Laos is one of Southeast Asia’s sleepiest countries. Home to 6.5-million people and landlocked, it’s a place of mystery for many travelers and unknown to much of the world. Once a French colony, also ruled by a royal family, then taken over by communist forces in 1975, it’s one of the region’s most friendly and unique destinations. Its number-one tourist destination by far is Luang Prabang, a charming town of 56,000, situated on the banks of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. A former royal capital, its been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995 and exudes laid-back cool. On this episode we’ll share our impressions and favorite things to do over a three-night visit.
Trevor & Scott banter about their first time to Luang Prabang and quick mention of subsequent visits.
Description of Luang Prabang and the peninsula: three main roads run parallel: Khem Khong, Sakkaline Rd, and Kingkitsarath Rd.
How it’s changed over the years based on our visits.
Eat & Drink: These tend to change but here are a few we just enjoyed:
Bouang is pretty tasty, featuring Laotian food with modern twist. I really enjoyed their green curry gnocchi as well as green peppers stuffed with minced pork and lemongrass, served with sticky rice.
Zurich Bakery has very tasty pastries, a great Cuban sandwich and other western favorites. It’s pretty much always busy.
Utopia is a personal favorite almost any time of day.
They have a great yoga deck overlooking the Nam Khan River with daily sessions at 7:30am and breakfast. There’s then food all day, smoothies, with pillows to lie on, lots of funky corners, then comes nighttime when the music is turned up. Sometimes people dance, other times they chill out, but there’s an area and vibe for everyone. Utopia has to be on your To-Do list at least one day or night. Be sure to say hi to the owner Rob, from Canada, who is a friend of ours.
Belle Rive is good for sundown drinks and also does nice Laos/Thai food. It’s busy for sundown and then clears out.
Atsalin has been around for a long time and does easy cook-to-order Lao-Thai dishes. Easy on the budget, very simple but tasty.
Saffron is the spot for coffee. They serve a really tasty cup, do breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee tours and tastings. If you like coffee you’ve got to go here.
Icon Klub is a longstanding cocktail lounge worth a visit. Friendly staff, and a cozy environment make this a top spot to sip a few creative concoctions.
525 is good for cocktails and tapas. It’s in a nice house but a bit pricey so save this for an evening when you want to treat yourself.
Ock Pop Tok is one of LP’s best projects. Started in 2000s, its mission is to preserve and promote local weaving. Over the years they’ve grown from a small weaving operation and shop to having three locations within Luang Prabang. There’re two on the peninsula, one with a restaurant. But the premier location is on the south of town near Phosi Market. There they have a demonstration center, hotel and nice restaurant with a very nice deck overlooking the Mekong River. This is a really good spot for lunch. They show movies one day per week as well when you can have dinner and watch a flick. Pretty cool. Their weaving and work has drawn international attention as well and they attend textile events in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the US.
Trevor: I wouldn’t have put Ock Pop Tok on my food list as I know it for their textiles. Regardless, I would put OPT on a must-see list for anyone visiting Luang Prabang. The fact that they have food now, sounds like a great plus. Probably worth checking out.
Night Market: there is some really nice, truly local food around here and a lot for vegetarians, but you have to be a bit adventurous with your eating. There used to be a great all you can eat or by the plate vegetarian buffet on a small alley just off the night market.
It’s music off at bars by 11:30pm and people have to be gone by 11:45pm. Any later action is at the bowling alley!
Trevor: Good to hear the bowling alley is still in biz.
Things To Do
The Bamboo Experience: neat concept, featuring half and full-day experiences learning how to make items with bamboo or cook with it. They also focus on how this grass impacts many areas of traditional life including building houses and such.
Rice Farming: I’ve heard there’s also a company that takes people out farming rice for a day. This sounds neat.
Waterfalls: Tad Sae, which are east of the city get good reviews and are not as busy as Kuang Si Falls. The later are very beautiful and wonderful for swimming.
Consider early morning or late afternoon visits to avoid peak crowds. Some tour companies will do breakfast at the falls too. You could buy your own pastries and organize a ride out here.
Trevor: Some great falls you can get to by kayak. There should be a number of kayaking outfits in town nowadays. Lots of life in Laos centers on the rivers. I would be sure to get out there on a kayak for a daytrip down a river. Stopping at a waterfall or two along the way would be a bonus, but interacting with some locals (lots of kids play around the riverside by day and many times there are friendly fisherman along the way too), that’s a great day trip from Luang Prabang.
Pak Ou Caves are NW of the city, along the Mekong River and a must-visit as well. There hundreds, if not thousands of Buddha images that have been left by locals and visitors in the caves. It can be very busy though. Can be combined with a visit to the falls as well in one day. Many day tours combine this with another activity or destination.
Take a boat ride – Mekong Kingdom’s Monsoon boat is great for a nice sundown cruise or rent one from the boat dock along the Mekong River
Worth considering a day of trekking or mountain biking as well – there are many operators around.
Fight the crowds and walk up Mount Phousi for sundown or anytime for a view.
Petanque is worthwhile too. There are several places around town but I had a nice session at Wat That Petanque where you can rent a lane for about 30,000B/hr, then buy beers and such. Even just going to watch is pretty fun as the locals are extremely accurate.
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is small but worth a visit. They do a job of sharing about ethnic groups of Laos, their dress and more. Good for a 30-min overview-stop, then have a refreshment in their small outdoor café.
Garavek Storytelling is a neat project. A musician and storyteller spend one hour telling tales about the area’s history and folklore, set to music. It runs from 6:30-7:30pm and is interesting for those with a real flare for culture, music and story.
There are many cooking schools but Tamarind Cooking Class is a longstanding one that always gets good reviews. They focus on favorites with a few truly Laos dishes thrown in.
Massage – on the peninsula, Frangipani Spa and Peninsula Massage and Sauna get continually good reviews from expats in the area.
Trevor talks about the Laotian steam room with lemongrass steam and “human bbq” chairs. Great for chilly LP nights.
Visit the many Wats on the peninsula including Wat Xiengthong, Wat Pak Khan, Wat Sene and the former Royal Palace. Be sure to stroll the lanes in between the three main streets, my favorite being the one near Garavek Storytelling.
Trevor’s 3-Days in Luang Prabang
Day 1: Just cruise around on a crappy bike and explore the town, including the many gorgeous wats. Chill out by the riverside and talk to locals, maybe play some petanque and drink some beers. Go to the palace and pay respects to the Prabang Buddha. If you’re feeling ambitious take a boat across the river and go to the caves or south to the town over there. Maybe climb the hill for sunset, check out the night market, and then go to utopia for drinks.
Day 2: Get up early and go on a kayaking trip or go to a waterfall. In the afternoon can cruise town a bit more, see the back alleys and check out wats you didn’t see before. Can go to OPT or other things Scott recommends around town.
Day 3: More just chilling around town. The town itself is a UNESCO sight. Just enjoy it.
Scott’s 3-Days in Luang Prabang
- Stroll the peninsula, popping-in to the Royal Palace, wats (temples) and get a feel for life as it would have been.
- Enjoy coffee at Saffron, lunch at Boung, foot massage, then a sundown boat ride, either with a company or do your own and bring some drink and snacks. Utopia for end of night drinks
- Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Waterfalls in the same day. Do one quite early and then the other will be a bit busier.
- Dinner at one of many restaurants – have a look at what’s out there and pick a favorite. Sip a couple cocktails at Icon Klub.
- Ride bikes around, stopping to walk across two bamboo bridges on the east side of the Nam Khan River and also where it meets the Mekong River. You could cycle over the bike bridge east of Utopia and follow a dirt road along the Mekong a bit if you fancy seeing something a bit different.
- A late lunch at Ock Pop Tok south of the city, relax and have a few drinks too – cycle there.
- Petanque for an hour with drinks – good times.
- Sundown and dinner at Utopia.
Disneyland or historical must-see destination?
- Mekong Kingdoms Monsoon: https://www.facebook.com/MekongKingdomsRiverBoats/
- Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden: http://www.pha-tad-ke.com
- Mandalao: http://www.mandalaotours.com
- Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre: http://www.taeclaos.org
- Tamarind Cooking Class: http://www.tamarindlaos.com
- Ock Pop Tok: https://ockpoptok.com/
- The Bamboo Experience: http://thebambooexperience.blogspot.com/
- Garavek Storytelling: http://garavek.com/
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