Luang Prabang, Laos - Stein Travel
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Luang Prabang

Encircled by mountains and charmingly situated at the meeting of the Mekong and Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang, the 'Jewel of the Mekong', conveys an atmosphere of remote serenity and informal splendour.

The heart of a thriving kingdom for more than a thousand years, today it is a sleepy mixture of ancient temples, cobbled lanes, interesting backstreets, French-Indochinese architecture and ochre-coloured colonial buildings. Trees line the streets above the banks of the river where children swim and play, while farmers carefully tend to their tiny, irregular riverside plots of agricultural land. In the mists of dawn, throngs of barefoot orange-robed monks silently make their way from the monasteries to the streets, where locals wait to gain spiritual merit by filling their wooden alms bowls with rice, before disappearing once again into their places of refuge and meditation. Unhurried people drift past stalls of spicy papaya salad, noodles, omelettes and fruit drinks. This is the real Laos, a town with a distinctly village-like feel, but endowed with a historical legacy so rich that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourists to Laos simply shouldn't miss this unique and fascinating city.

The main attractions in Luang Prabang are its historic temple complexes, with about half of the original wats, or temples, still standing. The most magnificent is Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple). Nearby is the Royal Palace with its golden-spired stupa, now a museum, and Wat Wisunalat, the oldest continually-operating temple in the town. Across the river is Mount Phu Si with several temples on its slopes and a monastery on top, a popular spot for its dazzling sunset views of the gilded spires in the town below.

A popular excursion from Luang Prabang is a scenic boat trip past waterfront villages to the nearby Pak Ou caves, filled with images of the Buddha. Also worth visiting is the picturesque Kuang Si Falls, a beautiful multi-tiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations with clear turquoise pools below.

Information & Facts

Climate

The tropical monsoon climate in Luang Prabang is characterised by two seasons, with wet weather from June to October and hotter, dry weather from November to May. Temperatures in the rainy season average at about 79°F (26°C), and in the dry season they reach an average of around 86°F (30°C).

Language

Lao is the official language, but some English and French are spoken.

Money

The Lao Kip (LAK) is the legal currency unit, currently available in denominations of 1, 000, 5, 000, 10, 000, 20, 000 and 50, 000 kip. US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht are also accepted in many places and are more convenient to carry than large stacks of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services. For everyday expenses, carry a mix of US dollars and kip. For larger items, or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use US dollars. For local transport, street food stalls and minor purchases, it is best to use kip. When in rural areas, ensure you carry a supply of small notes as change can be hard to come by. Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most international hotels, many shops and restaurants, and a few tourist-orientated establishments in Luang Prabang and Vientiane - but in other parts of the country assume that only cash is accepted. Travellers cheques can be cashed at most banks in Vientiane and other major towns. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm, and then again from 2pm to 3pm. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other major towns, ATMs are available from which money can be withdrawn. Note that ATMs distribute only Lao kip, with a maximum of around 1, 000, 000 kip per transaction.

Shopping

Shopping in Luang Prabang is a wonderfully rewarding pastime. Don't miss the fresh produce market near the Mekong in Ban Pakam. It's an authentic slice of Laotian life, and best visited in the early morning. The night market opens at dusk each day in the centre of town near Wat Mai. Check out the Baan Killy gallery for high-quality Lao paper crafts, housed in a building that is itself a work of art. Good places to buy quality fabrics are CAMACrafts and Mulberries above Joma bakery, and Erawan Arts which sells exceptional handicrafts from its magnificent 100-year-old premises. The best Laos souvenirs are cotton fabrics, embroidery, carvings and jewellery. Bargaining is expected. Don't be tempted to buy relics as it is illegal to trade in antiquities.

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