A picture may or may not be worth a thousand words, but a dollar – definitely…
Before it gets flooded with non stop daily flights, before the biggest chains move in, and before its on the cover of the world’s biggest magazines, you’ve got to experience Luang Prabang, Laos. Long known to the savviest travelers, Luang Prabang offers a powerful and unique Southeast Asian experience, with its inimitable position upon the mighty Mekong River. If dreamy sunsets, ancient temples, affordable street food and cold beer sound like the dream to you, this is a must visit, and one you should do sooner than later. Here’s everything you need to know before you jet in to Laos…
Citizens of most countries can easily get a visa on arrival, which will cost between $30-40 depending on your nationality. It’s $35 for UK and US citizens, just FYI. Cash is key at the airport, and the visa on arrival desk at Luang Prabang Airport will accept Laotian Kip, U.S. Dollars or Thai Baht. An extra passport/visa photo is needed for the visa process, however if you don’t have one you can pay a little extra ($1/50Baht) and they’ll let you through. Chances are, you’ll need to fill out a visa on arrival form, in addition to the form you get on the plane, so travel with a pen to quickly and easily fill out the forms and beat the rush.
Getting to Luang Prabang is relatively easy, if you’re coming from China or Southeast Asia. From virtually any city in Asia you’re only one stop, or perhaps even a direct flight away from Luang Prabang, and therefore you’ll likely want to stopover at a major hub en route to Laos. There are quite a few daily direct flights from Bangkok and Hanoi, as well as a few flights from Siem Reap, Singapore, Chiang Mai and Kunming. If you’re looking for an easy easy layover city, Bangkok or Hanoi are your best bets for onward flights to the U.S, Europe and elsewhere.
Luang Prabang International airport is about 4km to the old town, and many hotels will offer a free or low cost pick up service to and from the airport. Very kind, indeed. You can also find taxis and Jumbo tuk tuks outside arrivals, which will cost approximately between $7-10 USD to your hotel in town – be sure to negotiate the price before you get in, and be sure to have a printout, preferably in Lao of your destination, for ultimate clarity. Explore the town of Luang Prabang, is best done on foot or by bicycle and many hotels will offer free bicycles to borrow. Some hotels also offer free scheduled shuttle service to and from the old town.
Wherever you’re coming from in the world, one currency that goes a long way in Laos is the US Dollar. It’s definitely useful to carry a combination of Lao Kip, US dollars, and Thai Baht, but if you had to pick one, everyone seems to love the almighty dollar. Thai Baht is also extremely effective. Most hotels and higher end shops and restaurants will take Visa and Mastercard card, but for any market shopping, cash is particularly useful. If you’re reading this and it’s too late, there are ATM machines around, especially in the old town. For reference, an average meal from a good quality street stall will run about 10,000 – 20,000 Laotian Kip, which is $1-$2 or so.
Laos is full of natural beauty, replete with lush scenery, dramatic mountains, waterfalls and exciting caves at virtually every turn. Understandably, there’s so much you’ll want to see. When you go trekking, be sure to stick to the paths or go with an experienced guide. And no, it’s not a money grab: over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, with approximately 80 million still undetonated. Don’t let this put you off in any way, but before you get any wild ideas about wandering too far off the beaten path, it’s an important reminder.
The high season for tourism is from November to March, when the weather is slightly cooler, the air is at least (semi) dry, and rain is minimal. But, if you can put up with a little humidity, April – August can be a truly excellent time to visit. There are far fewer tourists around, which makes the town and popular sites a whole lot more charming, and as a side bonus, the hills turn an emerald green, making almost everything looks wonderful, compared to the brown shades of the dryer months. Also, like all great shoulder seasons, you’ll find better prices for hotels and tours.
If you use the brilliant Google Fi network, then you’ll be very happy to know you get service here, just like you do in most of the rest of the world. If not, there are plenty of 4G sim cards for sale at the airport, and scattered around the town. Most hotels offer more than decent WiFi and despite what you may have read, you can use WhatsApp, Skype, Netflix and all of your regular apps just like you would at home. Admittedly, the Netflix selection could be stronger, but you should’ve downloaded content offline already anyway…