Luang Prabang in 3 Days










Having a waterfall all to myself…

Starting off my series of blog posts on Laos is this first one on Luang Prabang, This ancient city and former royal capital of Laos has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this honor, not that many tourists visit Luang Prabang, compared to the other usual tourist haunts in South East Asia. Which in my opinion is a good thing if you want to escape the tourist hordes.

Laos is the only land locked country in South East Asia. It shares it borders with 5 other countries; China and Myanmar to the north, Thailand on the west, Vietnam on the east and Cambodia on the south. The terrain is mainly mountainous and heavily forested. The Mekong River flows through a large part of Laos and the country depends on it for a large part of it’s economy. Luang Prabang was one of the ancient capitals of 3 kingdoms that formed historical Laos, but the modern capital of Laos today is Vientiane.

Getting There

This is assuming that you are living in Singapore, so that Luang Prabang is reasonably close enough for a long weekend stay with a flight time of roughly 3 hours from Singapore. Scoot (ex-SilkAir) flies direct to Luang Prabang 3 times a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight is a loop service from Singapore – Luang Prabang – Vientiane – Singapore. If this schedule doesn’t suit you, you could try connecting flights from Bangkok or Hanoi, but the stop overs can be a real time waster if you only have a long weekend to kill.

LP top view
Lying on the intersection between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang is really compact. The peninsular which it sits on is roughly 1.5 km by 350m wide. Cramped into this small space are a holy mountain, numerous temples, French colonial villas, and the former palace of the king.

Day 1

Due to Scoot’s odd flight schedule, you could spend 3 days (Saturday to Monday, which is a typical long weekend), or 5 days (Thursday to Monday) depending on how much time you want to spend in Luang Prabang.

The Scoot flight lands in Luang Prabang just after 11.00 am and the airport is only 15-20 minutes by car/bus/tuk tuk to the city. Great timing! Since you would be just in time to check into your hotel and get some lunch.

A typical scene in Luang Prabang where you can see monks walking on the streets.
The main street in Luang Prabang with rows of 19th century shophouses. Because of it’s UNESCO status, the shophouses are not allowed to be developed above 2 floors and must conserve the traditional look. There isn’t a single traffic light in town, and despite the frequent traffic congestion, nobody sounds their horn, unlike many of the other Asian cities.
As a former French colony, there are many French styled villas and buildings throughout Luang Prabang. Many of these are conservation buildings and have been converted into guest houses or restaurants. I found this villa which is used by the French Institute. It combines Laotian and French architecture in it’s design, giving a very unique mixed look.

Money Matters

Your first order of business is to get some local currency, and in Laos the local money is called Kips. Foreign currency like US dollars and Thai Baht are also widely accepted in the shops but at less favorable exchange rates. So it’s best to get some local currency for sundry expenses as many of the small shops and restaurants don’t accept credit cards. You won’t be able to buy Kips at money changers in Singapore, and Kips are also useless outside of Laos.

US dollars are the preferred currency for exchange and they command the best exchange rates. Other currencies don’t get that good a rate. You can shop around at the various money changers in town if you really want a good rate.
Money Changer 1
I came across this money changer near the post office which is quite popular among both tourists and locals. You can also buy Kips from the money changers in the airport immediately after you exit from the arrival hall. I found their rates were almost similar to those in town.

There are also ATM’s around town where you can withdraw Kips using your ATM card. Do take note of the exchange rates and transaction fees though.

Royal Palace

With half a day ahead, you can check out the Royal Palace first. This was the former palace of the Laotian king. The palace is located in the middle of Luang Prabang and surrounded by a large garden. The palace grounds are free to enter, but you have to buy a ticket to enter the palace museum.

Palace 2
Probably the first Laotian temple you will encounter is inside the grounds of the Royal Palace. I find that Laotian temples are not as grandiose like the ones in Thailand or Myanmar, but they exude their own understated and authentic charm.
Palace 1
The Royal Palace is now a museum filled with artifacts from the former royal family. The throne room and the royal quarters are preserved as it was. No cameras and bags are allowed inside and you have to deposit your stuff in lockers before entering the palace. It costs 30,000 Kips for a ticket to enter the museum.

There are no explanations inside the museum of what happened to the royal family. And I would have to ask Google for a history lesson to learn of their tragic past. Your visit to the Royal Palace could take you 30 minutes to more than an hour depending on whether you prefer to just browse the palace grounds only, or decide to enter the museum.

Bamboo Bridge

“Let’s build bridges, not walls” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Probably one of the more iconic sights is the temporary bamboo bridge that crosses the Nam Khan River. There are 2 bamboo bridges, but the more well known and accessible one is located near to the southern bend of the river. These bridges are only standing during the dry season when the water level of the river is low. In the raining season (roughly April to October), the rising river washes away the bridges, and they have to be rebuilt again in the following dry season. So depending on when you visit Luang Prabang, these bamboo bridges may not be available.

Bamboo Bridge 1
A monk crossing the bamboo bridge on his way to the temple.
Bamboo Bridge 3
The bamboo bridge crosses to the other side of town. There is a toll of 5,000 Kips that is collected for each direction, so if you cross and come back you have to pay 10,000 Kips. This toll is used to rebuild the bridge each year during the dry season.
Listen to that creaking as I crossed the bamboo bridge. The woven bamboo strips look flimsy but the bridge was really quite sturdy. Although I don’t think it could take the weight of a lot of people.
Bamboo Bridge 2
There are even LED lights at night to light up this bridge. You’ve got to give the villagers credit for rebuilding the bridge every year to such a presentable standard.
Dyen Sabai
There is a restaurant called Dyen Sabai at the top of the stairs after you cross the bamboo bridge. It seems highly rated on TripAdvisor and you can have a cocktail or snack there. For dinner, reservations are recommended as it gets crowded.
Bamboo Bridge 4
The second bamboo bridge is located at the tip of the peninsular. This is much longer, and looks and feels more rickety. The toll is 10,000 Kips and you have to keep the ticket when you come back, otherwise you get charged again.

In case you are wondering, it’s safe to cross these bamboo bridges. I found them to be sturdy although they were creaking under my feet. It can be scary though as I thought about falling into the muddy river which was flowing less than a couple of meters below me. And if you are also wondering, the villagers manning the toll booths usually don’t start work until 7.00-7.30am, so you can skip paying toll if you come early in the morning.

Visit the Temples

There are numerous temples in Luang Prabang. In fact, it seemed to me that for every few minutes of walking I would see a temple in front me. Most of these temples are free to enter the grounds, with a few requiring you to pay only if you intend to enter the main hall.

Most of the temples look the same. However, the bigger and more well known temples have unique architectural features which distinguish them from the others. Like Wat Wisnunarat which has this watermelon dome stupa in brilliant white.
The grounds of Wat Wisnunarat are free to enter. You will need to pay a fee if you want to enter the main prayer hall though.
One of the main features of Laotian temples are the 9 headed Nagas which are the guardians of the temple. You will find them adorning the stairs of many temples, guarding the way in.

If you only have time for one temple, then Wat Xieng Thong is the one that you should visit. This temple has one of the largest complexes and features multiple prayer halls which are better decorated than the other temples you find in town. It was also the only temple where I had to pay an entrance fee of 20,000 Kips to enter the grounds.

Wat Xieng Thong seems to be the grandest temple in Luang Prabang. You can see it in terms of it’s size and amount of gold gilding that adorns the buildings in the temple complex.
The gold glided entrance of the main prayer hall.
There is even a building which houses the Royal Carriage.

Cruise Along the Mekong

LP1
There are many boats that sail along the Mekong River, ranging from no frills to luxury cruises with dinner onboard. The more popular cruises are those that sail during sunset. I did think of taking the sunset dinner cruise but it wasn’t running on that day. So you have to check their schedules.

Night Market

Every evening, the main street closes off to vehicle traffic and transforms into the local night market. It stretches from the junction where the Tourist Information Center is until past the Royal Palace. If you are looking for local handicrafts and souvenirs to buy back for your folks at home, this would be the best place.

Night Market 1
Every evening the main street closes to traffic from here, as the Night Market starts operating. You can see the many stalls already been set up along the road sides in preparation.
A majority of the items for sale are local handicrafts. The variety may seem dizzying at first, but after walking past more stores, you realize that most of them are selling the same things.
The entire main road is closed to vehicles and stores are set up on the asphalt and pavements.
Night Market 4
You will also find local whiskey marinating cobras and scorpions. Drink it if you dare.
Night Market 6
Of course, there are plentiful Laotian clothes for sale. All prices are negotiable, so practice hard on your bargaining skills.
Night Market 5
There are several juice and smoothie shops, although I never did try them due to concerns on hygiene. But most tourists were drinking these up, so I guess it must be ok.

Luang Prabang doesn’t have much of a night life and most restaurants and bars close around 9-10 pm. The night market is the only night activity in town besides watching backpackers getting drunk in bars. By 9.30 pm most of the shops in the night market will be closing, as the main road gets cleared for the following morning’s Alms Giving ceremony.

Food Choices

There is a wide variety of food to whet your palate. Being a tourist town, you can find both local and western food being served at various restaurants with prices ranging from cheap to expensive.

Food Street

This is the local food street that serves Laotian style street food. You will find locals eating here, as well as, tourists who come here to try out the local food. It’s located right beside the Tourist Information Center, and near the start of the Night Market.

Food Street 1
The local food street where you can eat Loatian street food. It’s a small alley between 2 buildings.
Food Street 4
This looks like something similar to our vegetable rice stalls.
Food Street 3
Barbequed meats of all kinds.
Food Street 2
Fishes from the Mekong River being barbequed over a charcoal grill.

While I found the Food Street to be an interesting insight into local food culture, I wasn’t too keen to eat there as hygiene levels left a lot to be desired. Fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes which have higher hygiene standards to choose from.

Food 3
One of the more highly recommended restaurants is Khaipaen which serves fusion Laotian and western food. They also have a non-profit purpose of training young Laotians in the hospitality business so that they can find jobs or start their own businesses. You will find that most of their staff are trainees.
Food 2
One of the cheapest eats that I found was this noodle shop near Wat Xieng Thong. For 14,000 Kips you get a big bowl of pork noodles with an egg, and a generous helping of bean sprouts and fried shallots.
Food 4
Of course, you can’t miss out on the local beer, which is aptly named Beerlao.
Food 1
And if you want to live it up, USD 7 buys you 1-for-1 cocktails during happy hours at Soiftel’s 3 Nagas MGallery hotel. It’s a great way to cool down during the hot afternoons while people watching from the verandah tables.

Day 2

Alms Giving Ceremony

Start the day early by going to the Alms Giving ceremony which is held every morning in front of the main street near Wat Sensoukharam. Monks from the complex of temples will walk along the street collecting offerings from people. This happens just before dawn, so if you are a late riser, then this activity might not be your thing.

Chairs are set up way before dawn for the people who would come to give alms to the monks.
The daily Alms Giving ceremony or “Tak Bat” as it’s known locally is where the villagers of Luang Prabang will offer monks their daily meals. This is a Buddhist tradition where the common people gain karma by feeding the monks, and in turn receive merit towards their future lives.
Mass tourism rears it’s ugly head, as in recent years, the Alms Giving ceremony has been hijacked to cater to tourists. Tourists have replaced the locals in giving alms, while an army of tourists and photographers try to get a good photo, at times rudely shoving cameras and smartphones into the faces of the monks.
After speaking to a local guide, he told me that if you really want to observe the “Tak Bat” in peace without rude tourists, then just go the back of the block from the main street. The monks will walk round the block and here you will find the local villagers waiting to give alms.

Kuang Si Waterfall

This is the must see attraction that everyone goes to when they come to Luang Prabang. I would recommend that you to go to Kuang Si Falls in the morning, as it would be less crowded and cooler making the trip more enjoyable. The waterfall is a good 1 hour’s drive from Luang Prabang. Luckily, you can book a tour from the local tour agencies that dot the main street of the city, or you can also bargain with the many tuk tuks and vans that tout rides to Kuang Si Falls.

Once you arrive at Kuang Si Falls, it’s a short 20-30 minutes walk to the waterfall from the carpark. It’s 20,000 Kips for a ticket to enter Kuang Si Falls. Along the way you will pass by a Wildlife Sanctuary where you can see some Asian black bears, red pandas and other endangered animals which were rescued from bile farms and the illegal animal trade.

If you don’t know what the fuss is about Kuang Si Falls. It’s a beautiful waterfall with terrace like pools at the bottom where visitors can swim or soak in. You can’t swim at the main falls, but the pools downstream are open to the public.

While most of the tourists will just hang out at Kuang Si Falls. There is another smaller waterfall that is less well known but definitely more intimate where you can enjoy your time in solitude.

This is Keo Waterfall which is further downstream from Kuang Si Falls. It seems to sit on private property but is accessible to the public with an entry fee of 20,000 Kips. They have a restaurant nearby where you can order food and eat beside the waterfall.
You will also find here the natural terraces where you can swim in, but with no crowds.
Enjoying your picnic in peace, in front of a roaring waterfall.

The tour to Kuang Si Falls or Keo Waterfall should take you 3-4 hours, and you should be back in Luang Prabang by early to mid afternoon. Once back in town, it’s time to look at some of the other sights.

UXO

What’s that you may ask? UXO is an acronym for Unexploded Ordnance, and this is one of the sad chapters of Laos’ history. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam. During the Vietnam, War, in order to stop supplies to Communist Vietnam from Laos, the Americans conducted 580,000 air missions and dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos. Many of these bombs failed to detonate and until today there are 80 million unexploded bombs littering the Laotian countryside, injuring and killing villagers who unknowingly come into contact with them.

Used casings of cluster bombs being displayed at the UXO office. I also found these bomb casings being used in some of the local houses as decoration.
Inside the UXO office you will see archival films and articles, and lots of old bombs and weapons from the French colonial war to the Vietnam war. I found that this was a good history lesson, as well as, a reminder that the effects of war are felt long after they are over.

Big Brother Mouse

Laos is also one of the most under developed countries in South East Asia. It’s very obvious that the people here need a lot of outside help to develop. As a result, there are a lot of NGO’s operating in Laos. So here is something that you might not find in the usual tourist haunts. How about volunteering your time to help out the locals? Volunteer tourism seems to be catching on nowadays, and it’s very prevalent in Laos with the presence of many NGO’s helping to set up such initiatives. One of the better organized local NGO’s is Big Brother Mouse which helps to raise the literacy level of Laotian children and young adults. Their website has more information on what they do.

Books for Laotian children to help them read. You can purchase these books to give to Laotian children while the money helps fund the NGO.
One of the sharing sessions where tourists can spend a couple of hours conversing and helping the Laotian kids to learn English.

Dara Market

This is a small market that sells mainly textiles. I found it rather miserable with many vacant shops inside. There are a couple of jewelry shops inside along with various clothing stalls, the only supermarket in town and some handphone shops.

Dara Market was a disappointment to me.
The only reason I would consider coming here is to buy supplies from the supermarket.
There are also a handful of mobile phone shops if you need their services.

Mount Phousi

The most prominent natural feature in Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi. This is a small hill that is considered holy by the locals. At 100m high, it’s a short climb to the top where there is a temple and viewing platforms. There is an entrance fee of 20,000 Kips which you pay when you are halfway near the top. That’s a smart way to make visitors pay, since you would have spent so much effort climbing up and to turn back just because you didn’t want to pay would be a waste.

Mt. Phousi with it’s pagoda on top can be seen from almost every where in the city, since it’s the only high ground around.
There are 3 different routes to climb up Mt. Phousi. The shortest and steepest route is from the north which is directly in front of the Royal Palace. The southern and eastern routes are longer but less steep. and pass through a small shrine along the way.
From the top you can see the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, with the city of Luang Prabang laid out before you.
Many locals also come up to the temple on Mt. Phousi to pray.
Sunset is the most popular time for visiting Mt. Phousi. In fact, it gets very crowded during the evenings as every tourist and local crams into the small space at the summit to catch a glimpse of the setting Sun.
If you hate crowds, then watching sunrise from Mt. Phousi is a much nicer alternative. There were only around 10 or more other people with me for sunrise. I’m not sure what time the ticket booths open, but I was there before 5.00am and didn’t need to pay the entrance fee.

Spa and Massage

After all that climbing up and down Mt. Phousi, it’s time to relax those aching leg muscles. There are many spas and massage shops to choose from. Prices range from the ridiculously expensive spa treatments at the luxury hotels to cheap rubs at a small shop. Do take note that most of the shops along the main street don’t have air conditioning, and the only ventilation is a fan. I visited the Frangipani Spa which is located on the same street as Big Brother Mouse and it does have air conditioned rooms on the ground floor for foot massages.

Day 3

The flight from Luang Prabang back to Singapore is at 12.00 pm. Which allows for some time to do some early morning sight seeing and shopping.

Morning Market

If there’s a night market, then there must be a morning market. While the night market caters mainly to the tourist crowds, the morning market is an all locals affair.

The morning market takes place in the small alleys near the Royal Palace. This particular alley is directly opposite the library building.
As the name suggest, the morning market operates in the morning. Farmers from outside Luang Prabang come here to sell their produce and wares. By midday, most of the stalls are closed after selling off their goods.
She’s selling this goose amongst other stuff.
Fish from the rivers, including the Mekong catfish, tilapia and carp.
I did find some exotic stuff like crickets, pupa and these grilled field rats. You won’t find these in the local restaurants though.
The local butchery section.
The market even spills into the entrance of a nearby temple.

After browsing the morning market which shouldn’t take you more than an hour, there’s still time for last minute shopping at the local boutiques and shops before heading to the airport. The shops here open quite early with some of them already opened by 8.00am. But if you are a serious shopper, you would have gotten your treasures over the past couple of days already.

The trip from your hotel back to the airport shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes, giving plenty of time to make it for the 12.00pm flight.

Getting Around

Luang Prabang is pretty small and I got around by walking. It shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to walk the whole length of town. But the afternoon heat can be brutal, and most of the time, the streets are empty of people as everyone is hiding indoors from the heat. Tuk tuks are available if you don’t want to walk, but be prepare to bargain on the price.

Tuk tuks can be found almost everywhere in town. You have to bargain on the price, and usually the driver will wait for a full load of passengers before moving.

Where to Stay

Being a major tourist attraction, lodgings are plentiful and range from backpacker hostels to international chain hotels. I found that the guesthouses provided good value for money, with some boutique offerings.

Hotels with swimming pools are available if you are a person who can’t do without room service and afternoon swims. Hotels in this class ranging from luxury to mid range are available. However, the big resorts are all located outside of the old town and you have to take transport if you want to go out.
I stayed a night at this heritage building hotel. It was just in front of the bamboo bridge and right beside Mt. Phousi. There are quite a number of such mid budget hotels in the old town.
I even tried a boutique guesthouse which was charming and cozy. Such guesthouses are numerous, with some of them facing the Mekong River like this one. With their small number of rooms and personal service, it feels more like a homestay.

You don’t have to visit the attractions in the order that I’ve listed. In fact, you can mix and match the itinerary. You could drop some of them and spend more time on those that interest you. Luang Prabang hasn’t been entirely discovered by mainstream tourism yet, so life here moves in the slow lane, and you shouldn’t try to rush through your visit. That’s why many visitors who come here don’t want to leave. It’s the laid back village life coupled with the friendly Laotians who make this place special.

Pak Ou Caves

If you have time, there is another attraction outside of Luang Prabang called the Pak Ou Caves. I won’t say much about them here since I’m going to blog about them in another post. It’s just a couple of large caves in limestone cliffs upriver, and you can book a tour with any of the agencies in town or approach some of the slow boat operators on the banks of the Mekong River. The Pak Ou Caves contain thousands of Buddha statues and are considered a sacred place by the locals. You get to the caves by boat and sometimes the tour also includes visits to other villages selling handicrafts. The trip typically takes half a day.

Below is a Google Map of Luang Prabang. Take time to explore it to find the places that I mentioned above.

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10 thoughts on “Luang Prabang in 3 Days

  1. What an interesting post, Edwin! I looked at it thru the eyes if someone who almost went there… what if… my photo memories could have been like yours. An old friend of mine lived there for many years, probably close to a decade, but I never found the right moment to visit though the intention was there. It seemed too difficult to get there and as the years go by, I’m attracted less and less to adventure, more and more to convinience! I also found it refreshing that in your blog post you mentioned you didn’t try smoothies and street food due to hygiene: Yes! 🤗 I’m not the only one! 😁 Reading travel blog posts, you usually get the idea that everyone tastes anything they come across without hesitation and gets away with it fine. I’m cautious about bad hygiene and would have skipped these too, delicious as they look.

    1. After a couple of bad lessons, I’ve learnt not to put anything in my mouth just because it looks nice or interesting, LOL! I guess living in Asia and being exposed to the different development levels in each country helps to guide me as to how safe it is to eat from the streets.

  2. This brings back really good memories from my trip to Luang Prabang back in 2012. It was scorching hot and the humidity level couldn’t be higher when I went. But I remember feeling so relaxed thanks to its calm ambiance — the good food certainly helped.

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