Luang Prabang, Laos

Travel Essentials and Guide to Luang Prabang in Laos

Luang Prabang
Mark Lehmkuhler/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Located neatly between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos, rarely fails to secure a spot in the hearts of travelers who brave the mountainous roads through Laos.

Although at first glance there aren't a lot of things to "do" in Luang Prabang, the relaxed atmosphere and mountain air have a delightful reputation for destroying travel itineraries as people decide to stay just a day or two longer than intended.

You'll find no shortage of postcard moments in Luang Prabang as robed monks stroll past colonial mansions, all while you enjoy a baguette and sip French coffee from sidewalk cafes on surprisingly tidy streets. UNESCO took notice and declared the entire city a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Laos' former capital is typically the first or last stop -- depending on the direction they are traveling -- for travelers who are braving the bumpy, winding route 13 between Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang.

While Luang Prabang is a popular stop for backpackers along the so-called banana pancake trail, tourism has seen a shift more toward accommodating luxury travelers with less time to spare.

Things to Do in Luang Prabang, Laos

Aside from the obvious activities of visiting the many temples and soaking up Luang Prabang's tranquil atmosphere, here are a few favorites to check out.

  • Kwang Si Waterfall: You can take a tuk-tuk around 30 kilometers (45 minutes) outside of Luang Prabang to the gorgeous Kwang Si Waterfall. Escape the heat by swimming in the various pools; you'll find food, drinks, and even a bear rescue center in the vicinity of the waterfall. 
  • Visit the Night Market: The night market is open nightly from around dusk until 10 p.m. You'll find great river fish, Khmer food, pho noodles, and lots of souvenirs -- including cheap silk. Arriving early as vendors are setting up will sometimes land you better prices. Avoid purchasing the many environment-unfriendly souvenirs made from animals and insects. Learn how to negotiate prices in Asia.
  • Phou Si: The large hill in Luang Prabang is known as the "Holy Mountain." From the top you can get amazing photographs of the town and Mekong river. Many people choose to take in a mountain sunset after visiting the temple on top of Phou Si. Avoid supporting the merchants who sell small birds in baskets that you can release from the top for good luck. Read more about responsible travel
  • See an Alms Ceremony: You'll have to be up at dawn to see an alms ceremony, but watching scores of monks make their rounds to collect their daily food is an amazing sight. Unfortunately, tourists have put a damper on the ancient tradition by flashing cameras and purchasing food from seedy merchants to give the monks. If you participate, bring your own food or fruit, stay low profile, and don't interfere with the procession in any way. 

    Where to Stay in Luang Prabang

    A wide range of accommodation from sweaty backpacker digs to five-star resorts can be found along the rivers and in the middle of town. Location is rarely an issue as most places can be reached via an easy walk. Many old colonial mansions were converted into guesthouses. See a list of Luang Prabang Hotels under US $40 per night. And don't forget to check for bed bugs at your hotel when you arrive.

    Money in Luang Prabang

    Although Lao kip (LAK) is the official currency, many merchants and restaurants will accept -- and sometimes prefer -- US dollars or Thai baht. Mind the exchange rate you are offered if paying with a different currency other than what is listed.

    Western-networked ATMs located near the night market dispense Lao kip. Banks in town are a better choice for changing money than the sketchy money changers.

    The Luang Prabang Curfew

    Bars begin shutting down around 11 p.m. in Luang Prabang, and all businesses are required by law to be closed by 11:30 p.m. The curfew is strictly enforced, however, a few brave business owners have been known to create impromptu speakeasies with shades drawn and lights dimmed. The only "official" place for nightlife and socializing after 11:30 p.m. is strangely the bowling alley located at the edge of town; any tuk-tuk driver will know about it and take you there.

    Many guesthouses in Luang Prabang lock exterior gates at curfew. If you didn't make arrangements with the staff for a late-night return, you may find yourself precariously scaling the gate or security wall to get back inside!

    Luang Prabang Weather

    Luang Prabang, Laos, receives the most rain during the wet season between April and September. The rest of the year is hot and humid. December, January, and February are the coolest and most pleasant months to visit.

    Getting to Luang Prabang, Laos

    • By Air: Luang Prabang's newly improved airport (airport code: LPQ) is located just north of town and is serviced by regional and a few international flights.
    • By Bus: The bus ride south along Route 13 to Vang Vieng is scenic but hardly enjoyable. Deranged drivers ply the bumpy, mountainous road at unsafe speeds making more than a few passengers motion sick. The ride realistically takes at least six hours, depending on your driver. Tickets can be purchased at your accommodation or from various travel agents dotted around town. Strangely, the price is typically the same regardless of whether you stop at Vang Vieng or continue all the way to Vientiane.
    • By Slow Boat: The slow boat lives in infamy with backpackers who lounge on the top deck drinking Beer lao and taking in the beautiful Mekong scenery. Comfort levels for the two-day journey to Thailand largely depend on the quality of your boat and the group that you are stuck with -- the boats are often packed to capacity. The two-day journey is usually split up by a stay in Pakbeng, an unpleasant little village with few choices but shanty accommodation. Read more about the options for getting from Chiang Mai to Laos.

      The Fast Boat to Thailand

      Completely opposite of the relaxed slow boat, the fast boat is nothing short of a wild, hair-raising experience. Hardly more than a long canoe fitted with a deafening car engine, the fast boat makes the two-day journey to Thailand in only seven hours.

      While taking the fast boat sounds like an efficient option for leaving Laos, those seven hours may be the most uncomfortable of your trip. Passengers are given crash helmets and must sit in a single file on wooden benches with knees to chest for the duration of the chaotic ride. Fast boats do periodically crash, particularly during the wet season when river conditions become even more dangerous. The good news is that the daredevil boat pilots can jump over the swirling eddies and inescapable whirlpools on the Mekong that normally threaten the slow boats!

      If you decide to brave the fast boat:

      • Purchase earplugs; the engine on the fast boat is deafening.
      • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from high-speed insect encounters.
      • Wear sunscreen; there is neither cover nor shade on the fast boat.
      • Waterproof your belongings; splashing water typically soaks everything.