We visited Luang Prabang (Laos) in Dec-2016 and it would not be an exaggeration to say that we fell in love with the place. Laos is a land-locked country in South-East Asia, with Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia as its neighbours. It is not as popular a destination for tourists as its neighbours and that makes for a fresh experience.
Luang Prabang (‘Royal Buddha Image’) is a UNESCO Heritage town in Laos along the Mekong River, accessible via the Luang Prabang Airport (LPQ), with well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage. The Heritage town area itself is quite small, around 2km long and 300m wide, with 3 main streets running the length of the town. This small area is packed with Wats, a Palace, Night and Morning Markets, Charming Streets, pretty colonial architecture, many bars, restaurants and massage parlours, and a generally laid-back vibe.
I rate Luang Prabang (LP) as one of the best places I have visited in South-East Asia.
1. Visa LP is in Laos. Laos has visa on arrival for most countries in the world. It costs USD 40 per person (as of Jan-2018). The visa form is available online so best to download and pre-fill it so that you get to the head of the VOA line when you arrive.
2. People I can rarely say this about any place I have visited as a tourist, but in LP, people will generally not be out to cheat/hustle you. The tuk-tuk guy who approached us to show us the sights quoted a very reasonable rate; the massage places have printed price lists, very reasonably priced, and items at the night market, including handicrafts, handlooms etc. are very reasonably priced with only a small margin for negotiation.
3. Mobile Sim cards can be bought just before you exit the baggage area or just after. We took one that was 3G (USD8 for 4 days unlimited data). There was another one that was 4G but I did not check the price. 3G was decent enough for maps etc. but I would have taken 4G if I had seen it earlier and it wasn’t too expensive.
4. Transport We had airport pickup arranged by the hotel at a cost of USD 10. You can also book through Viator at USD 6.5 or just take a tuk-tuk from the airport. On our return, we booked a tuk-tuk from a guy we had met previously and he charged us 50,000 Kip (USD 6). There are tuk-tuks available everywhere and bicycles/motorcycles for rent. These are useful when exploring the areas around LP. For exploring LP town itself, walking is the best option.
5. Money USD and Kip (Lao currency) are used interchangeably. USD is largely accepted everywhere and 1USD = 8,000 Kip is taken as the benchmark rate in most places (as of Jan-2018). There are lots of ATMs in the town where you can withdraw kip at a rate determined by your bank. USD gets the best conversion rate so if you can carry USD then that would be best.
6. Accommodation We stayed at a hotel called Villa Deux Rivieres. It’s a locally run hotel with clean, comfortable, spacious rooms, yummy breakfast, and very hospitable staff. There are a lot of good hotels and apartments available to fit any budget and requirement. I would recommend staying in the heritage old town area (see map screenshot). An absolute top end heritage type hotel is Hotel Victoria Xiengthong Palace. It’s located next to Wat Xiengthong from where the monks set out for the morning alms collection (Tak Bat).
B. To do / eat / drink:
Luang Prabang old town is a UNESCO heritage town. Very charming and quaint with lots of Wats and a few markets (morning/night). Very easy to explore on foot and not very difficult with a stroller either. There are lots of excellent restaurants, cafes and massage parlours. Tripadvisor/Google Maps is a good way to find places.
These are some of the places we visited and enjoyed.
1. Kuang Si waterfall (map)– an absolute must do, even for those who have seen many waterfalls. A tuk-tuk or a car can be through the hotel, or with a tour operator in the city, or one can just stop one of the tuk-tuks on the street. We took a tuk-tuk and that added to the experience. We paid around USD25 for the tuk-tuk that took us there, waited 3 hours and brought us back. A car would cost not more than USD50. All the tuk-tuks roaming around town will take you there.
One tip – the ideal way to experience the waterfalls is to hike up to it. It’s a short 20-25 minutes walk and starts with a small natural pool that expands into a beautiful lagoon, then to minor cascades before coming upon the main falls. The build-up is magical and the lagoons looked really tempting for a swim as well.
2. The Tak Bat (almsgiving) ceremony is a photographer’s delight but you need to wake up very early for it. The monks set out from the Wats around 5-5:30am. The main streets are clogged with tourists, a lot of them quite disrespectful. It’s better to find a good spot in one of the side streets. Please also read this link for some tips on tourist etiquette. Wat Xiengthong (map) is one of the prominent Wats from where the monks set out.
3. Utopia (map) – A nice place to chill out with cold beer, cocktails and food. Best done towards the end of your stay if you have run out of things to do. Utopia is like a large garden, overlooking the Nam Khan river, with lots of seating alcoves, including a ‘balcony’ sort of an area with mattresses to lie down on while watching the sunset and sipping a beer. Great way to spend an afternoon.
4. Living Land Rice Farms (info / map) – is an organic community farm that offers visitors a chance to learn about how rice is grown and to experience some of it. We, unfortunately, couldn’t go there but it’s on my list for the next visit. They also have homestay options. It’s a little expensive (~50USD per person including lunch) but there are special packages for families and children, and they arrange free pickup as well.
5. Night Market (map) – is a lot of fun to visit. We went there 3 out of 4 nights that we were there. Lots of inexpensive but quite decent quality stuff. A lot of local handicrafts. Very friendly people in general and some good food alleys around the place.
6. Laodi Rum At the night market, you will likely come across a stall selling drinks made from Laodi rum. Laodi is a local Agricole rum (i.e. made from sugarcane and not molasses) with a very rich flavour. I highly recommend the Laodi dark rum. It’s a great rum to just sip neat, or to add to cocktails. It is also available at local stores.
7. Mount Phousi – is a small hill in the middle of the LP Heritage Town overlooking the Royal Palace. It’s a short climb from near the night market, or a longer hike from here. We got some great views of the town and the sunset but it gets quite crowded around sunset time, and some people hog the best viewpoints (but it makes for a great picture).
8. Bamboo Bridge/Nam Khan River Bridge (map) – is a very pretty bridge made out of bamboos. The area is very calm and serene around sunset time.
9. Mekong Cruise, Handicrafts Village, Pak Ou Caves – A cruise on the Mekong River is a fun relaxing way to see the Pak Ou Caves and a Handicraft Village along the river, where we bought some local handicrafts (very pretty and very inexpensive), and local rice wines, snake wines, rice whiskeys etc. You can book at a travel agency in the town or just go to the boat jetty near Wat Xiengthong (map). There are shops at the boat jetty to stock up on snacks, drinks and beers for the cruise. We were talking to a seller at the morning market and he arranged a ride with a friend of his. It should not cost more than USD40-50 for the whole boat.
10. Open-Air Movie at Hotel Victoria (map) There is a very interesting short movie that is screened at Hotel Victoria about a family living in the jungle. Excellent real jungle footage woven into a docu-movie. It is a free open-air screening. You are expected to order a beer/tea etc. which is very reasonably priced. Great for kids but I would recommend for adults too. Best to check with the Hotel what movie is playing as that may change.
11. Food was good everywhere we ate. My 3-yr old son loved the rice flour coconut milk balls called Khao Nom Kok (pic on the left). They are a very popular street snack. Some highly recommended restaurants – The Tamarind Cafe (excellent Lao food – map), Opera House Bar (drinks, snacks, people watching – map), and Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene (baked goods – map).
As I write this, I am already planning a second trip to Luang Prabang, which is something we rarely do. We fell in love and I hope you will too.
All pictures courtesy my wife. See more at www.shilpaharol.com