Photo: Don't go past the laap in Luang Prabang.

An overview of Luang Prabang's food scene

A primer in a page

An overview of Luang Prabang's food scene

Think the most common word in Lao is “sabaidee”? Think again. We’d argue that the Lao say the words “kin khao” more than they say hello -- in fact, "have you eaten yet?" is used interchangeably with "how are you?" Kin khao literally translates as “eat rice”, or in other words, “let’s eat” and it’s at the top of everyone’s minds, all the time. Feasting with friends and family is a favourite national pastime, and with good reason. As visitors to Luang Prabang soon discover, the town has a staggering amount of delicious chow. Read on for some of the highlights.

Lao
National dishes such as laap (mince meat salad) are a must try, as well as tam mak hoong (spicy green papaya salad), nam khao (crispy rice salad), fresh or fried spring rolls, beef/buffalo jerky and fish prepared many ways: grilled, in a spicy or sour soup, fried whole and steamed in banana leaf with herbs. Sticky rice is eaten with almost every meal. To eat, take a small ball of sticky rice with your fingers and use it to pick up morsels of meat, vegetable or spicy dip.

A typical Lao family-style feast.

A typical Lao family-style feast. Photo: Cindy Fan

However, Lao cuisine is extremely regional so keep your eye out for local Luang Prabang specialties like sai oua, also known as Luang Prabang sausage, made from fatty pork, chilli, garlic and lots of herbs. You’ll often see strings of them drying on racks around town. Orlam is a spicy, peppery meat curry made from ingredients you would find in the wilderness: cloud ear mushrooms, bitter greens, pea eggplant and pepperwood. Water buffalo is usually used, with pork as a substitute. Be warned: This isn’t anything like a Thai coconut milk curry and it has very strong flavours.

Luang Prabang salad is an East-meets-West fusion dish born from French colonial days. This leafy creation has a creamy dressing, cucumber and hard boiled eggs, as well as local touches like watercress, peanuts, mint and crispy fried shallots. A bowl of the town’s famous khao soi noodle soup (see description further down) is a must. Go to a bar and you might be lucky to be served addictive snacks like peanuts fried with lemongrass and garlic, or crunchy mushrooms deep-fried in soy with kaffir limes leaves. Kaipen is a popular appetiser: It's river weed harvested from the Mekong is seasoned and dried. To serve, it’s flash fried and accompanied with jeow bong, a smokey chilli dip with small pieces of buffalo skin.

Don't miss one of Laos' national dishes, <i>tam mak hoong</i>, or spicy green papaya salad.

Don't miss one of Laos' national dishes, tam mak hoong, or spicy green papaya salad. Photo: Cindy Fan

Named after this riverweed, Khaiphaen is NGO Friends International’s training restaurant and vocational school. Their 18-month programme provides at-risk and marginalised youth with kitchen, service and language training, safe accommodation, support and work placement. Don’t worry if you’ve already been to their restaurant Makphet in Vientiane as Khaiphaen’s menu instead highlights regional ingredients and dishes like orlam (46,000 kip) and Luang Prabang sausages (40,000 kip). Food is best eaten family style, ordering different dishes to share, and most are 52,000 kip or under. The frozen cocktails, like the pineapple and chilli margarita (34,000 kip), are winners.

Delicious food and a good cause at Khaiphaen.

Delicious food and a good cause at Khaiphaen. Photo: Cindy Fan

If you’re looking for a gentle introduction to the food and flavours of Laos, Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School is the answer. Their forte is tasting platters of Lao specialties and the staff will show you the traditional way to eat them. Try the meuyang, a do-it-yourself wrap bursting with herbs and fresh veggies, and the bun pa fish feast, which must be ordered a day in advance. Wash it down with Tamarind’s custom juice blends featuring local ingredients like hibiscus flower. If you’re brave and you want to try something more exotic, order their Adventurous Lao Gourmet menu featuring very local food that is not for the faint of heart or stomach. The restaurant is Westernised in its service, setting and atmosphere and their extreme popularity means it is always full in high season; reservations are essential for dinner and even for lunch. Perhaps a victim of their own success, expect a noisy and crowded experience, especially if they are hosting tour groups. For such a popular restaurant and cooking class, the prices here have remained extremely reasonable.

We love Bamboo Tree’s cooking class and the food is just as good. Delicious and affordable, you can’t go wrong with any of their laap, curries, stews and salads made with seasonal, fresh ingredients. Not just known as Tamarind’s neighbour anymore, Bamboo Tree is worthy in its own right.

Learn how to make this at Bamboo Tree.

Learn how to make this at Bamboo Tree. Photo: Cindy Fan

Cafe Toui is a tiny favourite on a side road that heads down from the main street to the Mekong. The Lao food here is some of the best to be had in town. Coconut milk curries (try the fish) and meat steamed in banana leaves feature on the menu, as do yummy vegetarian plates and appetisers such as spring rolls. It’s all delicious and charming, not dirty and basic like some other budget options in town. The prices here hover around 40,000 kip for a main dish and higher for meat like buffalo steak or duck. Yet the quality is what you are paying for and it’s local food without the fat and gristly bits. It’s a one-man show in the kitchen and only a few tables in the small space, so patience is required.

A tourist haunt for more than a decade and with a good location on the main street, Tamnak Lao is practically an institution. Serving a full range of Lao dishes -- plus the obligatory pasta and burgers -- they are popular with tour groups and can get very busy at meal times, so try to make a reservation. Recommended are the pork-stuffed bamboo shoots, steamed fish with lime and lemongrass and eggplant dip served with a fresh baguette, best enjoyed from tables on the upstairs balcony.

Try something different in Luang Prabang.

Try something different in Luang Prabang. Photo: Cindy Fan

A long-running backpacker favourite, the price of the tourist night market Vegetarian Buffet has remained stable and the quality is as iffy as ever. But budget diehards will swear by it as you can fill up a whole plate of vegetarian food for an incomparable 10,000 kip. The food is oily, has liberal amounts of MSG and the flavours are very basic with fried veggies, noodles, pumpkin curry, potatoes, salads and rice. Add fresh spring rolls for 1,000 kip each. The narrow alley teems with people and you’ll have to juggle filling up your plate, grabbing a cold drink from the ice bucket, squeezing into a wobbly bench and paying. Don’t forget the barbecue: whole grilled fish, chicken wings and legs, pork chops, all for around 20,000 kip each.

We wish we could give our stamp of approval but having seen, time and time again, travellers in Luang Prabang in general going down with epic stomach bugs, this is risky and riskiest during hot season, when unrefrigerated food spoils very quickly. Eat at your own discretion. The noodle soups are a safer option and we wholeheartedly approve of the Lao coconut cakes. There is a good local barbecue stand that appears in the early evening in the morning market, which intersects with the back end of this tourist alley.

You'll find this khao soi at the shop on the main road across from Wat Senesoukharam.

You'll find this khao soi at the shop on the main road across from Wat Senesoukharam. Photo: Cindy Fan

Noodle soup is a common breakfast or lunch choice and the number of locals wolfing down bowls is the way to gauge how good the shop is. Shops will specialise in only one or two kinds and close when it runs out, sometimes as early as 11:00. Try khao soi noodles, the specialty of Luang Prabang that is very different from the Chiang Mai version. Luang Prabang khao soi is flat, wide rice noodles topped with a mix of mince pork, fermented soy beans, tomato and chillies. Try the shop on the main road across from Wat Senesoukharam. Get there before 10:00 to avoid disappointment. You’ll also readily find the Lao version of pho, made with pork.

Xiengthong Noodle, on the main street almost at the end of the peninsula across from Wat Khili, specialises in khao piak, a fresh, chewy rice noodle with pork, fried garlic and greens. It’s simple, delicious and cheap — only 10,000 kip — and the cleanest noodle soup shop you’ll see in Laos. They are open until mid-afternoon.

Delicious khao phiak at Xiengthong Noodle.

Delicious khao phiak at Xiengthong Noodle. Photo: Cindy Fan

Lao barbecue, sindad, is a must try, especially on chilly evenings. The experience is best described as a fusion between Chinese hotpot and Korean barbecue, where you grill thin slices of meat in the centre of the pan and cook noodles, green vegetables, mushrooms and eggs in the surrounding broth. It’s a filling cheap meal and fun experience when shared with a few people, costing no more than 60,000 kip per person. The restaurants are hard to miss, especially the all-you-can-eat beast on the Mekong riverside. The sindad scene changes frequently, so ask a few locals for a recommendation when you’re in town.

Cafes and breakfast
One of the restaurants near the tip of the peninsula is fabulous French bakery Le Banneton, a charming place to linger over a cup of coffee and croissant on the main street and watch the world awaken. A full range of insanely good baguettes and pastries is on offer here as well as cooked breakfasts, fancy salads and treats such as house-made ice cream. During high tourist season, you’re lucky if you can snag a table but it’s definitely worth trying, or take it to go for a picnic. They also sell dried cured meats, wine and imported beer.

Not Paris, but may as well be at Le Banneton.

Not Paris, but may as well be at Le Banneton. Photo: Cindy Fan

Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, on the main street across from the primary school, is another popular breakfast and lunch spot. The menu is a crowd pleaser. There’s a variety of breakfast options and later in the day, both decent Asian and French/Western fare starting at a reasonable 45,000 kip. We always have difficulty choosing between the two worlds. Will it be the tasty pad Thai and Lao noodle soup? Or one of their hearty salads and cheesy croque monsieur? Whatever you decide, air-con, plugs and WiFi can be found in their newly done-up upstairs. This is one of the few restaurants in Luang Prabang to have air-con, becoming a heavenly respite in the hot season.

Visitors will either love the modern American-style Joma Bakery Cafe or scorn it. If you like coffee, variety, air-con and WiFi, then you’ll love Joma. The coffee is good, using their own beans grown in southern Laos, and decaf is available. The pastries are just passable, paling in comparison to the French joints. Praiseworthy are the salads, sandwiches, breads, cakes and artery clogging bagel-egger, with most items hovering between 24,000 and 50,000 kip. It’s quite surprising that in pokey Luang Prabang, you can sink your teeth into fresh bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, as well as any sandwich made to order. Joma is the closest thing to “fast food” that the town has but while food is commendably fresh the service can be slow; in high season tour groups get deposited here at lunch and food can actually take longer than a proper restaurant. The flagship location beside the post office/main intersection has become an unofficial hub, with tuk tuks from the bus station, tour companies, hotel shuttles dropping passengers off in front. So for the newly arrived or about to depart, Joma is not a bad spot to chill out, fill the belly as you get your bearings, use the WiFi or get take away meal for a bus ride. A helpful tip for rainy season travellers: Joma sells heavy duty rain ponchos, a worthy investment. There’s a second less busy location on the Nam Khan river, just past Saynamkhan Riverview Hotel.

Breakfast burrito at Joma.

Breakfast burrito at Joma. Photo: Cindy Fan

Cafe de Laos, in the lobby of the Chang Inn on the main street beside Wat Senesoukharam, is for coffee lovers or those just looking for some shade in between temple-hopping. The cafe has siphon-brewed coffee, bringing a cup of java to almost scientific levels. Their coffee, served in twee antique cups, is a bit pricey. They do have free WiFi and the front porch swing is irresistibly inviting.

In 2015 Big Tree Cafe moved from its Mekong terrace location and namesake big tree. Luckily, it’s just a block down the river road and the now-indoor cafe remains just as pleasant. There is Lao and Western food, however, the Korean-style dishes are the ticket. Come with an appetite because the Korean sets are delivered with all those little plates of condiments.

It will be love at first sip at Saffron Espresso Cafe, who grow and roast their own Arabica coffee beans grown in the highlands of northern Laos. An espresso will only set you back 10,000 kip and the food at this Mekong-side cafe is easy on the wallet too, with sandwiches starting at 30,000 kip. If you can’t get enough of their coffee, bring home a bag of their beans.

Streetside eating is one way to soak up the vibe of Luang Prabang.

Streetside eating is one way to soak up the vibe of Luang Prabang. Photo: Cindy Fan

Coffee dominates Luang Prabang but tea-philes can find a haven at L’etranger Books and Tea. Snuggled behind Phousi Mountain at the Ban Aphai T-junction, it’s a pleasant nook to chill out away from the main strip. Shop for used books, browse art displays or just sit and chat over a cup of tea, with more than 20 varieties available. Every night at 19:00 the tea room does double duty as a cinema; check their Facebook page for week’s lineup. Their eco-friendly initiatives like bamboo straws and water bottle refills are to be applauded.

Hidden (and we do mean hidden) down a narrow alleyway leading off of the main street towards Wat Choumkhong, locally owned Luang Prabang Artisans Cafe offers juices and snacks made from in-season ingredients. In the summer that means fresh mango, passion fruit or pineapple smoothies. It’s a charming respite worth seeking out. Take the alley next to Coconut Garden Restaurant in the direction of the Mekong.

All cafes offer free WiFi — that is, if it’s working.

Fine dining
In a colonial-chic building with bamboo shades, a wraparound terrace and hardwood tables, L’Elephant is a longstanding high-end favourite. This French bistro serves both Western and Lao cuisine, with comforting French fare like French onion soup, chipolata, coq au vin and slow-roasted lamb shank gracing the menu. Equally popular are the Lao dishes — try a variety with the degustation menu. The ambience is casual, the service is well trained, the menu has remained unchanged over the years, food comes quickly and there’s an extensive wine list — or rather, wine book. It’s an expensive restaurant by Lao standards but there’s always a daily special, a three-course set for no more than 100,000 kip. A reliable choice.

One of the best East-meets-West places in town, Blue Lagoon has top-notch cuisine in a romantic garden setting. The Lao chef was trained in Switzerland and not surprising, the menu highlights both Lao and European delights all artfully prepared and presented. Standouts include the fondue Chinoise, cheese fondue, schnitzel and heart-attack inducing Aelplermagaronen, a pasta bake of penne, cream, bacon, potato and Emmental cheese — ideal for Luang Prabang’s frigid nights in December and January, though not so much for waistlines. Staff are chatty and known for pampering their guests and once the wine starts flowing, the evening hours fly by. This level of service and beautiful hidden garden atmosphere comes at a price, with main dishes ranging from 50,000 to 140,000 kip. It’s also one of the few restaurants in town with air-con indoor seating. Blue Lagoon is a worthwhile splurge if you have the funds (they do take credit cards). Find it tucked at the end of a local lane just east of the Royal Palace Museum.

The beautiful outlook at Manda de Laos.

The beautiful outlook at Manda de Laos. Photo: Cindy Fan

With a gorgeous setup overlooking a natural lotus pond, Manda de Laos pairs an atmospheric location with traditional Lao cuisine. Here you can try beautifully plated family dishes like nam khao crispy rice salad, or khao poon, a coconut milk curry noodle soup. Sunset is when this spot on the pond really shines, so head here for a cocktail and pre-dinner appetiser. Find it at Maison Dalabua Hotel, a short cycle from the town centre.

Many of the fine dining experiences in Luang Prabang are attached to upscale hotels.

Long-lived 3 Nagas, now a MGallery branded Accor Hotel, presents a menu of refined Lao food (without the offal) in a heritage setting. In a prime main street location, the restaurant’s prices are more typical of New York than Luang Prabang and the presentation and quality are first-rate. The restaurant is split between the hotel’s two buildings across the road from one another. One side is set in a casual garden with candlelit tables while the other is in an old heritage building; the menu is the same. On our most recent visit we noticed that drink prices were excessive, with a simple bottle of local water costing in excess of US$4 after a 21% tax was added. An alternative would be to splurge at Governor’s Grill at Accor’s Sofitel Luang Prabang, formerly Hotel de la Paix. The colonial-era building, once the town prison, has a revamped dining area in the form of a lux colonial tent. The beef tasting plate, which includes buffalo laap, is delicious. They also do weekly cuisine themes and good value barbecue nights. This place is ideal for those looking for a quieter hotel dining experience away from town.

Expect to be impressed by genial service and tasty Lao and Thai dishes at Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel, the former residence of a Lao Prince. Located in a heritage home surrounded by spacious grounds, their restaurant overlooks the pool and serene tropical garden. In high season, they have a weekly special dinner with a Lao degustation menu accompanied by a performance of traditional music and dance. It's conveniently located just two blocks from the night market.

Stylish Tangor.

Stylish Tangor. Photo: Cindy Fan

International
Tangor has had a well-deserved meteoric rise in popularity since opening November 2012 and it remains our top pick. With an unbeatable location in the heart of the main street, the restaurant’s front terrace is our favourite place for a drink and some serious people watching. Tangor serves a small but perfected menu of Asian dishes, often with a French twist, and a range of cocktails, wines and imported beers. The prices are very reasonable considering the ingredients, top service and intimate, refined setting. Mains start at 55,000 kip. Highly recommended are the signature fish ceviche and the Penang curry with grilled pork skewers. Join for after-dinner tipple and soak in the Indochine-chic decor, with old maps and vintage posters of women in cheongsam dresses hanging on rich red walls.

Just across the street from Tangor is Coconut Garden: you can’t miss the towering coconut tree in the centre of their front garden terrace. It’s worth mentioning because the food will please the masses. Similar to the same-owned Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, Coconut Garden has a whole range of decent Lao, Asian and international dishes and is therefore ideal for groups and families who need to appeal to differing tastes. The food won’t blow you away, but the prices are good for budget-conscious travellers and the food comes quickly. And while Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene is boring in the evening, this is when Coconut Garden comes to life.

Thumbs up for the country salad at Ban Vat Sene.

Thumbs up for the country salad at Ban Vat Sene. Photo: Cindy Fan

There is pizza and it is a secret — or it was a secret until a certain guidebook let the cat out of the bag to the mob. Started as an informal feast in an Italian expat’s backyard garden that morphed into a weekly expat hangout hideaway, Secret Pizza and its sensational thin-crust wood-fired oven pizza is now open to the public. The pizza is better than what we’ve had in Italy: it’s cheesy, with optional gourmet toppings and cooked to perfection, well worth the 60,000 to 100,000 kip a pie price tag and the journey to the outskirts of town. Lasagne, beer and red or white wine is on offer. It’s a simple, memorable affair, with a lovely relaxed atmosphere. To find it, head south on Phou Vao Road to the end, turn right onto Route 13. After a couple hundred metres, the road splits — veer left onto Route 13. Again after a couple hundred metres, look for a narrow dirt road on your right, just before Hmong Her Motel. Take the dirt road to the very end. Note: this road is bumpy/muddy and dark at night. If you go by tuk tuk, it’s best to arrange a time for the same driver to pick you up for the return journey. Opens Tuesday and Friday only at 18:00, get there early to avoid disappointment — they do sell out and you’ll need to be quick to get a serving of their heavenly profiteroles. Check their Facebook page for any holiday closures.

Fabulous pasta at La Rosa.

Fabulous pasta at La Rosa. Photo: Cindy Fan

Since Secret Pizza appeared, a bumper crop of other Italian restaurants, all noteworthy, have opened.

Pizza Phan Luang serves only wood-fired oven pizza, red wine and beer. If that’s all you need, then venture to the other side of the Nam Khan in Ban Phan Luang, easily accessible when the temporary bamboo bridge is up during dry season — cross, pass Dyen Sabai and go straight, it’s a block along on your lefthand side. When the bridge is gone in rainy season, you’ll have to bike the long way round via the old motorbike bridge. The pizza, starting at 45,000 kip, is good, as is the service and quaint, candlelit backyard ambience. Open for dinner only.

Coconut cakes work well for a snack any time of day.

Coconut cakes work well for a snack any time of day. Photo: Cindy Fan

Close to the backpacker centre and catering to the backpacker crowd, La Silapa has jumped on the wood-fired pizza bandwagon and lucky for all, it is tasty too. All sorts of toppings are available, from your basic marinara (48,000 kip) to meaty bacon and sausage (69,000 kip). Find it in Ban Aphai, near the neighbourhood laneway to Utopia.

La Rosa is Luang Prabang’s upscale Italian offering, and it does not disappoint. Diners have a white table cloth to go with that wood-fired oven pizza (starting at 45,000 kip), as well as fine house-made pastas, risotto, authentic antipasti and cheeses. There’s both indoor and terrace seating. Find it across the road from L’Elephant Restaurant and Monument books, just up from the Mekong.

Asian and Indian
On a quiet road across from Wat Choumkhong, Son Phao Restaurant & Traditional Show has a nightly 45-minute cultural show at 19:30 that’s popular with groups, though individuals can also reserve for 30,000 kip per person. The set menus are good value: the Lao selection includes laap, fish, soup and fried bamboo shoots, while the Japanese offerings hit the spot if you have a hankering for miso soup, salad, rice and breaded fried cutlet. A small is available for 60,000 kip or you can order a la carte. Drink prices are reasonable at 12,000 kip for beer or 24,000 kip for cocktails. Don’t expect sashimi and sushi in landlocked Luang Prabang, however, occasionally they do order in quality salmon as a special.

Opened in 2016, Japanese restaurant Hua Hua Yim is an absolute winner. It’s a simple, low-key place with scrumptious home-style Japanese dishes. The prices are a steal. Order fried chicken or pork with steamed rice, cucumber sticks with miso paste dip, onigiri (rice balls), miso soup and silky tofu. It’s a one-woman show — the owner takes your order, cooks and serves — and don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning the next day. Hua Hua Yim is in Ban Mano, on the road that wraps around to the front entrance of Sofitel Hotel and the UXO Visitor Centre.

If you like Japanese, make a beeline for Hua Hua Yim.

If you like Japanese, make a beeline for Hua Hua Yim. Photo: Cindy Fan

If you have a hankering for a Korean feast, head to Kimsatcat and prepare to be dazzled by the continuous flow of little dishes that accompany each meal (yes, they have kimchi). The restaurant itself is a bit stark — tile floor, wooden tables and chairs, fluorescent lighting — but who cares because it’s clean, the owner is friendly, you’ll get your fill and then some. Find Kimsatcat down the slope from the backpacker area Ban Aphai, just past the wooden motorbike bridge.

Some of the best cheapie stir-fry joints are a little out of the way and worth the short bike ride. Popular Atsalin can fuel backpackers with its fried noodles, rice and veggie dishes for as little as 15,000 kip. Find this shop at Manomai and Kitsalat Rd — head south on Kitsalat past Dara Market and turn left onto Manomai at the roundabout. It’s almost immediately on your lefthand side. Best to stick to dishes with local ingredients.

Alternatively, located just across from Dara Market is the aptly named Lao-Chinese-Vietnam Restaurant. The menu is filled with budget friendly items such as fried rice, spring rolls, soups and stir-fried tofu and veggie options. Come early as it is often closed by about 20:00.

Those desperate for Indian food, head to Nisha Indian Restaurant. The service is gruff, the building is grotty and general cleanliness leaves something to be desired, but they do have biriyanis, curries, chicken tikka, raita, lots of vegetarian options and good naan. A safer bet is to hit up their roti stand out front, which usually has a line of motorbikes waiting for a crispy, rich roti to go.

It's a one-man, one-wok show at Rosella Fusion, but worth the wait.

It's a one-man, one-wok show at Rosella Fusion, but worth the wait. Photo: Cindy Fan

Riverside
Our pick for the best cheap and cheerful restaurant is Rosella Fusion on the Nam Khan. It’s incredible value, with dishes starting at only 24,000 kip. Fruit shakes with coconut milk, curries, laap and vegetarian tom yum soup are a few of the standouts. Just don’t arrive already starving as it’s a one-man, one-wok show so dishes come out slowly — a testament to how each dish is prepared fresh.

You might be surprised to hear that there wasn’t a true Thai restaurant in Luang Prabang before The Terrace opened in 2013. Here you can get a curry fix: massaman, Penang, green and red are all offered. Another recommended dish is the fried fish with tamarind sauce and pan ped do-it-yourself wraps, where you elegantly stuff lettuce leaves with grilled duck, noodles, diced vegetables, herbs and sauce, then not-so-elegantly shove it in your mouth. The menu is a bit of a splurge, with appetisers and curries hovering at 56,000 to 64,000 kip and grilled meats at 104,000 kip.

Cross the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river for a meal on the chilled-out terrace at Dyen Sabai. The menu is mostly light Lao fare, and the eggplant dip and dried sesame pork are the perfect tapas-style partner for a big bottle of Beerlao. Vegetarian options are available or, if you like meat, do their popular sindad. Happy hour from 12:00 to 19:00 means two cocktails for the price of one. Without the bamboo bridge, the restaurant offers a quick shuttle boat across, a quirky way to journey to dinner.

For a Mekong moment, head to The Belle Rive Hotel’s riverfront terrace. The spacious wooden deck juts out over the water allowing for expansive views, while lofty palms provide shade. It’s a lovely place to catch a breeze, have a sundowner and watch slow boats putter by. Or try any one of the local bars with decks along this stretch. You can order Beerlao, Beerlao or …Beerlao.

Sweeping views at the Belle Rive Hotel’s riverfront terrace.

Sweeping views at the Belle Rive Hotel’s riverfront terrace. Photo: Cindy Fan

Bars & nightlife
Luang Prabang has no lack of watering holes boasting plenty of character. All bars and restaurants must close at 22:30 so the nightlife doesn’t impede on local life, but the curfew doesn’t put a damper on the spirits. It just means getting the party started earlier.

“You’re headed to Luang Prabang? Go to Utopia.” And that’s how the chatter goes with backpackers in Laos. Garden bar, restaurant and backpacker stronghold Utopia has unbeatable views and a chilled out vibe. Open all day, it goes from mellow to happening after 17:00 when the drink specials start up. When you tire of the view, there’s lots of other diversions like a massive volleyball court, darts, foosball table and the hugest Jenga game we’ve seen. The food can be hit or miss but this place is about the party every night. Utopia is tricky to find. Look for the path opposite Aussie Sports Bar and follow the signs, or follow the hordes of backpackers streaming towards it.

The 525 terrace is a swish spot to chill.

The 525 terrace is a swish spot to chill. Photo: Cindy Fan

525 Luang Prabang is a swish new addition to the town’s bar scene. Occupying a corner in a local neighbour just outside the centre, the outdoor garden with its fire pits are a treat in the cold months but the air-con interior is the place to be the rest of the year with its inviting, sophisticated decor. Settle into the banquet seating, at one of the high tables or at the luxe bar to admire the glowing selection of bottles or chat with the friendly proprietor. Whether you choose a classic or fancy cocktail (we’re smitten with their “new” old-fashioned, with a hint of maple syrup and cinnamon), it all goes down very easy, as do the delectable tapas. Check their Facebook page for events, the weekly trivia night and specials.

Icon Klub calls itself “a room for cocktails”, an accurate yet understated description of this quirky bar. Tucked on the side street just off the main road, this cosy place evokes a bohemian spirit, old Europe and shades of film noir. Evenings here are casual, random and fun as Lisa shakes up inventive cocktails to an eclectic music playlist. Don’t be surprised to see patrons playing chess, strumming a guitar or dishing out slam poetry.

Just across the street, Chez Matt is the wine bar that Luang Prabang has long been waiting for with its selection of good wine by the glass at a reasonable price – a rarity in this town. As you can probably tell from the name, the bar oozes Frenchness. A worthy alternative is Spanish-inspired La Casa Lao just around the corner on the main street. Share a bottle of red or classic cocktails in this cosy enclave.

If you’re want to catch your favourite football or rugby club in action or you’re in need of pub grub, head to Aussie Sports Bar at the T-junction of the Ban Aphai bar area. Large screen TVs show whatever game is on (and if it’s not available by satellite, they can try to stream it). During a major sporting event, the place will be packed with a rowdy, sweaty crowd. On quieter nights, expect efficient service and a convivial atmosphere. While prices are on the steep side, portion sizes are enormous — the chicken-parmy is the size of the plate. The location at the busy corner is the best spot to watch the world go by.

Meet and mingle at Lao Lao Beer Garden. Take up residence at the terrace tables near the road or the candlelit garden inside. Most of the menu is given over to their drink specials — two-for-one lao lao cocktails, Red Bull and vodka buckets. For food, expect the usual bar snacks and burgers, as well as Lao barbecue. Patrons tend to hop between here and Redbul Bar just across the street. Redbul caters to people who like to drink a lot at a low price and it hosts a crew of regulars each night who worship the pool table. The bar is stocked for a motley of liquor-plus-mixer drinks so this fun, laid back backpacker joint tends to swell with people in the hour before closing.

There are only three places that are somehow allowed to be open past curfew, and true to Luang Prabang style they are all oddly random. There’s the very local nightclub Dao Fa, located next to the Chinese Market and Southern Bus Station. Think bad repetitive beats, flashy lights, a lot of Beerlao and no one dancing. At 00:30, the lights are abruptly thrown on and everyone goes home. The second is local dive bar Yensabai on Phou Vao Road. It balloons with locals, expats and tourists who can choose between Beerlao and Spy Coolers. When you’re kicked out of Utopia and Redbul at closing, a brigade of tuk tuks await for everyone to pile in to be whisked away to the legendary bowling alley. Somehow the harsh fluorescent lighting, loud pop music, warped lanes and crowds bowling in flip-flops is a recipe for a raucous, memorable experience. Open until 04:00.

525 Luang Prabang: 100 Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban That Luang; T: (071) 212 424; 525.rocks; open daily 17:00-22:30.
3 Nagas: Sakkarine Rd, Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 260 777; open daily 07:00-22:00.
Aussie Sports Bar: Ban Aham; T: (071) 254 706; aussiesportsbar-luangprabang.com; open daily 07:00-23:30.
Bamboo Tree Lao Cooking School and Restaurant: Kingkitsarath Rd (Nam Khan River), Ban Wat Sene; T: (020) 2242 5499; www.facebook.com; open daily 09:00-22:30.
Big Tree Cafe: Mekong river Rd, Ban Vat Nong; T: (020) 7777 6748; www.bigtreecafe.com/
Bowling Alley: Highway 13, east of junction with Potoupakmao Rd; open until early morning.
Blue Lagoon: Ounheun Rd, Ban Choumkhong (beside Royal Palace); T: (071) 253 698; www.blue-lagoon-restaurant.com; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Cafe de Laos: The Chang Inn, Sakkaline Rd; T: (071) 213 345; www.facebook.com
Cafe Toui: Sisavangvatthana Rd, Ban Xieng Mouane; www.cafetoui.com; open daily 12:00-21:00.
Chez Matt: Off Sakkarine Rd, Ban Wat Sene; T: (020) 7777 9497; open daily 17:00-23:30. Dyen Sabai: Opposite side of the Khan River, Ban Phan Luang; T: (020) 5510 4817; dyensabairestaurant.wordpress.com; open daily 08:00-22:00.
Icon Klub: Off Sakkarine Rd, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (071) 254 905; www.iconklub.com; open 6 days a week 17:00-23:30.
Joma Bakery: Phothisalath Rd; T: (071) 252 292; plus Nam Khan, Kingkitsarath Rd; www.joma.biz; open daily 07:00-21:00.
Hua Hua Yim: Ban Mano, next to Sofitel Luang Prabang Hotel; T: (020) 9894 1269.
Khaiphaen: 100 Sisavang Vatana Rd, Ban Vat Nong (between the French Institute and the Mekong river); T: (030) 515 5221; www.tree-alliance.org; open Mon-Sat 11:00-22:30.
Kimsatcat Korean Restaurant: Ban Meuna, next to old bridge; T: (020) 5855 0000; open Mon-Sat 08:00-21:30.
La Casa Lao: Sisavangvong Rd, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (020) 2284 1264; lacasalao.com; open daily until 23:30.
Lao-Chinese-Vietnam Restaurant: Open daily 07:00-20:00.
Lao Lao Garden: Phousi Rd, Ban Aphai; www.facebook.com; open daily 08:00-23:30.
La Rosa Italian Restaurant: 40 Khounxoa Rd, Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 253 937; www.facebook.com; open daily 11:30-22:00.
La Silapa: Phomathat Rd, Ban Aphai; www.facebook.com L’Elephant: Ban Wat Nong; T: (071) 252 482; www.elephant-restau.com; open daily 12:00-14:30, 19:00-22:00.
L’etranger Books and Tea: Kingkitsarath Rd; www.facebook.com; open Mon-Sat 07:00-22:00, Sun 10:00-22:00.
Le Banneton: Sakkaline Rd (across from Wat Sop Sickharam); open daily 06:30-18:00. Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene: Sakkarine Rd; (071) 252 482; open daily 06:30-22:00.
Luang Prabang Artisans Cafe: alley off main street, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (020) 5557 1125; www.luangprabangartisanscafe.com
Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel: Chao Fa Ngum Rd, Ban That Luang, in front of Nam Phou fountain; T: (071) 254 609; www.angsana.com; open daily 06:00-22:00.
Night market buffet: Sisavangvong Rd, east of Kitsalat Rd; open daily 17:00-22:00.
Nisha Indian Restaurant: Kitsalat Rd; T: (071) 253 746; open daily until 22:00.
Pizza Phan Luang: Ban Phan Luang, across the bamboo bridge near Dyen Sabai; T: (020) 5692 2529; open Tues-Sun 17:00-22:00.
Rosella Fusion: Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Vat Sene; T: (020) 7777 5753; www.facebook.com; open Mon-Sat 11:00-21:30.
Saffron Cafe: Mekong Road, Ban Vat Nong; T: (020) 5539 9557; saffroncoffee.com; open Mon-Sat 07:00-21:00.
Secret Pizza: Ban Nasamphanh St 3, off of Route 13; T: (020) 5652 8881; www.facebook.com; open Tues and Fri 18:00-21:30.
Sonphao Restaurant: Ban Choumkhong, across from Wat Choumkhong; T (071) 253 489; open daily 11:30-21:30.
Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School: Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Wat Sene; T: (071) 213 128; open Mon-Sat lunch & dinner; www.tamarindlaos.com.
Tamnak Lao: Sakkarine Rd, Ban Wat Sene; T: (071) 252 525; www.tamnaklao.net; open daily 09:00-22:00.
Tangor Restaurant, Bar & Lounge: Rue Sisavangvong, Ban Xiengmouane; T: (071) 260 761; letangor.com; open daily 11:00-23:30.
The Terrace Restaurant: Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Khili; T: (071) 255 031; open daily 06:30-22:30; www.burasariheritage.com.
The Bellerive Terrace: Mekong River Road, Ban Phonehueang; T: (071) 260 733; thebellerive.com; open daily 11:00-21:00.
Utopia: Ban Aphai, Nam Khan riverbank; www.utopialuangprabang.com; open daily 9:00-23:30.
Xiengthong Noodle: Sakkarine Rd, across from Wat Khili; open daily 07:00-14:00.


Our rating:

By


Location map for An overview of Luang Prabang's food scene

See below for more places to eat and drink at in that are listed on Travelfish.org.