Luang Prabang, Laos: Magical Meanders on the Mekong

Luang Prabang in Laos has long lived on our long list of leisure. It also offered a golden opportunity to stuff as many words beginning with ‘L’ into the start of the post, an added bonus. Luang Prabang is a gorgeous, relaxed place and should definitely be on your itinerary.

You may not have heard of Luang Prabang, or indeed Laos. The country of Laos is a small and majestically-shaped nation, tucked between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. It’s completely landlocked, very mountainous and with a population of just 6 million, not particularly well-known. Laos also happens to be one of the few remaining Communist states, though this doesn’t stop them charging you plenty of good old US dollars for a visa.

Getting into Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong river where it meets the less-mighty-but-still-impressive Nam Khan. It’s an easy flight from Bangkok, or a gruelling bus ride from various cities.

As you fly in – just a short 1hr flight from Bangkok – you’ll certainly notice that this is a mountainous area. A good tip is to try to sit on the right side of your plane, where you’ll get some pretty close up and personal views of the surrounding hills as you descend steeply into the airport.

The airport is not the most efficient in the world. Despite there being relatively few tourists it took a while to get through immigration. You will need a visa for Laos. Most folk turn up with a couple of passport photos and $35 in cash; it takes about 10 minutes to get the visa but long queues were forming to get them stamped. You still have to go through immigration afterwards.

We used the brand new eVisa system to save some time, but this does have drawbacks. We ended up queuing for a fair while only to be told at the counter we were at the wrong desk – there is no clear signage. I assume this will improve as the system becomes more popular. The eVisa is also an extra $15 which feels a little steep. If you do get the eVisa, wave it enthusiastically at any official before you queue up and you won’t make our mistake!

Past that debacle, getting into Luang Prabang is a breeze. Don’t bother pre-booking transfers. The city is just a 5-10 minute taxi from the airport, and they have a fixed fee of $7 for 1-3 people from the counter in arrivals. We were travelling with parents so were charged a little more. If you’ve been in Thailand you can pay in baht which is handy. Once you arrive in Luang Prabang itself, you’re in for a real treat.

Things to do in Luang Prabang

Relax and explore

The beauty of Luang Prabang is that there isn’t much to do besides take in the stunning scenery, relax and generally feel good about life. Luang Prabang is exactly what I pictured Chiang Mai to be before going. It turned out the Chiang Mai was a heck of a lot busier, built up and bustling than I imagined. Luang Prabang is none of those things and all the more brilliant for it.

If you want to enjoy a coffee, watching boats punt along the river while orange-robed monks ferry between temples along quiet streets, with the sound of chimes and the smell of wood smoke in the air, this is your place. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage town, and justifiably so.

Hotels are plentiful and we recommend staying at the riverside. We stayed at the Cosiana Riverside – a boutique hotel on the Nam Khan river. It’s really lovely and the staff are great, especially Yeng. There is a bit of construction going on in front of the hotel until the end of Feb 2020, but after that it will be a great choice and good value!

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Luang Prabang is a great place to wander and explore. There’s a narrow strip of land between the two rivers which has everything you need for an enjoyable day, with some highlights on the map below (roughly between the Royal Palace and Wat Xiengthong.

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A great way to spend a morning is to stroll around this area taking in the sights and sounds. Luang Prabang is amazingly quiet, so you won’t be surrounded by crowds. Stop for coffee, pastries and baguettes at Joma cafe (there are two branches). Enjoy the mix of old style wooden houses and the more colonial style places – a nod to Laos’ past under French rule. Spend hilariously small amounts on local crafts in the shops on main street. Head to the river – the spot on the Mekong side down to where the two rivers meet is truly special.

You can sit and watch boats amble past with a cold drink, or pick up some ridiculously cheap art from the lady at the riverside. My folks got a decent-sized painting from her. It was $3.

In the dry season, between November and May, bamboo bridges are built across the Nam Khan, which only adds to the general beauty. As per the last picture below, you may feel inclined to dance with joy.

  • luang prabang laos bamboo bridge
  • luang prabang laos
  • luang prabang bamboo bridge
  • luang prabang louangphabang
  • luang prabang mekong river

Kuang Si Waterfall

For an easy trip outside the town, head for Kuang Si Falls. Your hotel should be able to organise it for very little money – I think for 4 of us it was about $15.

The journey is a bit winding and twisting but only takes around 45 minutes. When you get to the falls entrance, head up the paved road to the top, and you can then work your way down.

Kuang Si Waterfall is similar to Erawan Falls in Thailand – it has a number of impossibly blue and clear pools which become sequentially tougher to reach towards the top. At the top of the paved road at Kuang Si Waterfall is the main fall, this is a really easy walk and is pretty dreamy by itself.

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There’s also a path with the helpful warning sign of ‘steep and slippery’, and they are certainly not kidding. Part hike, part grim survival challenge, you will scramble up (and more worryingly, down) some extremely steep, uneven ground to get to the top of the falls.

It’s worth the trip for two reasons. First are the water steps – a classic example of nature not giving a single, solitary f*** about you and I. At some point wooden steps were installed to make the climb easier. Then the river decided it would be much easier for it to descend those stairs, and the result is a cascade of water which has reclaimed the steps. Wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet, or take them off!

kuang si waterfall luang prabang

Second is the pool at the top, more like a shaded sunken lagoon where you can swim and enjoy the water.

kuang si waterfall top laos

If you survive the descent, work your way down the wooded trail from the main waterfall and treat yourself to a refreshing (read:ice cold) dip in the lower pools. There are changing rooms along the path so bring a swimming costume and towel to change into. Also prepare for the sensation of fish nibbling at your toes – this is a natural pool after all!

Watch the sun go down at Phousi Hill

Back in Luang Prabang, we made our way up Phousi Hill for a spectacular sunset. There’s a temple at the top of Phousi Hill where you can gather and watch the sun go down over the river and mountains, and it’s a must do in Lunag Prabang.

Again, this isn’t the easiest of climbs as it’s steep and has hundreds of steps – the portly, panting, sweat-drenched Japanese chap in full golf gear was keen that the entire world should know how close he was to death after the hike up. There’s an entrance fee of 20,000 kip – about $3 to the temple area.

It’s worth getting there a little early for a good view as it gets busy, and you can also take good picture over Luang Prabang and beyond as you climb. The gorgeous sunset was a great reward for our (and, as you can see, dozens of others’) efforts.

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Stick around a little after sunset and watch locals and tourists make merit by releasing birds into the dusk.

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Eat and drink

We found Laotian food to be similar to Thai, but a little less heavy on the chilli. You can eat brilliantly for very little money here.

Khaipaen, in the main town, serves sharing-style Laos food and is also a community initiative to support disadvantaged young people through training as chefs and waiters. The food is excellent, we loved the local laab with mint and the river fish dumplings (the menu changes every month) especially.

Across the Nam Khan via bamboo bridge (7,000 kip to cross and return) is Dyen Sabai, specialising in Laotian barbecue and set right on the river. This has similarities with Thai Shabu or yakiniku – grilling meats over hot coals whilst bubbling up a tasty soup. You get a giant portion of meat and veg which fed four of us. Did I mention you get to cross the bamboo bridge?!

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Both of these restaurants were under $10 including beer and wine which is incredible value.

There’s also a night market every night from 5 with some local delicacies as well as art and crafts, all along the main street.

We loved every minute of Luang Prabang and would dearly have loved to stay longer than a weekend. Make sure you head for this lesser-known gem of a destination if you can. For the ultimate seal of approval, my mum said she had a lovely time, and her word is obviously law.

Luang Prabang and Laos top tips

  1. You can normally pay in US dollars, Thai baht or Laotian kip. Be careful on the THB exchange rate vs dollars and check what it should be before you go. 15,000 kip is about $1 and 10,000 kip is about 40 THB in January 2020. Change comes in kip, and you can’t exchange kip outside of Laos.
  2. If you speak Thai people will generally understand! The Laos language is very close to Isaan Thai, but they understand regular Thai because most TV shows are Thai. I found their Thai easier to understand than in Bangkok!
  3. Hello = sabaidee or sabaidee jai. Thankyou = korp jai
  4. Dress decently for Phousi Hill. It’s a working temple, they won’t stop you but you probably shouldn’t have a bikini on…
  5. A visa on arrival should cost $35, or eVisa $50. Make sure to let them know before queuing if you have the eVisa. If you get a visa on arrival, photos will cost you a couple of dollars more. Pay cash.
Mark Burton

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