Photo: Pak Ou caves.

Introduction

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While other Southeast Asian cities have shed the cloak of the past and screamed into the future, Luang Prabang puttered into the 21st century like a leaky slow boat going against the current.


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Located in the middle of northern Laos, for years the town held cult status—those who had been knew they were privy to something very special. Now Luang Prabang has gone from “where is that?” to achieving bucket list status, and its star continues to rise.

Luang Prabang is a highlight of Laos. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Luang Prabang is a highlight of Laos. Photo: Cindy Fan

Situated on a peninsula and surrounded by a fortress of mountains, Luang Prabang’s striking location is formed by the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Sacred Mount Phou Si rises in the middle and climbing to the top reveals an idyllic town of palm-lined riverbanks, terracotta rooftops, golden stupas and laneways frequented by saffron-robed monks strolling back to temple. It all comes together to form a picture increasingly difficult to find in Southeast Asia and even in Laos. Unlike Vientiane and Pakse, which have turned their backs on the old, the former royal capital is devoted to its heritage.

People add Luang Prabang to their itinerary because of its World Heritage status, the Mekong River or perhaps it’s the waterfalls and jungle clad mountains within easy reach. Days here can be packed with activities and exploration. Once on the ground however, the somnambulant, languid rhythm has a way of seeping in and even the most enthusiastic of travellers find themselves slowing down. Luang Prabang has a reputation for wrecking tightly planned itineraries, be sure to allow at least a few days to really take it in.

The calm before the storm. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The calm before the storm. Photo: Cindy Fan

Tranquil meditation and calming of emotions are characteristics of Theravada Buddhism, a pervasive feeling that practically smothers you when you first land. It’s difficult to imagine that only four decades ago, the country was in the crosshairs of devastating conflict. Luang Prabang’s peacefulness masks a tumultuous history of conquest and war.

A brief history
Luang Prabang’s royal history begins in 1353, when the warrior Fa Ngum became the first king of Lane Xang kingdom, “the Land of a Million Elephants”. Upon marrying the King of Cambodia’s daughter, he received the Pra Bang, a gold Buddha statue that became the palladium and protector of Laos (and later the town’s namesake, which was adopted in the 16th century).

Within Wat Mai. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Within Wat Mai. Photo: Cindy Fan

From the 9th to 15th centuries, the Khmer empire’s expansion greatly influenced the kingdom and trade from India brought Buddhism. From the 16th century onward, Luang Prabang endured constant invasions from its neighbours; the Vietnamese, Siamese, Burmese and Chinese all had their go. Siam stole (and returned) the Pra Bang twice. History is dotted with attacks, shifting alliances, influences, mergers and acquisitions.

The first European visitors came during a rare golden age of peace in the late 17th century: Gerrit van Wuysthoff representing the Dutch East India Company and G.M. Leria, an Italian Jesuit missionary. Of course, the most well known are the French who came later. After a period of France-Siam squabbling that saw the city sacked by Chinese marauders, Laos was established as a French protectorate in 1893.

Gazing into the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Gazing into the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum. Photo: Cindy Fan

French control lasted until 1954. France kept the Lao monarchy and encouraged the pomp and splendour, even building them a new royal palace (today the National Museum), but the king’s powers declined and the country was controlled by French appointed bureaucrats. France’s colonial hold over Indochina symbolically ended with their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, formally ended at the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954. Laos was granted independence; it was the beginning of Laos’ most bloody and harrowing chapter.

A struggle ensued between the Lao nationalist movement or in other words, the communist Pathet Lao who established power in Hua Phan and Phongsali, and the US backed Royal Lao Government who controlled the rest of the country. As conflict brewed throughout the region, another Geneva Agreement in 1962 established Laos as a neutral country meaning no foreign soldiers could be on Lao soil. While the Vietnam War raged and was splashed on television screens and front pages, the Laotian Civil War became engulfed by the Secret War virtually unknown to the outside world.

A must visit to gain insight into the legacy of the Secret War. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

A must visit to gain insight into the legacy of the Secret War. Photo: Cindy Fan

America and her allies built secret airstrips within Laos, recruited 60,000 Hmong to fight and furiously bombed the country. In an effort to destroy Pathet Lao strongholds in the north and supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south, from 1964 to 1973 the US unleashed more than two millions tons of ordnance in 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. That equals a plane of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. Over 270 million were cluster bombs, of which 80 million failed to explode. By the time the war ended in 1975, an estimated tenth of the population had been killed with 30,000 Hmong dead.

In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao government took control and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was born. In the aftermath, the royal family was abolished, the defeated were sent to reeducation camps and hundreds of thousands fled, becoming refugees mainly in Thailand, the US and France. The legacy of unexploded ordinance (UXO) continues to this day. Clearance is ongoing and each year civilians are killed or injured. To learn more about the war, visit the UXO Lao Visitor Centre and COPE; read A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (Joshua Kurlantzick) and our guide to Vieng Xai.

Today
Laos opened to international tourists in 1989 and it didn’t take long for UNESCO to notice. Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, described as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”

Late light at Wat Aham. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Late light at Wat Aham. Photo: Cindy Fan

A simple walk about town illustrates this, yet it’s not just about architecture. It’s the whole atmosphere—the locals’ laissez-faire attitude seems to permeate the cosmos. It’s the best of both worlds, a quaint European town mixed with the wonderful, woodsy spice of Asia. In between glittering wats and exotic markets, it’s lounging on a cafe terrace with a croissant watching life pass by. It’s khao soi noodle soup for breakfast and dinner at a French bistro. It’s playing petanque and drinking Beerlao with the locals at 10 am (both are national pastimes) or bowling with fellow backpackers at the witching hour. The town can be both contemplative and social, shy and friendly, calm yet vibrant. It can be, in a word, magical.

The city has been considered one of Southeast Asia’s must sees for more than two decades now, so untouched it’s certainly not. However, up until recently Luang Prabang was often dropped from itineraries because flights were prohibitively expensive, leaving travellers with the option of a full day’s bus ride through the mountains from the Thai border or a two-day journey down the Mekong by slow boat. The town’s landlocked isolation also means costs are higher than other countries on the so called “banana pancake trail”. All factors have kept mass tourism at bay—until recently.

Now everyone can fly. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Now everyone can fly. Photo: Cindy Fan

In 2016, low cost carrier Thai AirAsia began service from Bangkok. Coupled with increased exposure in magazines and DO-before-you-DIE! travel lists, tourism in Luang Prabang is increasing while shifting attention to Asian markets.

Hotels, sights, restaurants—everything is getting busier. For budget travellers, the accommodation will likely be the most expensive you will encounter in Laos. Finding the reputed silence and serenity requires escaping the main strip and getting further from the centre. This is a taste of what’s to come, for a seismic change is on the horizon.

Luang Prabang is so beautiful even the railway bridge is pretty. Sort of. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Luang Prabang is so beautiful even the railway bridge is pretty. Sort of. Photo: Cindy Fan

As of 2018, construction is well underway throughout Northern Laos for the China-Laos high-speed railway which will connect Southern China to Vientiane, with a stop in Luang Prabang. The US$6.7 billion dollar mega-project represents a whopping quarter of Laos’ GDP, funded by both state and loans from the Bank of China, the terms unclear ergo clearly unfavourable. This is a chunk of a bigger plan for a railway line linking China to Bangkok, part of a grand scheme of a modern day “Silk Road” connecting China to everywhere in Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Using Chinese workers, a bridge across the Mekong has been built upriver from Luang Prabang, along with a train station and a Special Economic Zone in the outskirts of town on the Nam Khan river. This line is expected to be completed in 2021.

Over the centuries Luang Prabang has weathered many foreign invaders but its soul may not be able to survive this neo-colonialism.

We’re not trying to be alarmists but if there ever was a time to visit, it is now. Authorities have already taken steps—or rather, missteps—to deal with the increase in traffic. Instead of banning vehicles from the peninsula, they’ve removed a number of riverside terraces to build parking. A wall of 12-passenger vans now separates the heritage buildings and the river/footpath. Rather than focus on the quality of what’s being sold in the iconic night market, there’s talk of expanding it or moving it. Chinese and Vietnamese entrepreneurs continue to take over guesthouses and main street shops to sell stuff decidedly not from Laos.

Best to get in before the crowds. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Best to get in before the crowds. Photo: Cindy Fan

Luang Prabang already has detractors who rage about authenticity, proclaiming that its soul was lost years ago and advising people to skip it. The town is no longer a secluded secret but before you leave it off your itinerary, consider this: Luang Prabang provides insight and access to Lao culture in a way not found anywhere else in the country. It’s one thing to see rice fields, programmes like Living Land teach you how rice is grown. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is an excellent primer on the country’s astounding ethnic diversity. Discover the unique characteristics of Lao cuisine with a cooking class, hear local folktales at Garavek, learn which plants are used in traditional medicine at Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden or how plants can be made into dyes in a weaving class. Neatly packaged up for tourist consumption? Yes. With the rest of the country lacking museums, helpful tourism centres, books and knowledgable guides, Luang Prabang can open your eyes and help you understand what you see elsewhere in Laos.

Nowhere else in Southeast Asia is there such a high concentration of temples that are not ruins or museums. They are living, working institutions home to more than 1,000 novices and monks continuing ancient Buddhist studies and monastic life.

Luang Prabang still has charming quirks, such as the strict 23:30 shut down of all bars/restaurants, and positive grassroots initiatives have emerged. Hotels and businesses have voluntarily taken it upon themselves to do monthly litter clean-ups along the riverbanks. In 2018, drinking water refill stations were set up at participating businesses with metal water bottles for sale and cafes are switching to reusable bamboo straws. Some shops use eco-friendly saa paper bags (locally made from bark naturally shed by mulberry trees). You too can lessen your impact and give back to Laos by donating to one of these excellent organisations and following these tips:

Every temple is different. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Every temple is different. Photo: Cindy Fan

Buy local: Buy locally made goods. Look for fair trade businesses that support Lao traditions and craft. Do not buy any wildlife products, including wildlife you see at the market—purchasing to rescue the animal perpetuates the problem. Instead, donate to the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary operated by Free the Bears.

Tread lightly: Say no to straws, plastic bags and take away containers. If a snack stand uses banana leaf to wrap it up, there’s no need for a plastic bag. Free drinking water is standard at cafes/restaurants, even at a cheap noodle shop—rest assured, they only serve water from the factory so think twice about ordering bottled water. You can refill bottles at several shops in town for free or for a couple thousand kip.

Be reasonable: The war ended in 1975, meaning Laos has gone from war torn country closed to the outside world to tourist hotspot in just a few decades. Education and access to education remains poor. English is not the first language (and not even the second language for someone from an ethnic group). So be patient when it comes to communication and errors, and remember that politeness and “saving face” is an important part of Lao culture.

Interesting stuff everywhere you look. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Interesting stuff everywhere you look. Photo: Cindy Fan

Get away from the crowds: We know, easier said than done. There’s 34 temples in town, so why not try to find our hidden-in-plain-sight favourites like Chua Phat Tich, Wat Choumkhong, Wat Long Khoun and Wat Pa Khe. Visit the other side of the river. In dry season, join the locals for picnics and soccer on the Mekong sandbars that form downriver from town.

Treat the morning alms with respect.

Talk with a local: Take time to chat with a waiter, receptionist, monk and it’ll likely reveal an interesting story. Some may have been born and raised in Luang Prabang, while others may have come from a remote rural village that takes two days to reach. If you’re feeling shy, head to Big Brother Mouse’s twice daily sessions where locals come to converse with foreign visitors.




Orientation
Luang Prabang town sits on a peninsula, a finger of land formed by the Nam Khan river joining the Mekong. A single one-way road follows along the Nam Khan, wrapping around the tip before it goes in the opposite direction following alongside the Mekong.

Oh so pretty. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Oh so pretty. Photo: Cindy Fan

Sisavangvong Road, more easily remembered as the Main Street or Night Market Street, bisects the peninsula right down the middle. This is the heart of the city, and it’s here that you’ll find the Royal Palace museum, the main tourist necessities and hotspots, all which lie at the foot of the hill known as Phou Si Mountain, pronounced (pou-see).

Note that the main street changes name not twice, but three times within the tourist track. Toward the tip of the thumb it is Sakkarin and heading out of the centre it is Chao Fa Ngum. Many streets in Luang Prabang are guilty of this trickery but street names are rarely used for navigation. It’s more common to refer to places by which river it is on or which temple it is closest to. The town is small enough that getting around isn’t a problem once you have your bearings.

One trick to finding your way around: Luang Prabang is divided up into villages, or "ban", which are what we would consider neighbourhoods. Each "ban" often has a wat bearing the same name, example: Wat Aphai is in Ban Aphai. Most addresses include a Ban Something-or-other. So even if there’s no exact street address (there often isn’t) find the wat and the place shouldn’t be too far from it. Tuk tuks are more likely to deliver you to the correct place if you can tell them the name of the village.

Plenty to find hiding in the shade. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Plenty to find hiding in the shade. Photo: Cindy Fan

Money and banking: The Lao kip (LAK) is a non-convertible currency and is near impossible to exchange outside of the country. Try to convert conservative amounts as changing kip back into USD can be difficult—some times the government/banks will suddenly impose restrictions on how much can be done. Luang Prabang airport has a money exchange booth and an ATM outside of the building.

Gone are the days when the town had only one ATM. The main street could win an award for the highest concentration of ATMs in Southeast Asia. BCEL allows up to 1,500,000 kip (about US$190) per withdrawal, with a 20,000 kip fee. Banque Franco-Lao (BFL), on the main street near the Bangkok Airways office, allows up to 2,000,000 kip per withdrawal for a 30,000 kip service fee. ATMs are more reliable than ever before but it’s wise to travel with a back-up source of funding such as cash or credit cards. Higher end shops, restaurants and tour companies accept card, with their 3% bank fee added to the bill.

Currency exchange booths are abundant, and several gold shops like the one beside Chittanh Epicierie also offer exchange. A range of currencies are usually accepted, with USD being the easiest. Be very careful when exchanging, especially with booths on the main tourist strip at the night market—these are notorious for trying to trick travellers and a few bad apples have been doing it for years. It’s easy to confuse 20,000 kip notes for 50,000 kip. They’ll try to use 10,000 notes instead of 100,000, or will give, say, 1,097,000 instead of 1,970,000, or use plenty of smaller denominations to overwhelm. Don’t leave the counter until you’ve counted all the bills and take your time. It’s safest to exchange at a formal bank branch like BCEL or Banque Franco-Lao. If you do get shortchanged, return to the booth with the tourist police or someone from your hotel. Often the booth will claim it was a mistake and hastily hand over the difference.

Take a stroll in the evening. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Take a stroll in the evening. Photo: Cindy Fan

Some booths can also do cash advances on credit cards for a fee. Predictably, the rates are bad and you end paying a lot of money for your cash than if using a machine.

Not usually a scam: check the restaurant bill or the change you receive. If it’s incorrect, keep in mind that in Laos, education is basic and not everyone is lucky to have received one. Errors are often innocent mistakes.

Tipping at cheaper, casual cafes/restaurants is not expected but leaving a few thousand kip is always appreciated. At more formal establishments, if you receive good service, leave a tip of 10-15%. Same goes for tour/trek guides. The minimum salary for staff and guides is low and tipping for good service can speak volumes.

Cafes, restaurants and guesthouses offer free WiFi to customers. 4G is available in most urban centres in Laos and is often faster and more reliable than WiFi. A local SIM card is cheap but data plans are expensive compared to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Major telcos in Laos are Lao Telecom, Unitel and ETL. At the arrival exit of Luang Prabang airport, stands sell SIM cards and they’ll also help set up plans, which include internet and/or calls for 1-day to 30-days. Pay-as-you-go top up cards are available at most local drink/snack shops.

So lovely. Photo taken in or around Luang Prabang, Laos by Cindy Fan.

So lovely. Photo: Cindy Fan

The post office is located in the main intersection. It provides the usual services in addition to Western Union money transfers. EMS handles international shipping from a desk within the office. Post and shipping has improved in recent years, however, it remains pricey and reliability, length of time for delivery can still be an issue. Given the option, it’s better to do it from another country like Thailand.

Medical services are available in Luang Prabang, but facilities and treatment for adults are far below Western standards. For anything serious you’ll want to get to Thailand, fast. It’s a 90-minute flight to Bangkok, with multiple flights daily. Travel insurance is a must for Laos travel and be sure to read the policy, ensuring it has coverage for the activities you plan on pursuing (trekking, rock climbing, motorbiking, zip-lining to name a few). Children can receive emergency treatment at the Lao Friends Hospital for Children.

Two of the most common ailments/injuries to strike travellers in Luang Prabang: stomach bugs and motorbike accidents. We strongly recommend that Luang Prabang not be your first time driving a motorbike. Wear a helmet. Tourist motorbike accidents happen with alarming regularity, especially on the road to Kuang Si Waterfall. The way they drive in this town can only be described as messy.

By law, drivers must wear a helmet. The town also has a series of one-way streets that should be adhered to, both for safety and to avoid being stopped by police. Police hold regular stings—get pulled over and expect to pay a “fine”. It’s not a matter of if you’ll pay, it’s a matter of how much. Our advice is to be calm, friendly and negotiate the price down. See our Transport section for details on rentals and more safety tips.

Pharmacies have remedies for minor ailments like itchy bites, upset stomachs and sore throats. It’s prudent to bring your own medical kit and if you require specific medication, stock up before entering Laos.

Laos is a conservative Buddhist country and visitors should be mindful of how they dress and behave in public. Unfortunately, these days it’s not uncommon to see tourists wear short shorts and singlets. Be aware that anything skimpy is actually a faux pas. Men shouldn’t walk around shirtless. Sunbathing on the riverbanks in a bikini or even a one piece is a no-no. Women should have shoulders and knees covered when entering the temple or temple grounds. Respectful conduct is a must around Buddha statues. Locals dress neatly and doing the same will earn their respect.

Luang Prabang has a curfew, imposed to minimise disruption of the town’s cultural heritage since monks and locals rise early for prayer and alms giving. Restaurants and bars will begin ushering patrons out at 23:00 as they must be shut by 23:30. Wander back to your guesthouse at this hour and don’t be surprised to find the gate or door locked. It’ll take waking the owners or staff up to get inside.

When to go to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has three seasons: hot-dry (approximately March to May), rainy season (June to September) and cool-dry (October to February).

The peak tourist season coincides with the cool-dry season, when days are pleasantly warm and nights cooler. Nighttime temperatures can hover near the freezing mark in December to February, and there can be a string of days where the sun never makes an appearance, catching many a visitor off-guard. Come prepared for chilly weather during this time as there’s no indoor heating and it’s difficult to find decent winter wear that would fit a Western frame.

Hot-dry season is self explanatory. The midday is uncomfortably hot. It’s also dusty and the earth is literally scorched during “burning season” around end of February to April, when fields and mountainsides are burned to clear for crops. The result is hazy air. It can be problematic for those with respiratory issues.

Finally, rainy season brings much needed relief, cleaning the air and quenching the rivers and foliage. The season is characterised by an almost daily downpour. The timing is fairly predictable—you’ll see the clouds swelling and feel the humidity rising. It’s a good time to seek shelter in a cafe, museum or spa. Rainy season does wreak havoc on the roads. Landslides and flash flooding are an issue and bus travel becomes even more difficult. Plan for delays.

Holidays and festivals in and around Luang Prabang
Pi Mai/Lao New Year: annually 14-16 April
Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival): May
Boun Khao Phansa (start of Buddhist Lent): July
Boat racing festival: September
Boun Ok Phansa (end of Buddhist Lent)/Lai Heua Fai (boat lantern festival): October
Luang Prabang Half Marathon: October
Luang Prabang Film Festival: December
Hmong New Year: December

Visa extensions in Luang Prabang Luang Prabang is one of the places in Laos where visitors can easily do a visa extension. The foreign immigration department is located in the Luang Prabang Provincial Police Headquarters compound on Mano Rd, across the street from Wat Mano. The process is straightforward. Fill out the application and provide one passport sized photo. Pay the fee: it’s 25,000 kip fee for the application form/service charge and extension is 20,000 kip per day. You can extend up to 30 days, up to two times before having to exit the country. Pick up is usually the afternoon of the following business day. As this is a government office, it is prudent to be respectably dressed. There’s a photo shop close to the roundabout where Mano Rd meets Visoun Rd.

Safety and scams In addition to being shortchanged at a currency exchange booth (see above), there’s a few other things to watch out for.

Luang Prabang is largely a safe place but don’t let the town’s relaxed feeling lull you into letting go of common sense. Bag snatchings have occurred at all hours, even in broad daylight. Don’t place valuables in the front bicycle or motorbike basket, or get one with a basket cover. Thieves particularly target women and in 2017, one incident involved slashing a bag strap with a knife. Streets are poorly lit at night and if walking alone, be mindful of your surroundings—or just hire a tuk tuk. Thieves can also target intoxicated people leaving bars. Petty crime and break-ins spike in the time leading up to Pi Mai (Lao New Year) in April.

Be vigilant about locking up bicycles or motorbikes. Park motorbikes in a visible, busy area, use the lock and where paid parking is available (at the tourist sites, boat landings, markets, etc) use it. The small parking fee usually ensures it will be there when you return. At night, the guesthouse will direct where to safely park bikes, usually indoors.

Drugs: don’t. At night, tuk tuk drivers have been known to ask male passengers whether they want drugs. As the UK Foreign Office summarises succinctly: “Don’t get involved with drugs. There have been a number of occasions where British nationals have suffered fatal overdoses from very small quantities. Possession, trafficking and manufacture of drugs are serious offences. Those caught face lengthy prison sentences or the death penalty.” The advice, of course, applies to any nationality.

Consider the risks when using a passport as a deposit for a motorbike rental. We couldn’t have said this better either, also from the UK Foreign Office: “There have been reports of scams where rental companies have arranged for rented motorcycles to be deliberately stolen or damaged resulting in the retention of the passport and payment of a heavy fine. Always make sure your travel insurance covers medical and other costs associated with motorcycle rental and accidents.”

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