Over the years, Luang Prabang has repeatedly been voted Wanderlust readers’ favourite city. With its laid-back charms, temples and great food, Jeremy Head finds it easy to see why…
As a tightly packed spit of a city, flanked on either side by the rivers Mekong and Nam Kang, Luang Prabang has always felt like a hidden corner worth finding. Serene temples, sacred caves, enticing cafés, boutiques in colonial shophouses – it’s no surprise that it has won ‘Top City’ in our Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards more times than any other destination. It’s the kind of place you always wish you’d booked a couple more nights in, so don’t get caught out.
While there’s plenty to explore here, the big part of this Lao town’s charm is its atmosphere. There’s a pervading sense of tranquil timelessness to Luang Prabang that few other places achieve. Whether that means watching the world go by over a dark local coffee or pootling the backstreets on a bike, there are countless escapes to be found in the city, on the rivers or out in the countryside.
Yet despite growing popularity with visitors (and readers), for now at least, Luang Prabang remains largely untouched. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, so to experience it at its most beguiling, head there now.
Luang Prabang’s small international airport is located around 4km east of the city, and UK passport holders can buy a 30-day tourist visa on arrival. Nothing happens particularly quickly in Laos, though, and you’ll have to queue, but it’s a straight-forward process.
There are ATMs that accept Visa and Mastercard as you exit the terminal, though it pays to carry US dollars, too. Apart from that, there are toilets and a few souvenir shops as you exit the airport but little else of note.
It takes less than 20 minutes to get into town. Many hotels offer free airport pick-up, so if you have a place booked, check to see first. There are no public transport options, but there’s a taxi desk inside the terminal with fixed fares.
Watching tak bat, the morning alms ceremony that sees orange-robed Buddhist monks walk silently down the streets accepting gifts of rice, has become a must-see sight for travellers. It happens around 5am, so you need to be up early to even catch it. The amount of noisy tourists is becoming a bit of a problem, but there are rules to obey: keep a respectful distance, stay silent and avoid flash photography.
Afterwards, you’ll be in need of some breakfast. The French option is to grab some coffee and the best pastries in Laos at Le Banneton; the local choice is a bowl of steaming khao piak noodles from Xieng Thong Noodle Shop. Both are on the main street, Sakkaline Road.
Next, make for Wat Xieng Thong, just moments away. There’s a temple on almost every corner here, but this is by far the most eye-catching, with its sparkling golden doors and gem-encrusted walls housing a serene and vast Buddha inside. Head back down main street and browse some of the handicraft shops there, such as Ock Pop Tok. Further along, you’ll stumble across Café Toui, whose take on yummy local dishes like prawn and pumpkin curry makes for a perfect lunch spot.
For a bit of history, saunter the Royal Palace Museum at the centre of town. Note the contrast between the ornate public rooms and plain bedrooms behind, and check out the vintage car collection here, too. Afterwards, stroll up the 100m-high Mount Phou Si nearby, which is topped with a serene temple and offers panoramic views across the city and the languorous Mekong.
In the evening, browse the bustling night market, then dine at Khaiphaen, which also trains street kids in hospitality, or Tamarind, known for its cookery classes. Finish with a cold Beer Lao at funky Sa Sa Bar on the riverbank, as the Mekong rushes by.
Top end: Satri House is a timeless clutch of cloistered rooms and villas set around tranquil pools. It’s full of antique furniture but is luxurious without being stuffy. The GM is a foodie, too, so dine in at least once during your stay – the eating is top notch.
Mid range: My Dream Boutique lies across the river but it’s not far to go. Its comfy bungalows and rooms are great value, plus there’s a nice pool. Bikes are also free, so you can pedal around to your heart’s content. But the best thing here is the staff: they couldn’t be more friendly or helpful.
Budget: Villa Saykham (+856 71 254 223) is perfectly located in the heart of the historic centre. The rooms here are both cool and likeably comfy, with big beds, spacious bathrooms and great showers.
Time seems to just slip by in Luang Prabang, but it’s worth heading into the countryside. The Kuang Si waterfalls (easily reached by tuk-tuk, or just 45 mins away if you hire a scooter) are a series of aquamarine pools where you can wallow and swim. There’s a fine set of falls at the top and a worthy Bear Sanctuary, too, along with a heap of attractions en route, including a Buffalo Farm and Butterfly Garden.
Just 25km along the river, boat trips to the Pak Ou Caves are worth it to see its buddha-strewn grottoes. Alternatively, the backpacker mecca of Vang Vieng is a bumpy seven-hour drive along precipitous mountain roads and offers a nice contrast to Luang Prabang. Set on a river amid clumps of karst mountains and rice fields, it’s Laos’ adventure capital. There are thrills for all ages, including zip-lining through jungle canopy and kayaking on the water. And whether bouncing along muddy tracks in dirt buggies or swimming in natural waterholes, it’s great fun!
Languages: Lao, French; English is widely spoken in tourism areas
Time zone: GMT+7 Int’l dialling code: +856
Visas: UK nationals can get 30-day visas on arrival. But you’ll need to bring a passport photo, and it helps to have US dollars to pay for it, as it’s typically cheaper than using Thai baht.
Currency: Laotian kip, currently around LAK11,033 to the UK£. While it’s not encouraged, you can also pay with low denomination US dollars and Thai Baht if you’re stuck for local cash.
ATMs: ATMs are widely available in Luang Prabang and most accept Visa and Mastercard. Most ATMs won’t let you withdraw more than LAK1,500,000 (around £135) at a time.
Credit cards: More upmarket hotels, shops and restaurants accept cards for payment, but many charge a fee. You’re best off paying in cash.
Recommended guidebook: The Lonely Planet’s Laos (2017) guide is always a useful resource.
Useful websites: Travelfish.org is the go-to guide for all things South-East Asia. It features in-depth information about Luang Prabang, including plenty of places to stay and eat.
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