Becoming familiar with a particular place leads to a certain warmth of feeling when returning to it. Perhaps even more so when visiting with others who are there for the first time – the awareness of showing them the sights and what there is to do and remembering the sense of wonder on the first visit. So it was with this remarkable town, probably the main exposure most have when visiting Laos – for many Luang Prabang is Laos to all intents and purposes.
Having written extensively on it before, the extraordinary array of temples dating back centuries and the genuinely astounding National Museum remain highlights of any visit, but the central attraction for me is that it is unlike most major Asian destinations through being distinctively relaxed and peaceful as long as the absolute peak season is avoided. There are only really three streets anyway, but traffic is generally light and the sense of quietness during the day is a notable change in atmosphere from many other destinations.
The sightseeing is obviously the principal attraction, but the Night Market here is consistently one of the favourite memories for any visitor. It’s not just the scale of it, running the length of the main street each evening, nor is it a disadvantage that it is plainly and openly for the tourists rather than the locals (as an aside, the local market is in the morning and well worth visiting too); it is more that browsing the stalls is both fascinating and hassle free. Traders do not by and large call out, nor demand that you visit them. The tourist initiates the conversation and either concludes a deal or walks away, without feeling pressured.
Although few do it, having a guide present is not a bad idea either. With all such markets there is a mix of the authentic and the imported, and few outsiders will have the slightest idea of the difference. The invaluable advice of a local can make all the difference, saving money and ensuring the purchases are ones to be satisfactory.
The markets might be an expected part of any visit, but the Bamboo Experience is not. It’s fairly new for one thing, and in all honesty doesn’t sound like the kind of thing to make the blood quicken. The concept is of a centre to teach about the importance of bamboo both historically and in the present day. Watching craftsmen at work is something that many excursions offer, all too often as an excuse to get people into the shop, but here was that rarest of beasts, an activity that delivered vastly more than it promised, and was genuinely fascinating. It’s just bamboo, but it shouldn’t put anyone off at all, this is an excellent way to spend half a day, and close to town too.
If the Night Market was like seeing an old friend, then the Kuang Si waterfalls were more an oversight that needed correcting. Given the nature of work trips and the time investment (only half a day) of getting out to them, I simply hadn’t managed to see them on previous visits. Preconceptions are dangerous things, and having seen the extraordinary series of waterfalls in the south of the country, the expectation that these ones wouldn’t compare was ingrained.
Utterly wrong. Kuang Si is not just the most beautiful, gorgeous spot you can imagine, but has been developed with a level of taste not always present in other natural beauty spots in Laos. The falls themselves are stunning, the series of pools at the foot of them simply gorgeous. Swimming is possible too, in certain areas where it’s safe to do so, and it’s easy to imagine spending a whole day here in the delightful surroundings.
During peak season they will undoubtedly be extremely busy, but there is plenty of room there and even with the usual proviso that the ideal tourist spot is one that no one else knows about applying, it’s still well worth putting it in the itinerary.
I’m not sure when next I’ll be in Luang Prabang. But it remains a special place and a favourite. Discovering something new, even one hidden in such plain sight as Kuang Si, made it all the more special.
And with that, it was time to say goodbye to an old friend and head to Phnom Penh.