It turns out, you should go chasing waterfalls…
In a world of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC, Laos is just the breath of fresh air you’d hope for. Although it’s far less off the beaten path than it once was, there’s just so much natural charm and inspiring beauty to behold that the phrase “unlike anywhere else” genuinely applies. From sunset cruises along the mighty Mekong to 360° views atop Mount Phousi and the $1 beers that flow oh so well in between, you’re going to love Luang Prabang. Here’s how to have the best experience possible in just 48 hours…
Getting to Luang Prabang is easy once you’re in Asia with direct flight options from Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore and more. The airport is about 4km to the old town with many hotels offering free transfers or a taxi for less than $10. Citizens of most countries can easily get a visa on arrival which is between $30-40 depending on where you’re from – just make sure you have cash with you, US dollars, Laotian Kip or Thai Baht is best. For more essential details before visiting check out these tips.
Luang Prabang is a relatively small town, but certainly does not lack good hotel options ranging from all prices. No matter whether you’re staying directly in the town centre or slightly outside, it’s extremely easy to reach the main street by walking, renting a bike (most hotels offer these) or a hotel shuttle bus which many also offer. If you’re looking for high end luxury and not worried about price, it’s hard to beat Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao or Amantaka. For slightly less, but still excellent quality The Luang Say Residence or AVANI+ Luang Prabang are both wonderful. And for some charmingly beautiful, but cheaper options in town Mekong Riverview Hotel, The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel and Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel are all unique and delightful. You can also find lots of friendly hostel/backpacker options for under $30 a night.
Although the town is lovely, and we will get to that later, the highlight of traveling to Luang Prabang is the excursions, day trips and adventures you can take. You can book these in advance or when you get there through your hotel or one of the many tour companies in the town. If you’re shelling out it’s definitely worth getting a private guide to curate the day exactly as you want it. Depending on how much time you have and your personal interests, these are the excursions not to be missed, with the tours ranging from $30-150 per person.
Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si Falls is about a 45 minute drive from the old town, and you don’t really need a guide to see these, you can easily get there by taxi or tuk tuk (prices can vary ~$30-70 roundtrip for 2). The falls are stunningly crystal blue when there’s not been any rain and you can swim in them, so be sure to take towels and a change of clothes. The Tat Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary is also there to see some super cool black bears! Depending on your interests you can either chill here for hours, swim, eat and relax (there are markets to buy food at the entrance); or if you’re like us an hour or so to take it all in may be enough. Don’t forget bug spray too, just incase.
Mekong River Cruise
It’s hard to beat spending a few hours relaxing up the Mekong River and watching a beautiful sunset. Again, you can book this at your hotel or if you walk along Khem Khong in town, there are many operators offering cruises on the spot. The lengths and prices will vary depending on if you take a private cruise or with a group. It’s a lovely experience and an excellent way to see the rolling hills, mountains and some wildlife.
Elephant Conservation Centre
If you’re going to see elephants, this is the place to do it. Here, they preserve and protect the Asian elephant, with the program set up to take care of their all round well being. About 2.5 hours away from Luang Prabang, you can spend a night or more here and really get to know the beautiful animals. If you don’t have the time for this, then Elephant Village offers days or half days with transfers and food included. They take good care of the elephants and you can bathe, feed and learn about them. Prices vary from $50-200 per person depending on which package you choose.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Luang Prabang for more than 48 hours, then some other worthwhile things to do are the Tad Sae Waterfall, Pak Ou Caves, rice farming tour and cycling/trekking tours to explore the countryside. The best thing is to inquire with your hotel or tour company to decide which is best for you.
These are all lumped into one category, because in a place like Luang Prabang, that is chock full of local food stalls, its hard to go wrong at any time of day. However, if your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, then there are some excellent coffee shops in the old town where you can get your morning fix along with a top quality pastry: Saffron Coffee, Le Banneton or Joma Bakery if you’re looking for a standard western style coffee menu.
If you’re looking for a sit down meal for either lunch or dinner, there are plenty of options offering many different cuisines and a wide range of prices. For a little more fine dining and high prices try: Manda de Laos, for some local cuisine try: Tamarind or Joy’s Restaurant. But really, you can’t leave Luang Prabang without trying food from the incredible street markets. Especially at night when the town comes alive. With a varied selection from spring rolls, noodle dishes, meats on sticks and so much more, this is the best (and cheapest) way to experience the wonderful, power packed flavors of Laos. And make sure you don’t leave without trying the coconut pancakes!
The best way to see and appreciate this charming town is to walk it. Wander along Sisavangvong Road, Kingkitsarath Road, Kem Khong and in and out of all the side streets to take in the rivers, colours, smells, sites, architecture, shops and friendly people. You can’t go wrong.
Mount Phousi is the main temple, which is definitely worth climbing the 328 steps to the top to see the glorious 360 degree views. It’s 15,000LAK ($1.78) per person and on a clear day it’s hard to beat going for sunrise! It’s also easy to see the Royal Palace and other temples just walking around, including Wat Sene, Wat Xiengthong and Wat Choumkhong.
Alms Giving Ceremony
Every day at sunrise on the main street and side streets the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony takes place, which is an incredibly sacred Lao tradition. You can go just to watch or to kneel and offer foods as long as a level of respect is maintained. You should wear something that covers your shoulders, chest and legs, you can take pictures from a distance and with no flash, buy your food beforehand and get there early so not to interrupt the ceremony and do not touch the monks at any time. It’s worth going to once especially if you’re an early riser.
It’s amazing how much you can get done in 48 hours anywhere in the world. If you’re interested in lots of excursions and day trips, then 5-6 days in Luang Prabang would be best to take it all in. If only a couple day trips seem worthwhile, 2-3 days will certainly be enough to get a good vibe for the city. Take cash, bug spray, sun cream and some comfortable shoes and you’ll be good to go!