When I first visited southeast Asia back in 2011, nearly everyone I met told me I just had to visit Laos. It took me another 8 years to make it, and I only had 3 days there, but I finally squeezed in a visit. And now I know why people love this place so much. Because I had such little time in the country, I limited my visit to Luang Prabang. During my few days in the city, I met countless people who arrived in the city, initially planning to stay only a couple of days, but who extended their trip by a few days to a few weeks. Luang Prabang reminds me so much of Pokhara, my favorite city in Nepal. (Photos below: scooters, tuk-tuks, and temples, which could be the motto for almost all of southeast Asia!)
It’s a gorgeous city in an Asian country surrounded by beautiful nature, clean air, nice people, built up along a waterfront (in Pokhara, there’s a lake, in Luang Prabang, several rivers), that retains so much of its local and authentic culture but infused with enough western comforts and conviences that make it a very easy place to relax and spend lots of time. Another bonus: apart from exploring the area around the town, there really isn’t much to do except relax. It’s also kind of like Pai, Thailand (my favorite city in Thailand!) in that same way. This really is a beautiful destination to visit when you just want a break- from whirlwind travels or from life. FYI: Luang Prabang is super affordable compared to western countries, but it is noticeably more expensive than many countries in southeast Asia, so plan accordingly.
Speaking of beauty, I’m going to kick off this post with images from Kuang Si Waterfall, which is by far the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever visited, and alone worth the trip to Luang Prabang. To get here I joined one of the many vans that make twice daily trips; I opted for the 9am trip (with the other option at 11am). The 70,000kip/~$8USD fee included pickup and dropoff at my hotel, travel to and from the waterfall (about 45 minutes each way), and entry fee at the waterfall. If you want to go privately, which is necessary if you want to arrive when the park opens or stay late in the day (for peace or to get photos without the masses), you’ll need to rent a scooter, car, or hire a private taxi to take you. With the public van/group trip, we still had 3 full hours, which was more than enough time to relax, hike to the top, and swim in one of the gorgeous (and very cold!) blue holes at the base of the waterfall.
Because Laos was a last minute trip for me, many of the guesthouses were already booked. So I found myself staying at Phone Praseuth Guesthouse. The family who run this guesthouse are so incredibly nice, the A/C in the bedroom worked beautifully (though I found it to be unnecessary at night! Despite very hot daytime temperatures, it gets downright chilly at night), it was incredibly quiet, the bed was decently comfortable, the free breakfast was really good, and they provided airport transportation free of charge. Lots of positives! The only real downside: it’s located on the other side of the river. During dry season, that only means a 5 or so minute walk across the bamboo bridge; during wet season, you have to take a boat. In either case, you have to pay a fee for the crossing, and the fee is good only for two trips- there and back. So if you want to go into the main part of town more than once in a single day, you have to buy two tickets. It’s pretty cheap, but I found that not being able to easily get back to my hotel without having to cross a bridge and pay a fee was less than ideal. So while I loved my stay, on a return trip to Luang Prabang, I will probably choose to stay closer to the main part of town.
During my rather short visit, I spent a lot of time just relaxing, walking around town and exploring the various cafes, restaurants, and bars. I definitely had a couple of favorites, including Saffron, which made possibly the best latte I’ve had EVER (and it was almost as artful and creative as the award-winning Ristr8o in Chiang Mai). Saffron also has really good wifi (especially for how not great the wifi can be in Luang Prabang), and they have a tamarind-apple tart that is life-changing. Soooooo good I couldn’t believe it even while eating it.
Another cafe that has lots of rave reviews online is Novelty Cafe; in my opinion, just go back to Saffron. The coffee here was more expensive than Saffron and the latte was nowhere near as good, and the wifi was horrible. It kept dropping every 3-5 minutes, which made it impossible to get anything done online. As far as restaurants go, I had dinner one night at a vegetarian “buffet” stand that is set up in the middle of the Night Market. The Night Market is full of every possible souvenir you would want to purchase while in southeast Asia, as well as food.
For 15,000kip/$1.75USD I had a choice of 15 or so dishes to choose from; I was able to select as many and as much as I wanted and could pile onto my plate, and then a gentleman recooked everything in his wok. For the price, you just can’t beat it! I think there’s a similar stand at the Night Market for meat eaters. Wanting something a bit more local and authentic, I tried out one of the riverside restaurants the following evening. There are numerous restaurants that all appear very similar, and I’m willing to bet have equally yummy food, so I don’t know that one is that much better than the others. Another bonus of these restaurants is that you have a front row view of beautiful sunsets. Click on the link for a time lapse video of the gorgeous sunset I witnessed one night!
My favorite purchase is my ring made from scraps from old bombs or artillery that still dot the landscape of this beautiful country, thanks to Laos location right next to Vietnam. Several of the hill tribes have taken these war “artifacts” and crafted them into jewelry, key chains, and other souvenirs you can purchase at the market. My ring cost me less than $1.50USD but is far more memorable than most jewelry I own. Only exception is the rest of the jewelry I bought in Lunag Prabang from Nam (pictured below), who just opened up her shop 1.5 months ago. She makes these beautiful, crochet tops, and also sells purses and trinkets made by her mother and aunts, and seriously gorgeous jewelry made by her uncle. You’ll pay far more than the cheap wares available at the night market or most of the shops that line the main road, but it is quality. And take the time to chat with Nam, she is really lovely.
For my final night (and what turned out to be my favorite meal), I visited Khaiphaen (http://tree-alliance.org/our-restaurants/khaiphaen.php?mm=or&sm=kp), which turned out to be my favorite meal in Laos. This is a restaurant with a mission and cause; giving jobs and training to children who were formerly living on the streets or who come from poor and marginalized communities that offer little opportunities for children. The food is absolutely top notch, prices are totally reasonable, and you’re supporting a great cause! What is better?!
Apart from eating, spending time in cafes, and my trip to the waterfall, I had several folks at my guesthouse recommend Orange Robe Tours, which includes a visit to one of the local temples followed by meditation, all led by a former novice (which are boys under the age of 20 studying to be monks; at age 20 they become monks). The Tour company was started by Luke, and my guide was Sunnan, who is a 20 year old former novice, who left the religious life because he wants to go to college (and monks are not allowed to attend university with laypeople). The tour of the temple is 1 hour, and if you choose to also do the meditation, that’s an additional hour. Cost is less than $25USD, which is pricey for the area, but worth it. Especially because the tours go to help support and provide income for the former novices (and monks) who are transitioning to layperson life.
There are several elephant sanctuaries in Luang Prabang, but choose carefully! Some are not actually proper sanctuaries and instead perpetuate animal abuse by permitting guests to ride the elephants. Ensure that the sanctuary you select is a true animal rescue that does not permit riding.
My final activity in Luang Prabang, before heading to the airport, was to get cleaned up before heading to the Maldives for a week! I booked an appointment at the Sofitel Spa for a Brazilian wax, and for $30USD I had a foot scrub prior to my waxing, the waxing, then a head and neck massage (with a bit of time on my back too!), finished with some fresh fruit and tea. And the spa will either pick you up or return you to your guesthouse before/after the appointment. What a deal!