While Vientiane is now the capital of Laos, it’s the lovely old capital of Luang Prabang, about 8 hours north by road, that is its main touristic centre. As in the rest of the country, the tourist industry is growing fast, but the centre of town, with the royal palace and several famous wats (temples), and many less famous ones, has been designated as a World Heritage Zone by UNESCO, and so development has been restrained and fairly tasteful, with boutique hotels opening in restored French colonial buildings, and no multi-storey blocks.
There is much talk of not allowing Luang Prabang to go the way of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, which is now a busy noisy city of 400,000, with nearly a million in its metropolitan area, and so far the signs are good. The powers that be in Luang Prabang seem to have made an effort to provide proper pavements/sidewalks and to keep the place looking good – but garbage collection needs sorting out next.
The most exciting new development is the opening in November 2016 of the Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden, the first in Laos. This was a royal retreat, where they went to unravel(!) and to hunt bear, boar and deer; there’s little trace of that now, but it’s been beautifully laid out in seven main areas, of which the centrepiece is the Ethno-botanic Garden, with fenced plots displaying just some of the thousand species used in Laos used for medicine, poisons, clothing and religious purposes. The Hmong people, in the north, grow Cannabis sativa (hemp) for their clothing, but this is not on display here… There’s good information in English and Lao in this section, but the rest of the gardens just have binomial tags on the trees. Other areas include the Arboretum, Ginger Garden, Palm Garden, Bamboo Garden and an orchid nursery, where they are cultivating 268 of the 483 species of orchid currently known in Laos (of about 1,400 in the whole of Indochina). There’s also a wilder area of limestone habitat (including tree ferns) on the mountainside, with a half-hour hike to the Buddha cave of Pha Tad Ke. The gardens were planted eight years ago, and are still a work in progress; as soon as funding is available they’ll build the Mist House, a damper environment for orchids, ferns and carnivorous plants. It’s already lovely to walk around, and the shop and café will top off your visit in style.
A visit costs US$25, including a 15-minute boat ride from their reception office on the Luang Prabang waterfront (and back) which is an enjoyable part of the outing (road access can be arranged for the disabled).
We flew into Luang Prabang separately, Katy from Chiang Mai and Tim from Hanoi. We both flew with Lao Airlines, and they’re clearly not a lao-cost (geddit?) operation – you get a snack, free changes of date, and free baggage check-in (their ATR-72 prop planes are great but have minimal locker space overhead). The airport is small and efficient and the visa on arrival process is fast – in addition to the quoted cost (eg US$35 for British passport-holders, US$42 for Canadians) you’ll pay a US$1 fee, plus US$1 if you didn’t bring a passport photo and they have to scan your passport photo (never mind the fact that they take a digital photo anyway plus fingerprints at the next stage of the immigration process). If you don’t have the dollars they’ll let you go through to the arrivals hall to an ATM or exchange counter and come back the wrong way through customs to pay, and retrieve your passport. Actually they’re more interested in selling you a SIM at the airport than in changing money or renting cars. It’s a half-hour walk from the airport to the town, or you can share a songthaew pick-up truck (50,000 kip for the first few passengers, then with luck proportionately less).
You should also be sure to get out on the Mekong at some point – foreigners pay 5,000 kip (50p) to take the car ferry from Luang Prabang to the west bank, where you can walk north to some nice temples – the first is free and in the heart of its village, the second is up a steep flight of steps and has little to offer apart from a great view across the river to Luang Prabang, but the third, Wat Longkhoun, has some charming 18th-century murals. From here you can continue and then loop inland to return to the ferry. Otherwise there are lots of boat tours to caves and waterfalls, and we also took a delightful two-hour trip in a long-tail boat from Champasak to Pakse in the south of Laos.
While Tim is of the ilk that enjoys power-walking around the sights, I on the other hand need a rest from time to time and also a smattering of comfort! There are two locations in town that provide a cheap and entertaining way to cover both these bases. The Sanctuary Hotel and the Victoria Xiengthong Palace Hotel at 6:30pm & 7:00pm, respectively and daily, screen a charming film about a Lao family living in the jungle. It’s called CHANG and is billed as one of the first documentaries in the history of cinema, and certainly the first film to document life in the Southeast Asian jungle. Shot in 1925, the film makers went on to make King Kong!
Entry is free and one sits in a delightful garden with the only requirement of ordering a drink. It came with crisps too! Elephants are few and far between these days, but Chang shows how it used to be and how we have destroyed the abundance of wildlife. Salutary.