamlets—each known for a particular craft—in the areas surrounding Luang Prabang. Ban Xang Khong is home to makers of saa paper, crafted from the bark of mulberry trees. (The village is also known for beautiful silk weavings.) Ban Chan, also known as "Pottery Village," lies on the opposite side of the Mekong from town. Here you can watch artisans use traditional techniques to fashion terra-cotta tiles, pots, and other objects that are then fired in a large underground kiln. Just south of town is Ban Phanom, home to many talented weavers of silk and cotton. And after you've met the weavers there, it's only a short distance downriver to visit the tomb of Henri Mouhot, the famous French explorer.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Paradise in an Amphitheater of Mountains
    French explorer and naturalist Henri Mahout once described Luang Prabang as a paradise “set in its amphitheater of mountains.” If you love the outdoors, there are plenty of ways to quickly get out into the countryside. One popular day trip is Chomphet District, just a five-minute boat ride across the Mekong River. A hired boat or a semi-regular ferry service will bring you to a relatively undeveloped area that is great for hiking and mountain biking (there's a free Hobo Map online which shows some options). If you’re looking for a package tour, many operators offer a wide array of day treks and bike tours. Tiger Trail, for instance, offers a one-day hike that takes you to nearby Khmu and Hmong villages.
    Photo courtesy of Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures