Laos is a relative newcomer to the list of popular Southeast Asian destinations, and Luang Prabang, in the north, is its star city. A UNESCO World Heritage City, Luang Prabang (or LP for short) counts only around 50 000 inhabitants, and is the most laid-back and hassle-free Southeast Asian town I’ve ever visited. To anyone who’s been to this part of the world, this will sound like an oxymoron. Southeast Asian cities are usually hot, busy, noisy, and sometimes downright chaotic. But LP is different. It’s actually quiet.

Bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river

Bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river

Why is that? Firstly, its UNESCO status means that buses and trucks are not allowed in the historical centre. Hence, no large rumbling vehicles and chocking fumes. Secondly, it is an important buddhist centre, and hosts a large number of buddhist temples and monasteries, helping to imbue the city with calm and serenity. Thirdly, it’s not a party town: no loud dance halls or wild bars here, and no crowd of spring breakers. Instead you see monks wandering the streets, and local families on scooters.

A buddhist wat (temple)

A buddhist wat (temple)

Walking around LP is very pleasant. The sidewalks are not broken and are free of obstacles. The streets are clean, and you are not constantly hassled by tuk-tuks, sellers and beggars. In addition, being further north (19.5 degrees latitude), the heat is not too oppressive, especially in the cool season between November and February. At that time, you might even need a sweater or light jacket in the evenings and early mornings. You are still in the tropics though, and the sun is fierce, so don’t forget your sunscreen!

You could probably see LP’s main sights in a couple of days, but if you can stay longer, it will really help you appreciate the slow pace, try some of the great restaurants, and perhaps indulge in a massage or two.

Orlam, a Lao specialty

Orlam, a Lao specialty

The consequence (or perhaps the cause) of the town being so laid back is that everything is done very slowly. Restaurant service is slow, traffic moves slowly (easier to cross the streets), nobody seems in a big hurry to do anything. I was happy I gave myself a week (and ended up staying two). I would have been frustrated and tired trying to see everything in two days, especially since my guesthouse was located 15 minutes walk from the centre.

The centre of LP is shaped like a long finger (about half a kilometre wide) extending between the two rivers that meet at its tip: the Nam Khan and the Mekong. At the base of the finger sits Mount Phu Si, behind which you will find an area with cheaper guesthouses, cool restaurants, and low-key bars. (This is where I stayed – see boxed text below).

Where the Nam Khan meets the Mekong

Where the Nam Khan meets the Mekong

Despite having a lot of tourists, LP doesn’t (yet) have many tour groups. Perhaps the reason is that reaching Luang Prabang requires either some extra effort, or expense. There are no discount airlines flying here. The only flights come from the capital, Vientiane, and the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Coming overland means a bumpy, motion-sickness inducing 10-hour bus ride (although you can break the journey in Vang Vieng). Or you can go down the Mekong in a boat from northern Thailand (over two days).

Or perhaps what is limiting the influx of visitors is the fact that Luang Prabang has no earth-shattering sights. The historical centre harbours colonial houses, cafes, restaurants, and many wats (buddhist monasteries). You can visit the Royal Palace (now a museum), and the Night Market. You can also climb Mount Phu Si for great views over the town.

Night Market

Night Market

 Most interesting and memorable experiences

  • Take a Mekong sunset cruise
  • Have a massage at Dhammada
  • Eat a good breakfast at L’Etranger while people-watching. Trade in your books.
  • Wander through the Night Market and grab some snacks
  • Sit at one of the cafes along the Mekong and sip a fresh fruit shake.
  • Rise real early to witness the monks’ alms procession
  • Try orlam, a Lao speciality, made with buffalo meat and wood chips added for flavouring (don’t swallow those!)
  • Climb Mount Phu Si for a view
  • Do a day trip to the Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si waterfalls

Kuang Si waterfalls

Stay at:
Merry Guesthouse 2, Chaoxomphou Road, Unit 8\1 Ban Muanna (can be booked through hostelbookers.com). Nice rooms with ensuite bath and AC for $20/night.

Eat at:
* Lao Lao Garden
* Roots and Leaves
* Tamarind
* L’Etranger
* Le Café Ban Vat Sene

I bought the Luang Prabang chapter of the Lonely Planet Laos guidebook for this trip. (Lonely Planet is the only guidebook company that lets you buy individual chapters of a book as PDF files!)

(Note: This post contains an affiliate link.)


Enjoyed this article?  Sign up for my newsletter or “Like” my Facebook page to be notified of new posts.

Tags: