the ultimate guide to Luang Prabang, Laos

Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about Luang Prabang best here. It's a place that, even after a million blog posts, I just can't seem to capture its spirit. I almost didn't write this guide. Or rather, I'd drafted it many times and never shared it. I've struggled with hitting "publish" for one really selfish reason: I don't want people to go. But that selfish thought comes from the best place, I promise. I want to help preserve LPB and that's getting harder and harder to do. People flock to Southeast Asia. And why wouldn't they? It's affordable. It's interesting. It's different. It's beautiful. 

Laos isn't yet the hotspot that the surrounding nations of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are. And all those places are beautiful and special and well-worth a visit. But Laos is a place people tend to skip over. Which is fine by me. I like how preserved it is. In fact, that's what I cherish most about it. I love that Luang Prabang is a cultural treasure.

However, I have been convinced to share a guide for this special city. This guide is much more in-depth than my typical city guides, but that should show how much I love it. Also, I know it really well. It's a place that has a chunk of my heart. Just promise me when you visit you'll respect its magic, k? 

How to get around?

There are cheap flights into Luang Prabang from Hanoi, Vietnam and Bangkok, Thailand via Air Asia. Once you arrive in the city, you will need to pay 50,000 kip for a tuk-tuk into the city to your accommodation, unless your hotel stay includes pre-arranged airport pick-up.

When you decide to set out and explore the city, I suggest either venturing out on foot or renting a bicycle from one of the many shops you'll see on just about every street. Barter with the shop owners for a good price and make sure your bike's tires and seat are well taken care of. 

For those who are a little more adventurous, motorcycle rental is available at various locations, particularly on the main road {where you'll find the night market}. Some hotels can also set this up. Laos has no real road rules and there are nasty crashes on the road every single day. Fear should never stop you from trying something new, but I've witnessed the lack of caution on the streets on LPB, and it's not something to take lightly. 

What's the language like?

Lao is a tonal language and it's hard. Like, very hard. But it's also beautiful. I was lucky enough to have Touk {a.k.a. Wonder Woman} teach me enough Lao to order vegetarian meals at a restaurant, ask first-meeting-type questions, speak to classrooms of giggling girls, negotiate at the market, and flirt with the guy who always served me noodle soup at the IQ Inn {my Lao bae}.

However, adding to an already complex language is the small fact that not everyone in Laos speaks Lao. Two other prominent ethnic groups, Hmong and Khmu, speak their own languages. If you are visiting rural villages well off the beaten path, Lao may be of little to no use to you. 

You can get by with English. If you know anything about TEFL or traveling to a place with a large language barrier, you know that it will require grading your language {speaking with simple words in small sentences} and gesturing. A lot of gesturing. Many of the locals in Luang Prabang are very keen to practice their English skills and will go out of there way to strike up a conversation. Enjoy the challenge and learn a bit of the language to make it fun! 

What's the currency? 

Laos uses the Lao Kip. USD $1 is equal to 8,455 kip {at time of publishing}. I keep it simple and divide the cost of things by 8 to figure out the conversion {I'm terrible with math, so this keeps it easy}. 

You can exchange your money at stalls around town. There are reliable booths across the street from the Belgian House restaurant and outside the Indigo House cafe. Both give decent rates, though there are plenty on just about every corner. 

There are also ATMs for you to withdrawal cash. You should remember that most cards have fees for using international ATMs

Where to stay?

Rooms in LPB can be a bit pricier than other places in Laos {like Vang Vieng, the backpacker capital}. Like anywhere, the cheaper your accommodation, the more basic. There are some very ritzy resorts on the 'French' side of town. All the options below include complimentary WIFI.

I've only stayed in Cold River {and the staffhouse, obviously}, but volunteers have stayed in the other accommodations. Cold River and Villa Merry 1 also offer breakfast. Luke, Dora and I would often go to Villa Merry 1 for Saturday breakfast on the patio overlooking the Nam Khan river {I recommend the french toast}. 

 pastries at Le Banneton

pastries at Le Banneton

Where + what to eat?

There is heaps of good food in LPB. For a wee little city in a developing country, there's a lot of variety too. Due to a growing number of expats, there is a little something for just about everyone {including an Aussie bar that does vegetarian burger special on Wednesdays}. 

Delicious vegetarian options, great service, staff has a great sense of humour, located close to the Night Market, free WIFI

  • The Belgian House- $10 for vegetarian lasagna with bread roll, glass of wine, + profiteroles

A bit more high-priced, Western and Lao food on offer, good for some heavier Western food, staff keen to practice their English, good service, can be busy of an evening

Go on 'Taco Tuesday' for their cheapest deals, tell Alicia I sent you, if you like spicy let the waiter know and they'll add chili peppers, vegetarian friendly

  • Atsalin- $.75 for a freshly squeezed orange juice on ice

I only ate here once and I was not the world's biggest fan. HOWEVER: highly recommended by many of our local friends for a true local experience. I used to get an orange juice while Luke ate. It's cheap af and off the beaten path near Wat Manorom, one of my favourite temples

  • IQ Inn- $2 for a giant bowl of noodle soup with fresh vegetables + a Sprite

Cheap, free WIFI, located near Wat Visoun, fast service, connected to a guesthouse

  • Bamboo- $2.50 for spicy morning glory + a Coca-Cola

Really good morning glory {it's a plant, get your head out of the gutter}, down the road from the IQ Inn, cheap, free WIFI, near good hostels

  • Le Banneton- $3 for a traditional baguette + an iced latte

Fresh French pasteries always served warm, the best iced latte in town, sidewalk seating available for people watching, located on the main street in LPB

  • Sabaidee- $3.50 for vegetarian spring rolls served with peanut sauce + a cold coconut shake

Similar to Bamboo, cheap, vegetarian options available, have the world's cutest baby to gaze at while you eat, good place for Lao BBQ {or so I've witnessed}

  • Indigo House- $7.50 vegetarian pizza + an iced latte

Great views of the market from the rooftop, vegetarian options, Western food, proper breakfasts, Lao classics, quality coffee, free WiFi

  • "Sandwich Ladies"- $2.25 fresh sandwich on a baguette + watermelon shake

Sandwich Ladies line the street near the library, but it's not the official name of the street stalls. Noodle soup, fruit juices, baguette sandwiches, cover from the sun, all outdoor seating

 

 vegetarian spring rolls

vegetarian spring rolls

What to do?

Visit Kuang Si Waterfalls! Kuang Si Waterfalls are a 45-minute tuk tuk ride from the city. There are many posts on SLK about my visits to Kuang Si. You can read the most recent one here. 

Give early morning alms! Let me be clear that this is something to partake in only if you know what the hell you are doing. Luang Prabang is the spiritual capital of Laos and giving alms is a beautiful ritual. I suggest you watch from a respectful distance a few times first. I have written a guide on conduct for giving here. Giving alms shouldn't be done just to tick it off a list. Giving should be done with a happy heart. 

Have a meaningful conversation! Big Brother mouse is an organization where local people go for free to practice their language skills. This isn't confined to English, you can help those learning Spanish, German, or other languages. It all just depends on the needs of the students that day. Big Brother Mouse is a drop-in volunteering center, meaning you literally just stop by and sit down. If the place is too crowded, the person running the center that day might tell you to come back later. This is a great way to speak with Novice Buddhist Monks, high schoolers, and students from the local hospitality school. It's a free way to give back and meet locals. 

Shop the night market! There's a post I wrote that will give you an idea of what to expect and how to barter at the night market here

Take a tour with Backstreet Academy!  There seem to be an unlimited amount of tours to take with Backstreet Academy, giving you a seriously local experience. Try the Farming Tour! 

P10308302.jpg

Visit the UXO Museum! This free museum is super high on my list of things you should do for one really important reason. I was shaking while sitting in the theater at the museum watching the film clip. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance in an attempt to block the the North Vietnam troops from transporting arms through Laos. 30% of them never exploded. Want me to bum you out harder? Over 20,000 Lao civilians have been killed or injured by these UXO. What's even worse? 50% of the victims of these UXO are children. UXO Clearance is something the U.S. owes Laos. While Obama made steps, we're once again late to making amends for a nasty mess we made. Please go visit. Watch the video. Make a donation if you can. Luke took me on my last day in Laos and it was well worth the sweaty bike ride. 

Take a bike ride to the 'Paper Village'!  I wrote a post all about one of my favourite days living in Laos here, which was spent exploring Ban Xang Khong with Touk and Luke. It's only a short bike or tuk tuk ride from Luang Prabang to the village where you can see locals crafting beautiful handmade paper and weaving vibrant sinh. 

Go wander breathtaking temples! There are a plethora of temples to visit in LPB. Please make sure you are covered before walking on temple grounds. You can read more about proper temple etiquette here

Learn to cook Lao cuisine! Here, again, is my post written to convince you to take a cooking lesson in a new country. Lao food is like nothing you've eaten in Asia before. It's not Chinese dim sum or Korean kimchi. Learning about Lao food with Grace was a highlight of my time volunteering in 2015. Not to mention eating all the sticky rice. We took an evening class through the Bamboo Tree Restaurant, but many tourists go to Tamarind to learn. 

Ultimately, we decided on Bamboo Tree for a few simple reasons: 1) it was slightly cheaper than Tamarind, 2) we had English classes to teach until later in the day so we needed to find a class available on Friday evening, 3) we didn't need a whole day to learn about the market, as we had already been many times over our month there, and 4) Bamboo Tree had no set menu, which meant our group of 4 was able to pick the exact dishes we wanted to learn to cook. You can book Tamarind here or Bamboo Tree here. Both come highly recommended. 

Luang Prabang is a very special place; one that's very personal to me. There's plenty to do beneath the shiny exterior, off the main street.  LPB isn't a place to skip over, so don't! 

LIKED THIS POST? PIN IT! 

Flora & Fauna (1).png