It’s fair to say this this place tops most travel lists. It’s romantic, almost unknown compared to other neighbouring Asian cities, affordable and ideally set along the Mekong River. Add the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city and you have the perfect recipe for a tourism marketer’s dream.
Where am I talking about? Luang Prabang, of course!
One of the perks of living overseas was that exploring new places was a lot easier. You didn’t have to take at least a week’s worth of annual leave; all your exploring could be done over a weekend. Luang Prabang is probably one of the easiest places to access in Laos, with regular return flights from Vientiane for approximately AUD$180 (I’d recommend booking with Laofly).
It’s the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, with many places to explore. My favourite part about Luang Prabang is the view from the air – the gorgeous, untouched mountains, the clouds and if you’re lucky enough, the mindblowing sunset and its array of colours no artist could recreate.
Curious? Below is my 24 hour guide to this sleepy, romantic town:
0800: Start the day with a walk along the Mekong River; watch the town come to life and don’t forget to greet the locals with a friendly ‘sabaidee!’.
0830: you’re spoilt for choice for breakfast in Luang Prabang, there are so many cafes to choose from! For excellent coffee, I’d recommend The Chang Inn; for good food and good coffee you can choose between Cafe Ban Vet Sene (French-style cafe), or Saffron, which uses locally-produced coffee and serves super indulgent breakfast options (full English breakfast, French toast drenched in syrup etc). There are two locations for Saffron, I prefer the smaller one located nearby.
0930: This is the perfect time of the day to head to Tad Kuang Si, Luang Prabang’s main waterfall and tourist attraction. Do not skip this – it’s worth it.
You can book through one of the numerous travel agents in the Old Town, or go with your gut instinct and pick a driver from the side of the road touting trips to Kuang Si Falls. It helps if you’re with a big group, but if it’s just you or two of you, try to find out how many people the driver already has, as they won’t leave without a full van (the longer it takes to get a full van, the later you’ll leave, taking up valuable time). 100,000 kip (AUD$17) for a return trip is fair, don’t go any higher or lower.
Before you go, pack some lunch or snacks and a big bottle of water. If you can find one of those waterproof bags, even better. If you get motion sickness easily, I recommend you find something to ease it as it’s not the most smoothest ride!
Yeah ok, everyone loves the falls. But rightly so! It is beyond beautiful and such a wonderful place; it’s an easy walk and the waters are cool, refreshing and inviting. If you’re a bit of an adventurer, the climb to the top of the falls is worth it – it’s so peaceful up there and while the views aren’t that amazing, it’s still a nice part of the world. Otherwise, just rest your little legs and enjoy the serenity. Entry is 20,000 kip (AUD$3.40) which includes the Sun Bear Sanctuary – cute bears galore! Your driver will give you about three hours to explore the falls which is plenty of time, so don’t rush and make sure you take it all in.
1400: you’ll return at about this time, and if you want to refuel for your next adventure I recommend Indigo House, close to the main roundabout. It has a great menu with both Asian and Western cuisine, as well as a sizeable selection of non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages. If you don’t want to eat, wander around the Old Town, making sure to check out some of my favourite places: Ock Pop Tock Heritage Shop (handwoven scarves and textiles), Luang Prabang Art Studio (excellent photography), Caruso Lao (high-end, locally made homewares) and the many jewelry shops scattered along Sisavangvong and Sakaline Road.
1500: make your way to Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most well-known temple. It’ll cost you 20,000 kip (AUD$3.40) to get in, plus an extra 5000 kip (just under AUD$1) for a wrap-around skirt, if you’re a female wearing shorts or skirt above the knee. It’s important to dress modestly, including covering shoulders and any noticeable cleavage; monks still live here and it’s common courtesy to show some respect. Wat Xieng Thong is a photographer’s dream, especially as the light changes in the afternoon, creating gorgeous reflections on the roofs and doors.
1600: rest those tired legs and body with an uber relaxing massage at Peninsula Sauna and Massage next door. The lady who owns this place is a third-generation qualified physio, just like her father and grandfather before her. I can honestly say I had one of the best massages here. I’m generally averse to anyone cracking my back, but the lady who massaged me went ahead and did so, and it felt so good! While my friend Carolin and I went at a relatively quiet time, I can imagine this place gets busy so can be counter-productive if you want to relax. I think I paid somewhere between 60,000 kip (AUD$10.20) to 80,000 kip (AUD$14) (it was a while ago, sorry I can’t be more accurate).
1700: refreshed and revived, let’s tackle Phou Si! This was recommended by my friend and fellow volunteer, Aileen, and I’m so glad she shared her secret with me. Mount Phou Si is Luang Prabang’s highest point at 100m high and offers the best views of Luang Prabang. Now there’s the normal way to climb, from the main road, Sisavangvong Road, or you can go via the Traditional Arts and Ethnic Centre (TAEC) on Kitsalat Road. You can make a stop at TAEC, or if you’re short for time go past the centre, on the right and wander through the small village, asking along the way for the way to Phou Si (Phou Si yoo sai?). You should find a set of stairs that will take up up to a dirt track and simply follow the track – it’s so isolated and no one else is up there so you can wander to Phou Si in peace while soaking up the fantastic views of the Mekong and the city.
Once you reach the top, it’ll cost you 20,000 kip (AUD$3.40) to enter Mount Phou Si. Now, here’s the dealbreaker. The first time I went, it was low season so it was blissfully empty, leaving me to take amazing aerial shots of Luang Prabang. The second time I visited, it was peak season and Mount Phou Si was FILLED with tourists, and taking photos was near impossible. If crowds aren’t your thang, try heading there either during a) low season, or b) early morning or lunchtime, when it probably won’t be so packed. However, if you’re there just for the sunset, then make your way in. The sunset truly is stunning and worth the crowds.
1830: wander your way back down to Sisavangvong Road to the night markets. It’ll only be starting up so you can rush back to your hotel and freshen up before you do your shop, or if you’re not looking to purchase anything, then do a quick wander and see. At the end of the market, nearest to the Tourist Information Centre, there are a few ladies who sell food. Look for the lady on the right and buy her scrumptious, melt-in-your-mouth coconut pancakes!! Similar to a poffertje (a Dutch dessert), they cost 5000 kip (just under AUD$1) and you get three morsels wrapped in coconut leaves. Don’t settle for one; be like me and get two.
Near coconut pancake lady, there is a small alleyway selling street food. This is not for the faint-hearted though; if your stomach churns at the thought of eating food that’s been sitting out for a while, then maybe give it a skip. Otherwise, there’s a good, hearty and cheap dinner waiting for you. For the street food averse, Tamarind is a popular restaurant among expats and tourists, and they serve up traditional Laos food that is to die for.
For dessert and an aperitif (or five), I would highly recommend Tangor. They have the most divine fusion desserts and their wine and cocktail list is not to be sneered at. The owners are friendly (and super cute) and there’s a nice, relaxed vibe in the place.
2100: now you’re fresh and filled with food, you probably want to find a place to hang out for the night. I would recommend two places – the first is for a classier night out with some of the best wine and cocktails in Laos; the second is for those who want to hang with backpackers and relax with some cheap drinks and beach volleyball.
My travel buddy, Kurt, was recommended this place by a friend of his and I am so glad he listened! Possibly the most upmarket bar in all of Laos, it’s very unassuming from the outside but the minute you walk in, you’re not sure if you’re still in Luang Prabang or in London. With a bit of a speakeasy vibe, this is where all the hi-so members of society gather to discuss the trivialities of life. Owned and managed by a Brit, this place oozes class and experience. If you crave a bit of sophistication and luxury, this is the place.
Like I said, it’s a fairly backpacker place so don’t come here if you’re expecting a local experience. It is a great place though if you simply want to relax after your big day, meet other travellers and share your stories. The food here is actually pretty good; unfortunately the same can’t be said for the drinks. There is, oddly enough, a beach volleyball court (adds to the backpacker vibe I guess). Admittedly it is a bit hard to find; Carolin and I got a bit lost but after asking a few kids we found the place! You have to walk through temple grounds and a local village, which is a nice entree to the place I think.
My personal opinion of Luang Prabang? I highly recommend it. Expats often describe it as Disneyland, and yes, after the the grit and grind of Vientiane it does feel that way. Nonetheless, it does live up to its hype and you won’t regret coming out to this part of the world. Colonial buildings, temples on every corner, waterfalls a stone’s throw away and a pretty high standard of dining options makes it a perfect stop in your South-East Asian travels.