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Traveling to Luang Prabang : Useful tips for the first-time visitors

Laos promotes its tourism as “Simply Beautiful” – and Luang Prabang is indeed simply beautiful. This charming ancient town is still a place that feels as if it is on the cusp of discovery.

In Southeast Asia, where preserving cultural heritage often takes a back seat to breakneck tourist development, Luang Prabang is a happy surprise: a laid-back ancient town, beautifully maintained and bursting with temples, French colonial villas and traditional-style wood dwellings, all set between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Unlike that other heritage site, Luang Prabang is a real heritage. If for no other reason, it’s the Laotians – most cordial and most soft-spoken folks.

Weather and when to visit

Luang Prabang has a tropical climate typical of Southeast Asia with several quite distinct seasons. Between November and January is the traditional time to go, when temperatures are mild. But this is also the season when tourist numbers are highest. Go in the rainy season (April-July and Sept-October), when ‘rain’ means a brief cleansing shower most afternoons, but the otherwise lovely weather. If you visit in October, you shouldn’t miss the Bun Awk Phansa boat races held on the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. Avoid March when temperatures are searing. The Lao New Year festivities (from 13 to 15 April) are a worthy draw, and the tradition of throwing water is delightful – and tonic.

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Water throwing in New Year Festival.

Currency

The currency unit of Laos is Kips (Laos Kips/LAK). Its par values include 500 Kip, 1000 Kip, 2000 Kip, 5000 Kip, 10,000 Kip, 20,000 Kip, 50,000 Kip and 100,000 Kip. The exchange rate between USD and LAK is 1 dollar equals 8115 Kip. It’s not difficult for you to pay in USD and Thai Baht (THB), or you can also use Vietnamese money in some places where Vietnamese people live. In addition, visitors can exchange money at banks, airports, and currency exchange offices in Luang Prabang.

How to travel to Luang Prabang?

By plane:

Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ) is located 4 km from the center of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang International Airport serves domestic and international flights. Several international and domestic airlines operate scheduled flights to/from Luang Prabang Airport, including Lao Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, China Eastern Airlines and Vietnam Airlines. Luang Prabang Airport Terminal provides various services, shopping, restaurant, information, currency exchange, ATM and transportation options.

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Luang Prabang International Airport

 

By bus:

– Within Laos: The bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang takes about 10 hours and costs 150000 kips (18.38 USD) and has a few morning departures from Vientiane’s Northern Bus Station. From Luang Prabang’s Naluang (Southern) Bus Station, travelers can take a shared tuk-tuk ride to the town center for about 10.000 kips per person. A faster alternative to a public bus is minibus. You can buy a ticket from most travel agents and some guesthouses. The journey on a minibus is faster but they can also be pretty cramped. A minibus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang takes 5 hours and costs 60000 kips (7.35 USD). From Vientiane, it takes about 7 hours and costs 150000 kips (18,38 USD).

– International bus: There are international buses from Hanoi, Vinh (Vietnam), Loei (Thailand), Kunming (China) to Luang Prabang. Prices and time depend on point of departure.

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Hanoi – Luang Prabang Sleeping Bus.

 

By boat:

One of the nicest and most popular ways to get to Luang Prabang is to cross the border at Chiang Khong in Thailand to Huay Xai and take a boat up or down the Mekong through the spectacular and scenic countryside. If you take the slow boat, it will take 2 days and the journey costs 20 USD, with an overnight in the small town of Pakbeng.

If you want to spend considerably more money, but enjoy considerably more comfort, you can take a trip with Luang Say Cruise, which offers a 2-day or 3-day luxury Mekong jaunt going in both directions. The 2-day cruise leaves Luang Prabang on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays in the high season and only Wednesdays and Saturdays in low season (May – September). There is an overnight at the Luang Say Lodge near Pakbeng.

This package costs 758 USD to 1,084 USD (for a double cabin), depending on the season. The 3-day option departs every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday in the high season, and on Tuesdays and Fridays in low season. It follows the same route with an extra overnight stop at the Kamu Lodge near an ethnic Kamu village. It costs between 970 USD and 1386 USD. Meals are included as is wine and coffee. The boat has a fully equipped bar, but drinks apart from tea and coffee are not included in the price.

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Luang Say Cruise.

 

Alternatively, you can take a Lao speedboat. These are flat-bottom skiffs with an outsize outboard motor attached that propel you at alarming speed. You have to wear a helmet on these trips. Tickets can be bought at all travel agents and cost 400.000 kips (49 USD) to Huay Xai and 250.000 kips (30.64USD) to Pakbeng only.

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Speedboat on Mekong River.

 

Local communication

The language barrier was easily the hardest challenge during your trip because just a few of locals speak minimal English. So verbal communication is important to describe or express your wishes, and remember to smile and speak softly.

Tuk-tuk in Luang Prabang

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Tuk-tuk in Luang Prabang

 

If you hire a tuk-tuk to go somewhere far, you negotiate a price for both ways. The tuk-tuk driver will wait for you while you explore your spot and you usually pay the whole fare upon your arrival back in Luang Prabang. It costs 20.000 to 30.000 kips ($2,45 – $3,67 for short distances within the city), or 50.000 kips ($6,12) for a shared tuk-tuk and 150.000 kips for a private tuk-tuk ($18.35) to the Kuang Si Fall.

Shopping

If you’re in the market for authentic Southeast Asian handicrafts, it’s hard to imagine a better destination than Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang was traditionally a center for skilled artisans from around the former kingdom. Shopping in Luang Prabang is focused on traditional handicrafts, art, textiles, and jewelry… This is where handmade items tell a story about the place and the people.

The most popular shopping experience in Luang Prabang is the famous Night Market, where H’Mong women from the surrounding villages have been coming to sell their hand-made and natural local products for years. Luang Prabang Night Market is open daily from 17:00 to about 23:00, beginning at Wat Mai and running along Sisavangvong Road to the town center (Settathilat Road). There are a total of four rows, running along the entire length of the street. The street is closed off to vehicles and the hill-tribe traders emerge with their various apparels, ceramics, bamboo, lamps, blankets, bed covers, handicrafts, and silk scarves… Look out for the “Luang Prabang Handicraft Label” to find authentic Lao handicrafts.

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Luang Prabang night market

 

There are numerous gift shops around the town which are good for picking up couture-style textiles and quaint household objects.

– Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre – Ban Saylom, lane opposite Phousi Market: top-quality fabrics, specific to the Lao culture and traditions (Ock Pop Tok is included in our tour to visit weaving village, here, you will have a chance to learn history, methods, and culture of textiles in Laos)

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Silk Drying at  Ock Pop Tok

 

– Ma Té Sai – Ban Aphai – handmade gifts, textiles, and homewares.

– Caruso Lao Home Craft – 60 Sakaline Road: stylish silk clothes and other accessories, ebony dishes and statues…

– Pavillon de Jade – 10 Phothisarath Road: natural-dyed silks, antique Chinese bronzes and ceramics, and a collection of local silverware…

– Ban Lao Natural Products – Ban Vat Nong, along with the Mekong: handicrafts, textiles and fashion accessories.

– Kopnoi, made in Laos – Ban Aphay: silk and cotton clothes, accesories, decor elements, jewelry, books and other attractive goods.

– Naga Creations – Sisavangvong Road – silver jewelry as well as finery made from diverse precious and semi-precious stones.

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Naga Creation Showroom

 

On that note, what NOT to buy in Luang Prabang is more important than what you should buy.

– Don’t buy antiques, including antique Buddha statues. The sale of these items are draining the country of its history and heritage. Opt for a replica or a newly made one.

– Don’t buy wildlife products. That includes snake or scorpion whiskey, tusks, teeth, horns and paws. As small as the purchase may seem, Laos has a huge problem with the trafficking and trade of wildlife and it has reached critical levels. Resist the temptation to buy and “rescue” animals you might see at the market. As good as your intentions may be, you will have committed a crime and are perpetuating the problem.

Places to eat in Luang Prabang

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Yummy Street food in Luang Prabang

 

The diverse cultural influences that make this city’s architecture so fascinating have also left their mark on its dining scene, with restaurants that combine European style with the Southeast Asian spice. Just like in any Southeast Asian country, street food stalls are everywhere in Luang Prabang serving delicious noodle soups, spring rolls, grilled meat, etc. for merely nothing and a stop at the food alley from the night market is a must. Backpackers and tourists are also filling up the outdoor tables near the National Museum where a myriad of fruit stands sell fresh juices, smoothies, and sandwiches to the expat crowd. Besides streets stalls, Luang Prabang as an equally impressive number of excellent restaurants.

-Tamarind Restaurant is an excellent place to discover Laotian cuisine, with authentic recipes and staff that are always willing to show diners the proper way to eat everything. They also offer a cooking course in which you can actually learn how to cook many of the dishes that you sampled.

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Tamarind Restaurant

 

– L’Elephant Restaurant: French and Lao cuisine

– The Apsara Restaurant & Bar: traditional Lao dishes, along with a selection of Asian and Western fusion cuisine.

– The House Restaurant & Belgian Beer Bar: Belgium beers and rare European cuisine

– Lao Lao Garden: traditional Lao barbecue

– The Belle Rive Terrace: Lao and Thai dishes, along with a few Western favorites

– Coconut Garden:  Lao cuisine, vegetarian dishes and  a few Western dishes

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At a corner of Coconut Garden

 

– L’Etranger Books and Tea: drinks & snacks, vegetarian dishes

Last but not least, one of the main attractions of Luang Prabang is the laid back pace of life and just soaking up the atmosphere. Unless you’ve allowed time for a bit of relaxation in your itinerary you won’t ever really ‘get’ what Luang Prabang is all about.

Indeed, it’s a pity if tourists travel to Laos without having a stopover in Luang Prabang. It is definitely ‘of undisputed origin and not a copy’ of anywhere else. We hope that the provided information will be greatly helpful for your trip. Have a nice trip!

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