Updated: August 2014. Restaurants added and some photo updates.
The gem of south east Asia, the most unspoilt town in Asia, retaining all its colonial charm, etc etc, could this place possibly live up to the promises? I have wanted to visit for a while, and everyone says go now before its too late.
Second visit was on the low season months (July – September) and things were a little quieter than the November – February peak; you won’t be alone ‘tho, Luang Prabang brings in visitors all year round.
The flight into Luang Prabang is certainly a dramatic introduction, edging ever closer to the spiky mountains, the Mekong comes into view, followed by a glimpse of the town and we are down; the airport is very close to downtown LP.
Visa on arrival is available to most, and is a fairly painless process; just make sure you have low denomination dollar notes. $35 for the Visa (depends on your nationality), plus $1 service charge (no idea why), you will also need a passport photo to handover – or they will photocopy your passport for another dollar. After that its the immigration desk for a bit more paper stamping and you are in.
Taxi into town can be booked at the desk outside arrivals and the current rate is $6 to town center locations. They can also help with accommodation if you didn’t pre book something.
The main part of the town (the bits that most tourists will be interested in) are on a peninsular surrounded by water on three sides, and its pretty high up. The Mekong can rise up this far according to the high water markers. Its hard to imagine that volume of water, but this is one of the worlds great rivers, bringing water down from as far as the Tibetan plateaux.
Downtown Luang Prabang is certainly very pretty and all low rise, a mixture of oriental and French colonial architecture with well paved and laid out streets. And, as far as I know… a first for south east Asia: pavements that behave as expected. No wobbling, no sudden and unannounced changes in level, no motorbike parking, no being blocked by signage or other paraphernalia, no missing man hole covers. I could go on; just good solid, clean pavements, incredible; it its possible. The main roads are all connected by alleyways, again all very pretty, and the whole place seems very cohesive and planned. Ironically its the lack of planning and the fact the country was virtually closed until recently that has preserved the place; there was no money to do anything and the big chains wouldn’t have risked the investment.
Navigation: there are 3 principal roads, one on each river side and the main road running down the center. The main road is where most of the bars, restaurants, booking agencies etc are.
National Museum: on the main road this is the old palace now converted to the national museum. The stuff on display harks back to royal days and is not really that interesting. To the right hand side in a separate wing they have the Luang Prabang Buddha statue, from which the town takes its name. The main attraction (for me) was the building on the right as you enter the palace grounds; the palace of the golden Buddha, the statue is no longer there, but the building is spectacular, inside and out.
Pak Ou Caves: about 25km north of LP and reached by boat up the Mekong. Takes about 2 hours to get there and an hour back. The caves contain some 4000 Buddha statues placed over the years, the upper cave is more atmospheric but unlit, so bring a torch. I enjoyed the boat trip more than the destination, you could watch various activities along the riverbanks – slices of life.
Most trips stop at a local town where can see some weaving and moonshine production; moonshine with snakes and other reptiles soaking in it… for strength apparently.
Kuang Si Waterfalls: the other ‘must do’. About 20km from town, can be reached on a pre booked tour, tuktuk or even bike. Its quite a commercial set up and after paying 20k to get in to the park you wander through a rescued bear sanctuary to various levels of waterfall. There are pools you can bathe in and huts to get changed – so bring appropriate clothing if you want to engage. There is a simple cafe near the top waterfall.
The Night Market: is there a town in Asia that doesn’t have one? All the usual handicrafts, but most of it quite nice, with very little if the plastic crap/ pirate DVD stuff you usually find, much of the stuff here feels home made and a lot is high quality, there are some great fabrics and wooden bowls to be had at good prices. Compared to other places it also seemed well laid out and calm, the stall holders are welcoming and not at all pushy.
Day Market: lots of interesting veg and fruit; some of which you may even recognise.
Some of the main street agents will charge hugely inflated prices for day trips; in August 2014 I was quoted $65 to share a boat to the Pak Ou caves – with one other passenger. I already knew that I could get a boat myself for 450k ($55) so declined the offer. The agent next door to the Phounsab quoted me 80k ($10) which is more realistic… Another passenger on the boat had been quoted $130 for the same trip – so shop around before you buy.
A visit to the Kuang Si waterfall should cost about 50k – its just a transfer there and back, you pay to get in (20k) and just wander round.
Restaurants & Bars
The main road, (the wonderfully named Sisavangvong Rd, after the last king) has a good selection of eating and drinking places, including a couple of wine bars. Mostly these places are perfectly fine and offer good value, but there is some overpriced bollox too; I have paid those prices do you don’t have to.
LP is a tourist destination and pricing reflects this (especially in the downtown area, where you will be most of the time) many prices are Western and that’s a lot for this part of the world (where the average income is about $1400 pa, or $27 a week). Standards are generally high but do slip sometimes, and at these prices they shouldn’t – when you are paying the equivalent of a third to a half of the weekly salary for your lunch or dinner I think it’s reasonable to expect decent food in clean surroundings, this is not always the case and some restaurants are downright shabby with poor standards and terrible food.
Massage services too are sometimes indifferent, on one occasion I contemplated getting up and leaving as the service was poor and it was hardly a relaxing atmosphere as the rest of the staff gossiped along to a Thai soap opera on TV.
Blue Lagoon: At the side of the national museum/ old palace, gets top marks. Excellent selection of well cooked and presented Lao and Western food. Perfect service and very good value. Actually; I have decided thus is one of the nicest places I have been for a long time… You may need to book.
Three Nagas: I always do it at least once a trip, wander in to a place that looks wrong but press on anyway. The food was OK, and the service excellent, which it should have been considering what I paid; about 3 days worth of local wages for a fish with as much meat as a fish finger, a salad and a glass of wine. Nothing actually wrong, just a total over pricing of the offer and very poor value. Even their wine was double what everyone else was charging for the same bottle. For that kind of premium you need to be special, very special, and it just wasn’t.
Tamarind: Couldn’t get in but everyone recommends it and all the food I saw looked good.
Tamnak Lao: Sakkaline Rd (extension of Sisavangvong). Restaurant, cooking school, book exchange and supporter of kids with the profits, what’s not to like? Its tricky for me to comment on the authenticity of the food, but they had some different stuff which was tasty and well presented. Visited here for a second time and the food was excellent again, service attentive and nicely informal. The team here are doing great work to support disadvantaged kids in the Luang Prabang area; for details of the Lao kids support see here.
Saffron Cafe. By boat landing. Supports hill tribes in self sufficiency. Another branch at opposite end of day market.
Coconut Garden is a spin off of l’Elephant and so has pedigree, it’s a nice place with a garden area at the back. Food is OK and the cleanliness and ambiance justify the prices. The staff – blue jeans and white t shirts – give it an Asian Club Tropicana feel, but the drinks ain’t free…
They have good fans, which keep the air moving and stop you sitting there like a sweat fountain and the whole place is spotless and clean.
Garden Restaurant. Next door to above. OK simple food. Pleasant, helpful staff.
Cafe Ban Vat Sene. Nice colonial style cafe with international and local options. Good breakfast place. Full set 69k which whilst top end price wise is very good value. Same owners as L’Eléphant and Coconut Garden.
Tangor, run by French guy. Nice food well presented in a Indochine decor bar.
Bakery – opposite Phounsab Guest House. OK, but sandwiches at 40 k ($5) are almost western prices and the content not that good (one measly wafer thin slice of ham) – at home I would have sent this back. I did send the coffee back as it came out loaded with sugar (a common problem), the replacement was just brown water so I prefer not to think how they made that. Not acceptable when charging what they do…
Mango Garden, just off the High St down the alley near Phounsab Guest House, and set in a shaded garden. Good selection and prices.
Yongkhoune Reataurant. Avoid, claims to be the oldest family run restaurant in LP, which can only be because of the transient visitor population who never need to go back. Terrible food, useless service and doesn’t look that clean.
Chez Matts, more of a bar but has charcuterie and cheese platters, and they will fetch food for you if you want.
Baravin 2, wine shop by day, bar by night. Nice wine selection and not bad prices.
Cafe Couleur. Just off the main street and overlooking the ‘other’ river. They served me frozen food. Literally that… Mok (a fish stew, steamed in banana leaf) was frozen and crunchy!!! Goes to show that fancy prices don’t always equal fresh food.
Pizza place, exactly what it says. Service somewhat chaotic. I almost got what I ordered but it took 4 attempts to get the bill right – 3 items… !
Some cheaper options:
Noodle bar to the left of the Palace (as you face it) opposite market. 15 k dishes, great simple noodle dishes at a price that’s hard to beat. Couple of other options in this area, one offering vegan choices.
Alley off main street by Coconut Garden leading to Sackarinh guest house has a couple of noodle stalls with 15 k dishes.
Lao Lao garden. Bar for the in crowd round the back of Phousi Hill. Gets busy after 9.00 pm, but like all LP places closes 11 ish. This is not a party town.
Breakfast prices are 30 – 50k dependent on content, lunch and dinner prices 35k per dish upwards and prices are similar across town – but quality is not, it is well worth paying a little extra at some of the more expensive and well run places, the price increase is not much and you will get a considerably better meal (generally).
Lao coffee start at 10k and is not as strong as it’s colour implies. Cappuccinos go for 25k. Big bottles of Beer Lao are anywhere between 10k and 25k. The dark Beer Lao is 10k but for a small bottle.
Lotus massage on Sisavangvong was great. Prices similar to Thailand, about £3-4 per hour for foot or head massage.
In the absence of the big global chains (so far) Guest Houses are the main accommodation provider, and these vary hugely in quality, from boutique hotels to, well, lets call it the lower end. Unfortunately, my pre booked choice was towards the lower end. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this if I know what I’m getting into. I do have a problem with this when they advertise themselves as something else, and charge non appropriate prices. The biggest annoyance was the incompetence and lack of care, the maintenance was not good and the breakfast nothing less than as joke: 2 overcooked eggs, half a baguette toasted until burnt and a mug of cold coffee with congealed coffee mate floating on top just screams ‘we don’t care’.
They pushed the boat out on day two after a complaint, and I got a Lao breakfast; poached eggs on a pancake, on noodles. Accompanied by black rice, coconut and a banana.
The owner of this place could scarcely care less about the place or the staff, I had to process my own cc transaction when the lad in charge was getting clearly distressed with his inability to cope. Shall I name it? Well, just don’t book anything called villa x… on the riverside.
These places are recommended:
Chitadara. Mekong River Side, Ounkham Rd, 18/2. Luang Prabang. Tel: +856 71 212886. Mail: Chitdara2@hotmail.com
Phounsab Guest House. Choumkhong Village, Sisavangvong Rd. Luang Prabang. Tel: +856 71 212975. Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are a lot of monks in Luang Prabang – really a lot – and it looks very exotic if you are unaccustomed to seeing this kind of thing.
All is not what you might assume though, most of these monks are getting an education, so its a bit like being at school, this is not necessarily a lifelong vocation. If you go into the Wats, and they are not doing studies or other activities, they will happily chat, and most have good English; the guy I spoke to graduates next year and wants to go into finance.
LP is also famous for the monks alms collection, which is held at 6 am every morning, recently some monks have been made ill after being given dodgy food by tourists, who in turn had it sold to them by dodgy locals. Apparently this got so bad the monks threatened to abandon the practice, but were told the by government that they had to carry on on they would bring in ‘extras’… I didn’t attend last time, but this time I was awake early enough and went out in to the streets at 5.45am. Its not an organised event in that it takes place at the same location etc, it can be anywhere the monks choose to walk (‘tho they probably have their preferred routes) and there are many temples where the monks start from; so anywhere in town and at anytime between 5.30 and 6.30 am you can come across a file of monks doing their rounds. The easiest way to spot a potential route is to look for locals getting ready to donate. Being August this is the low season so I dread to thing what crowds turn up during the peak… Many tourists are very rude and intrusive and clearly get in the way – its quite paparazzi and must be intimidating. The government even provides ‘minders’ who hand out behaviour guidelines to tourists – to little avail.
Most people are very friendly and like to say hello, and generally they seem quite happy, there is virtually no begging. I don’t know enough about Laos to understand why this is the case, there is certainly poverty here and a great number of orphaned children. It holds the unenviable record as being the most bombed place on earth; whilst the county is now cleared of mines the collateral damage must remain.
More details on bombing and UXO (Unexploded Ordenance) in Laos here.
There is none of the ‘night’ activity that Thailand is known for, in fact unmarried sex with locals is illegal. Nightlife closes early and bars shut around 11pm, there is technically a curfew. You don’t see many police about, but the bars and hotels seem to manage the situation.
So is it the gem everyone says it is? Yes, absolutely, but go soon. I don’t believe any government can hold back the tide of tourism for long, and why should they? The people need the cash so it will happen.
The charm if LP is its size and the fact it is unspoilt, both if these will change with expansion and there are plenty of people waiting to exploit this, there is no better marker of future plans than the work going on at the airport; so go now.
This airport building is now closed, and a larger terminal is in place – progress…
Updated: January 2012 & August 14