Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos. Formerly a sleepy place reminiscent of the old days, the temple and palace-filled city achieved UNESCO status in 1995 and is now a popular destination. While beautiful as ever, the western influence is everywhere in Luang Prabang — as are the actual westerners. It’s worth a stop to see the history, but if you want to see a more authentic side of Laos you might want to make that stop a quick one. For us, it was our least favorite spot in the country.
Getting There: A Harrowing Journey
We left Luang Namtha on the morning bus, grabbing snacks at the station for sustenance. I was too terrified to eat knowing I’d be trapped for 8+ hours after a food poisoning incident, so I starved. On the drive we passed through villages comprised of small wooden platform homes, snacks hanging from roofs of markets, and girls playing outside in pale blue shirts and black skirts.
The roads were quite windy, and a poor lady in the minibus was carsick and threw up 24 times. She touched me with her puke hand to enlist help opening a window which did not open. Later, some randos boarded from the side of the road and loaded a large box into the trunk. The trunk started barking, which I first mistook for a child. Upon arrival, I was thrilled to see the puppy peed on my backpack. Along our way, the driver held and played with an actual baby child while driving. Also he repeatedly tried to catch flies with both hands. Safety first! At the lunch stop, the driver grilled his own meat.
We were dumped 10 miles out of town, on the side of the road behind a huge line of idling cars. We walked through the noxious fumes to the front – to a bridge we’d been warned was out – and attempted to cross on foot. Some youths stopped us, laughing, and pointed that actually the bridge was incomplete and we had to take a ferry under it. So, we trekked down a rocky incline with motorbikes and waited for the ferry across the Mekong. Nearby, a man bathed and washed his clothes in the muddy water with ferver. Finally across, we looked for a tuk tuk to take us to town. The price was obscene and we mistakenly had no money (oops), so we had to wait 2 hours for some other tourists to arrive and share with us.
Things to Do In Luang Prabang
Visit UXO LAO
A must-see, especially if you’re not visiting central or southern Laos. UXO stands for “unexploded ordnance.” It’s not widely known that Laos is the most bombed country in the world, with over 200 million tons or ordnance dropped on it from 1964-1973. The most common type of UXO are the small, circular “bombies” from inside cluster bombs. 30% of these are unexploded, meaning there is a ton of live ordnance still in the ground. All too often farmers working in fields hit it, and children mistake it for balls and play with it. This means ongoing serious injuries and an average of 300 casualties/year in Laos from the UXO. UXO Laos is working to clear the land and educate villages about dangers, but it seems an almost-impossible task. The museum is shocking and a must see, especially for those who have no idea about this (including myself).
Look at Temples, More Temples, and Perhaps a National Museum
It would be impossible to list all the wats we saw (not to mention boring), as there are over 30 and temple fatigue is real. The highlight was Wat Xieng Thong from the 1500s (we actually paid to enter) and the low light was the acclaimed Mount Phousi, so overrun with tourists we skipped it. I also am partial to the UNESCO plaque for no good reason. In a shocking “not in budget” move we also visited the National Museum, formerly the presidential palace. It is actually quite cool, filled with amazing mosaics, gold-encrusted items, original furniture, and many an urn, ceramic. We also happened upon the monks performing their daily Morning Alms in the city, which should not be a tourist attraction but has become one.
Haggle at the Night Market
Larger than expected and very tourist-centric, with the usual elephant pants and standard souvenirs on offer. We are not supposed to buy things but we did, rationalizing we “needed” wrap skirts to wear into temples (they are quite useful). While in the market some cute children approached us to practice English. Then, they gathered our email addresses. At left is a food street. Which we swore not to eat at as we kept getting sick. But, obviously, we got swept up and minute 2 and were piling cold food that had been sitting out for hours into a bowl, shoveling it into our mouths. We wound up wildly nauseous and had to eat fake oreos for dinner instead. Which was good, because while at the grocery store we discovered some essential butt-whitening cream.
💲Budget Tip | Bargain at the market. Start at around ½ the offering price and work up from there.
Eat Out — Or If You’re On a Budget, Don’t
There are many western restaurant with western prices. They are super cute, but super cute isn’t in budget. We stuck to local places a bit off the main drag where we could get entrees for the standard 15,000kip (about 2.40 US). We really liked Chalernphone Restaurant for a value meal. I do admit we went to the infamous Utopia for a drink after initially mocking it as a non-authentic spot. It has a beautiful deck overlooking the Mekong and is quite relaxing in the day. OK, maybe we went twice.
💲Budget Tip | Walk about half a mile away from the main tourist street in any direction and you can find meals for regular prices, literally 4-8 times less than the tourist spots.
Pak Ou Caves
First glimpsed on my favorite travel website Atlas Obscura, this former random “oddity” that is now a known tourist attraction did not disappoint. To arrive, we took a 2-hour boat ride up the Mekong. En route, it stopped at a local “whiskey village” where we got drunk for free in the mid-morning by sampling shots of the local rice whiskey from an unwashed shot glass 30 other tourists also used. It was kind of good and also we were drunk so we negotiated and bought a bottle of the sweeter purple stuff.
The Pak Ou caves are amazing! Cut into the side of a sheer mountain of my #1 favorite stone, karst, the interior is littered with upwards of 4,000 buddhas whose numbers increase as visitors continue to add more. Up top is a darker portion of the cave, with more buddhas hidden in the dank tunnels. I was super-excited and experienced pure joy looking at the golden buddhas shining in the mossy dripping cave (see photos).
💲Budget Tip | There is a dock across from Saffron Coffee. Buy your boat ticket directly there – it costs 65,000kip and the cheapest ticket bought from an agency is 80,000kip.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Frequently waterfalls are not as cool as they sound. Or they’re marketed as an attraction because there is nothing else to do. We heard Kuang Si was a must see (must Si?) so we took the hour tuk tuk ride with a girl from our hostel. Inside is a bear rescue center and obviously the falls. Which were, thank goodness, actually quite beautiful. We trekked the steep muddy path to the top and tried out the rope swing. A nice old man pushed us after helping his wife. Later, I incurred a minor to medium leg wound.
💲Budget Tip | Make friends and negotiate a tuk tuk down to 40,000kip per person. If you’re solo, join a tour from a hostel for 45,000; it will be cheaper than a tuk-tuk alone.
Budgeting Tips Abound!
Drink Free Water | There is free water all over Luang Prabang. Like actual bottled water from coolers. You can fill your bottle for free at tons of locations – the tour office on the corner of the night market being one. Save at least 5,000kip/day on free H2O.
BYOBT (Buy Your Own Bus Tickets) | There are so many agencies in town selling bus tickets — all of which are way marked up. We walked 2 miles each way to the bus station to get our tickets and saved at least 25,000 kip each doing this. I know what you are thinking, that is a lot of walking. What I am thinking is if you’re backpacking you’re not that that lazy and can walk a few extra miles. The money we saved paid for 2 meals! Also while at the station we watched a strange film about friendship between Laos and China, flags waving. So there’s that.