Unesco made a good call by adding Luang Prabang to its world heritage list in 1995. This picturesque town on the Mekong is incredibly beautiful, the prettiest one in Laos. Sticking around here for a couple of days makes sense. The tasty bakeries and night market, great sights and laid-back atmosphere all beg you to stay ‘just one more night’. My advice? Give into temptation and take the time to truly get under Luang Prabang’s skin. I’ll give you the tips needed to do so.
– Practical Information –
Luang Prabang follows the same season as most of South-East Asia. Dry-season is from November until March, with the best months being December – February (sunny, pleasant temperature and not too humid). April and May are steaming hot and June to August are the wettest months of the Monsoon (although the Monsoon doesn’t hit quite that hard in Luang Prabang).
Luang Prabang has similar prices as other tourist destinations in Laos. Dinner-meals go for about 45K-90K kip (4 – 9 EUR/$5 – 10). A beer is about 15K kip (1.50 EUR/$1.65) for a large bottle. Dorms start at 45K kip and a decent budget-hotel about 120K kip.
In, out & around
The reputation being the prettiest town in Laos comes with some perks, including an international airport. Luang Prabang Airport is only 4KM out of town and although out of walking-distance, a taxi or tuk-tuk should not set you back much more than 30K kip.
If you are travelling domestically your cheapest option (with the total absence of train-tracks in the country) is to take the bus. Luang Prabang has got two terminals, the Northern bus station and the Southern bus station. Easy enough to remember: if you’re travelling north – go to the Northern bus station, if you are travelling South, take the South bus station. Both are about 2 kilometres (1.5 miles) out of town and can be reached by foot.
Chances are your next destination is Vang Vieng. If that is the case, you’re in for a hell of a ride. Basically, there are two roads. An old one and a new one. The new road is way faster and mini-busses can take you from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in about 4-5 hours. The downside of this ride: the road is extremely curvy and some say even quite dangerous. Take your motion-sickness tablets! The windiness of the new road is so severe that normal busses cannot take this road and are forced to take the old road, which is also very windy and takes about 7-8 hours. The cheapest ticket I could find was 90K kip for the slow-bus and 130K kip for a mini-bus. If you travel by day the old road has an extra perk: the views are insane. You’ll feel like your traversing Mordor or taking a ride on the magic school bus. Before you abandon your plans of visiting Vang Vieng altogether, I get nauseous really easy, and with motion sickness tablets I was fine.
Getting around in Luang Prabang is easy: just go by foot. The traffic is easy and the distances aren’t too big. If you are tired after a busy day of sightseeing you can catch a shared taxi anywhere for about 20-30K kip for a short distance (about 2-3 kilometers/2 miles). If they ask more than that it is time to put your haggling skills to the test!
– What to do –
Luang Prabang got so many things to see that I summed up the top-sights that I would recommend doing if you are just going to be there for a few days. Feel like I missed something? Leave a comment and tell me what I left out!
Phou Si Mountain
Entrance: 20.000 kip. Jokers call it ‘pussy mountain’ but the only dirty thing about it is that the climb will get you dripping with sweat. However, people telling you that you need hiking boats are a lot more deserving of the mountain’s nickname than the hill itself. I did it on flip-flops during the hottest hours of the day (timing is still not my strong suit) and I was fine. I apologise for the lack of good pictures here, my camera’s battery was drained and the pictures I made with my phone got deleted during an incredible brain-fart. Believe me, it is worth it. It is set in the middle of the historic town and from the top, you got a great 360 degrees view of the area. On the way up you’ll pass by little shrines and statues all set between leafy trees and bushes. Tip: approach it from the back (North-Eastern entrance) for the prettiest walk up. It can be a bit of a puzzle to find your way but just keep heading up until you reach the top. Hardly anyone takes this route while it is by far the prettiest. When you reach the top you can use the wider path down on the other side.
Luang Prabang’s temples & the Bamboo bridge
There are many temples all around town and most don’t have an entrance fee. It is great to just wander around town, looking at the old colonial buildings and entering a couple of the temples. The best of the lot is Wat XiengThong Monastry, in the North part of town. Entrance is 20.000 kip.
Take a little stroll along the Mekong River from where you can see a small bamboo bridge. The bridge gets rebuild every year after the Monsoon when the river tide is low enough to cross (during the wet season there is a boat). At the other side is Dyen Sabai, which has a great happy hour (5-7PM) but is also a good spot for lunch.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Probably the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve have ever seen in South-East Asia are the Kuang Si Waterfalls, located about 30km from Luang Prabang. You can swim in its pristine pools and walk up to the source. Next to the waterfalls is a moon-bear sanctuary which does not charge an entrance fee. The Kuang Si Waterfalls can be visited by as an organised tour. By taxi, tuk-tuk or scooter bike but the relatively easy ride is also perfect for taking the bicycle! I wrote a whole article about visiting the Kuang Si Waterfalls, and how to get there by bicycle. Read more here.
Story-telling & Chang Lao movie
These are two night-time activities and they are both worth your time. Close to Wat XiengThong, there is a tiny traditional Lao story-telling theatre. For 50.000 kip an old local man will bewonder you with traditional Lao stories and myths. The show is in English, takes an hour and a half and starts at 18:30 on most days. Snacks and drinks can be bought in the theatre.
The Chang Lao movie is a 1925 movie that shows you how Laos looked like when it was still called ‘the land of the million elephants’. The movie is historically very interesting but can be a bit boring to sit all the way through. This is the moment to man-up and sit it out anyways. The information and images will give you a better understanding of the country and its history and make your whole time in Laos all the more interesting.
There are two hotels that do free outside-viewings (but buying a drink is obligatory). Both hotels are gorgeous and if you are carrying loads they are excellent accommodation choices. Sanctuary Hotel Luang Prabang does viewings at 6:30 pm and Victoria Xiengthong Palace at 7:00 pm.
– Food & sleep recommendations –
The best place to get some food is the night market. The street food is excellent, and a few bakeries have street-side desert-stalls to fill your sweet-tooth. A personal favourite is the tiny dumping-stall that can be found in the first alley on the left of Sisavangvong Road if you enter the road from the roundabout. 20 spicy dumplings for 20K kip. Totally worth it.
This place was recommended to me by a traveller I met in Thailand and his tip was on the money. Nisha’s serves incredibly tasty Indian food and the prices are very reasonable as well. I never allow myself to eat twice at the same restaurant but the two Brittish guys that joined me came back the day after for both lunch and dinner. When I was chewing on a particular chewy piece of organ meat during dinner the day after I regretted not joining them for seconds.
Belle River Terrasse
One of the best Mekong river views in town, and they serve good lunch-dishes. A little more on the expensive side but the atmosphere and taste of the food make up for it. There are many river-side terraces in Luang Prabang but Belle River Terrasse is one of the prettiest.
While most people will tell you to go to Joma for good coffee, I am telling you this place is ten times better. The coffee is excellent, organic and fair trade and for every cup sold they plant a few trees. They have a great sustainability programme where they team up with local coffee-farmers to promote sustainable farming and provide for a better life for impoverished Lao farmers. Head upstairs for some more loungey seats. They also serve good (western) food, albeit that the portions are a bit on the smaller side.
Although there are many bars in town, this is the best and the liveliest. This is where both backpackers and other travellers meet after sunset for good cocktails and company. During the daytime it has marvellous views from the outside terraces and when the night falls hundreds of tiny lights illuminate the place. Whether you are looking to have a drink with some friends or a wild night out, this is the place to go. Unfortunately, as with all bars in Luang Prabang, it closes at midnight. But nothing to worry, there is always the bowling alley.
The bowling alley in Luang Prabang is a surreal place. Why? Because of it the last place that closes in town (4 AM) and it is also an actual bowling alley. When I was chaperoned into a tuk-tuk to go to the bowling alley after Utopia closed for the first time I was expecting a bar or maybe a club where they had a tiny bowling alley on the side. Nothing was less true. The bowling alley has about 20 bowling lanes and they are all occupied by intoxicated backpackers trying desperately to at least score a few points per round. If you are with a group and are looking to have drinks until the early hours, go here. If you are looking for a stylish venue to go out you will be utterly disappointed. They also have a shooting range. Try it at your own risk. A shared taxi from town should not cost you more than 30K per person, 20K if you haggle it down to the last penny.
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