We expected a lot from Luang Prabang, and it delivered, though in a different way than we imagined. A UNESCO city in which tangerine-cloaked monks, golden wats, French architecture, and crunchy baguettes all come to a head, Luang Prabang boasts Western aesthetics mixed with Eastern sensibilities. Its location between two rivers means that sunsets are often spectacular and the seafood is plentiful. This is a place not to be missed by any traveler in Laos.
See and Do and Activities
There's so much you can do in Luang Prabang: visit the numerous golden wats, take a sunset climb up Phu Si, join a cooking class, or check out the Royal Palace Museum and the King's many cars. When you tire of that, there's the option to take a boat to Pak Ou, a cave with thousands of Buddha statues. Or better yet, visit Tat Kuang Si, a beautiful waterfall that allows you to take a cooling dip in pools framed by limestone.
But I can't give you any details on the above because, in fact, we did almost none of it. We did walk around and peek into some of the temples, but we didn't pay to go inside. We even skipped the waterfall and never made it to the top of Phu Si, though we did take in the "Royal Ballet" at the Grand Palace. (Tickets start at 100,000K; show starts at 6:30pm.)
It wasn't any of the tourist attractions that made Luang Prabang so memorable for us. Instead, it was the work we did with Big Brother Mouse. We spent two mornings tutoring novice monks and local university students who wanted to improve their English. It was challenging, but incredibly rewarding, especially when you consider that all of these kids come to the center on their own accord, some walking several kilometers to get there.
One of the most interesting things about tutoring here was speaking to the novice monks. We learned that many poor families give their young sons a few dollars (in Kip obviously) and put them on a boat or bus headed to Luang Prabang. When the boys get there, they have to find a monastery to join. In exchange for taking up the religious life, they also gain access to an education, both in the classroom and on the streets. After all, most of these kids come from villages with no electricity, let alone foreigners who bring them books and show them photos on shiny Macs. Some of these monks have gotten so good at English that they read books that most Americans wouldn't understand. Exhibit A.
Want to get involved? You can either donate money online or, if you're in town, head to the office at 9am (for the morning session) or 5pm for the afternoon. Plan to spend at least two hours and bring a pen if possible. Photos, whether they're on your computer or printed out, often help engage students who are only starting to learn English.
Every crumbling French villa is now a hotel, so the question really is: "how much do you want to spend?" We weren't sure what we could afford in our budget, but there were surprisingly a ton of places under $10 in the historic peninsula area. Since we wanted AC, those were all out.
We ended up at Tingkham Guesthouse, a family-run place with a few rooms, all with balconies overlooking the quaint street. With AC, our room was $18/night (they originally asked for $20). Although it was cozy (read, tight), the balcony made it worth it. Every morning, at 6am, we could see the monks gathering alms simply by stepping outside. There's no website or link, but it's across the street from Kinnaly GuestHouse and Cafe Toui, both of which are in Lonely Planet.
If you want to really splurge, it's possible. Rooms in Luang Prabang go into the $1000s per night. The people who sleep there likely eat at restaurants such as L'Elephant, 7 Nagas, Blue Lagoon, and Couleur Cafe. The menus looked great and still loads cheaper than NYC.
Eat and Drink and Drink
YUM!!! Luang Prabang is where Lao food comes into its own, possibly due to the combination of the influx of tourists and the French heritage. There are tons of cafes in town that serve good coffee (espresso!) and baguettes. Don't believe your guidebook though. This bread isn't Parisian-quality and the cheese is the kind that comes in little triangles.
Cheap eats are basically crepes and giant sandwiches, both found past the Hmong Night Market on the main drag. We had a few great meals at Croissant D'Or on the main street. While the inside may be empty, the outdoor tables in the alley are bumping and the laap and eggplant salad was some of the best for a fraction of the price of the fancy restaurants.
Our "nice" dinner out, costing around $15, was at Tamarind, which also has a highly recommended cooking school. The purple sticky rice was delicious and the comprehensive menu explains a lot about Lao food for those who are newbies.
For an SF-like cafe, complete with AC, WiFi, and weird art, head to JoMa. Though it may be overpriced, the coffee and food was decent and the AC makes it easy to be productive.
There are plenty of places to grab a beer, cocktail, and (wait for it) WINE!! We skipped on the latter because of the expense, but if you're just here on vacation, then glasses are a bargain compared to anywhere in the States. We did splurge for cocktails at Hive Bar, which hosts a nightly ethnic fashion show at 7pm. Really cool experience!
And... to top it off, the closer is an amazing local break dancing group.
Getting around town requires the power of your two feet, but if it's too hot to use those, you can rent an overpriced bicycle and rely on pedal power. For sights further afield, rent an expensive motorbike or hope on a shared pickup.
We paid 95000K for an AC bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsovan. It's a windy ride, so if you get motion sick, bring some meds.
More Luang Prabang
Interested in seeing more of the fashion show, monks or the Royal Ballet? Check out our Luang Prabang photo tour.
Do you have any tips for travel in Luang Prabang on a budget? Let us know in the comments!