LUANG PRA­BANG LAOS

One of the jew­els of South­east Asia and a Unesco World Her­itage city, Luang Pra­bang of­fers won­der­ful food, in­cred­i­ble scenery and myr­iad cul­tural de­lights. By Ea­monn Seoige

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Where ex­actly is it?

The an­cient city of Luang Pra­bang is lo­cated in the north-cen­tral prov­ince of the moun­tain­ous and land-locked South­east Asian coun­try, Laos. The mighty Mekong River, which con­nects many of the his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant cities in the re­gion, has linked Luang Pra­bang through trade with the out­side wold for cen­turies. Roughly trans­lated, ‘Luang Pra­bang’ means ‘Royal Bud­dha Im­age Dis­pelling Fear’, which is re­garded as the most sa­cred rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Bud­dha in Laos. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Luang Pra­bang is famed for its many cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant Bud­dhist tem­ples and stat­ues. With a pop­u­la­tion of only 50,000, Luang Pra­bang is a com­pact and eas­ily nav­i­ga­ble city.

How do I get there?

Luang Pra­bang is not ser­viced by di­rect flights from Western Europe. The best value op­tion is to take a sched­uled flight from Lon­don to one of the ma­jor Asian hubs such as Saigon or Bangkok. From there, Air Asia of­fer ex­cel­lent, year-round, low-cost flights di­rect to the diminu­tive Luang Pra­bang In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

What lan­guage do they speak?

Lao, also com­monly re­ferred to as Lao­tian. The ma­jor­ity of Luang Pra­bang’s na­tives speak the North­ern Laos di­alect. How­ever, Luang Pra­bang is also home to mul­ti­ple mi­nor­ity eth­nic groups such as the Laos The­ung, who speak a Kh­mer di­alect. English is widely spo­ken by per­sons in the hos­pi­tal­ity and tourism in­dus­try.

What is the lo­cal beer like?

The lo­cal beer avail­able in Luang Pra­bang is largely brewed by the Lao Brew­ery Com­pany. Sim­i­lar to its neigh­bour­ing South­east Asian coun­tries, the vast ma­jor­ity of beer con­sumed is of the lager va­ri­ety and, to a lesser ex­tent, dark beer. Amongst the most pop­u­lar brands are the crisp tasting Beer­lao Orig­i­nal, which is also widely ex­ported, and the stronger and more pun­gent ‘Beer­lao Dark’ at 6.5%. Beer Lao Light is palat­able, but only if served ice cold! Beer in Laos is brewed from Jas­mine rice and im­ported hops and yeast from Europe. How­ever, for some­thing a lit­tle less or­di­nary, seek out a bot­tle of Golden Palm, a caramel and herb in­fused ale from the Ba­tieng Brew­ery.

Other drinks?

If the lo­cal beer doesn’t tickle your fancy, why not try some rice wine or rice whiskey? How­ever, be cau­tious, the of­ten nu­clear-strength rice wine isn’t al­ways pro­duced un­der the strictest hy­giene con­di­tions. Nonethe­less, once you lo­cate the good stuff, a swift shot af­ter din­ner is an ex­cel­lent di­ges­tif. Lao-lao, a type of whiskey na­tive to Laos, has a slight vanilla flavour and is ex­cel­lent when served on the rocks with a fruit mixer. Again, try to avoid drink­ing any back­street dis­til­la­tions, un­less you’re look­ing for a mega-strength hang­over or a visit to the lo­cal hos­pi­tal!

What is the trans­port like?

Some of the more ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers ar­rive into the an­cient city from North­ern Thai­land via a boat jour­ney along the vast and im­pos­ing Mekong River. Whether it’s by a snail’s pace slow-boat or high-speed long­tail, it’s an amaz­ing way to ex­pe­ri­ence the epic ter­rain of this moun­tain­ous and lush coun­try. The air­port is only 4km from the city and is ser­viced by end­less taxis and minibuses. When you’ve set­tled in at your ho­tel or guest­house, there are a num­ber of op­tions for get­ting about town to the sights.

As with most South­east Asian cities, Tuk-Tuks are ready and wait­ing on ev­ery street cor­ner. How­ever, this is a small city and it’s easy to get around on foot or bi­cy­cle. A num­ber of bus com­pa­nies of­fer a sched­uled ser­vice to key des­ti­na­tions both in Laos and be­yond, in­clud­ing Viet­nam’s Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). How­ever, be fore­warned! Due to poor roads, mul­ti­ple stops and border cross­ings, a bus trip from north­ern Laos can be­come an epic event. For ex­am­ple, a jour­ney from Luang Pra­bang to Hanoi in North­ern Viet­nam will take 40 hours, even though the dis­tance is just over 250 miles!

What’s the food like?

The daily fare in Luang Pra­bang’s cafes and restau­rants is broadly sim­i­lar to Viet­namese cui­sine, and is gen­er­ally very whole­some and healthy. The clas­sic ev­ery­day sta­ple and most com­monly avail­able of­fer­ing is sticky rice, which is served ev­ery­where. Khao Poon is a type of spicy ver­mi­celli noo­dle soup with added chilli, chicken and veg­eta­bles such as shal­lots and

“It’s a bizarre ex­pe­ri­ence to view rows of large glass bot­tles, each with a coiled fer­mented rep­tile in­side”

co­rian­der. Or Lam is a stew spe­cial­ity unique to Luang Pra­bang. It’s a broad mix of veg­eta­bles and herbs in­clud­ing le­mon­grass, basil and vines, with wa­ter buf­falo meat some­times added.

Tam Mak Houng, a form of spicy pa­paya salad, is worth a try, mix­ing strong tastes such as lime, hot chilli, fish sauce and salt. Lao-style bar­beque known as sin­dad is widely avail­able and nor­mally con­sists of pork or chicken, cooked in the cen­tre of the ta­ble on a hot plate. Larb is an­other lo­cal spe­cial­ity, based around mar­i­nated meat or fish, of­ten pre­pared raw, and served with a mix of veg­eta­bles and herbs. The in­flu­ence of French colo­nial­ism in In­dochina is still vis­i­ble to­day, with crois­sants and baguettes widely served.

What’s the nightlife like?

Un­like the rau­cous party town of Vang Vieng, eight hours to the south, Luang Pra­bang is a rel­a­tively low key des­ti­na­tion for any­one look­ing to party. There are some bars, but they tend to be quaint, mel­low es­tab­lish­ments with few late-night venues pump­ing out cheesy hits. How­ever, as the au­thor­i­ties crack­down more on un­reg­u­lated ac­tiv­i­ties in Vang Vieng, it’s likely that Luang Pra­bang will in­creas­ingly look to cater more to Euro­pean and Aus­tralasian back­pack­ers.

No visit to this area is com­plete with­out try­ing a shot of snake wine! This is a rocket fuel strength drink, made from in­fus­ing a rice based al­co­hol in whole venomous snake! If noth­ing else, it’s a bizarre ex­pe­ri­ence to view rows of large glass bot­tles, each with a coiled fer­mented rep­tile in­side. The chief wa­ter­ing hole is Bar Utopia, which in­cludes a vol­ley­ball court and tropical gar­dens. It serves de­cent food, projects movies and at­tracts a broad mix of cus­tomers. Oddly, the af­ter-hours des­ti­na­tion of choice is a bowl­ing al­ley that serves al­co­hol late into the night.

Need­less to say, the bowl­ing is purely an af­ter­thought…

The Royal Bud­dha Statue in Laos

A night on the rep­tiles: snake wine

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