Located neatly between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos, has a legacy of destroying travel itineraries as people can't resist staying just a day or two longer than intended.
Maybe it's the ubiquitous presence of monks, French colonial influence, or the markets in mountain air, something just feels right in Luang Prabang. UNESCO took notice and declared the entire city a World Heritage Site in 1995.
Laos' former capital is often the first or last stop for travelers, depending on the direction they are traveling, who are moving along the popular Route 13 between Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Luang Prabang.
First, the backpackers came, then large numbers of traveling families followed. While Luang Prabang is a popular stop for backpackers along well-worn banana pancake trail, tourism has shifted more toward accommodating shorter-duration travelers with higher budgets.
Getting to Luang Prabang, Laos
- By Air: Luang Prabang's international airport (airport code: LPQ) is located just north of town. Small planes connect Luang Prabang to other popular destinations such as Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok.
- 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 is a legend in the backpacking community. Passengers lounge on the top deck drinking Beer Lao while taking in beautiful Mekong scenery. Comfort levels for the two-day journey to Thailand largely depend on the quality of your boat and the group you are stuck with — the boats are often packed to capacity. The trip is usually split up by a stay in Pakbeng, a little village with few choices but shanty accommodation.
Things to Do in Luang Prabang, Laos
Aside from the popular activities of visiting impressive temples and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere in cafes, there are a few other popular things to do in Luang Prabang.
- 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 get you better prices, otherwise you'll need to haggle. Avoid purchasing the many environment-unfriendly souvenirs made from animals and insects.
- Phou Si Hill: The large hill in Luang Prabang is known as the "Holy Mountain." You can get amazing photographs of town and the Mekong river from the top. Many people choose to enjoy 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 merit.
- See an Alms Ceremony: You'll have to be up before 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
A wide range of accommodation from sweaty backpacker digs to full-service resorts can be found along the rivers and in the middle of town.
Location isn't too much of an issue as most places can be reached via an easy walk. Many old colonial mansions were converted into charming guesthouses. You can score beautiful mid-range accommodation for under US $40.
Money in Luang Prabang
Although Lao kip (LAK) is the official currency, many merchants and restaurants will accept — and sometimes prefer — U.S. dollars or Thai baht. You'll receive change in Lao kip, so pay attention to 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 Curfew and Nightlife in Luang Prabang
Although nothing like the party scene in Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang has some pleasant options for socializing, but you'll have to plan around the 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 quietly stay open with shades drawn and lights dimmed. The only "official" places for nightlife and socializing after 11:30 p.m. are on the outskirts of town. Your choices are pretty well limited to a night club (popular with locals) and a bowling alley (a hotspot for backpackers). Any tuk-tuk driver can take you there.
But wait! Many guesthouses in Luang Prabang lock the exterior gates at curfew. If you didn't make arrangements with the staff for a late-night return or can't wake up the nighttime reception person, you may find yourself precariously scaling the gate or sleeping outside!
Luang Prabang Weather
Luang Prabang, Laos, receives the most rain during the wet season between April and September. August is the peak of wet season. Although you can definitely still enjoy travel during the monsoon season, you'll have to deal with even more mosquitoes around the Mekong River.
The rest of the year is hot and humid in Laos. December, January, and February are typically the coolest and most pleasant months to visit.
The Fast Boat to Thailand
Completely opposite of the relaxed slow boat, the fast boat is nothing short of a wild, hair-raising experience. The "boat" is hardly more than a long canoe fitted with a deafening car engine with removed muffler. 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, and the toll on the environment is steep. 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 to Thailand:
- 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.