It is easy to have fun while visiting a beautiful place. But if you go during an important holiday you are guaranteed an experience worth remembering. We focused our five months Asian trip around the Mekong countries, among which three celebrate the New Year on the same time. Laos and Thailand celebrate it with water, colours and a lot of fun, Cambodia a bit more peaceful. So, it wasn’t difficult to choose Laos. Thailand is too touristic with festivities lasting three days, while in Luang Prabang the party last a whole week. We were there!
Lao New Year or Songkran falls each year from 14 to 16 of April, the hottest month of the year and the start of the monsoon season. Is there a better way to celebrate it than splash the city with water, foam and colours? The first day marks the last day in the year, the second the ‘no year day’, and the third is the first day of the New Year. But that’s not enough in Luang Prabang. The whole city is involved in something I could describe as massive happiness. Young and old, poor and rich they all dress up nicely, go to the streets, load themselves with water equipment and the battle begins. Normally groups of friends gather in front of a house, with a pipe connected to the tap, buckets and water pistols, and whenever someone passes they start firing. Sometimes it’s a poor individual hoping not to be completely wet. However, at times the water comes out of trucks loaded with a similar group of people carrying gallons of water. And all of that during one entire week. Amazing!
The former seat of the Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang is a magical place. Hundreds of temples adorned with golden stupas hide behind the abundant vegetation and charming French era colonial villas. The Old town, located in a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is where it all happens. The peninsula is elevated from the rivers, so even when both rise gorgeous views are guaranteed. If they don’t impress you, for even better ones you can always climb the Phousi Hill south of the city centre.
There are plenty of things to do and see in the city. Every Luang Prabang itinerary centers around its Old Town. Beautiful colonial buildings, nice backyards, hidden temples, lush green parks and gardens. Almost at the end of the peninsula the most important of all temples The Temple of the Golden City Wat Xieng Thong (just as Luang Prabang’s former name) won’t let you indifferent. Built at the end of 16th century it remains one of the most sacred places in all Laos. Until 1975 kings of Lao were crowned there. A few minutes down the main road the Wat Sene from the beginning of the 18th century is said to be built from 100 000 stones from the Mekong river. A bit smaller but equally charming. Outside of the centre, just south of the Phousi Hill, Wat Wisunalat is the city’s oldest temple representing the original Lao style Luang Prabang I. Built in 1512 it is famous for its That Pathoum Stupa with a unique shaped rounded dome. The Royal Palace, while much more modest than it’s Thai or Khmer counterparts is a nice place where you can learn a about Lao’s turbulent past.
Some tourist guides name Luang Prabang as one of the top places in all South East Asia. It is indeed a beautiful city, with even prettier surroundings, but in my opinion all that praising is money influenced. There are certain aspects that subtract originality. Many of us world travellers want to experience places deeply. That includes tasting the local food, which in case of Laos is fantastic. But in Luang Prabang it’s all about the French cuisine, which is by the way, quite expensive compared to the rest of the region. Even supermarkets and night market are quite fancy, and everything is rather expensive. That would be fine, if only all that money would get to the locals. But it doesn’t.
Unlike the rest of South East Asia in Luang Prabang you feel that colonialism is alive again. I advise you to get lost between all that glamour and take a look at how the locals live, and you will understand what I talk about. I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I believe this royal capital deserves a visit. You can always find a local restaurant with delicious Lao food, or get a massage in an authentic local massage parlour. Even better, if you like partying and a few beers around Wat Aham won’t satisfy you, inquire about the famous night bowling centre. You will be having fun with drunk tourists, and get to know the party locals. Loads of fun!
Happy Frog recommends staying at Sayo River Guest House