Worldly Pleasure in Luang Prabang
The heavenly kingdoms in the land of Laos
were once ruled by powerful Gods.
As benevolent sovereigns these Gods would grant worthy partisans
the ability to reign over the earthly world.
One day they sent the mortal son of one of the Gods
to a small rice field to bring agriculture to the region.
At the confluence of two rivers
he offered an axe and a buffalo to the villagers.
Farming began and the town thrived.
But as men do, the townspeople committed ungodly deeds;
in punishment the Gods took the life of the buffalo.
When the buffalo fell, great vines grew from his nose
and towered towards the heavens
forming a dark canopy
that threatened the survival of life on Earth.
Two altruistic souls sacrificed their lives by slicing the vines
sunlight spread and life forms were preserved.
They call this place Luang Prabang.
Granted by the Gods
to be ruled by a man
it became a spiritual center
with the pleasures of the world.
Today monks make their pilgrimage
outside the temples to collect alms at dawn
while bushels of vegetables splay like rainbows
slabs of honeycomb and baby bananas sizzle
crispy insects and skewered river fish glisten
tempting shoppers in the morning market .
Alleyways awaken as locals chow down noodle soup
children scamper down the street
guesthouses and chic shops prop their Colonial doors
French cafes drip coffee and bake fluffy pastries.
Tuk tuk drivers do not hassle
rather they softly suggest
rides to the falls
where the mysticism still lives.
The bamboo bridge leads to another world
free of Western extravagance full of roosters and dirt
fishermen cast their reels on a river
that seems to span to the ends of the earth.
Monks round the corner under umbrella shades
from gilded temples twinkling in the golden light
sweltering heats give in
to another balmy night.
The sun sets on the Mekong
the purple river reflects a pink sky with blue mountain silhouettes
tourists sip Chardonnay and Bordeaux
backpackers load plates with a buffet of “who knows”.
At night villagers from ethnic minority tribes
lay their handmade wares on the street
the entertainment ends early
by curfew the town sleeps.
As the world below continues
to be pious or to indulge
the Gods smile down on Luang Prabang
from up on their golden hill.
How to Get to Luang Prabang
Slow Boat from Thailand
Two days with stopover in Pakbeng, 950 baht or about $30
People seem to love or hate the slow boat, hence its infamous status. I was a bit nervous to sign up after hearing stories of overcrowded vessels, sleepless nights, and scams. However it ended up being one of my favorite travel experiences I’ve ever had. First of all, to clear up the confusion, you are not on the boat for two entire days. The first day begins a short tuk tuk ride from the border with Northern Thailand and lasts around six hours before stopping over for the night in Pakbeng. You have plenty of time to relax at a nice, cheap hotel (price not included in fare), have some dinner, check in on wifi, and simply enjoy the atmosphere on the Mekong. The next morning you have until about 9am to have breakfast and pack a lunch for the boat, and the ride lasts another 6 hours or so before dropping you a ten minute tuk tuk ride from Luang Prabang. Most of the unpleasant stories I hear are from people who booked their ticket through a tour agency in Chiang Mai. My recommendation is to figure out your own transportation to the border town of Chiang Khong (I went on a VIP bus from Bangkok) and then buy a boat ticket at the pier. Just be sure to arrive early, I believe the last boats leave around 11am or noon. Also be prepared with plenty of food and water for the boat, which seems to only stock packaged soup and BeerLao. I packed myself some fruit, nuts, and oats, which held me over until dinner in Pakbeng. There are plenty of food vendors by the pier in Pakbeng for your second day and you can easily get a baguette sandwich, fruit, and fried rice to go.
Bus from Vientiane
10 hours on VIP bus, $20-25
The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang winds through the mountainous countryside, which is beautiful… but incredibly nauseating. The three-hour stretch from Vientiane to Vang Vieng isn’t so bad while the seven hours from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang about killed me. The scenery was unbelievably gorgeous but I spent most of the ride trying to put myself in a coma while covering my mouth praying I wouldn’t spew. Next time I’ll do the ride on a motorcycle.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has many charming guesthouses in restored Colonial buildings scattered around town and along the river. I arrived in the low season (April) and was able to wander around and negotiate a great deal on a room. We found plenty for around $15 for two people with hot water and wifi. Here are some of my recommendations, keep in mind prices will vary greatly depending on the time of year.
$6, includes breakfast
For solo travelers on a budget, I’ve heard great things about LPQ Backpackers from friends who have stayed there. The location is ideal near the river and the night market, and has a social atmosphere with communal areas to meet other travelers.
$35 to 60 depending on the season
On a quiet neighborhood alley between the Mekong and the main road, I found this hotel to be so peaceful. The room was huge, immaculate, and had luxuries like wifi, a tea kettle, and a mini fridge. We managed to negotiate the room for $20 per night and it was easily one of the nicest places I stayed in all of Southeast Asia.
$65 to 85 depending on room and season
Indigo House is smack dab on the main street in the old town, in a gorgeous classic French house, where the night market takes places. Rooms are immaculate and redone with artisan Lao textiles and French architecture. They sell handicrafts from hilltribes in the lobby, especially gorgeous indigo prints. The downstairs restaurant is a popular spot all day with plenty of Northern Lao specialties, homemade yogurt and ice cream, and an entirely vegan menu. They also have a bakery with lots of treats in front of the restaurant, however I found my brownie from there to be very dry.
$65 to 120 includes breakfast
Across from the Nam Kham River near quiet streets, great restaurants, and beautiful temples, the Apsara is in my favorite area in Luang Prabang. The rooms are airy in the beautiful French building with elegant artisan details. Rates include a big buffet breakfast. The restaurant downstairs is also considered one of the best in all of Luang Prabang with upscale Northern Laos specialties like lemongrass fish with organic herbs and pumpkin apple curry for around $10.
$150 to $250 includes buffet breakfast
Quite extravagant by Southeast Asia standards, the Mekong Riverview is the place to splurge in Luang Prabang. The hotel offer beautiful, luxurious, European style rooms, a great location near some of the best restaurants in town, and a view of the Mekong river. Included in the room rate is a big buffet breakfast, free bicycle rentals, a stocked mini fridge with cold drinks, and golf cart transfers around town.
Where to Eat in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has some of the best local cuisine and European restaurants in all of Southeast Asia. The restaurants may seem expensive by Laos standards, but the level of quality is exceptional. Here are some of my favorites:
$8 to 10 on average for mains
On the main street across from the night market, Tangor has a lively, romantic atmosphere and fills up with tourists nightly. The fusion menu has delicacies like ceviche, grilled fish, and goat cheese salad. The location makes for great people watching and a convenient stop between shopping at the night market stalls.
$13 to $20 for tasting menus, $3 to $10 for a la carte dishes
Outside the local market, Tamarind is the best place in Luang Prabang to get a taste of Northern Laos cuisine. Authentic, elegant dishes like bamboo soup, fish steamed in banana leaf, and platters of dips and relishes can be ordered a la carte style or you can do a tasting menu. The tasting menus range from healthy and vegan to highly adventurous. Friday nights they have a fish BBQ and every day they offer cooking courses. If you choose to eat in only one nice restaurant in Luang Prabang, this should be the one.
Tasting Menus start at $20, a la carte dishes start around $10
Surrounded by foliage with candlelit tables and white linen napkins you’d swear L’Elephant was on a small street in Paris. The wine list is extensive, and even the cheapest white wine by the glass, an unoaked Chardonnay, was exquisite. The menu boasts classic French favorites along with upscale Lao specialties. They even have an entirely raw vegan menu using the gorgeous herbs and produce that grows in the hillside surrounding Luang Prabang. I had the ratatouille with light, peppery watercress salad, which I highly recommend. This is one of the more expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang, but by Western standards it’s actually quite a bargain. Head here for a romantic evening or an elegant lunch.
The Morning Market
Less than $1 for fruit, snacks, and breakfast
In the early morning fruit and vegetable sellers bring incredible, organic produce from their farms and line the alley just behind the main road. Alongside them are vendors offering coconut black sticky rice in banana leaves, grilled honeycomb, fluffy coconut pancakes made from rice flour, and other delicacies. I came here every morning and bought fresh fruit, raw cashews, and black rice for breakfast.
The Night Market
Snacks and meals starting at $1
It may be small, but the night market food stalls in Luang Prabang are some of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia. Down the alley that runs perpendicular to the Hmong Handicraft night market on the main road you will find classic Luang Prabang spiced riverweed steamed in banana leaves, homemade crispy dumplings, made to order green papaya salad with organic grape tomatoes, the typical noodle soups, skewers of grilled fish and meat, and of course the famous vegan buffet. For 10,000 kip or a little over a dollar, you can load your plate as full as you can with vegan noodles, curries, stir fries, fruit, salads, and fried snacks. Some of the dishes are really delicious, and it’s basically heaven for vegetarians, however they do use lots of MSG and as you might expect the hygiene standards are dubious. Still, it’s an experience not to be missed!
$1 to $5 for breakfast, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods
When you start to crave Western fare, head to Joma for homemade granola bars, fresh salads, and even wholegrain bagels! With ample seating, air conditioning, and a relaxed atmosphere it makes for a great breakfast spot or a refuge from the heat in the afternoon. I recommend at least stopping in for some homemade oatmeal cookies.
What to Do in Luang Prabang
Swim at the Kuang Si Falls
$4 including admission to the Bear Sanctuary
Arrive early and you will have the luxury of swimming in some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world all on your own. Clean, milky blue water rushes from the top of the falls and spills into several luxurious pools below. I recommend coming as early as possible, they open at 7am, taking your time swimming starting from the bottom, then by the time the crowds come in you’ve already reached the top. You can climb from the base of the waterfall up into the jungle above, which I highly recommend, and it’s another way to have peace away from the crowds. Going to these waterfalls is mandatory. For me they’re up with Angkor Wat as far as incredible places in Southeast Asia go, but be aware that much of the magic disappears when the crowds arrive. Motorbike rentals are pricey in Luang Prabang, but it’s the most atmospheric, hassle free way to arrive. Otherwise take an hour-long tuk tuk ride for about $20. If you’re feeling super fit you can cycle there, but I wouldn’t recommend it for non mountain bikers; the heat is intense and the roads are quite bumpy.
Climb Mt Phousi
$2 to reach the temple at the top
Just up the hill from the main road, Mt Phousi has a nice temple where you can hear Monks chant and catch amazing views of the town and countryside. Be prepared for a steep climb and some crowds at the top, but it’s worth it to see the sun set behind the hills.
Royal Palace Museum
$3 entrance includes museum and temple
The Royal Palace Museum is one of the main attractions in Luang Prabang, but honestly I found it to be the more boring museum I’ve ever seen in my life. Still, it’s worth a visit because the temple in front is quite beautiful, as are some of the rooms in the museum, which have amazing wall treatments with animal scenes made from cut glass. However if you have limited time in Luang Prabang it’s not a must see in my opinion. Remember to cover your shoulders and knees or they will not allow you entrance.
Visit the Temples
$1.50 per temple
Luang Prabang has dozens of well-preserved temples, some more popular than others. My favorite way to see the temples is just wandering around the town and walking into the ones that catch my eye. The most popular include Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunarat. Remember to cover your knees and shoulders or bring a sarong/shawl.
Tour the Art and Ethnology Museum
$3 for adults
This small but well-done museum explains the Hmong, Akha, and Kmu tribes with costume and jewelry displays. The shop has very nice gifts as well.
Watch the Monks Collect Alms at Dawn
When I first heard that monks walked down the quiet streets of Luang Prabang at dawn to collect food from pious villagers I swooned over the romantic imagery. However, in reality, since most tourists have the same fantasy, it’s become a pretty uncomfortable affair. I’ve also heard that vendors who sell the alms to tourists to give the monks often prepare inferior rice, actually making the monks sick. If you want to witness this ritual, watch somewhere discreetly and do not use a flash if you take photos. I walked down the road on the other side of the street and watched while giving them space. Still, I felt super awkward especially since there were tourists taking up close and personal photos. Regardless of your intentions I don’t advise that you offer alms to the monks as having tourists involved, especially while being photographed, steals the authenticity of the experience for all parties involved.
Take a Cooking Class at Tamarind
$30 for a day course
One walk through the market in Luang Prabang and any foodie will become inspired by the incredible display of fresh herbs, produce, seafood, and exotic delicacies. Food in Northern Laos is refined and full of flavor, making it a great place to take a cooking class. Start the day shopping in the market before learning to create traditional Laos dishes.
Shop in the Hmong Night Market
$1 to $50 depending on your taste and haggling skills
The Hmong Night Market, which takes place every evening on the main road from 5pm until 9pm, has some of the most beautiful handmade textiles I’ve ever seen. The villagers from the Hmong tribe craft incredible handbags, pouches, and clothing from handmade fabrics with needlework and weaving.
Chill With a Massage at Spa Garden
$8 for an hour traditional Lao massage
There are plenty of places in Luang Prabang to get a spa treatment, but Spa Garden has the most tranquil setting. It’s quiet, off the main road, tucked away in a garden, and inside smells like lemongrass essential oil. I had a very good traditional Lao massage, similar to Thai massage, and the place was very upscale even though it’s priced comparably to budget spots on the street.
Happy Hour at Dyen Sabai
Head across the old bamboo bridge for the best sunset views at Dyen Sabai. They have happy hour drink specials, Lao BBQ, and on Wednesdays they even host an open mic night.
Catch the Ethnik Fashion Show at Hive
Free show, drinks $2-$5
Every evening Hive bar hosts a free live fashion show highlighting the traditional textiles and clothing of the minority tribes in Northern Laos. The girls from the ethinc villages can work the catwalk shockingly well and the clothing is just beautiful. The goal of this show is to teach tourists about the gorgeous traditions of these hill tribes while employing local villagers in the show. After they have an impressive break dance show. I was blown away by both performances and loved the sexy, candlelit atmosphere at Hive.
Get Crafty at Ock Pop Tok
This incredible arts center works with local women to empower them in their craft and promote Lao textiles all over the world. You can visit their facilities a couple of miles outside of Luang Prabang and take a weaving class, do some hand dyeing, or simply take a tour. The onsite restaurant has fresh, healthy Northern Laos and Western food. They have a couple of shops in town with stunningly beautiful textiles, handbags, clothing, and housewares with a level of quality you rarely find in the market. Free daily shuttles to the center run from the shops in town, or you can take a leisurely bicycle ride there.
Take a Yoga Class
$5 to 8 for a 60 minute or 90 minute class
The chilled out bar Utopia, with views of the Nam Khan River, is a great place to have a candlelit drink or meet travelers over breakfast. With that view I recommend taking a sunset Vinyasa flow yoga class after your fruit smoothie. The certified yoga teachers with Luang Prabang Yoga come from all over the world and teach a variety of yoga styles. They also lead classes at Ock Pop Tok and occasionally have retreats. Check out the full schedule of classes.
Trek in the Jungle with Tiger Trail
Luang Prabang makes an excellent base for exploring stunning jungle, learning about indigenous communities, and spotting wildlife. However, as I learned back in Chiang Mai, most tour companies mistreat elephants, exploit hill tribe villages, and don’t end up doing much…. trekking. While I haven’t taken a tour with them myself, Tiger Trail has a glowing reputation for operating sustainable, high quality day and multi day adventure tours from kayaking to mountain biking and of course plenty of jungle trekking. They even run a community project called Fair Trek with tours that aim to support, rather than exploit, indigenous communities. I recommend booking a tour with them, however I also recommend opting out of riding on an elephant if that’s included in your package. Even bare backed I’ve read that elephant’s backs are not designed to bear the weight of a human. If your tour visits indigenous villages, make sure do some research on the best ways to interact with the community. I advise against bringing any sort of gifts to the children as you have the potential to encourage begging in the future.