Luang Prabang (ຫລວງພະບາງ) is not the capital of Laos – but it’s safe to say it is the heart. The city, which is belongs to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, is located in the north of the country on a peninsula framed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan River. It captivates with its relaxed atmosphere, versatile culture, excellent street food, a fantastic night market, sophisticated temples and the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life.
It is a preferred holiday destination for people from all over Asia, but also getting more and more popular with western explorers and backpackers. Although it’s not really off the beaten tracks, Luang Prabang still kept its authenticity and offers a lot to see and do.
What is so fascinating about Luang Prabang – and also makes it a UNESCO World Culture Heritage – is, that it embodies the fusion of asian and french-colonial architecture and culture: Well-preserved pagodas (“Wats”) with shiny golden roofs, splendid decorations and buddha figures encounter pastel-colored villas that remind of France or even Cuba, orange-robed monks meet international expats and asian cuisine goes hand in hand with a profound coffee- and bakery culture, including a wide selection of croissants and baguettes.
The mountain Phou Si is in the center of the city and has a pagoda on top. It takes about 300 steep steps to go up and I can promise you, you will not be the only one up there. Never. It is pretty crowded – especially during sunset! But let’s be fair, it’s a nice sunset view from up there. You just have to accept that you can’t move while watching it…
Approximately 30km away from the town center is the Kuang Si Waterfall, which is absolutely worth every bruise from the turbulent tuk-tuk-ride over the bumpy roads. The light blue, nearly aquamarine colored water runs down the hilly terrain over about 200 meters – every now and then stopped by beautiful natural terraces that build little pools, where you can even hop in and take an icecold bath.
On the way up is also the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. That non-profit organization rescues endangered Asiatic black bears from unauthorized hunters and they sell merchandising and t-shirts in the park to collect money for the sanctuary.
The night market in the center of Luang Prabang is built up and removed every night! Normal street by day and booth next to booth by night. They sell not only beautiful local products like painted coconut bowls, handcrafted clothes or little accessories there, but also very delicious food! Especially in the small alleys next to the main street they have amazing street food – you pay about 1,50$ and you can put on your plate as much as you can carry. So good!
Guesthouses and Hostels
Most of the accommodations in Luang Prabang are guesthouses, but in recent years also some hostels have opened up. A time of year when it is really hard to get a room is Chinese New Year in February – let me tell you from experience of someone who was wandering around town every day for at least two hours just looking desperately for a room for the next night… during that time it is so crowded, that the clever Lao people additionally charge you double.
But nice places to stay are for example the Sokdee Guesthouse, Kounsavan or Downtown Backpackers.
Other Backpacker hot-spots in Luang Prabang
Utopia Bar: That is probably THE backpacker meeting place in Luang Prabang – it is definitely no typical Lao place, but a fun bar to hang out, meet other travelers, play beach volleyball or board games and later at night sit together around a bonfire.
Bowling Alley: When Utopia bar closes at around midnight, outside there are already waiting some tuk-tuks to take the not yet tired backpackers to a place where they can continue partying…. the local bowling alley! Sounds weird? It is! Super bright light and people are actually bowling, but it’s a lot of fun and you easily meet more people. And maybe you find your way to one of the local clubs that are pretty hidden…
Morning market: Ten booths next to each other all selling fresh fruit juices, milk shakes, lao coffee and baguettes with anything you can wish for – even omelettes and avocado… a standard breakfast routine and meeting point when in Luang Prabang!
AB Bakery: Not very known with tourists is this great bakery that sells amazing icecream. We got a tip from a local and asked around for that place until we finally got there by bike. Great flavors and very delicious!
Getting there & Getting around
Luang Prabang has an little airport but not sure how safe this is… We passed by the airport with our bikes and the landing strip looked more like a not longer used farming field… There is always the option to go by bus but I instead took the slowboat from the Thai border and would highly recommend anyone to do this, it’s a nice trip!
There a many ways to explore Luang Prabang: first of all you can walk around as the city itself is not that big and it’s the best way to discover the area. If you wanna go further outside town it’s worthwhile to take a tuk-tuk, especially if you are a group of people. And a really nice way to get around is renting a bike. So you can go to the areas where the Lao people live and see more than just the ‘touristy’ places.
Laos Pt. 1: The Slowboat Experience