We spent 5 days exploring the quaint little town of Luang Prabang in the northern province of the same name in Laos. Although the town has been added to the UNESCO world heritage list and we really enjoyed the laid back way of life here, we also experienced some not-so-enjoyable hours during our stay.
We’ve written a positives and negatives list to give you the feeling of this little village that was once the capital of Laos and to explain our experience in more detail.
1. Beautiful, clear weather
Unlike many other places in south east Asia we’ve visited, Laos is relatively untouched and unspoilt. This means there’s absolutely no smog or pollution and a lot less litter around than its neighbouring countries. The days we spent here were clear, sunny and bright – a welcome relief from the smog of Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
2. Multiple amazing temples
Luang Prabang and the area around it has over 600 temples and shrines. Each one is unique and incredibly decorated with detailed carvings and gold leaf. Walking around the centre of town you’ll pass many including the Wat Chom Si on top of Mount Phousi and the most impressive one right next to the National Museum. If you hire a bicycle, scooter or tuk tuk you’ll come across hundreds more on the outskirts of town and in the surrounding villages.
3. Laid-back, relaxed vibe
Unlike many other places in Asia, Loas is relatively unpopulated (with around 7 million inhabitants) which seems to result in a sleepy, laid back vibe permeating through every aspect of life.
4. Well kept natural landscape
We hired a scooter for two days and zipper out of town towards the Kuang Si waterfall, 29kms to Luang Prabang’s south. On the way we passed through pristine mountains and lush rice paddies with no sign of rubbish or litter. The waterfalls themselves were impressive – multiple cascades of intense turquoise water with amazing facilities all around (think picnic tables, toilets and change rooms).
One thing we really enjoyed was visiting the Black Bear Rescue Centre at the entrance to the falls where local bears are protected from poachers seeking pharmaceutical bear bile. For 20,000 kip (US$2.50) you get entry to both the waterfall and Bear Rescue Centre.
5. Buzzing night market
The biggest event of a normal day in Luang Prabang is the massive night market that sets up on the main street of town from around 5pm-11pm. The market is a great place to support locals by buying handcrafts, silks and lanterns. Its also the perfect spot to try some street food like the scrumptious sweet coconut mini pancakes, fresh fruit smoothies or a variety of marinated meats on skewers.
6. Historical architecture in amazing condition
Luang Prabang was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites for its incredibly well preserved local architecture, including French colonial buildings and, of course, buddhist temples. If you like architecture then this is the place for you!
7. Beautiful riverside restaurants
The Mekong River runs straight through the centre of town with a variety of restaurants taking advantage of the view. We ate dinner twice along its banks and enjoyed the outlook made even better by hundreds of golden lanterns hung in the trees.
8. Smorgasbord of French inspired bakeries
One thing I can’t resist is a buttery, flakey croissant or crunchy baguette. Luang Prabang does not lack in either department and boasts a good half-dozen French or Scandinavian bakeries selling pastries, cakes, croissants, croque monsieurs and baguettes. For 15,000 kip (US$2) our favourite breakfast was a ham and cheese croissant sandwich topped up with lettuce, tomato, mustard and cucumber at the Scandinavian Bakery on the main street of town.
1. Crowded with tourists
Luang Prabang seems to be the backpacker central of Laos. Hundreds of tourists from Europe, Australia and North America flooded the streets at night and the main temples.
2. Relatively expensive for South East Asia
As Laos is a landlocked country with a limited produce, many goods are imported from surrounding countries. This, combined with Luang Prabang’s popularity with tourists, has influenced cost inflation. A regular meal with a drink at an average restaurant will cost you US$9 compared to US$4 in Cambodia and Vietnam. 24 hour scooter hire will set you back US$12.50 compared to US$4 in Vietnam.
3. Corrupt police
We had an interesting encounter with some Luang Prabang police who were demanding a 50,000 kip bribe from all the motorists driving scooters past without helmets. We were completely at fault for not using helmets (ironically the only time we forgot to use them while in Asia) and so we asked the police for a written fine. They refused to do this as they had ‘left the receipt at police station’ and got angry when we refused to pay the bribe. Eventually they let us go after I collected the helmets from the hotel and they realised we wouldn’t pay the bribe.
4. Small town with limited activities
Visiting the waterfalls and temples are the main attraction in Luang Prabang. Some people pay $US25 to ride an elephant or venture a little further to see the Pak Ou Caves filled with buddha statues left by centuries of pilgrims. Apart from this there isn’t much else to do in Luang Prabang. An 11pm curfew is a party killer for some backpackers and the small size of the town can be well explored in two days.
5. No historical or cultural information at National Museum
We visited the National Museum on the main street of town hoping to learn about Laos, its history and culture. Although the museum (originally the royal palace) held a great amount of artefacts from one royal family in power during the 1960s, there was utterly no information on Laos culture or history before or after this decade.
The attached royal car museum was a let-down (four run-down, mid-century Fords) and we were disappointed to realise we weren’t allowed to enter the adjoining temple. Perhaps if the name of the museum was changed to ‘Modern Royal Palace Museum’ we wouldn’t have been as disappointed.
6. Locals seemed less helpful than in neighbouring countries
Although we didn’t have a lot of contact with the locals, we couldn’t help but compare the few negative experiences we did have to the helpfulness and friendly-nature of the locals from Vietnam and Cambodia. Perhaps this is an effect of so many tourists flocking to such a small town, however a lack of helpfulness and flexibility from our hotel receptionists combined with the angry policemen we encountered made us feel less welcome than in surrounding countries.
As you can see there are eight positives and six negative on our list. Although we had a few disappointing experiences in Luang Prabang, we did enjoy our stay overall. The town is small with limited activities outside of visiting temples, caves or waterfalls but if you’re after a laid-back mountain-side holiday then this is the spot for you.