Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
Luang Prabang is just as charming and beautiful as everyone says it is. After two weeks in Thailand, I was thrilled to see proper sidewalks and clean streets, a lovely night market with things I actually wanted to buy, and some very nice cafes, restaurants, and shops. The historic center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site which explains why it looks so nice. There’s also a curfew for noise so it’s a pretty quiet area as well. I really enjoyed my time here – it was a nice city to just relax in so if you have extra time, it’s great for just hanging out for a few days.
It feels worlds apart from other cities in SE Asia, and definitely in Laos. The most similar place I’ve found so far is Hoi An in Vietnam which, not surprisingly, is also a UNESCO World Heritage town.
What to see and do in Luang Prabang:
- Go up to Mount Phusi, but don’t do it during sunset. It’s awful. So crowded. Apparently, it’s much better at sunrise, but that means you will have to get up early.
- If you are up early, check out the Alms Giving ceremony that takes place every morning. This is an old tradition where the monks from all of the surrounding temples walk through town getting donations of food from local women who have woken up early to prepare rice and other food. As a tourist, it’s a really interesting thing to observe, but please do your research on appropriate behavior in advance!
- There are some temples and museums in town, but I didn’t think these were really worth visiting. It is nice just to walk around the town, check out the views of the rivers. If you do visit a temple, suggest Wat Xiengthong.
- You can take a river cruise on the Mekong or visit the Pak Ou caves. After the slow boat, I was pretty much done with river cruises so I skipped these.
- Visit the UXO museum which documents more about the bombs/landmines left over from the Americans fighting in Laos and Vietnam – it is incredibly sad, but very interesting and worth your time while you are in town (there is a similar museum in Vientiane which goes into more detail about helping victims of these bombs).
- For a taste of local culture, check out Garavek Storytelling which has a performance of local folktales every night. It’s cheap, there are cheap drinks, and the show lasts about 45 minutes. A different sort of thing to see!
- Try a yoga class at LP yoga (2 locations). Classes are 40,000 kip and you can choose between an early morning class or an evening class.
- Relax at the spa. There are tons of spas in town, I would recommend Hibiscus Spa which seemed a bit nicer than some of the others but had similar prices (60,000 kip for traditional Lao massage)
- Shop! I was bummed I couldn’t buy more things in Laos (but I don’t really have any room to carry it around!). There are so many beautiful textiles here, it’s really lovely. You can take a local crafts class and learn bamboo weaving, embroidery and more. Check out the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) or Ock Pop Tok.
Venturing outside of town –
- Get out of town and see the Kuang Si waterfalls. This is a must. You can get there via motorbike or through a shared minivan. I was able to easily book a van through my guesthouse which picked me up at 9am and dropped us off in town before 1pm. I’d suggest going early to avoid the crowds, it was not too busy when we first arrived. There is a lot to see at these waterfalls (bring your swimsuit and your hiking shoes) – I recommend climbing to the top of the falls if you can, it’s a nice view and much quieter up there.
- Visit the Tad Sae waterfalls – These are way less touristy, more locals coming here. I came here through a trekking/kayaking tour and this was one of our stops. While it was less crowded than the other falls, I was disappointed to see that they offered elephant riding here (it was actually quite common to see in Laos).
- There are a lot of trekking, cycling, and kayaking options available to book in Laos (including multi-day trips). Most of the tour agencies have an office on the main street in the old town so it’s easy to find something.
Eating & Drinking around town:
- I was quite pleasantly surprised to find so many nice restaurants here. And wine bars! And cheese! There are quite a few French restaurants in town which offer a nice break from local food if you are looking for something different. For some French cafe vibes, try Le Banneton or Bistro Ban Vat Sene. I had a delicious almond croissant at the first and a savory crepe at the other.
- The night market offers a lot of the same things to eat and I found it rather disappointing. On one end you will find a bunch of vendors side by side all selling sandwiches, crepes, and smoothies. They will all yell at you to buy from them. It is all rather identical. On the other end of the night market is a little alleyway that houses more food vendors. These stalls are primarily meat and grilled fish, as well as rice/noodles/veggies and there are tables to sit down. I found it to be a bit too crowded and narrow so I grabbed some sausage on a stick and escaped back onto the street for some coconut pancakes (my favorite street snack!).
- Some of the nice restaurants in town will offer the traditional Lao/Luang Prabang dishes in a set meal which is a nice way to try them. I’d suggest Tamarind or Bamboo Tree. You will pay more at these places, but will still spend less than $20/person for a full meal and drinks.
- Good coffee and snacks (and wifi) at Cafe Saffron.
- For good local food near the main street, try Cafe Croissant d’Or. Always busy, they have good prices and very tasty food.
- Grab a cocktail at Icon Klub after dinner.
Foods to try in Laos (and some Luang Prabang specialties):
- Laab Moo (with sticky rice) – It’s a minced meat salad (moo is with pork). I ate this all the time in Luang Prabang. It’s so simple and so good.
- Papaya Salad – Watch out, these are way spicier here than in Thailand.
- Sticky rice is everywhere! You will eat it with everything it seems.
- If you see khao soi noodles, these are different from what you get in Thailand but very good.
- The Mekong river weed dish is everywhere. I finally tried it at Tamarind and it is interesting…if you like crispy seaweed, you will probably like this
- Mok pa – Steamed fish in banana leaf
- Local Lao Sausage – You can find this at nearly every restaurant and the night market. Between this and the laab moo, I was set on pork for a while.
- Try the sien savanh at the night market – this is like a very chewy beef jerky
Getting There: If you are coming from Thailand, I’d highly recommend taking the slow boat (after crossing the border near Chiang Rai). You can also take a bus from the border, but I’ve heard the ride is not so great and the boat is far more pleasant! There is also an airport that is accessible from other major cities in Asia. If you are coming from elsewhere in Laos, you will likely end up taking a bus.
Where to Stay: There are many guesthouses surrounding the old town and I would recommend staying there. It is quite lovely in this area and rather quiet. The only downside is that the streets are a bit dark as there aren’t many streetlights so you have to be careful walking around at night (mostly because of the cars/motorbikes – I felt very safe here). The guesthouses range from very reasonable prices for a double room ($20) to much more expensive options. I generally felt that everything in Laos, especially in Luang Prabang, was more expensive than in Thailand so you will likely pay a bit more for your room here than you would for something similar in the nearby countries. The good news is that there are plenty of options and so the hardest part will be deciding which guesthouse to choose. I decided to stay at Y Not Lao Guesthouse which was excellent – very friendly owner who made me feel right at home, especially since I stayed for 5 nights.
There are more hotels, hostels, and guesthouses outside of the old town area which may offer more nightlife or just a more local vibe. To be honest, the old town area is quite touristy so you may tire of it after a few days.