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Exploring Luang Prabang

The Mesmerizing Mekong
Exploring Luang Prabang
For such a compact place, Luang Prabang offers a surprising array of things to do. From the night market and Elephant Village to sunset cruises on the Mekong and alms-giving to Buddhist monks, you’re sure to discover your ideal experience.
By AFAR Editors, AFAR Staff
Photo by Justin Lancy
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    The Mesmerizing Mekong
    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 and local fishermen preparing their nets. You’ll also find long wooden boats, ready to ferry you to some of Luang Prabang’s most beautiful sights. Travel upriver to the famous Pak Ou caves, filled with hundreds of discarded Buddha sculptures, or go on a scenic journey downriver to the Kuang Si waterfalls. If you want a tour with an English-speaking guide, try booking ahead with an outfit like Banana Boat. You can also hire your own boat for around $12 to $15 and take a DIY cruise at sunset.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Alms Ceremony
    Alms Ceremony
    Nothing embodies the debate over the effects of tourism on Luang Prabang quite like its morning alms ceremony. For hundreds of years, local monks have walked through town with begging bowls to receive their food ration for the day, in keeping with Buddhist tradition. The sight of dozens of saffron-clad initiates shuffling single file past devoted townspeople in the morning light is stirring, which is probably why many tourists start snapping 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. If you want to participate, ask your hotel to help arrange the experience, or head to a quiet side road away from the center of town and follow the locals’ lead.
    Photo by Celine Laheurte
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    Waterfalls
    Waterfalls
    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. In fact, the Kuang Si falls are now one of the area’s principal tourist attractions, sitting just a short trip from town by car or boat. South of the city, not far from the Elephant Village camp, is Tad Sae. Smaller than Kuang Si, these falls are accessible only by boat and are a quiet—albeit still touristy—alternative. If you really want to get off the beaten path, Tad Thong falls are a quick car ride from town and feature a lovely walking trail.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    The Life of a Rice Farmer
    The Life of a Rice Farmer
    Agriculture has always been a major source of income for Laos’s citizens, with nearly three-quarters of the country’s 6.5 million people living off the land. At the organic Living Land Farm just outside of Luang Prabang, you can get a sense for just how central rice farming is to the lives of many Laotians. The half-day Living Land Rice Experience program immerses visitors in the experience of rice farming, bringing them step-by-step through the entire growing cycle, from cultivating the shoots, plowing the field, and planting, to preparing the harvest tools and milling the mature rice.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Hmong New Year
    Hmong New Year
    The Hmong are an ethnic minority in Laos with their own language, dress, and customs. For a festive introduction to the cultural richness of their lives, attend their New Year celebration, which takes place over 10 days in either November, December, or January, depending on the end of the year’s harvest. (Like many things in Laos, details are subject to change and are often spread by 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 also help to make this an unforgettable experience for visitors.
    Photo by Alain Evrard/age fotostock
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    Double Trouble: Lao-Lao Whiskey
    Double Trouble: Lao-Lao Whiskey
    Lao-lao is the homemade rice whiskey made in many villages throughout Laos. Though the name sounds to Western ears like the same word repeated twice, it actually features two tonally different words, which translate very literally to “Lao alcohol.” Even if your speech isn’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.” If you’re interested to see how lao-lao is made, there’s a village just outside of Luang Prabang 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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    Laotian Animal Life
    Laotian Animal Life
    Luang Prabang offers a variety of delights for animal lovers. Near the famous Kuang Si waterfalls, Butterfly Park is a beautiful, sprawling complex where you can stroll among brightly colored wings and flowers before stopping to refuel at the on-site café. Continuing up the road inside the entrance to Kuang Si waterfalls, you'll find Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, home to Asian black bears rescued from use in the manufacture of traditional medicines. If you prefer pachyderms, head south of town to Elephant Village, a privately owned camp that focuses on the rehabilitation and care of former logging elephants.
    Photo by Justin Lancy
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    Learn to Cook Lao Food
    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. A short tuk-tuk ride from the Peninsula, Phousi Market gets going around 4 a.m. Here, you’ll find truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables along with spices, herbs, fish, and cuts of meat that seem a million miles from the Styrofoam-filled 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 how to make Lao staples like mok pa. La Résidence Phou Vao and Hotel de la Paix also have teaching kitchens and classes on property for their guests.
    Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/age fotostock
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    Craft Villages
    Craft Villages
    In the areas surrounding Luang Prabang, there are a number of hamlets known for particular crafts. Ban Xang Khong is famous for its saa paper, made from the bark of mulberry trees, as well as its beautiful silk weavings. On the opposite side of the Mekong from town, Ban Chan, also known as Pottery Village, features terra-cotta tiles, pots, and other objects, crafted with traditional techniques and fired in a large underground kiln. There’s also Ban Phanom just south of town, where many talented silk and cotton weavers reside. After visiting them, you can travel a short distance downriver and visit the tomb of Henri Mouhot, the famous French explorer.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Paradise in an Amphitheater of Mountains
    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.” To see what he was talking about, take a day trip to the Chomphet District, just a five-minute boat ride across the Mekong River. A hired boat or the semi-regular ferry service will bring you to this relatively undeveloped area, where you can hike and mountain bike. If you’re looking to get even further into nature, many operators offer day treks and bike tours outside of the city. Tiger Trail, for instance, runs a one-day hike that takes tourists to nearby Khmu and Hmong villages.
    Photo courtesy of Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures