Laos’ northern capital of Luang Prabang is a temple town of unspeakable beauty. The former royal capital, Luang Prabang sits on a long thin spit of land littered with dozens of wats, colonial buildings and trading houses. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Getting to Luang Prabang
The airport is just north of town and has scheduled flights from/to Vientiane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap.
- Bangkok Airways offer flights from Bangkok and Siem Reap.
Visa-on-Arrival is available at the airport – price is variable based upon your nationality from in between US$35 (French & Americans) and US$42 (Canadians) (payable in US$). You also need a passport picture. If you don’t have one, they’ll scan your picture from your passport and charge you an additional US$1. Thai nationals do not need a Visa to enter Laos. It is wise to have the US$ ready since the exchange rates for other currencies are not favorable.
Taxis into town cost US$5, whether you are by yourself or with 4 other people.
Highway 13 connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the south and via Highway 1 to the north. Highway 13 is sealed and in good shape all the way to Vientiane. There were some shootings along this road (between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang) some years ago, including one incident in which two foreign cyclists died in crossfire, but at the moment it appears to be safe.
There are three bus stations, each a little bit out of town, who serve different directions. Tickets can be bought at every travel agent in town for a little surcharge, or at the bus station, or when boarding the bus.
The air-conditioned so-called VIP bus costs 70,000 kip to Vang Vieng and 115,000 kip to Vientiane, more if booked through an agent (2007 Mar). It should be noted that tickets purchased in Vientiane to Luang Prabang is somehow more expensive (160,000 kip, Mar 2007) than those purchased in Luang Prabang. Note that the VIP bus has poor suspension, is crowded and sometimes breaks down. On 23rd of July 2008, the VIP bus traveling from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang full of foreign tourists fell on a ditch, which eventually was pulled out by a tractor. Nobody was injured. Nevertheless, it’s still better than the public bus. Also the road is winding and mountainous, and the driver typically of the ying (break) and yang (accelerator) school of driving, considering the middle way to use both the break and the accelerator simultaneously.
The bus ride to Muang Xay (Oudomxai) is done by public minibus only. Big backpacks are carried on the roof. Price for the ride is about 40,000 kip and it lasts 5 hours on normal conditions. From there you can catch the bus to Luang Namtha, which takes about the same amount of time and money. No need to have a reservation usually, just take care to go early in order to secure a good seat.
Nong Khiaw is 3 hours away by public bus from the Northern Bus Station. From there boat will connect to Muang Ngoy
Once a day at 09:00 there is a direct local bus to Luang Namtha via Muang Xay (Oudomxai) it should take 8-9 hours. (can be 11h sometimes)
Boats ply the Mekong to and from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng where you can connect with bus and truck heading towards the north-east and the border with China. Slow boats leave every day, usually around 08:00 (or 09:00). If you can, just purchase your tickets at the boat landing because all the tour agencies charge at least $1 or more additional for booking you and they essentially do not do anything that booking at the boat landing doesn’t do. Especially if you plan to take the boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai which is a less popular direction, do not book a ticket in LP for the Pakbeng-Huay Xai portion. The tour agents in LP might tell you that you will have a VIP boat, but they do not know that is accurate and will charge you a lot more money for potentially hard wooden benches. It is really easy to buy your ticket at the boat landing in Pakbeng to continue on to Huay Xai and as of February 2007, the ticket cost $11,500 Kip (about USD $11.50). They also sometimes change the boat in the morning, so if you want a VIP boat with cushioned seats, it might not be possible. If you have the opportunity, purchase a pillow in one of the LP local markets or in Huay Xai before embarking on any boat ride that lasts longer than 2 hours. Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you’re taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Huay Xai deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated from three hours in a speedboat. There is also a twice-weekly “one day comfortable boat” between Luang Prabang and Houy Xai, the cost is significantly higher.
To travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket are usually provided. The pilot requires a good knowledge of the river, particularly in the dry season, as there are many rapids and rocks. One tall Danish guy found that he could not squeeze up into the position for the ride.
The slow-boat is absolutely packed with tourists (not always the case going upriver from LP to Huay Xai)- so much so that there are not enough seats to go round. It can be quite uncomfortable, but if there are two of you on your bench, it can be worth one of you taking the whole bench and the other sitting in the aisle for a while, then swapping. More than likely, you’ll both be happier in the end. Make sure to bring a book or travel game to while away the hours and swap with other travellers. It costs about 95,000 kip to Pak Beng, more if booked through an agent. Arriving early will mean a longer day, but most likely a better seat (front away from the engine). The engine is loud on the slowboat no matter where you are, if you are sensitive to noise, bring ear plugs. Some boats have a selection of van style seats which are very comfortable versus the standard wooden bench seats. It is ‘first in best dressed’.
Long distance ferries to Vientiane stopped running when Highway 13 was sealed a few years ago, but it may be possible to do the trip by private tourist boat when the water levels are high enough. Read more about fast and slow boats in the section about Laos.
- The local police does not any longer allow tourists to rent a bicycle without joining a tour.
That being said, places around town still hire out bicycles and there are quite a few tourists pedaling around on their own (May 2008). Some of the places tell you about the police situation, some don’t; in case of doubt ask the rental place and let them explain to you what you can expect in case of being stopped. Apparently the police will only stop you on four main roads, so if you do hire a bike ask about which ones these are. The price of hiring a bike is relatively expensive at 50,000-100,000 kip.
Things to See
- Haw Kham – the former royal palace. There’s also sometimes local drama or dance performances in the adjacent theatre.
- Phou Si – the main hill, from which you have a good view of the whole area. It’s quite a steep climb from the bottom, so i wouldn’t recommend going up in the heat of the day – sunrise and sunset probably make both the most sensible and the most rewarding times to go up, as there is a pretty much panoramic view from the top.
- Vat Xieng Toung – the oldest monastery in town and one of the most beautiful.
- Kuang Si Falls, 29 km south of Luang Prabang. A large multi-stage waterfall, accessible by boat or truck hire. There are food and touristy stalls outside the waterfalls. It is worth putting a whole day aside (or more) for seeing these because they are a great place just to chill out and meet other travellers. There are multiple pools at different levels, all of which seem safe to bathe in, and are extremely picturesque.
- Pak Ou Caves – the famous “Buddha caves” are some km north of town on the Mekong and can be reached by boat or road. Alternatively, you could hire canoes and a guide for the day. This means you both get to see the beautiful scenery and visit the caves without throngs of other tourists. It’s also possible to finish the trip at the ‘whisky village’ where the local Laolao (lao rice spirits) is made.
- Local market
- Night market – there is a ‘night-market’ selling all the typical Lao arts and crafts, some more touristy than others, every day all the main street parallel to the river. This is very pretty and worth a visit, but be warned that it packs up by about 9pm, unlike the similar markets in Thailand that go on well into the early hours.
- Monks at dawn collecting alms of rice from kneeling villagers (and early-rising tourists). Ask your guesthouse host to assist you the day before in preparing if you’d like to get up and give alms in the morning.
NOTE: The alms giving ceremony is one which, while picturesque, is not without its detractors. Unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of tourists to participate in a local tradition as a means of making easy money, and sometimes sell unsuitable, stale and even unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings, and resistance to continuing the tradition. However, the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances and thereby keep the tourist dollars rolling in. So if you wish to participate in this ceremony, prepare the food or fruit yourself, and avoid giving food of unknown quality.
This explains why the monks often seem to go for the “junk” packaged food.
Also beware of the following “scam” locals hand out food to monks, see you and then get you to come over and “help” hand out food. Then they mob you demanding money.
- Bear Rescue Center– Located on the way to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, the Bear Rescue Center has a bear enclosure where lots of endangered Asiatic Black Bears were rescued from poachers. There is also an Indo-Chinese tiger that was rescued from poachers and nearly died. You can also buy shirts of the Center too.
Things to Do
- Riverboat trip to the Buddha Caves and Whisky Village – two hours northwest of the city, the Mekong passes by a series of caves set in limestone cliffs above the pale green water. The lowest and most accessible of these cave is a sacred place for the Lao. Whenever a Buddha statue becomes too old or damaged to venerate in a wat, it is placed in what is known as the Buddha cave. Inside, just out of the sunlight and stretching back into the darkness, are thousands of Buddha statues of every size and material. Some are no more than a few centimeters tall, others several feet high. The ones in the back are hardly recognizable as more than worn lumps of wood, but others retain their serenity and grace under flaking gold paint and a thick layer of dust. To get there either go by tuktuk or car (US$13 charter) or – more romantic – by boat. You can charter a whole boat (seats 6-8 persons) for US$18 or book in a tourist agency (US$6 is the cheapest). The ride is 1.5 hours to go and 1 hour to return. Stops on request at the Whisky Village (a bit of a tourist trap) and the village just opposite the caves.
- Phou Si mountain – climb the 328 steps to the summit (a back-packers haven at this time of day) and watch the sunset. Entry 20,000 kip.
- Cooking class – one of the best way to experience the local food. The best bet is probably at the Three Elephants restaurant. The cost is US$25 (same as other schools) and offers a full day (10am to 5pm) including a visit to a vibrant local market, 2 teachers, well organised and equipped cooking stations (2 pax per stations, maximum of 12 pax per day), 6 dishes to cook and to enjoy (lunch and dinner), and a recipe book, with notions about local and essential ingredients.
- Lao Red Cross – Traditional Lao sauna and massage, very popular with locals in the afternoon. Th Wisunarat, in front of Wat Wisunalat (1 hour massage 32,000 kip, sauna 10,000 kip).
- Vipassana temple and park – Vipassana is a buddhist meditation. the templs is the golden one you see from Phou Si. Follow the road to the airport and turn right on the dirt road before the bridge.
- Bowling – there’s a perfectly decent bowling alley a few kilometers away from city centre that is open to 3 am. After 10 pm it gets crowded with westeners obviously more interested in partying than actual bowling. Whatever your interest, this place is well worth a visit if you want to have a break from all that usual tourist stuff. All tuktuk-drivers will know the way. The price of a game is 15,000 kip per person until midnight when it goes up to 20,000, though they may try to charge you more.
Before you can buy stuff at the markets, you’ll need some money. US$ and Thai baht are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. As of june 2008, there are now different ATM’s which accepts MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards available. These ATM’s are situated in Sisavangvong Rd just near the Night Market stops. For a Visa card, you’re still stuck looking for a bank. If you arrive by plane, there is a bank at the airport which is open during a few hours of the day, so don’t count on changing there. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in town. There are two money changers as of August 2008. One is next to the ATM and the other is up the street about 50 meters. Their rates vary, so look at both before you change.
A night market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters for the tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with. However the quality of goods and their design is much higher elsewhere. For instance, most of the silk in the night market is synthetic. Laotian asthetic sense is quite evolved in its own way. For instance check out ockpoptok, a silk/wall hanging store.
Day markets are along Setthathirat Road.
- Scarves, wall hangings, “Beer Lao” T- shirts, watches and other local crafts from the small Hmong market or the regular evening market, held along the main street. The market closes rather early (10 p.m.) and usually gets going around sunset, or a little before. The vendors sprawled on the ground with portable lamps is an interesting sight. These are mostly minorities (many Hmong).
- Weird cast-off Chinese goods at the local market.
- Laos t-shirts, various local handicrafts, sewable flags, and scrapbooks for your tickets and other items are also available here.
Restaurants line Sisavangvong Road and the road along the Mekong. Food runs the line from standard Southeast Asian backpacker fare to more traditional Lao dishes, including buffalo sausage, and there are several pizza restaurants – although they aren’t really all that good. Local specialties include French baguettes, watercress, fried dried seaweed with sesame seeds dipped in a chili sauce, and buffalo steaks.
For more upscale options, try near the end of Sisavangvong Road (end of the Night Market) in a little alley (local buffet for 5000 kip). There are several boutique restaurants which serve quite nice fusion Asian food.
- Blue Lagoon Café – A balanced mix of eastern and western delicacies are awaiting you at Blue Lagoon Café. You will find Laotian highlights and Swiss classics as well as tender local beef and a large variety of delicious snacks and fresh salad creations. The generously compiled drink list provides an exquisite selection of wine, fruit juice, cocktails, mocktails, beer and coffee. Located at the road to the Mekong river who start at the end of the night market, next to the national museum. [Do note that there have been several cases of food poisoning and diarrhea reported by recent patrons. Complaints have been filed with local authorities. 15 Jan 2008.]
- L’Elephant– Around the corner from Saffron Caffe. A lovely restaurant with a unique mix of Laotian and French cuisine. The food is extremely good, but has its price. It is directly in front of a small guesthouse, and not far away from Les 3 Nagas hotel and Villa Santi hotel. The ingredients are of the highest quality, ranging from French camambert to Laotian lemongrass and river weeds. The soups are very good, along with the tender and juicy local and french meat. The desserts are mouthwatering, and most of them have chocolate. Be warned though that the menu is both pricey and some items do not justify their price tag.
- Saffron Caffe– Not just a place to drink great coffee but Saffron also has delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner items! Try the breakfast wrap with a Cinnamon Swirl in the morning, and then one of their delicious salad wraps for lunch (I like the Lao Peanut Chicken Wrap). At night time enjoy romantic riverside seating and try Saffron’s Yellow Curry soup and Cashew Chicken stir-fry! Delicious!
- Indochina Spirit– Excellent Lao and Thai cuisine. Great value. Everything is tasty but try the minced fish and aubergines. Has old, stuffy, and not so pleasant odor in the interior tables, so be warned.
- Shakes & Crepes– a no name place serving delicious shakes for 3000 kip and fantastic sweet crepes for 5000 kip. In front of Croissant d’Or on the main street.
- Tamarind – Kind of hard to find, but worth the effort of getting the tuk tuk driver to ask around where it is. This is a part of the Stay Another Day organization. The food is all Laos traditional food. The waitstaff explains the menu to you and you have many options to choose from to experience a vast array of Laos food including platter combinations of dips, salads, etc. The waitstaff explains your meal to you when you get it so that you know how Lao people would eat it. In addition to the tasty food, they sell organic and fair trade food products, recipe books, and more. You can also book tours to markets, cooking courses, and more through the restaurant.
- Sala Café-Nice but expensive place with a view on the Nam Khan river. This restaurant-bar offers an open air terrace where you can relax while trying homemade Vietnamese,French and Lao specialities. Menu regulars are pastries, Bourdaloue tart,Mango crumble,Chocolate mousse and cocktails including Mojito and Martini dry.
Bars and Nightlife
There are a number of places to drink around Luang Prabang, although the club scene isn’t really existent. Most restaurants have tables outside where you can sit back with a beer or two.
- Mekong Sunset Beach Bar – THE insider tip for 2008! WHICH IS NOW FLOODED DURING WET SEASON! The place to go to watch the sunset. Located at the river mouth of Nam Khan and Mekong, you have to cross the bamboo bridge behind Wat Xieng Thong and walk 3 min. Very simple but unbelievable.
- “The Hive Bar” or the “Lao Lao Beer Garden” are the places to go at night and to meet people, if everything closes (at about 12pm) you can go to the “Vietnam Bar”. This is invariably reached by all the remaining people at The Hive and Laos Beer Garden clubbing together and getting one or two tuktuks together. Lao residents are beginning to complain about the Hive and Laos Beer garden because of roudy foreigners and offers of drugs and prostitution. The Lao Lao Beer Garden also shows live sports in the day (unlike the ‘Sports Bar’ next to the night market, as we found out despite an earlier promise that it would!).
- Morning Glory Cafe – On the quiet end of the main street, after 3 Nagas. Run by a laid-back couple. Thai and western food, Good wine, by the glass. Garden seating. Temple in front and street life can be seen.
- Books and Tea L’Etranger – downstairs is a book shop/swap and upstairs there is a bar selling drinks and cake in a room covered in cushions for lazing around and reading. Movies everyday at 7pm. A tad greedy and unfriendly on the book exchange business.
- Saffron Caffè – (around the corner from L’Elephant restaurant in Wat Nong village) – The Best coffee in Luang Prabang, if not in all of Laos! Fresh roasted coffee from the mountains of Luang Prabang itself, and an array of hot espresso drinks (we like the Caramel Macchiato) and iced coffees, including some Luang Prabang original recipes. Try the Banana Shake Macchiato for the most delicious drink experience in Luang Prabang! Delicious fresh baked goods such as their Cinnamon Swirls and Banana muffins go quickly. Granola and salad wraps are good. Saffron has now begun selling their coffee in gold foil bags again.
- Tamarind – Kind of hard to find, but worth the effort of getting the tuk tuk driver to ask around where it is. This is a part of the Stay Another Day organization. They offer a variety of traditional Laos drinks including tea. Also the cooking classes and local products such as creams, jam and so on are worth checkin out!
- Sala Café-Nice place with a view on the Nam Khan river. This restaurant-bar offers an open air terrace where you can relax while trying homemade Vietnamese,French and Lao specialities. Menu regulars are pastries, Bourdaloue tart,Mango crumble,Chocolate mousse and cocktails including Mojito and Martini dry.