Often compared to Thailand 10 years ago, Laos is an excellent alternative for those looking for a little less tourism and a little more adventure. With strong ties to Thailand, Lao language, culture and cuisine are similar to Thai. But, less developed than its neighbours to the east and west, Laos does not feel quite as westernised. It is an upcoming tourist destination, but so far has avoided a lot of the mass tourism seen in Thailand. Laos is especially popular among backpackers and tourists looking for a more authentic experience while still enjoying relative comfort.
Considered the countries cultural capital, Luang Prabang is one of the three biggest cities in Laos. If Laos is an oyster, Luang Prabang is its pearl. A UNESCO heritage site since 1995, this small city boasts a beautiful mix of French colonial and traditional Lao architecture. Luang Prabang lies in the North of Laos along the Mekong river, surrounded by a stunning, green mountain landscape. The focal point of the city is Mount Pou Si, a sacred temple hill in the middle of the old city centre.
Like the rest of South East Asia, Luang Prabang experiences a wet and dry season with average temperatures around 25 C. The most pleasant time to visit Luang Prabang is in December and January when the weather is cool and dry.
Aside from the rich history, Luang Prabang also has a thriving art and food scene, with a lot of excellent restaurants and art studios. Combined with the natural beauty of the area, this makes it a beloved destination for all kinds of travellers. However, the main reason for Luang Prabang’s popularity must be the warm welcome you receive from the local population. The Lao people are kind, generous and friendly and strive to make you feel right at home. Although most don’t speak much English, except for those working in tourism, communication is easily managed with an open attitude and a friendly smile. You will find them eager to help and connect, making your stay all the more pleasurable.
Luang Prabang is a laid-back town with vibrant energy, without the chaos or excessive noise often found in large cities. Easily navigated with little gems, like temples, shops and restaurants, hidden around every corner, it will only take a day or two to make the city your own. It is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the rich Lao culture and excellent food.
Where to stay:
Luang Prabang is a popular tourist destination, and as such, there is plenty of accommodation, from budget-friendly hostels to five-star hotels.
If you are looking for a low budget option, Aham Backpackers hostel has a friendly atmosphere and welcoming staff. The rooms aren’t the most spacious, but it is a great place to meet fellow travellers, and it is very reasonably priced. At around 5 pounds for a dorm bed, this includes a tasty breakfast, free coffee, tea and water.
For a little more comfort, a stay at the lovely Villa Oasis will cost around 20 pounds for a double room with ensuite bathroom. It is a bit more pricey but very centrally located, and this brand new hotel has a beautiful outdoor area with a pool.
Pure luxury is found at Moonlight Champa Riverview, where 60 pounds a night buys you Western comfort with traditional Lao flair. It is one of the more expensive options in Luang Prabang, but a steal compared to European prices and the rave reviews suggest it is absolutely worth the money.
Start your visit to Luang Prabang by visiting the stunning Royal Palace and Haw Pha Bang temple. Be sure to dress appropriately by covering your knees and shoulders and taking your shoes off before entering.
Next, try your hand at a local tradition: weaving. The Weaving Sisters will teach you how to make the beautiful fabrics for which Laos is known. The little shop and workplace provide a cosy backdrop for this fun and interactive workshop. You’ll leave with a smile, a new skill and handmade souvenir.
Around 5 pm, follow the tourists and locals for the quintessential Luang Prabang evening. Head down the stairs at Viewpoint café and find a spot on the beach to relax and watch the sun sink into the Mekong river. After the beautiful sunset, walk back down Sakkaline road to the night market. You can spend hours walking along the stalls, looking at trinkets, clothing and souvenirs. For an easy meal, try all of the different types of street food, each more delicious than the next. However, avoid the buffet as it has been known to cause food poisoning.
Take in some of the local culture and the beautiful landscape on your second day by visiting the Pak Ou caves. These caves are an important religious site in Laos and quite impressive. Barely visible from the river, the caves can only be reached by boat and a climb up the hill. You will easily find boat trips and tours of the caves. Local guides walk and drive around town, especially along Sisavanvong road, where you visited the night market last night.
After the boat trip, make your way to Big Brother Mouse, a charitable organisation dedicated to helping young people get a better education. They do this by providing books, study materials and classes. Their on-site bookstore is the perfect place to look for a souvenir or gift, and you can even volunteer at their English language drop-in centre.
For dinner and drinks, head back around the corner onto Sakkaline Road. Here you will find plenty of hip bars and restaurants suited to any taste, such as Bouang, Soum Noum and Sena Steak House. The open fronts of the restaurants make the street feel like one big communal eating space.
Rise for an early morning on your third day to see the Alms Ceremony. Between 5.30 and 7.30 am the monks walk along the Sisavavong road to receive alms from the local people. Just be sure to keep a respectful distance and observe, flashing camera’s, and excessive noise is not appropriate.
After the ceremony, treat yourself to a delicious coffee and pastry at one of the many French bakeries in town, like Indigo house and Joma. Once sated, climb up Moun Pou Si to view the temple and statues. The very top also provides a great view over Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside.
Between 1 and 4 pm is the best time to visit the UXO visitor centre. This small museum is an information centre about the most significant threat in Laos: unexploded bombs. Due to the Vietnam war, Laos is the most bombed country in the world, the effects of which are still felt today. UXO Lao is an organisation dedicated to cleaning up the bombs and educating communities about the dangers. Entry to the museum is free, but a donation is appreciated.
End the day with a well-deserved meal by the water at one of the excellent restaurants along Kingkitsarath Road or Khem Khong Road.
The fourth day is a must-see visit to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These waterfalls consist of a stretch of bright turquoise pools leading upwards to the main event: a 200 ft drop waterfall. Limestone sediments cause the distinct colour of the lakes, and they are entirely safe to swim and cool off in. There are many organised trips available to the waterfalls, but if you want a little bit more freedom and adventure, simply rent motorcycles and drive the 18-mile ride there yourself. Driving yourself also allows you to make stops in the villages along the road for a quick meal and to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. Traffic around Luang Prabang is quiet, but the roads can be a bit challenging. So watch out for potholes and try to avoid driving in the dark.
Once you get back to town at the end of the day, take another spin on the night market to buy those last souvenirs. For a delicious local meal, sit down at one of the wooden tables at the south end of the market and try the Khao Soy. This rich, spicy noodle soup is a staple of Lao cuisine, and each cook safeguards their secret recipe.
Then, head over to Utopia, the coolest bar in town. This place is a favourite among backpackers for the laid-back atmosphere, gorgeous view over the river and comfortable lounge chairs. It closes at 11.30, but your night does not have to end there. For a true night out in Luang Prabang, share a tuk-tuk over to the bowling alley. Here you can keep drinking, dancing and bowl until deep into the night.
On your last day, why not learn to make some of those delicious Lao dishes for yourself? There are several cooking classes available in Luang Prabang, but Tamarind and Bamboo Experience have the highest ratings. For a fraction of the cost of cooking lessons back home, you will make and eat traditional Lao food under the tutelage of experienced chefs.
For a final spectacular sunset, climb back up Mount Pou Si. Afterwards, cross the bamboo bridge at Kingkitsarath Road to have dinner at Dyen Sabai restaurant and end your visit to Luang Prabang in style.
Luang Prabang Waterfall
Said by many to be Utopia Luang Prabang, if you want to find that tranquil spot just to chill out then you must visit Luang Prabang Waterfall and experience the relaxing, calmness for yourself.