The city of Luang Prabang lies in the northern region of Laos. France annexed Laos in the late 1800s, and the beautiful city of Luang Prabang was region’s royal and religious capital at that time. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang’s historic center still showcases architecture representing a mingling of French colonial influence with traditional Lao style. The historic center lies on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and surrounded by wooded mountains, creating lovely views from points all around the city.
I arrived in Luang Prabang early one morning after spending 14 hours scrunched in the aisle of an overcrowded overnight bus (you can bet I got my money back for that ride!). I was exhausted and desperately hoping that this city would be charming enough to soothe my nerves and make the painful ride worthwhile. Happily, Luang Prabang opened her arms and made it easy for me to get comfortable.
Luang Prabang is a small city, so three full days was more than enough time to explore the area and relax in a variety of coffee shops. Here are my recommendations for eating and sightseeing in Luang Prabang as well as the day trip you definitely shouldn’t miss on your visit to the region.
Sightseeing & Activities
Temples: As in the other Southeast Asian cities I’ve visited, there are several Buddhist temples to explore in Luang Prabang. The most prominent temple is Wat Chom Si, which sits on a steep hill above the city. I climbed the steps to the hill’s first level every morning as part of my workout. To reach the temple at the very top the hill, however, an entry fee of 20,000 kip (about $2.50) is charged. The ticket table is on the first level.
One of the most popular activities in Luang Prabang is to visit Wat Chom Si in the evening to watch the sunset over the Mekong river. It’s a beautiful view and a neat experience, but only if you arrive early. Five of us climbed to the top at around 4:30 p.m. for a 6:30 p.m. sunset, and the minimal seating was filling up fast. The other two girls and I squeezed into a great spot, but the two guys who were with us were a little too slow. The small platform was so crowded with people that they couldn’t see anything but cameras and the backs of people’s heads. They went back down the hill to sit at the riverside for the sunset. And actually, their photos turned out great, too!
Another beautiful and prominent temple is located at the Haw Kham (Royal Palace) complex, which lies at the bottom of the steps to Wat Chom Si. I took a few photos of this beautiful structure (see above), but because I had already seen so many Buddhist temples, I did not make the time to go inside.
A couple of friends I met at the hostel toured the Royal Palace museum and offered mixed reviews. Because and entry fee is charged and the feedback wasn’t too positive, I let myself be lazy and I skipped it! However, don’t let me deter you from visiting if you’re interested.
Wandering the Old City: I enjoyed wandering around the Luang Prabang and enjoying the colonial architecture, which was so different from what I had seen in Thailand. Be sure to make time to walk along the perimeter of the peninsula and take in the views over both of the rivers. Many cafes line the sides of the roads overlooking the water.
The Night Market: Luang Prabang’s main street is closed to vehicular traffic and completely covered in tents and blankets every night from 5-11 p.m. for the city’s night market. This is the place to find good deals on scarves and linens (many of them handmade in Luang Prabang), jewelry, artwork, patterned pants and dresses, and much more.
The market vendors expect shoppers to bargain with them, so always view any price they quote as simply a starting point. It’s a good idea to respond with an offer around half of their asking price. To avoid language barriers, vendors will type their price into a calculator, show you the number, and then hand it to you for your offer.
Bargaining with vendors is an art and can be quite fun! One night I was with a German friend who wanted to buy two necklaces from a Lao vendor about our age. She was bargaining so hard over a price difference of 5,000 kip (about 60 cents) that both she and the vendor were almost in tears from laughter. He had already dropped the price significantly and was pleading with her, a smile on his face, to agree on his price. “He’s so cute…just give it to him,” I finally said. She did, and we walked away chuckling. We found, time and again, that the people of Lao are warm and friendly.
Eating and Drinking
In addition to being the place for great deals on souvenirs, Luang Prabang’s night market is also a smart spot for dining cheaply. You’ll find typical street food stalls and fruit shake vendors, but a favorite alternative for budget travelers are the filling nightly buffets offered at 10,000-15,000 kip ($1.25-1.85). Five different buffets exist, and four of them are sandwiched in one narrow alleyway near the market’s town center entrance.
Unlike a traditional buffet, visitors can go through the line only once. But unless you have a truly enormous appetite, you’ll get your fill with one trip! I visited the buffet shown above with a group of friends from the hostel. We each received a large bowl and could fill it up with any combination of the tasty dishes on the buffet. The dishes are cooked earlier and not kept hot, but the vendors will toss your bowl of food into a wok and heat it up for you you if you wish. I did that, and even with all the foods mixed together, the meal was delicious!
One word of warning…”health codes” don’t really exist in Southeast Asia. One evening, I saw the vendor drop two cooked skewers of meat on the dirty floor. Instead of tossing them in a trash can, she picked them up and stuck them at the bottom of the pile of skewers on her table. Hmm…yummy.
Opposite the buffet alleyway on Sisavangvong Road, a line of vendors selling baguette sandwiches and fruit shakes are open from early morning until after the night market closes. This is a great place to find cheap and delicious food all day long. Look for the stall with the most people sitting at its tables and get in line!
If you’d like a break from the street food scene, there are several nicer restaurants on the two main streets running parallel along the length of the peninsula. The day after my traumatizing bus experience, I treated myself to dinner at Tangor, a casually upscale restaurant overlooking Sisavangvong Road. The prices at Tangor are midrange and the food I tried was flavorful and artfully presented. I ordered two appetizers and a glass of wine as my dinner and was able to enjoy the restaurant’s atmosphere and watch the people pass by without destroying my budget.
Though I didn’t get any good photos of Utopia, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. This super cool spot is a definite must-visit in Luang Prabang, and I ended up there with friends on two different nights. Hidden away in an alley, Utopia is a surprisingly large and stylish open-air complex with a bar and a comfortable floor seating area, candlelit outdoor tables and a veranda where yoga classes are offered each morning. It’s the place to hang out and grab a cold drink or a dinner in the city.
Day trip: Kuang Si Waterfalls
If you’re visiting Luang Prabang, do not miss a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is about a 50-minute ride from the city. Every guesthouse and tour company offers round-trip minivan rides for around 35,000 kip (about $4) per person, but the drawback to that option is that the organized tours typically only spend about two hours at the falls. The falls and surrounding area is extensive, and two hours is not enough time if you plan to get into the water or do any hiking.
A better alternative is to get a group of people together and negotiate a private ride with a songthaew (red truck) or tuk-tuk driver. Eight of us from the same guesthouse decided to travel to the waterfalls together, so one of the guys in our group negotiated with a songthaew driver to transport us for 30,ooo kip per person. He was waiting for us in front of the guesthouse at 10 a.m.
Instead of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a minivan, we had plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the cool, fresh air from the open songthaew as it left Luang Prabang and followed the roads that curved around immense green rice fields on the way to the falls. I would definitely recommend this was a pleasant (and cheap) way to see a bit more of the country.
The songthaew driver dropped us off in a small town at the entrance to the falls. We purchased sandwiches and snacks before paying our 20,000 kip entrance fees at the entrance gate. Food and water is not available for purchase once you go through the gate, so be sure to buy what you need from the vendors outside or bring it with you from Luang Prabang.
After going through the gate, we passed through a bear rescue park before reaching the first set of falls. The water was a clear aqua, and the falls themselves were absolutely breathtaking. There are several sets of falls and pools in which to swim, as well as hiking trails. We spent plenty of time enjoying the water and the views.
After exploring the falls, we decided to hike up the hill next to the largest waterfall. It was a nice trail and a good workout. We were following signs for the caves that are supposedly located in the area, but the trail wasn’t well-marked, and we eventually had to turn back so that we could meet our driver on time. We spent four hours at the falls and could have stayed much longer!
Before coming to Southeast Asia, I hadn’t planned to visit Laos, but I’m so glad I took a week to explore Luang Prabang. It’s a friendly, relaxed and unique city with kind people, good food and inexpensive prices. Laos may be lesser known than other Southeast Asian countries, but it’s definitely worth a stop during your travels.
Have you been to Luang Prabang? What are your recommendations?