Once you’ve exhausted Luang Prabang’s many monasteries and temples, you’ll still find many more attractions in the surrounding countryside, all within easy reach of the city. The popular Pak Ou caves trip gets you out on the water, a wonderful day-trip, especially if you haven’t had a chance to travel the Mekong by boat. There are also two picturesque waterfalls nearby, Tad Se and Kouang Si, both of which are good spots for a picnic and splashing around in turquoise waters. All the trips described here can be done in half a day – either by a tour through a travel agent or by chartering a tuk-tuk or boat for the trip.
The swift rivers, pretty rural areas and impressive mountains around Luang Prabang also offer many opportunities for adventure sports, including whitewater rafting, mountain biking, kayaking and trekking tours. Enquires for adventure tours can be made through your guesthouse.
Four kilometres up the Nam Khan from Ban Phanom is the final resting place of Henri Mouhot, the Anglophile French naturalist and explorer best known as the “discoverer” of Angkor Wat. A simple memorial, made from stone donated by the Lao king Tiantha and erected by Doudart de Lagrée of the Mekong Commission in 1867, marks the spot, which is easily located by looking for the sign posted on the road above it. As you leave Ban Phanom, follow the right fork 3.7km until you reach a steep dirt path leading down to the bank of the river, a spot favoured by picnicking Lao from Luang Prabang on weekends. The whitewashed memorial lies 200m upriver from the path and about 20m from the river’s edge, in a dried-up tributary of the Khan.
A river excursion to the Pak Ou Buddha Caves, 25km north of Luang Prabang at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, is one of the best quick trips you can make out of the city. Numerous caves punctuate the limestone cliffs on both sides of the Mekong in this vicinity, but the two “Buddha Caves” of Tham Ting and Tham Phoum are the best known. These caves have been used for centuries as a repository for old Buddha images that can no longer be venerated on an altar, either because they are damaged to the point of disfigurement – termite holes, burn marks and broken limbs being afflictions common to wooden Buddhas – or simply because newer images have crowded them out. In former times, before the caves became a tourist attraction, the inhabitants of Luang Prabang didn’t give much thought to the caves or their contents except during Lao New Year, when boatloads of townsfolk would make the pilgrimage upriver and ritually bathe the semi-abandoned Buddhas to gain merit. The practice survives to this day and is worth seeing if you happen to be around. If not, the caves still deserve an hour or so, if only to gaze at the eerie scene of hundreds upon hundreds of serenely smiling images covered in dust and cobwebs. Tham Ting, the lower cave, just above the water’s surface, is more of a large grotto and is light enough to explore without an artificial light source. The upper cave is unlit, so bring a torch.
Opposite the Buddha Caves on the far side of the Mekong is the “mouth” of the “Ou” River – “Pak Ou” in Lao. The scenery here at the entrance of the Nam Ou is dramatic, with a huge limestone peak rising up over the junction of the two rivers. South of Pak Ou, on the banks of the Mekong, is a village that produced stoneware jars for thousands of years, but has now forsaken that activity, having found that distilling liquor is more lucrative. The inhabitants of BAN XANG HAI, referred to by local boatmen as the “Whisky Village”, are quite used to thirsty visitors stopping by for a pull on the bamboo straw. The liquor is lào-láo, made from fermented sticky rice, and pots filled with the hooch are lined up on the beach awaiting transport up or down the river.
As it’s logical to see the Pak Ou Caves and the Whisky Village on the same trip, most boatmen hired in Luang Prabang are happy to treat it as a package, assuming that after you’ve seen a cave-full of Buddhas you’ll be ready for a good, stiff drink. Boatmen congregate throughout the day near the slow boat landing and at the tip of the peninsula near Wat Xieng Thong.
One of the best day-trips from Luang Prabang is Kouang Si waterfall, a picturesque, multi-level affair that tumbles 60m before spilling through a series of crystal-blue pools. The spray from the falls keeps the surrounding grounds cool even at midday. It’s a great spot for a picnic and a refreshing swim – there are picnic tables and changing rooms at the site. The upper pool has a nice view of the falls, though swimming is only allowed at the lower pool, which lacks a direct view. If you didn’t pack lunch, pay a visit to the vendors nearby selling tam màk hung, fruit and drinks.
If you’re up for some exercise, the steep path on the opposite side of the falls leads to the top and a grassy meadow filled with brilliantly coloured butterflies. Tread carefully though, as the path can get quite slippery; more than a few barefoot trampers have slipped and broken a leg here.
There are several options for getting to the waterfall, which is situated 35km southwest of Luang Prabang. The most scenic approach is by boat down the Mekong River; the same boatmen who run the trips to the Pak Ou Caves will take you to the falls, the final portion of the journey is by tuk-tuk, which is usually worked into the fee by the boatman – check when negotiating. Alternatively, it’s possible to get there by road – tuk-tuk drivers in town will usually approach you about this, or head to the “Tuk-tuk Station Travel Service” in Luang Prabang.
While travelling in Laos, you’ll probably come across many lowland Lao wearing one or more bracelets of white thread around their wrists. This is a sign that the wearer has recently taken part in a basi, the quintessential Lao ceremony of animist bent, which is performed throughout the year. Also known as sukhuan, the ceremony is supposed to reunite the body’s multiple souls, which are thought to succumb to wanderlust and depart from the body every now and again. Basi ceremonies are held during Lao New Year as well as being an important part of weddings, births and farewell parties.
Before the ceremony can be performed, an auspicious time must be gleaned from an astrologer, and a phakhuan – made from rolled banana leaves and resembling a miniature Christmas tree – must be prepared. The phakhuan is decorated with marigolds and other flowers, and draped with white threads. This arrangement sits in a silver bowl filled with husked rice, which is placed in the centre of a mat laid out on the floor. Participants sit in a circle around the phakhuan and offerings of food and liquor are placed near it. These are used to entice the absent souls to return. An animist priest, known as a maw phawn or “wish-doctor”, presides over the ceremony, inviting the souls to return with a mixture of Pali and Lao chants. The white threads that are draped over the phakhuan are then removed and tied around the wrists of the participants while blessings are invoked. During the basi ceremony performed at Lao New Year, each thread tied around the wrist may be accompanied by a shot of rice liquor, and this sometimes leads to an impromptu lam wong, or “circle dance”, performed by euphoric participants.
A number of trips operating from Luang Prabang include the chance to experience a basi ceremony, though these have always been set up especially for the benefit of tourists; alteratively, you may find yourself invited to partake in one if you travel out to more remote towns and villages, where locals are often keen for foreigners to join the party.