Cruising the Mekong? Linda Meads takes a look at why a stop in the ancient city of Luang Prabang should be top of your list.
It's known for its Unesco World Heritage status and its storied past, but the northern Lao city of Luang Prabang has moved, somewhat, with the times, although many of its highlights remain timeless. Here are a few tips of what not to miss during a cruise stopover.
Trek up Mt Phousi
The compact Old Quarter of the city is fairly easy to negotiate but to get your bearings, join the throngs ascending famous Mt Phousi at sunrise or sunset for spectacular 360-degree views. Go early to get a good spot, take some cash (you'll need 20,000 kip which is about $3.40 to access the upper half of the hill) and some decent shoes as it's reasonably steep. At the top, 150m up, you'll find vendors selling drinks and snacks as well as flowers for blessings and birds housed in tiny cages (setting one free is meant to bring good luck and happiness).
Hire a bike for the day
By far the easiest way to get around is by bicycle as many of the two-lane streets in the Old Quarter are one way and flat. A bike will get you further faster, is much cheaper than a tuk tuk, scooter or car, and is super fun. Plus, you'll get to ride over the amazing Old Red Iron Bridge over the Nam Khan River, only accessible to scooters and bicycles.
Speaking of bridges . . .
For a unique experience, it's worth paying the 85c per person to cross the Nam Khan River near to where it meets the Mekong via a bamboo bridge at one of its shallowest and narrowest points during the dry season. Despite its rickety appearance, the bridge seems perfectly safe but take our advice and wear jandals in case the tide is high. The fee you pay helps to rebuild the bridge after the rains come (May to October).
Eat, drink, be merry
The food and drink options in Luang Prabang are excellent — attribute this to that French colonial influence if you want, but there are expats from everywhere who have been doing great things in this city for years. Some notable gems include the excellent Saffron Coffee, which sources its coffee beans from micro plots run by Lao hill tribe families; Bouang, a French-meets-Asian-fusion eatery with plenty of cool hipster charm and some great meat-free options; Popolo, a Mediterranean-style restaurant in a gorgeous building with its own retro-inspired cocktail bar; and Zurich Bread Factory and Cafe, an excellent bakery with to-die-for lemon tarts. Also worth a look is Utopia, a riverside bar and restaurant overlooking the Nam Khan River, which holds yoga classes in the morning and hosts DJs come nightfall.
If all that delicious food has inspired you . . .
Sign yourself up for a lesson at one of the city's many cooking schools. The excellent Tamarind Restaurant offers one of the best-known experiences. You begin your day at the main local food market before heading out to Tamarind's lakeside cooking school to prepare six authentic Lao dishes using traditional methods and equipment. You'll learn Lao etiquette and customs along the way for a truly memorable experience.
Pay your respects
With more than 30 temples within its city limits, there's little escaping Luang Prabang's rich Theravada Buddhist heritage and culture, including its hundreds of orange-robed monks. A visit to a temple is a must; be prepared to pay a small entrance fee ($3.40) and cover up with a sarong, available to rent at the gate. Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559-60, is one of the treasures in Laos' crown and acted as a royal temple until 1975. Its golden structures feature beautiful carvings and elaborate mosaics including an intricate tree of life.
Take to the river
If you haven't already experienced it, a Mekong River sunset is a must-do. Local company Sa Sa do a nice job for $14.50 per person, which includes a two-hour scenic cruise up and down the Mekong and a complimentary Lao mojito cocktail. Get there early and nab a spot at the front of the boat on one of the deck chairs and bliss out to some quality tunes (Neil Young and Bob Dylan among them) as the sun sinks behind the mountains. Glorious. The key is not looking too closely at the rubbish floating past in the Willy Wonka chocolate river-esque Mekong below or you'll drive yourself mad.
Late night flurry
If you need last minute presents or fancy some souvenirs, the excellent Luang Prabang Night Market in the middle of the Old Quarter is the place for you, from 5pm to about 9.30pm daily. You'll find everything from cheap street food and silk lanterns to hand-sewn children's books and ubiquitous Beer Lao T-shirts and singlets. Bartering is okay but this is not Thailand so be a little forgiving — no one here is really trying to rip you off. Note that using other currencies, especially US dollars, is okay but kip seems to be preferred, and it's difficult to find anywhere that will break a large note for you.
flies from Auckland to Luang Prabang, via Bangkok, with partner airline Thai Smile.