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This city of 55,000 on the Mekong River in north central Laos is the country's top tourism magnet for good reason: it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its remarkable ancient , Luang Prabang in Laos is one of the most visit places in Asia before it turns into another common tourist place. On my visit there, I had a chance to explore and experience the best of Luang Prabang which is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so here are 10 things you can do in Luang Prabang in no particular order.
The Old Town
Explore this beautiful and well maintained old quarter on foot to see the amazing heritage buildings with traditional Lao as well as French colonial architecture, now occupied by hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, and shops. There are absolutely no modern buildings or anything above two floors in this unique district.
The Public Markets
There are a couple of such markets in town, but the most popular is the daily night market, with hundreds of tents lining the street and selling anything you can imagine, including art, crafts, food, and much more (its a great place for souvenirs). There's also a day market in which the vendors are Hmong tribesman, often dressed in traditional clothes - also great for crafts and souvenirs. And you'll also see local paintings being sold around town..
Delicious Lao Food
Tasty, varied, and very affordable, great specialties include the local baguettes, a legacy of the French that are sold around town (great with strong - often sweet and iced - Lao coffee, another French legacy). Sticky rice is a staple, and top dishes include larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (ceviche style) and served with herbs, greens, and the spicy green papaya salad som tam. You can find much of this served by street vendors as well as in the restaurants along the Mekong riverside; one particularly good pick for a fusion of French and Lao is the upmarket L'Elephant Restaurant.
Golden City Temple
Known as Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang's (and the entire country's) oldest and most important Buddhist temples, where kings were crowned, was built in 1560. Its fascinating and graceful traditional architecture includes dramatic sloped roofs and detailed wall images depicting geometric designs and Lao mythology, which have been restored to their original glory; various Buddha images throughout the compound include a rare reclining Buddha.
Other Wats (Temples)
You can visit any of the more than 30 wats in town on foot. The most popular is Wat Mai, right on the main street, founded around 1780, richly decorated and recently refurbished. Check out some of the temples with schools for the younger monks where among other things they learn woodwork, painting, and also English.
Phu Si Hill
Also known as Chomsy Hill or Mount Phousi, this easy to climb hill is one of the best spots in Luang Prabang to catch amazing sunsets and panoramic views over the city; there's also a temple up here. You get up here via the main street or a path behind the Ethnic Museum. It's best visited around sunset.
Tad Sae Waterfalls
For nature explorers, various excursions are offered to this beautiful set of low cascades and turquoise pool located in a park 13 kilometers from town. There is an entrance fee of KIP 8,000 into the park where restaurants and other facilities are available. The best time to visit the waterfalls is during the rainy season, from May through October; otherwise the water flow can be minimal.
Elephant Park & Trekking
The Elephant Park Project Area is located about 15 km out of town on the banks for the Khan River with wonderful mountain views. Rescued elephants are caref for here, and visitors may take guided rides. In additional, an easy half day trek (3-4 hours) will lead you out into a local Khammu village where you get an insight in every day life and culture of this ethnic minority.
Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village
This Lao craft village is en route to Pak Ou Caves (see below), and tour boats make a half-hour stop here (you can also come by road). The highlight here is lao-lao, a rice whiskey that is a national staple; some versions come with snakes and insects pickled in the liquor! Another specialty here is the fine silk (which you'll see woven in front of you) and other fabrics; and crafts of all sorts are also on offer.
Pak Ou Caves
Also known as the Buddha Caves, this pair of fascinating caverns are quite a sight, filled with thousands of Buddha statues. Even better, it also involves a scenic boat ride 25 kilometers up the Mekong that give visitors an eye-opening look at daily life along the river.