Luang Prabang

Wat Sen, Luang Prabang
Haw Kam

Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang (Lao: ຫຼວງພຣະບາງ) is the former capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city.

Understand

Set at the confluence of two rivers that almost surround the town, and beneath a temple-topped hill, Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture, reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats (temples), decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains.

One of those small cities with atmospheric and charming personalities, Luang Prabang is now on the radar of most tourists who have been or dream of going to Venice (the mother of all atmospheric cities), Salzburg, Dubrovnik, Ubod, Hoi An, Cusco, San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Napier or Santa Barbara in California.

As a visitor, you cannot help but be amazed by the tidiness and cleanliness of perhaps the most charming city in all of Southeast Asia. With UNESCO so closely involved and a largely responsible group of local business owners, the pressures of mass tourism have been held at bay, but for how much longer remains to be seen. Restaurants in the main street cater for luxury tourists. More typical Lao venues can still be found along the Mekong.

History

Luang Prabang rose to prominence as the capital of the first Lao kingdom (Lan Xang, land of the million elephants) from 1353. The city owes its present name to the Pha Bang, a revered Buddha image (now in the Royal Palace Museum) which was brought to the city by King Visoun during the golden age of Lan Xang in the early 1500s.

The fragmentation of the Lao kingdom at the end of the 16th century saw Luang Prabang become a militarily weak independent city state paying tribute to surrounding kingdoms. Ultimately the 1887 sacking of the city by the Chinese Haw led the Luang Prabang monarchy to accept the protection of the French, whose influence led to the construction of the many fine colonial villas that sit harmoniously alongside traditional Lao architecture.

The city fell into decline in the latter half of the 20th century following the reluctant withdrawal of the French, and the 1975 revolution which brought an end to the Luang Prabang monarchy. The relative poverty of newly-independent Laos perhaps helped save Luang Prabang from the ravages of 20th century city planning.

The reopening of Laos to tourism in 1989 resulted in a remarkable turnaround in the city's fortunes, as crumbling timber houses and colonial mansions were sensitively restored and transformed into immaculate guesthouses and boutique hotels. In 1995 the city was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Get in

By plane

The airport (LPQ) is 4km north of town and has scheduled flights from/to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pakse, Hanoi, Siem Reap, and Vientiane.

Visa-on-Arrival is available at the airport, costing USD30-USD35 for citizens of most Western countries, but slightly higher for developing nations. In any case, bring along an extra USD1 for the processing fee on top of this for hassle-free payment. You need a passport photo to obtain a visa. If you don't have one, they'll scan your picture from your passport and charge you an additional US dollar.

ASEAN nationals do not need a visa to enter Laos for stays not exceeding 30 days.

Visa extensions are possible at the immigration office opposite the Rama Hotel. The cost is USD2/day plus a USD2 form fee. The process is very easy. Turn up in the morning with your passport and one photo. Fill in a form (in Luang Prabang they do this for you) and come back in the afternoon for your extension.

Exchange rates at the airport are reasonably competitive with the prevailing outside rates, unlike other international airports.

Taxis into town cost about USD6, whether you are by yourself or with 3 other people. There is a taxi counter just outside the arrival hall.

By bus

There are three bus stations, each a little bit out of town, which serve different directions. Tuk-tuk drivers know which bus station to go to for which destination. Ask around for bus schedules.

Tickets can be bought at every travel agent in town, which makes more sense than buying them at the bus station as there is only a difference of roughly 20,000 kip, which pays for the tuk-tuk from your accommodation to the bus station. Pick those agencies which absorb the shuttle ride from the fare quote as others do not. Compare quotes before booking. Book tickets in advance, particularly for VIP buses as they have reserved seats. You don't want to end up sitting next to the toilet.

The bus follows Rte 13 south, a relentless bumpy ride because the road is curvy and potholed. Comparing pluses and minuses for VIP sleeper/VIP seats to Express for night trips, not much difference. If taking the trip at night, there is no need for air-con and one cannot sleep on this ride, so it's useless to take a sleeper bus due to the rocking and rolling. Those prone to motion sickness should know that this trip travels a winding, mountainous road.
For seats-only buses, there is no built-in toilet and one must relieve oneself before departing because the stopover at the restaurant is 4 hours away, and the last is at the destination station. Check though, because not all tour companies offer free pick-up from a passenger's residence in the quoted price. Bus Station (southern) is about 3.2 km away by walking from the tourist/backpacker's area and a tuk tuk-costs about 20,000 kip (Feb 2012). Same thing with the Northern Bus Station, it's 5+ km walk.

For timetables, see photos at Hobo Maps.

BanNaluang Bus Station (South Bus Station)

To Departs Kip Duration (hr) Comments Updated
Sainyabuli 09:00, 14:00 60,000 5 hr Bring a dust mask! Jun 2011
Phonsavan (Local) 08:30 80,000 Jun 2011
Phonsavan (air-con) 08:30 95,000 Jun 2011
Phonsavan (VIP) 08:30 105,000 Jun 2011
Vang Vieng (air-con) 09:30 90,000 6-7 hr Jun 2011
Vang Vieng (VIP) 09:30 105,000 Jun 2011
Vientiane (Local) 06:30, 08:30, 11:00, 14:00, 16:30, 17:00, 18:30 110,000 Jun 2011
Vientiane (VIP) 08:00, 09:00 (?), 19:30, 20:30 145,000 12 hr Jun 2013
Vinh (Vietnam) W and Sa, 18:30 200,000 Jun 2011
Hanoi (Vietnam) Daily except Th, 18:00 360,000 24 hr May 2012

By car

Hwy 13 connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the south and via Hwy 1 to the north. Hwy 13 is sealed and in relatively good shape during dry season all the way to Vientiane. Simply put, it is long bumpy and winding road trip. The road smacks of a lunar landscape and there are countless potholes due to poor quality surface, the top layer eroded to reveal the gravelly underlayer, which means a really bumpy ride. Although there have been incidents of violence along this stretch of road in the past, presently it is safe.

By boat

Boats ply the Mekong to and from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng where you can catch overland connections towards the northeast and the border with China. The trip takes 2 days (both days about 9 hours) by slow boat, or 6 bone-rattling hours by speedboat. There are also operators now offering 2-day "luxury" cruises.

Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you're taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Luang Prabang deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated from six hours in a speedboat. There is also a twice-weekly "one day comfortable boat" between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, but the cost is significantly higher.

Slow boats leave every day, the last one at 11:00. The trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs at least 220,000 kip (Mar 2014), the trip to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai costs 900 baht (Sep 2011). The slow boat leaves Luang Prabang at about 08:30, from a pier that is 10 km away from the town centre (tuk-tuk charge 50-60 baht per person) and arrives around 18:00 at Pakbeng. It is common to have to switch to a different boat in Pakbeng, so you may end up in a boat of higher or lower quality for the second half of the journey. Two day boats have comfortable (car) seats and it is no longer necessary to purchase any cushions. Arriving in Huay Xai, it's best to take a quick tuk-tuk from the border crossing to the city centre for 50 baht.

The slow boat is generally packed, so much so that there may not enough seats to go round. Arriving early will mean a longer day, but most likely a better seat, towards the front and away from the engine.

The slow boat trip proceeds in a pleasant 20-30 km/hr and offers nice views of nature and village life on the banks of the Mekong. Most of the passengers are foreign tourists. Occasional locals take the boat only for short hops between the riverside villages, but prefer to take the bus for the full distance from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. So you won't be able to observe any local boat travellers, as the boat ride offers just the usual sight of tourists drinking Beerlao for 20,000 kip

If you choose to travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket should be provided. It is not recommended you travel in a speedboat without this essential safety equipment. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof/water-resistant as possible and wear a rain jacket. The boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin. On sunny days, sunscreen is invaluable as there is no roof/shade on these speed machines. The journey to Huay Xai can be reduced to as few as 4 hours in the wet season, with a lunch stop at Pak Beng. However, some consider this means of transportation less safe, especially in the dry season. Earplugs are strongly recommended. Travellers who are concerned about creating as little environmental impact as possible may want avoid speedboats, as they are heavier polluters than the slower options. Travel agents in LP will sell the tickets for 320,000-370,000 kip. You will need a minivan to take you the 10 km north to the fast boat pier.

The third option is to take a luxury cruise. The major operators are Luang Say, Nagi of Mekong, and Shompoo. As of 2009, all operate two-day cruises to Hauy Xai that stop in Pakbeng for the night. Although the journey takes as long as taking the slow boat, these operators offer vastly superior facilities and equipment than public slow boats, and you should be prepared to pay a premium for it. Tickets for all operators can be bought at most travel agents in town. Prices are approximately 220,000 kip for a slowboat, 280,000 kip for a speedboat. 3,000 kip for Luang Say, 1,200 kip for Nagi of Mekonand (both including a night in a hotel) and 640 kip for Shompoo (Nov 2011). Some travellers are reporting that prices of Luang Say and Nagi of Mekong can be bargained down.

There is no public boat service to Vientiane, 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 Laos country guide.

Get around


See

Arts and crafts

Local landmarks and culture

Photo of Alms Ceremony, Sisavangvong Rd

Out of town

While the tuktuk price for out of town sights is steep for couples or single travellers, keep asking. Some drivers might have been asked by other travellers and will try to build a group.

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

Do

Learn

Cooking classes

This is an enjoyable way to gain insights into Lao culinary methods and traditions. There are three substantial cooking class providers in town, all attached to popular restaurants, using Lao chefs/instructors. They differ somewhat in style and content, but all start with a tour of the local food market and include transport and copies of their recipes and other information about Lao cuisine. Participants sit down to eat their dishes afterwards.

Some of the hotels and guesthouses in town also offer small or private cooking classes for their guests.

Farm Visit

Buy

Thai baht and USD are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. There are some ATMs that accept Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards. These ATMs are mostly on Sisavangvong Rd near the end of the Night Market. The ATMs dispense currency in Lao kip l and generally allow a maximum withdrawal of 1,000,000 kip with a charge of 20,000 kip. Banque Franco-Lao allows a maximum withdrawal of 2,000,000 kip with a charge of 40,000 kip. Multiple withdrawals are allowed to a daily maximum of 5,000,000 kip. If you arrive by plane, there is an ATM and a money changer at the airport which is only open for a few hours of the day. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in town.

Money Changers/Exchange For Malaysians, it is best to change money to baht, where the rate is RM10=100 baht or more, then change the baht to kip in Laos. This is because they give not so good rates in Laos for Malaysian ringgit.

There are a number of money changers who generally do not offer good rates, and are either on Sisavangvong Rd or in the permanent markets further east. One is next to the ATM near the Night Markets, another is about 50m further north along the street, in front of one of the first restaurants (looks like a little tollbooth/shack). The rates offered may vary, so shop around before you change. Better maybe to use official money changing services at a bank which are easily found. There are reports of scam by using money changers to take cash advance. They will charge you more in USD with a different exchange rate than posted. Even after complaining it's not possible to cancel the transaction.

The Night Market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters to tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want and closes at about 22:00. Particularly good are the duvet covers, cushion covers, and pillow sets. They can even make one up to your dimensions by the next day. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with and amazingly non-pushy by the standard elsewhere in Asia. Traders range from young children to the elderly who usually make crafts, art, and goods by themselves. Good-natured bargaining is advisable, but don't obsess over this and ruin your experience as well as giving the trader a bad day. It should be understood that the quality and design of goods is lower in the market than in the legions of increasingly chic stores in the town. There may be some souvenirs available made from endangered animals. Avoid buying rare pets, leather, ivory, talons, dried sea creatures (starfish, etc.), fur, feathers, teeth and other animal products. This is the best place to buy lower end souvenirs and hone your bargaining skills.

Laotian aesthetic sense is quite evolved. For instance check out some of the higher end stores:

Books

Several book stores that sell photocopies to unsuspecting travellers operate in the area. It's worth checking copies as pages can be unreadable or even missing.

During lunch break or siesta time, which starts 12:00 to 13:30, the dry summer sun can be scorching. To spend time comfortably while waiting for the sun to mellow at around 15:30, hang around at the public library across from the National Museum about 4 or 5 buildings down from the US-sponsored reading room. There are old English language newspapers still in circulation. Or better still, surf the net for free from the six Internet stations.

Eat

Street market noodle food stall at the market in luang prabang

There are no McDonald's restaurants nor any multi-national fast food outlets in Luang Prabang or Laos, for that matter. Restaurants line Sisavangvong Rd and the roads along the Mekong and Nam Khan. Food runs the gamut from standard SE Asian backpacker fare to more traditional Lao dishes, including buffalo sausage right up to very high quality French cuisine. There are also numerous market stalls for cheaper food, including baguettes, crepes, and pancakes.

Stalls along an alleyway between the night market end of Sisavangvong Rd and the Mekong offers superb Lao street food at bargain prices. Grilled salted catfish is available for 15,000 kip per fish, other types of fish for 20,000. For a somewhat spicy salad for about 10,000 kip, look for vendors with containers filled with cucumber, lime, tomato and sliced green papaya, where they will mix it on the spot with mortar and pestle. If you order BBQ meat from one of the vendors opposite the tables, they will heat it up for you over the charcoal, and you can grab a seat at one of the tables to eat. The tables are quite crowded; it is easier to get a seat later in the evening, after 20:30 or so. The entry to the alley is by the vegan restaurant near the food stall end of the night market, near the traffic circle where the tuk-tuk touts hang out.

Do not pay more than 10,000 kip for a large Beerlao or 8,000 kip for the small dark lager version, pretty much standard throughout the country. Most riverside places offer the same prices for beer and generally the same foods. Prices of food can vary wildly. Shop around and don't be shy about asking prices if anything is unclear.

Probably the thing most recommended to eat is the Lao version of fried spring roll, vegetable at 3,000 kip or pork at 5,000 kip per piece.

Be careful of buying the bundles of dried seafood snack if you have the knack for it, the texture is like chewing salty paper.

Local specialities include:

Cafes and restaurants

Drink

There are a number of places to drink around Luang Prabang, though the late-night club scene is pretty much nonexistent. The liveliest and busiest bars are in a small cluster between Mt Phousi and the Nam Khong.

Luang Prabang's status means that curfews are strictly enforced here. Bars start winding down at 23:00 and close at 23:30 sharp. The only late-night options permitted are outside the main part of town, a discothèque patronised mostly by locals and bizarrely, a ten pin bowling alley.

If you do plan on staying out after hours, check the arrangements with your guesthouse first to avoid being locked out.

If you're simply looking to relax and enjoy the river views, most riverside restaurants have tables outside where you can sit back with a beer or two.

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget Under 120,000 kip
Mid-range 120,000-400,000 kip
Splurge Over 400,000 kip

Luang Prabang has the best selection of accommodation in Laos, with something to suit every budget. There is everything from tent sites under a roof for 20,000 kip per night up to super luxury at USD1,500 per night.

Don't expect though that the whole kit and kaboodle that you can find in Vietnam or Cambodia, air-con, cable TV, Internet, can be found in LP for USD12.

While the big chains have yet to make an appearance, there's plenty of "boutique" accommodation, although this heavily overused word runs the gamut from quirky to luxury. Most of the lanes and alleys all through Luang Prabang have places to stay, with a large selection also found in the lanes south of the Post Office. Free Wi-Fi is quite commonplace in budget guesthouses.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Cope

Hydrating

Be sure to buy a small (or big depending on your needs) backpacking-sized plastic bottled water, and don't throw it away, then refill it as you go along from your hotel's/guesthouse's or tour agent's office water dispenser. They are ubiquitous and one should not consider water expenses in the budget.

If you can't find one along the backpackers' area, go to the lobby of the Phra Lang Phra Lao, a separate building besides the National Museum, beyond the huge King Sisavangvong statue, and re-supply. The water dispenser is at the right hand side at the far end of the corner from the entry door. There is also an available toilet with no charge. Or ask at any shop or agent.

Go next

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