Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Once you have arrived in Laos’s former royal capital, you might well feel that you never want to leave—such is its multiplicity of sublime temples, spectacular river views, beautiful displays of indigenous textile culture, and world-class hotels and restaurants. But while the spell cast by Luang Prabang is undoubtedly a powerful one, a trip to the city would not be complete without exploring its rustic and riverine hinterland, with all its natural and man-made wonders—locations that help explain why many travellers extend their stay in the city to a week or more, in order to maximise on the full range of delights that this celebrated region of Laos has to offer. Here are just some of the cultural and touristic treasures that lie just beyond Luang Prabang.
Most visitors approach Laos’s most famous waterfall—a stunning natural site deserving of a UNESCO designation all by itself—by a tried-and-trusted road route 30 kilometres out of Luang Prabang, accessing Kuang Si Falls via the main entrance behind the car park. But there’s a far more scenic way to reach the cascade and its opalescent pools.
The long-established Tiger Trail travel company in the city centre has devised a hiking tour that winds up at the waterfall via a more circuitous, yet far more rewarding odyssey that takes in ethnic villages and hours of calming woodland scenery before arriving at the multi-tiered aquatic wonder. Along the russet dirt tracks and rugged hills peopled by ethnic tribes, the hike leads up to Long Lao Village, where both Khamu and Hmong people intermingle.
From there, the walk takes hikers through the mountainous Lao countryside, where orchards and rice fields flourish, before reaching a substantial forested area where occasionally you might spot a group of hunter-foragers hoisting a pheasant across their shoulders—this kind of subsistence is a way of life in these remoter parts of the country.
Along the way, there’s also a lunch stop at the foot of an obscure woodland temple before arriving at the outskirts of Kuang Si, and spotting (behind a secure fence) the awe-inspiring crest of the cascade and its precipitous drop to the pools below. While there’s a slightly hairy rocky hike down that is parallel to the waterfall, the rest is plain sailing, with the substantial infrastructure allowing an easy passage between the various pools, where selfie-snapping tourists gambol happily in and around the waters. The trail towards the exit of the park also takes in Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a small sanctuary for adorable Asiatic black bears, which are—sadly—an endangered species due to poaching for the extraction of their bile and subsequent use in traditional Chinese medicine.
25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, buried within a series of limestone cliffs overlooking the Mekong, are two caves—Tham Ting and Tham Theung—which are accessed from the river by steep flights of stairs. Over the years, the caves have been used informally to store hundreds of Buddha statues deposited there by residents of local villages, which have been in some way damaged: whether by fire, termites, cobwebs, weathering due to the ravages of time, or simply by over-use. Some of the statues have missing hands, broken limbs, or chipped faces.
Over the years, the Pak Ou Caves have become one of Laos’s most unlikely but popular spots for pilgrimages, not merely by curious tourists but by local people too, who make a special trip here on the first day of the new year as a form of worship to bathe the Buddha statues and earn merit. Despite these frequent visits, the gloomy grotto shrine still casts an eerie spell in this otherwise remote location.
Further upriver from the Pak Ou Caves, this exceptional eco-lodge has been running for 16 years along the banks of the Mekong, drawing in visitors to experience life in an ethnic Kamu village. Kamu Lodge consists of 20 luxe, safari-style tents on the banks of the Mekong, three hours from Luang Prabang by boat, in a bid to offer guests a low-impact, immersive insight into indigenous lifestyles and promote the region’s cultural heritage.
In this bucolic riverside setting—replete with lush paddy fields and a mountainous backdrop—it’s quite possible to find yourself feasting on a buffalo meat dish while feeling mildly startled that, simultaneously, you could be watching the very same animal ruminating in the surrounding rice field.
Kamu Lodge is an eco-friendly resort in the truest sense. Its solar-powered tents are mounted on bamboo platforms and topped with thatch roofs, faithful to local stylings, resulting in the lodge looking and feeling like a local village. But what makes this place a pioneering tourism adventure—one which anticipated travel trends for sustainable, responsible stays that give back to the local community—is its location next to a Kamu commune, allowing guests an intimate insight into the residents’ lifestyle through activities such as rice farming, fishing, gold panning, and archery.
There are many passenger boats that ply the waters around Luang Prabang—hardly surprising when you consider the city lies on a wondrous stretch of the Mekong—but one of the newest launches, and certainly one of the most time-efficient, is Khopfa’s sunset cruise, which sets off for golden hour every evening. It is the only boat travelling from the river banks, with an embarkation point just opposite the swish Belle Rive boutique hotel, where you can also buy tickets before setting sail at 4.45 pm.
On this decorative new boat, separated into different areas—a lounge, terraces, and sofas—there are a number of ways to enjoy the spellbinding views as you slowly traverse the “Mother Water,” as the Mekong is known locally, all of which include bar and tapas service. Designed to offer panoramic views of the river at sunset—as well as a service that arrives back in the town centre just in time to take full advantage of the evening—this French-run cruise is an essential component of any traveller’s stay in the city, as much for its time-saving brevity as for its memorable vistas. The company also operates a lunchtime cruise to the sublime Kuang Si waterfall.
In Laos, the “Land of One Million Elephants,” where humans and pachyderms have worked together since the time of Christ, lax regulations regarding the use of the animals in logging and tourism have led to exploitation. MandaLao, a remote camp in Xieng Lom, outside Luang Prabang near the banks of the Mekong, remains the only sanctuary in the country where riding is not allowed.
Instead, visitors are encouraged to join a variety of walking tours in the jungle, where you can get to know both older and younger members of the company—creatures that were once employed in such industries—before stopping at the acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, where traditional Lao dishes are made using fresh produce from the on-site gardens, and pavilions look out onto the dreamy surrounding scenery, creating a marvellous lunch setting.