The main road, Xiang Thong, of Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture - reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats (temples), decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha sit under the gaze of wrap-around balconies and 19th century shuttered windows.
A tourist trail is forming between the capital city of Vientiane, the small riverside village of Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Huay Xai at the Thai border to the west. This loop can easily be covered by combination of road and river in a week, but 10-15 days is best to fully appreciate the lush countryside, magnificent temples, and friendly people.
Opinion seems divided about the boat ride between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai. Some consider it the high point of their tour of South-East Asia, but given the potentially cramped conditions for the two day slowboat ride (see below) others consider it over-hyped and worth skipping.
Visa-on-Arrival (good for a 15 day entry permit stamp only) is available at the airport - price is variable based upon your nationality from in between USD30 (French & Americans) and USD42 (Canadians) (payable in USD). You also need a passport picture. If you don't have one, they'll scan your picture from your passport and charge you an additional USD 1. Thai nationals do not need a Visa to enter Laos. It is wise to have the USD ready since the exchange rates for other currencies are not favorable.
Taxis into town cost USD5, whether you are by yourself or with 4 people.
Highway 13 connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the south and via Highway 1 to the north. Highway 13 is sealed and in good shape all the way to Vientiane. There were some shootings along this road (between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang) some years ago, including one incident in which two foreign cyclists died in crossfire, but at the moment it appears to be safe.
There are three bus stations, each a little bit out of town, who serve different directions. Tickets can be bought at every travel agent in town for a little surcharge, or at the bus station, or when boarding the bus.
The air-conditioned so-called VIP bus costs 70k Kip to Vang Vieng and 115k Kip to Vientiane, more if booked through an agent (2007 Mar). It should be noted that tickets purchased in Vientiane to Luang Prabang is somehow more expensive (160k, Mar 2007) than those purchased in Luang Prabang. Note that the VIP bus has poor suspension, is crowded and sometimes breaks down. Nevertheless, it's still better than the public bus. Also the road is winding and mountainous, and the driver typically of the ying (break) and yang (accelerator) school of driving, considering the middle way to use both the break and the accelerator simultaneously.
The bus ride to Muang Xay (Oudomxai) is done by public minibus only. Big backpacks are carried on the roof. Price for the ride is about 40 kiloKip and it lasts 5 hours on normal conditions. From there you can catch the bus to Luang Namtha, which takes about the same amount of time and money. No need to have a reservation usually, just take care to go early in order to secure a good seat.
Boats ply the Mekong to and from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng where you can connect with bus and truck heading towards the north-east and the border with China. Slow boats leave several days a week, usually around 08:00. Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you're taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Huay Xai deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated from three hours in a speedboat.
"One day comfortable boat" is the new kind of boat travel to Luang Prabang from Houy Xai. Supposedly safe and big, these boats make the same trip in one day. Boats leave every Tuesday and Friday.
To travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket are usually provided. The pilot requires a good knowledge of the river, particularly in the dry season, as there are many rapids and rocks. One tall Danish guy found that he could not squeeze up into the position for the ride.
The slow-boat is absolutely packed with tourists - so much so that there are not enough seats to go round. It can be quite uncomfortable, but if there are two of you on your bench, it can be worth one of you taking the whole bench and the other sitting in the aisle for a while, then swapping. More than likely, you'll both be happier in the end. Make sure to bring a book or travel game to while away the hours and swap with other travellers. It costs about 85k Kip to Pak Beng, more if booked through an agent.
Long distance ferries to Vientiane stopped running when Highway 13 was sealed a few years ago, but it may be possible to do the trip by private tourist boat when the water levels are high enough. Read more about fast and slow boats in the section about Laos.
Wander around town on a bicycle. These are available for rental for US$1-3 per day, depending on the dealer and whether or not you get it through your hostel (usually cheaper). Luang Prabang is a pretty compact place, but with a bike you'll be able to cover more ground and make to some of the lovely hills and temples outside the center. Plus, it's easy to make it back to the river in time for lunch!
NOTE: The alms giving ceremony is one which, while picturesque, is not without its detractors. Unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of tourists to participate in a local tradition as a means of making easy money, and sometimes sell unsuitable, stale and even unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings, and resistance to continuing the tradition. However, the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances and thereby keep the tourist dollars rolling in. So if you wish to participate in this ceremony, prepare the food or fruit yourself, and avoid giving food of unknown quality.
Bear Rescue Center- Located on the way to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, the Bear Rescue Center has a bear enclosure where lots of endangered Asiatic Black Bears were rescued from poachers. There is also an Indo-Chinese tiger that was rescued from poachers and nearly died. You can also buy shirts of the Center too.
Unfortunately, Luang Prabang's major tourist points are a little underwhelming and you may be wishing you were back on your riverfront balcony with a glass of wine watching the world go by. So here are a few things to perhaps give a second thought to.
Consider avoiding the "LaoLao Whiskey Village", it is a tourist trap. There is one whiskey distillery operated and one hundred souvenir stalls that you've already seen one hundred times. The whiskey is not too flash either.--Taylorj 02:36, 9 February 2007 (EST)
Before you can buy stuff at the markets, you'll need some money. USD and Thai baht are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. As of March 2007, there is now an ATM which accepts MasterCard, Maestro available at Banque pour le Commerce Exterieur Laos toward the North end of Sisavangvong Rd a bit after the Night Market stops. For a Visa card, you're still stuck looking for a bank. If you arrive by plane, there is a bank at the airport which is open during a few hours of the day, so don't count on changing there. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in town.
A night market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters for the tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with. Day markets are along Setthathirat Road.
Restaurants line Sisavangvong Road and the road along the Mekong. Food runs the line from standard Southeast Asian backpacker fare to more traditional Lao dishes, including buffalo sausage. There are several pizza restaurants -- although they aren't really that good -- as well as
For more upscale options, try near the end of Sisavangvong Road (end of the Night Market) in a little Alley (Local Buffet for 5000 Kip). There are several boutique restaurants which serve quite nice fusion Asian food.
Local specialties include:
There are a number of places to drink around Luang Prabang, although the club scene isn't really existent. "The Hive Bar" or the "Laos Beer Garden" are the places to go at night and to meet people, if everything closes (at about 12pm) you can go to the "Vietnam Bar". This is invariably reached by all the remaining people at The Hive and Laos Beer Garden clubbing together and getting one or two tuktuks together.
Most other restaurants also have tables outside where you can sit back with a beer or two.
Another place would be the Bookstore "Books and Tea" next to the "Hive Bar". They show Movies everyday at 7pm and its really nice there also. Downstairs is a book shop/swap and upstairs there is a bar selling drinks and cake in a room covered in cushions for lazing around and reading.