Date Traveled, August 2012
You have a few routes to take you to the top of Phou Si, there is the main entrance across from the royal palace or from one of at least two paths that end up on the side of town facing the Nam Khan river. The previous day, as my partner and I were on our Wat to Wat walking tour of Luang Prabang, we noticed a trail leading up the hill right by Wat Siphoutthabat on the Nam Khan waterfront and near a cluster of nice looking bars and restaurants. We figured that we could start the hike by the entrance on Sisavangvong street which was also closer to our hotel, enjoy a nice hike up the hill and head down for a nice cold glass of Beer Lao at one of those bars in the afternoon. We did that, except for finding another trail down and ending up a bit lost but more on that later.
Before we started our hike up Phou Si, we paid a visit to the Royal Palace Museum, essentially the old royal palace building that used to house the last monarch of Laos, King Sisavangvong, and has now been converted into a museum. The Palace also houses the Prabang, the palladium of Laos which also gives the city of Luang Prabang its name. It doesn't take too long to walk around the museum and is definitely worth a visit for some historical and artistic sights. It is also unlikely to be that crowded so you might have the place to yourself except for the guards and caretakers, although they don't let you take pictures inside or of the Prabang statue. There is a Wat right next to the palace, the Wat Mai, that may also be worth a visit but we weren't in the mood for that diversion so went straight up to the hill.
The Luang Prabang Royal Palace museum
The palace also houses the Prabang statue
Little temple at the base of Phou Si with murals from the 19th century
The murals are fantastic and certainly worth visiting to see
There is a little building on a raised platform after the first level of stairs leading up to the hill entrance further up. This place is a worthy diversion and a bit an unknown attraction, at least I did not read about it anywhere prior to my visit. It is a simple single room temple housing a Buddha statue, but the true beauty of the building is the mural that is painted on the inner walls from top to bottom. A nondescript sign reads that the mural was painted in the early 19th century and not to use flash photography to preserve it. I spent a good bit of time admiring the murals which seem to depict various historical scenes. Definitely look out for this temple and enjoy its surreal mural painting when in Luang Prabang.
The climb up the hill is initially quite steep but then the steps are made much gentler in a straight lined zig-zag kind of pattern where you end up walking much longer but having an easier climb. It is a shady trail all the way and all over the hill so even if its hot you do not have to worry about exposure to the Sun. Along the way there are many view points where you get views of the entire town of Luang Prabang overlooking the Mekong if you started on the side I did. When you reach the top, you will see on the very highest point of the hill, the Wat Chom Si, a gilded stupa. Right below the Wat Chom Si is a temple housing another Buddha, and his fierce cat guardian, watching over town and temple.
The stairs at the entrance
The Mekong river
After the initial climb, the path becomes gentle
The cat guardian of the hill
Wat Chom Si at the top of the hill
The view of Luang Prabang from the top
Panoramic views of all Luang Prabang and its surroundings are visible in all directions from here. You see the Mekong river on one side, the Nam Khan on the other and you can see far out into the surrounding hills. The golden building in the distance I later read was not a historic Wat but a Buddhist "Vipasana" meditation center in the countryside.
After taking in the views we started our descent along the gently sloping path. Around halfway down the hill, you will come across a set of statues and a small cave. Deep inside the cave is another set of statues. You do not particularly miss much by skipping it but you might as well visit if you are just enjoying the walk. Here there are two paths going down, we weren't sure so asked a guard nearby which way down and he sent us to our right. This was not the path we intended to take and should have stayed on the other path which I am guessing would have led to the Wat Siphoutthabat. This one instead eventually led us deep into a neighborhood in the heart of the town near Dara market. Not too far from where we wanted to go, but it took a little bit for us to make our way out of this residential cluster. We did get a few stares as clearly this part was not frequented by tourists.
Buddhas along the path
A cave along the way down
Anyhow, we made our way back to the bar street on the Nam Khan side and picked the backpacker favorite Lao Lao Garden because of its open and green ambiance. It was a hot afternoon and was glad to be able to order some Beer Lao which is always great and a snack of larb which wasn't great. Luckily, we had someone to help us finish our Larb. That was fine except he didn't leave us even after the larb was done and kept bothering us, jumping all over the chairs and tables. Maybe he wanted the Beer Lao as well but that I wasn't going to share.
The cat which wanted the larb and beer lao