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Luang Prabang

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Revision as of 06:29, 30 April 2007 by (talk) (align bicycle rental prices)
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Luang Prabang

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Haw Kham

Luang Prabang (pronounced LOH proh-BAHNG, also spelt "Luang Phabang", "Luang Phrabang", "Louang Phrabang", etc) is the former capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city.


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.

Get in

By plane

Luang Prabang International Airport

The airport is just north of town and has scheduled flights from/to Vientiane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap.

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.

By road

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.

By boat

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.

Get around

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!


  • Haw Kham - the former royal palace. There's also sometimes local drama or dance performances in the adjacent theatre.
  • Phou Si - the main hill, from which you have a good view of the whole area. It's quite a steep climb from the bottom, so i wouldn't recommend going up in the heat of the day - sunrise and sunset probably make both the most sensible and the most rewarding times to go up, as there is a pretty much panoramic view from the top.
  • Vat Xieng Toung - the oldest monastery in town and one of the most beautiful.
  • Kuang Si Falls, 29 km south of Luang Prabang. A large multi-stage waterfall, accessible by boat or truck hire. There are food and touristy stalls outside the waterfalls. It is worth putting a whole day aside (or more) for seeing these because they are a great place just to chill out and meet other travellers. There are multiple pools at different levels, all of which seem safe to bathe in, and are extremely picturesque.
  • Pak Ou Caves - the famous "Buddha caves" are some km north of town on the Mekong and can be reached by boat or road. Alternatively, you could hire canoes and a guide for the day. This means you both get to see the beautiful scenery and visit the caves without throngs of other tourists. It's also possible to finish the trip at the 'whisky village' where the local Laolao (lao rice spirits) is made.
  • Rent a bicycle (US$1-3/day) and cycle around the countryside (motorcycles can no longer be rented). It's quite easy to cycle to Kuang Si Falls on a decent bicycle, but more difficult on a single-speed bike. Check the general condition of rented bikes before setting out.
  • Local market
  • Night market - there is a 'night-market' selling all the typical lao arts and crafts, some more touristy than others, every day all the main street parallel to the river. This is very pretty and worth a visit, but be warned that it packs up by about 9pm, unlike the similar markets in thailand that go on well into the early hours.
  • Monks at dawn collecting alms of rice from kneeling villagers (and early-rising tourists). Ask your guesthouse host to assist you the day before in preparing if you'd like to get up and give alms in the morning.

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.


Pak Ou (Buddha) Caves
  • Riverboat trip to the Buddha Caves and Whisky Village - two hours northwest of the city, the Mekong passes by a series of caves set in limestone cliffs above the pale green water. The lowest and most accessible of these cave is a sacred place for the Lao. Whenever a Buddha statue becomes too old or damaged to venerate in a wat, it is place in what is known as the Buddha cave. Inside, just out of the sunlight and stretching back into the darkness, are thousands of Buddha statues of every size and material. Some are no more than a few centimeters tall, others several feet high. The ones in the back are hardly recognizable as more than worn lumps of wood, but others retain their serenity and grace under flaking gold paint and a thick layer of dust. To get there either go by tuktuk or car (13 $ charter) or - more romantic - by boat. You can charter a whole boat (seats 6-8 persons) for 18 US$ and the ride is 1 1/2 hrs to go and 1 hr to return. Stops on request at the Whisky Village and the village just opposite the caves. (All prices as of June 2006)
  • Climb the Phou Si mountain and watch the sun set. Entry 10,000 Kip and 328 steps up. (You will not be alone at sunset, as this tends to be a bit of a back-packers haven at this time of day.)
  • Cooking class: one of the best way to experience the local food. The best bet is probably at the Three Elephants restaurant. The cost is 25 USD (same as other schools) and offers a full day (10am to 5pm) including a visit to a vibrant local market, 2 teachers, well organised and equiped cooking stations (2 pax per stations, maximum of 12 pax per day), 6 dishes to cook and to enjoy (lunch and dinner), and a receipe book, with notions about local and essential ingredients.


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.

  • Scarves, wall hangings, "Beer Lao" T- shirts, watches and other local crafts from the small Hmong market or the regular evening market, held along the main street. The market closes rather early -- 10 p.m. -- and usually gets going around sunset, or a little before. The vendors sprawled on the ground with portable lamps is an interesting sight.
  • Weird cast-off Chinese goods at the local market.
  • Laos t-shirts, various local handicrafts, sewable flags, and scrapbooks for your tickets and other items are also available here.


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:

  • French baguettes
  • watercress
  • fried dried seaweed with sesame seeds dipped in a chili sauce
  • Buffalo steak


  • Blue Lagoon Café - A balanced mix of eastern and western delicacies are awaiting you at Blue Lagoon Café. You will find Laotian highlights and Swiss classics as well as tender local beef and a large variety of delicious snacks and fresh salad creations. The generously compiled drink list provides an exquisite selection of wine, fruit juice, cocktails, mocktails, beer and coffee. Located at the road to the Mekong river who start at the end of the night market, next to the national museum.
  • L'Elephant- A lovely restaurant with a unique mix of Laotian and French cuisine. The food is extremely good, but has its price. It is directly in front of a small guesthouse, and not far away from Les 3 Nagas hotel and Villa Santi hotel. The ingredients are of the highest quality, ranging from French camambert to Laotian lemongrass and river weeds. The soups are very good, along with the tender and juicy local and french meat. The desserts are mouthwatering, and most of them have chocolate.


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.


  • Cold River Guesthouse: run by a local family and you meet often a lot of travellers. It's directly on the Khan River. Off peak times, it costs 80,000 Kip (that's about 7 to 8 euros). They do not accept American dollars. Free filtered water and bananas are available.
  • Les 3 Nagas Hotel: A nice hotel with 7 rooms on one side and 8 on the other. The restaurant is fairly cheap, but the rooms fairly expensive. There are a few executive suites, the most costly coming with their own set of stairs. But beware: your nights may be troubled as there is a rooster that sings every morning at the hotel, at about 3:20 pm. The hotel is colonial.
  • Levady Guesthouse: In a lovely side street 50m off the main street. Super nice family, wooden rooms and floor, bike rental, absolutely tidy. Double w/ fan, en suite bathroom 7 $, long term discounts on request.
  • Merry Guesthouse: Has rooms for 50000 Kip with bathroom outside. Not so merry though, the options further down the alley (Cold River and Sysomphone) are more appealing.
  • Sala Luang Prabang: fine restored colonial villa with comfortable rooms, but it has its price
  • Sysomphone Guesthouse: On the same street, very friendly family. Free bananas and water. Owner has good information, offers you sticky rice if you stumble across dinner and collects traveller's photographs in an album. Rooms with shared hot-water bathrooms 40000 kip. A newer, cleaner building in the back has fresher rooms for 60000-70000 Kip.
  • The Grand, Luang Prabang: An atmospheric set of slightly jaded neo-colonial buildings on the site of Prince Phetsarath's old residence, stunningly set in impressive gardens on the banks of the Mekong River, around 4 kilometres from town (a regular shuttle boat and bus service runs for guests).
  • Villa Santi Resort: Villa - style resort, good restaurant, lovely pool, massage and spa service
  • Xieng Mouane Guesthouse: another villa with different nice rooms

This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!