Luang Prabang may not be among the most famous destinations in Southeast Asia, but it is a true hidden gem. It is perfect to spend a weekend and enjoy the delicious Lao food, browse the local boutiques, explore the temples and head out to the beautiful Kuang Si waterfall. There even is a bear sanctuary to visit. Convinced? This Ultimate Guide about Luang Prabang has everything you need to know for your trip to Laos. I have listed all the things I enjoyed during my trip and also added some additional information.
Eat at …
Tamarind has excellent Lao food. We went there for lunch and had a tasting platter with three different dips, chips made from Mekong seaweed, spring rolls, the minced buffalo beef and, of course, sticky rice. All of these were really delicious. I accidentally ordered bamboo soup when I asked for a juice – I think we both were lost in translation. That one was an experience, because I never had it before, but I have to admit it was not my favourite. Tamarind also has a cooking school you can attend while in Luang Prabang. (Kingkitsarath Road)
3 Nagas Luang Prabang, located in the MGallery by Sofitel Hotel, also serves delicious local food and very nice ice cream. I really enjoyed sitting on the terrace in front of the restaurant and watch all the passer-bys. The stir fried chicken with spicy sauce and sticky rice was very tasty. I think it is a great place for both lunch and dinner.
As we only stayed for the weekend and also had dinner at our hotel, we could not try all the different restaurants ourselves. During my research before the trip I also read good things about Tamnaklao (Sakkaline Road), Elephant (booking is recommended; Ban Vat Nong, Kounxoua Road), Blue Lagoon Restaurant (Ounheun Rd), The Apsara (Kingkitsarath Road) and Manda de Laos (10 Norrassan Road).
My coffee experience was only average unfortunately. Maybe because we went to the wrong shops. I read so many positive reviews about Joma. (Kingkitsarath Road) However, I was quite disappointed when I realized it is a local version of Starbucks. Le Banneton had really nice croissants but the coffee was only average. (Sakkaline Rd) I think we should have gone to Viewpoint Café, Indigo Café (Sisavangvong Road) or Saffron Coffee in hindsight. But I will try them on my next trip. 🙂
Shop at …
What I really liked about Luang Prabang is that there are many small boutiques with unique products. Of course, you have the odd tourist souvenir shops but there are quite a few shops with ethically sourced products supporting local initiatives.
Ock Pop Tok has three outlets in Luang Prabang, two are right on wait I call the “main road”. The store opposite of 3 Nagas also has a nice outdoor area for a quick coffee/drink. Ock Pop Tok sells really pretty silk products. Weaving is primarily done by village women and Ock Pop Tok offers them a livelihood by operating on fair trade principles and paying competitive wages. (Sakkarin Road) Ma Te Sai (side lane of Kingkitsarath Road) and TAEC Boutique (Ban Vat Sene) use similar approaches.
My favourite shop was Khinthong Lao Silk in a beautiful street off Sakkaline Road. The owner Khingthong supports 30 women in a village in Northern Laos where she herself is originally from. The handmade table runners and table mats not only offer the women a livelihood but also keep a very intricate type of handicraft and art alive. Some of the runners take as long as two months to be made. The women produce the silk and dye it in different colours themselves as well. The products are not a bargain but with this background we could not resist buying quite a few of the gorgeous pieces. (1/2 Sathouyaith Rd)
Kuang Si Waterfall and Bear Sanctuary
Definitely visit Kuang Si Waterfall. I recommend to leave Luang Prabang between 7.30 am and 8.00 am. This allows you to be there before the tourist groups and to enjoy it before it gets really hot. You can hire tours or drivers at the hotel. I am not sure if you really need to book a tour. Our hotel offered one for USD 60 (about EUR 53). We just asked one of our Tuktuk drivers on the way home if he could take us to the waterfall the next day. We paid about USD 25 and added about USD 5 (about EUR 22 + 4.40) as tip to take us to the waterfall and back. There is an entrance fee of USD 3 (about EUR 2.60) per person.
When you pass the gate, immediately turn right to the bear reserve. The bear sanctuary is run by the Lao government together with the Australian foundation Free the Bears which was founded by Mary Hutton. Hutton saw a documentary about moon bears being held in terrible conditions (coffin sized cages). Dirty catheters were used to milk the bile from their bladder which is used for traditional medicine across Asia. She then decided to found Free the Bears to save the bears from this horrifying fate.
Almost all the bears in the sanctuary were rescued from poachers, exotic pet owners, or people planning to use them in traditional medicine. Your visit is included in the entrance fee. However, you can donate or buy T-shirts or key rings to support the organisation. I am currently working on a separate post about the sanctuary, stay tuned!
The best time to visit is in the morning when the bears are fed and before the crowds arrive. You can watch the bears chill in their hammocks and play around. Most of the day, you will find them sleeping. 🙂
After the bear sanctuary, head up towards the waterfalls. I actually enjoyed the pools right before the “main” waterfall most. It was a really peaceful and quiet place. By the time we reached the main waterfall, most of the tour groups had made it as well. When we headed back down at around 10.30 am, we already saw more crowds making their way up.
The water is really as blue and turquoise as you see it on the pictures. This is because the water flows over the limestone. Its particles contains a high amount of calcium carbonate. When the particles reflect the light, they give the water this beautiful blue and turquoise colour.
Temple Hopping and Royal Palace
There are many temples scattered across Luang Prabang and also the Royal Palace is interesting to visit. Every morning, there is a ceremony by the local monks which you can watch. I decided against it because I always feel awkward if I do not practice the religion and just stand there and watch. But maybe it is interesting for you.
Stay at …
We stayed at the Kiridara. It is located about two kilometres from the centre and about ten to 15 minutes from the airport. We really enjoyed it, the pool was pretty and the breakfast overlooking the city and the mountains very relaxing. You can read my review here.
I also have to point out a very special story here: I got sick during the last night of our stay. As the hotel did not have any medication and no pharmacies were open before we left for the airport, our receptionist and driver got some medication for me from the driver’s home. That was a really special act of kindness and more than just good customer service. More about this story here. (22/13 North Road Ban Naviengkham)
Friends of mine stayed the the MGallery by Sofitel where we had lunch at 3 Nagas and they also recommended it. (Sakkaline Road)
Luang Prabang is quite a small city compared to the many mega-cities in Southeast Asia. It is very easy to get around. The airport is about 15 to 20 minutes from the centre.
As you may have noticed above, sometimes there are no street numbers used for the address. But do not worry, all the main places are really easy to find and you can ask the locals. The majority of places are located on what I called the “main road”. It is the road stretching from Sakkaline Road to Sisavangvong Road.
The main means of transport are Tuktuks and motorcycles. A Tuktuk from the centre to our hotel (about 2 km) was about USD 3 (EUR 2.60)
Luang Prabang airport is really small. You may even walk to the plane. There are some souvenir shops and a few local cafés and restaurants. Immigration and security was swift. You will probably arrive with a small plane and then it takes maximum half an hour to get a visa on arrival pass immigration. For Austrians and most other European countries, the fee for the visa on arrival was USD 30-35 (EUR 26-30). You can pay in USD. I also needed two passport pictures (of which only one was used). Please check your visa requirements or any updates with the official government website of Laos before your trip.
Currency and Language
The local currency is the Kip. Please bear in mind that you are not allowed to import it to or export it from Laos. We took some USD with us. The majority of places and even the Tuktuk drivers accepted USD. The change, however, will be in Kip. Before we left Luang Prabang, we donated the remaining Kip at the airport. There were boxes after security.
The local language is Lao which sounds similar to Thai. English was not a problem to get around. We also used Thai which made it even easier. Even though Laos used to be a French colony and you can still see a lot of French signs on the official buildings, I did not meet anyone who actually spoke it.
Climate and Dresscode
We travelled to Laos in mid-February. It was actually quite nice – during the day it was about 27 degrees, the mornings were nice and cool. I recommend packing a jumper if you go to the waterfalls. I only wore shorts and a T-shirt and was freezing during our Tuktuk ride in the morning. In hindsight I should have worn a thin jumper and covered my legs with a scarf. Once you reach the waterfalls, it is nice to walk around in shorts. If you go later in the year, it is probably a bit hotter.
If you visit temples or other sites, men and women should cover your knees and shoulders. Please do not enter in shorts or crop tops.
More about Luang Prabang and Laos
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All information as of the date of publishing/updating. Information about the bear sanctuary is based on the Free the Bears website and about Kuang Si Waterfall on the information provided at the site. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received.