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Luang Prabang, Laos

by Marisa Meizlish

“Come  in!  Come in!” said a thin, graying man who was waving us his way.  We walked across the street to what we thought was an outdoor karaoke bar, only to discover we were being invited into the last hours of a week-long wedding celebration.

“Lao-lao!” he shouted, as his friends began pouring us shots of the sharp local brew.  The women brought us food and the men invited us to dance, making us feel more like welcomed guests than visitors from far away.  Drinking became dancing and strangers, friends as the sun set on my last night in Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos.

Luang Prabang is a place where the traditional customs of a wedding are yet to be deemed “old” and the kindness of the locals is as endless as the jungle.  Its buildings, food and even language reflect the French influence from the colonial days of the mid-20th century – you can eat a baguette at an outdoor café or at one of the city’s many bakeries – while the rich Asian heritage thrives in familial guesthouses, laid-back restaurants and bicycle-packed streets.

The small city is set in the Meakong River Valley about 200 kilometers north of Laos’ current capital, Vientiane.  Travelers can visit the Buddhist temples that dot the skyline, and spend hours speaking with the young monks, shroud in ankle-length robes of deep reds and bright oranges that are always within eye-shot and add a constant reminder of the importance religion plays in the locals’ lives.

Luang Prabang is of the most traveler friendly places in South East Asia, especially if you’re on a budget.  It’s easy to get there and inexpensive once you do, with a basic guesthouse room costing an average of US$2 a night.  Travelers coming from the south usually take the road coming up from Vientiane, while visitors arriving from the north can enjoy the day-long boat ride down the Meakong River.  Tuk-tuks, small, open-air taxis powered by motorcycle, are plentiful for getting around to see the city’s World Heritage buildings, temples and museums. 

Less than an hour away from the city is one of the best-hidden and most unique sites in the country, the Kuang Si waterfall.  Several hundred feet of water cascade down a jungle mountain into five levels of pools, which are the color of the sky on a clear day and almost look artificial on first glance.  Travelers swim and jump off rocks into the bottom pools and hike up to the higher ones for a view back down on the rich green jungle dotted with blue oases. 

With all the riches traveling South East Asia has to offer, Luang Prabang is a memorable stop for any traveler interested in seeing how a country’s past and future come together into a peaceful yet vibrant environment that’s surrounded by natural beauty.  And don’t pass up the lao-lao.

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