Surrounded by mountains and lying at the confluence of the Khan River and the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is easily the most attractive city in Laos and many will say all of Southeast Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site full of temples, incredibly clean and quiet and surrounded on all sides by natural beauty, all visitors are faced with a tough decision: enjoy the sunset with a beer on the riverfront or from a temple on a hill overlooking both the city and the Mekong River.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Luang Prabang is during the early dry season from November to February. Beginning in February, getting much worse in March and continuing through May, smoke from slash and burn agriculture in the surrounding hills will fill the air, making it uncomfortable to breathe on some days and making good landscape photography impossible. March to May is also the hot season, adding to the discomfort. The wet season runs from May to October.
Getting to Luang Prabang
Taxis at the airport charge about $6 for a ride to the city.
Travelers from the south usually arrive by bus from either Vientiane (Reg: 110,000, VIP: 150,000, Sleeper: 165,000, ~12hrs), Vang Vieng (AC: 90,000, Minivan: 120,000, VIP 150,000, ~7hrs) or Phonsavan (AC: 100,000, VIP: 105,000, Minivan: 100,000, ~7hrs). If on a minibus, you will be taken to the city center. A local bus will likely drop you off at the southern bus station and you’ll have to catch a ride into town for 20,000 Kip. All prices are approximate and depend in large part on your bargaining skills. Route 13 from the south runs through the mountains and is very bumpy and windy. Many people seem to get motion sickness. If you don’t, then you’ll enjoy some spectacular scenery. And maybe a free and very unwanted facial, if you’re as unlucky as I was.
From the north, travelers can arrive by boat or bus, depending on the origin. From Nong Khiaw, buses are 40,000 Kip and minivans are 50,000; both take about 4 hours. Boats are 110,000 and take 8 hours.
From Lunag Namtha, regular buses are 90,000 Kip, VIP buses are 110,000 Kip and minivans are 130,000 Kip. Depending on road conditions, which can get bad during the rainy season especially, this trip generally takes from 8-12 hours.
The bus from Munag Xay costs 40,000 Kip and takes 5 hours.
The regular bus from Houay Xai at the Thai border costs 110,000 Kip, while the VIP bus costs 135,000 Kip. Both will take 12-15 hours. The boat prices will vary quite a bit depending on your bargaining skills and where you buy them, but a slow boat will be somewhere around 200,000-250,000 Kip and the trip will take two days.
You can walk pretty much everywhere in Luang Prabang and I recommend doing so, since tuk tuks will definitely do their best to overcharge you. You can rent bikes for $2 or motorbikes for well over $20 (apparently the tuk tuk cartel is responsible for the high prices; if true, another good reason to avoid them whenever possible).
Luang Prabang has accommodation options in all price ranges, but the cheapest rooms can be hard to find—I had a hard time at least. Places that advertised rooms online for 30,000 Kip wouldn’t go below 80,000 Kip when I showed up asking in person. It was after dark and many places were full, so they might have been taking advantage of that fact.
Either way, if I go back, I will book the first night or two in advance. I just prefer to avoid the hassle. If you’re looking for the cheapest option, you’ll probably want a dorm room. The Khammany Inn Hostel is your best bet, since their dorm rooms are nicer than the others and you won’t pay more than $7. For single rooms, I’d recommend the Liberty Guesthouse, where you’ll pay around $20.
Eating & Drinking
An 11:30 curfew is strictly enforced, so those looking to stay out late will have to head outside town where they will find a bowling alley and a local disco. Strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely, if you’ve ever been to a local disco in SE Asia), the bowling alley is the center of late-night action. Before the curfew, there is no shortage of places to have drinks.
Luang Prabang has restaurants in all price ranges. The best deals on local food can be found at the stalls lining an alleyway between the Mekong River and the market end of Sisavangvong Road. The street food market east of the tourist information building is often highly recommended (PBS Gourmet.com even named it one of the must-see street food markets in Southeast Asia). In reality, it’s nothing special. If you’ve been to any real market in Southeast Asia, you won’t be impressed by the bland overpriced food on offer here.
Things to Do
Temples. In Luang Prabang you visit temples. Aside from the temples you can do the following:
- Phou Si: this hill in the middle of the city is relatively easy to climb and has a near-panoramic view; great place to see the sunrise and sunset; 20,000 Kip
- Sunset on the waterfront: walk along it, hang out near it, or have dinner and/or some beers on it
- Kuang Si Falls: a pretty spectacular waterfall you can swim in 30 km outside town; take a whole day for this; entrance: 20,000 Kip; shared tuk tuk for 30,000-50,000 Kip, private tuk tuk for 150,000 Kip, minibus is 40,000 Kip; you can also rent a motorbike and drive yourself there (see below).
- Rent a motorbike: great way to see the surrounding countryside; unfortunately, motorbikes are ridiculously expensive to rent in Luang Prabang (at least $20, often more), so I can’t recommend it
- Tad Sae Waterfalls: smaller than Kuang Si, but still beautiful; reached by boat; entrance is 15,000 Kip
- Alms ceremony: monks collect alms from villagers at dawn; tourists can also give alms, but monks have fallen sick from poor quality food sold to tourists at incredibly inflated prices; the monks are also harassed by a crowd of camera toting tourists every morning; despite this,they are forced to continue their daily procession by the government; the whole thing is actually pretty painful to watch, in my opinion; if you check it out, at least be respectful; if you really want to give alms, prepare some fruit or other food yourself
Money Saving Tips
- eat at the food stalls lining an alleyway between the Mekong River and the market end of Sisavangvong Road; avoid the fancy places
- avoid tuk tuks whenever possible and if you have to take one, make it shared
- don’t rent motorbikes in Luang Prabang
- never accept the first price on anything, especially all forms of transportation—bargaining is expected
- large Beer Lao are 10,000 Kip and small are 8,000; these prices are standard all over the country, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise