Luang Prabang was one of my last cities to explore in SE Asia in 2017. I spent three days there, as part of a week vacation from my home base in Chiang Mai, after taking the slow boat tour along the Mekong River. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than it would be a typical town in SE Asia. Aside from all the scams I ran into, Luang Prabang became one of my favorite cities in the region.
While trying to stick to a budget isn’t that hard in SE Asia, I found Luang Prabang to actually be more expensive than Chiang Mai in several ways. It’s still cheap, but expect to pay as much as double compared to Thailand. Knowing about the scams and how to avoid them is also very important, so make sure you read my post on them. I would say a budget of $25 a day, between transportation, accommodations, food and activities would be comfortable, while this could be squeezed down to $10 if you’re tight.
Luang Prabang actually has its own airport. Currently, flights are available from Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Hanoi in Vietnam, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Siem Reap in Cambodia. The flights are relatively cheap – as little as $75 round trip (except for Chiang Mai), but the flights are sporadic and the cheap flights only seem to be available months in advance. However, if you can find a good flight, it’s certainly the fastest way to get to Luang Prabang.
Your other two options are by bus and by boat. The bus system in the north of Laos is sketchy at best. The roads are in bad condition and wind through the jungle. I didn’t take the bus myself, but friends of mine said it was hard not to get carsick. Instead, I took the slow boat down the Mekong River from the border of Thailand. The two-day adventure was actually a lot of fun, and a great way to experience the country on the way to Luang Prabang.
If you’re traveling to or from Vientiane or Vang Vieng in the south, I’d recommend the bus. I took the sleeper bus leaving Luang Prabang down to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. While the beds on the bus are relatively small, they were comfortable enough to sleep in through the night. Thank God the air conditioning in the bus worked well or I’m sure I’d have had a far harder time sleeping.
Traveling around Luang Prabang is best done on foot. It’s a relatively large village, but you can still get to all the highlights in just a few minutes of walking. Even the bus station on the outskirts of town is less than a couple miles from the center. If you prefer a vehicle, you can either grab a tuk-tuk or rent a scooter. The tuk-tuks will charge whatever they feel like, but rarely more than $3 per ride. If you plan to rent a motorcycle, I’d suggest reading my advice for driving motorcycles in Thailand.
As Luang Prabang is a very popular tourist destination, especially for backpackers and Thailand expats making visa runs, there are nearly 250 hostels, guesthouses, hotels and resorts to choose from. The hostels have a wide range of quality and start from as little as $3 a night. I stayed in one the first night which had a bunch of Workawayers in the center of town grabbing potential guests. The 12-bed dorm was one of the cheapest in town, but after a sleepless night due to no air conditioning in a room filled with mosquitoes, I switched to the Phanh Tha Sone Guesthouse close to the center of town, and for only $1 more I had a small, cool room with only 4 beds.
I’d recommend paying a bit more money for one of the nicer places, as bugs are rampant in Luang Prabang (and the rest of SE Asia). While there’s no guarantee even the nicer places don’t have bed bugs and mosquitoes galore, it’s worth a try. Air conditioning also seems to be non-existent at many of the cheaper hostels and hotels. But some have other great features. One hostel that a bunch of my friends stayed at, Sa Sa Lao Hostel, had yoga classes on the banks of the Khan River.
After my delicious $0.50 street food meals in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the food in Luang Prabang seemed to cost a fortune. Yet compared to Western countries, it’s hard to complain over a $3 sandwich or dinner.
The most popular meals in Luang Prabang seem to be sandwiches, made on a small “hoagie” style white bread bun with dozens of optional toppings. I was happy to see how popular avocados were in Laos, and I usually ended up with the chicken, cheese, and avocado sandwich from the market beneath Mount Phousi.
Another popular “meal” was the fruit smoothies. They didn’t have the highest quality ingredients, but they were cheap, and the options were almost limitless. The night market in particular had a couple dozen stalls all lined up next to one another.
There is also a “food street” located near the center of town next to the Indigo House. There are all kinds of stalls selling everything from German sausages to fruit cups. Perhaps the most popular stalls are at the back. They are set up as buffets, where you get a bowl for 15,000 Laotian Kip (about $1.80) and you can fill it up with anything you want as long as it fits in the bowl. I think the barbecued fish was an extra $1. I didn’t eat there myself as it didn’t look like the cleanest place. Then again, don’t expect any of the food stalls in Luang Prabang to look like a five-star restaurant. This is SE Asia after all, but the quality of the food is still quite good.
If you want some Western food, as I often did while traveling through SE Asia, I’d recommend Joma Bakery Cafe. They have a large selection of rolls, wraps, sandwiches and salads, mostly for under $5 each. Their drink selection is equally large, and they can be a really nice place to relax out of the heat. They also had the best internet I found in Luang Prabang if that’s something you need (it certainly was for me!).
As a tourist town, there are quite a few attractions worth visiting in Luang Prabang. Some are more popular than others, while the Xuang Si Waterfall is the “must-see” activity of the town.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Few waterfalls in the world impressed me as much as Kuang Si. Reminiscent of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, these waterfalls cascade directly over the vegetation into turquoise blue pools in multiple levels. In the bottom pools, you can swim about and even jump off a sideways tree trunk into the water (be warned – the water isn’t deep and you’re likely to hit the ground). What I didn’t know about until after I left was that the water is filled with the flesh-sucking fish that are used in fish spas, only bigger.
If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge, I’d highly recommend hiking up to the top of the waterfalls for the best view. You can get dangerously close to the actual falls themselves, with some very impressive views of the landscape. Supposedly there’s a secret trail halfway up the climb to a private pool, but I didn’t manage to find it when I was there. There’s also a trail running another mile or so from the top of the falls back along the river to a cave, but I didn’t have time for that either. As it was, it was dark by the time I made it home that day.
Most of the tuk-tuk drivers will offer a ride to the waterfalls for 50,000 Kip ($6). You can easily haggle this down to 20,000, which should also include the entrance to the waterfalls. Just be willing to ask more than one driver until you find one willing to accept your offer. Also, the more people in the truck, the easier it is to haggle. Some will want to drive around looking for more passengers before accepting your offer. Supposedly the entrance to the falls is another 20,000 kip, but my tuk-tuk driver said it was included in the ride, as he had “connections.”
The well-maintained boarded walkways to the waterfall pass through the Tat Kuang Si Bear bear rescue sanctuary, where they save bears from bile farms. There’s no extra fee for the sanctuary, but you can donate to their salvage efforts.
UXO stands for unexploded ordinances. In other words, live landmines. Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in history? During the Second Indochina War, the USA made half a million bomb runs over Laos, dropping an estimated 2 million tons (4 billion pounds!) of cluster bombs. Nearly 240 million bombs were dropped, and as many as a third of them failed to detonate. Injuries and deaths from contact with unexploded landmines continue to this day, 45 years after US forces ceased hostilities.
This museum is the awareness and education center of the larger efforts made by the UXO Organization. Since 1998, UXO has helped over 2000 villages by clearing nearby fields of landmines, while educating locals and foreigners about the dangers, whether from walking across uncleared jungles, tilling fields, or simply exploring. Prevention of the constant injuries and deaths are important – more so because the scrap metal from one 700-pound bomb is worth 8-months pay for a Laotian farmer or teacher, which many might feel is worth the risk.
The museum starts with an awareness video of detonation survivors and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s the same one shown to the children of Laos. There are numerous awareness panels to read (all in English), as well as hundreds of defused landmines of all shapes and sizes on display. It’s a real eye-opener to what Laos has gone through as a country.
Perhaps the main attraction of Luang Prabang within the city is the tall hill in the center of town with a beautiful temple on the top. It’s about 350 steps to get to the top, from which you’ll get a beautiful 360° panoramic view of Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside. This is also unquestionably the best place to watch the sunset. Just make sure you get up early (at least an hour or two before sunset) to get a good seat, as it gets crowded up there.
Access to the hill is 20,000 Kip (about $2.40). There are two ways up the hill, either straight up from the Royal Palace or a winding trail from Wat Siphoutthabath. The latter will also take you past the “imprint of Buddha’s foot,” a curious shape in one of the rocks. There are also a bunch of shrines on that trail. Please note that this is also holy ground, and should be respected as such.
Alms Giving Ceremony
The one activity I missed in Luang Prabang was the ceremony the monks perform every morning at sunrise (which I was never up in time to see). It’s a deeply religious ceremony that’s been practiced since Buddhism was introduced into Laos, but unfortunately can get out of hand with the tourists. To get more information about the ceremony, and how you can respect the tradition, please read this post by Matt Long.
If you’re planning a trip through Laos, visiting Luang Prabang simply must be on your itinerary. Granted, I skipped the popular backpacker town of Vang Vieng on my way to the capital of Vientiane. Still at the top of my bucket list of things to do in Laos is visiting the Gibbon Experience, which unfortunately shut down for the first time in a quarter of a century during the week I was in Laos. But they’re back up and running now, and I’ll be sure to book my visit when I return to Laos.
Have you been to Luang Prabang? What did you think of it? Have I missed any good accommodations, restaurants or attractions worth mentioning? Feel free to comment below.
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