the ultimate guide to Luang Prabang, Laos: how to get around, where to eat, where to stay, + the best things to do during your visit

I have written and rewritten and published and rewritten this guide a ridiculous number of times. It never feels quite right. That’s because, similarly to New Zealand and South America, it seems like many of my most precious travels remain offline. Like I savour my favourite places, the ones that feel most home, most reverent, in a silent, sacred space.

Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about Luang Prabang best here. It's affordable. It's interesting. It's different. It's magical. 

Laos isn't yet the hotspot that the surrounding nations of Thailand and Vietnam are, and all those places are well-worth a visit. But, perhaps it’s because Laos is a place people tend to skip over that I was in love with Laos as soon as I arrived in the thick, jungle humidity.

Laos didn’t steal my heart; I gave it willingly.

And so, having fiddled with this post once again, I’m re-publishing it with updated information so that those who are looking for a guide written by someone who knows this pretty city intimately can have it.


GETTING to luang prabang

There are cheap flights into Luang Prabang from Hanoi, Vietnam and Bangkok, Thailand, via budget airlines. The most well-known for offering these penny-pinching flights is Air Asia. Once you arrive in the city, you will need to pay 50,000 LAK {USD $5.74} for a tuk-tuk to your accommodation in the city, unless you have previously arranged pick-up with your hotel.

You can also take the slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand over into Laos. In all my years living and working in the landlocked country, I’ve never done actually ridden the slow boat. That’s because, as it’s name suggests, it takes a chunk of time. I’ve heard a lot of people rave about the scenery and others say that after the first few hours you become quite stir-crazy. I suppose, like anything, it depends heavily on your personality. However, if it’s something you’re interested in, you can arrange this from multiple travel agencies and boat companies in Thailand.

getting around

Once you set out to 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. Seeing Luang Prabang via walking means transportation is free- yay! However, should you choose to hire a bike, you’ll have access to temples and sights that are further away from the city center. It will also take you less time to get around, which is a massive “plus” in the infamous heat. Barter with the shop owners for a good bicycle price and make sure your tires and seat are well taken care of. Almost no shops will have bicycle helmets, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

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. 

Read also: Renting a motorbike in Laos: questions to ask + things to consider


LANGUAGE

Lao is a tonal language and, it goes without saying, it’s hard to learn. There are Lao teachers in the area for those staying long-term or moving to Laos who want to take up the local dialect. Many teacher listings can be find on bulletin boards inside cafés, so keep your eyes peeled.

If you are traveling in rural areas on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, you should know that not everyone in Laos speaks Lao. Two other prominent ethnic groups, Hmong and Khmu, speak their own languages. If you are visiting villages well off the beaten path, Lao may be of little to no use to you. There are 42 ethnic groups in Laos, and almost all of them have their own spoken language. Keep this in mind as you continue on your journey from the city.

The good news for English speakers who can’t speak Lao? 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 smaller 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! 


CURRENCY + money exchange

Laos is a country where cash is king. Here, you’'ll use the Lao Kip {LAK}. USD $1 is equal to approximately 8,900 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 one of the many stalls around town, but for the very best rate,

There are also ATMs for you to withdrawal cash. Most cards have international fees, so ask your bank about this prior to your visit.


WHERE TO STAY

Rooms in LPB can be a bit pricier than other places in Laos {like Vang Vieng, the backpacker capital}. As is the rule 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. As always, these are all guesthouses or hotels I’ve stayed in personally.

pastries at Le Banneton

pastries at Le Banneton


Where 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 everyone, including burgers, pizza, and salads, on top of all the delicious local food.

HOW MUCH DOES FOOD COST IN LUANG PRABANG?

I’ve gone ahead and scaled the cost of a meal

$ = 8,000- 25,000 LAK

$$ = 26,000- 50,000 LAK

$$$ = 51,000- 80,000 LAK

$$$$= you are LUXE af, this is resort eating

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

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

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

  • Buoang- $$

  • Bamboo- $

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

Fresh French pastries always served warm, sidewalk seating available for people watching, located on the main street in LPB

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- $$$

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

  • "Sandwich Ladies"- $

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

  • COCONUT GARDEN - $$$

  • DEXTER - $$$

  • OPERA HOUSE - $$$

 

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. 

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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! 

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! 


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