Luang Prabang is in Northern Laos and is a UNESCO heritage site. The small city, calm atmosphere, and beautiful architecture is what draws people here. Outside, there’s lots of great outdoor activities to do such as the famous Kuang Si Waterfalls and the Pak Ou Caves. Additionally, Luang Prabang used to be the residence of the royal family, so there is a lot of rich cultural history here as well. Definitely worth a trip exploring to!
Day 1 – Thursday, Dec 17, 2015
Luang Prabang Airport
Flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang was relatively easy. I took Lao Airlines. However, getting there and passing through customs was a pain in the butt. There was a really long line for the visa on arrival.
Also, we didn’t get the right forms when we were on the airplane so most of us on the flight had to get out of line after making it to the front and having to fill out a second form.
There’s a price list at the airport, but for US citizens it was $36 USD (the sign says $35 but there was an additional $1 processing fee). You also needed one passport picture otherwise you will be charged an extra $1 fee. They take other currencies as well, but may give you a really crappy exchange rate. Also, they will only give you change in USD (sorry my Euro friends).
When you exit, the taxi stand is right in front of you. The cost is $7 USD or 50,000 Kip. It’s slightly better to pay in Kip as the exchange rate (1 USD to ~8,145 Kip). There were no ATMs inside the airport, only outside. I got into a shared minivan and waited for a while when I decided to go to the ATM. When I turned around, my minivan had left with all of my stuff in it! I had quite a scare, but luckily the driver came back to get me. One of the passengers remembered that I was missing.
The ride is about 15 minutes to the city center, so it’s very short.
By the time I arrived at the hostel, it was fairly late around 6 pm. I booked a room at the Kounsavan Guesthouse. In Laos in general, there was a shortage of hostels. Very few results come back when you look online at HostelWorld. There are only about 15 listings and only 8 of them are hostels.
Here are the positives:
- Good atmosphere – the hostel is small so it’s easy to be meet people and be social.
- Great free breakfast! It was pancakes, scrambled eggs, an omelet, or bread and jam for choices. Definitely filled me up and was much better than the traditional cereal or toast options at most hostels.
- Showers had great water pressure and had hot water.
Not so great things:
- The Wi-Fi was just awful. Unless you were online when no one was around during the day, super early before breakfast time, or super late when people are out or sleeping, it sucked.
- The rooms were really small and somewhat uncomfortable to hang out in, especially if everyone was inside.
- There were no lockers in the room, only outside (which were also really small).
From there I went to the night market and found an alleyway of street food. I decided to eat at the buffet, which was 15,000 Kip per bowl. The food was cold and so-so (I learned later that you can ask them to heat up your food). It was mostly noodles and rice, vegetables, and some meat. There was nothing particularly awful nor was it anything special. It was only foreigners eating there. Hey, and I didn’t get sick!
There are other options as well such as BBQ meats, dumplings, soups, curries, and more noodles. The selection is somewhat limited and the prices are higher than what I was eating in Thailand so I was a bit surprised and underwhelmed by the choices.
The most of the area is shopping. A lot of what was sold were souvenirs and handicrafts. Same same, but different. 🙂
Day 2 – Friday, Dec 18, 2015
Mount Phu Si
I woke up super early in the morning and went on a mini excursion with someone from my hostel. We climbed to the top of Mount Phu Si around 8/8:15 am in the morning. It was perfect then because we were the only ones there and the sun was already out. Some people go for sunrise or sunset. The sunset time is incredibly crowded, so I would not recommend going then. The viewing area is small, so you’ll just see a lot of people. At the top is a small temple.
There’s also 3 different ways to climb up/down Mount Phu Si. We went up the short way, but went down the longest way. Definitely go down the longer way because you will see more stuff!
Along the way down, I saw more Buddhas, a small cave with (guess what!) more Buddhas inside, a giant Buddha footprint, and a monastery.
There are 2 bridges that are set up in the dry season that take you from the city to another island.They’re pretty easy to find if you walk along the waterway in the city. The shorter bridge costs 5,000 Kip and the longer one costs 7,000 Kip. Both do not charge locals. The bridges are only around for 6 months of the year. They’re built by local families. During, the wet season, the bridges are taken down because the water levels and the currents are too strong. I do wonder how they cross at that time, by boat perhaps?
On the other side is not much. There’s a small village that sells random crafts, a restaurant, and a place called Garden of Eden that lets you take a jewelry-making workshop. We just walked the length of the small village to cross back on the other bamboo bridge.
Cost: 5,000 Kip for the shorter bridge and 7,000 Kip for the longer bridge. Ticket is good for the whole day to cross back and forth.
After walking around for the afternoon, I stopped at a French café for some coffee and pastries. This place is supposed to have the best croissants in all of Laos, so I had to try it. I knew I was in the right place when all I heard around me was French. Laos used to be a former French colony, so the architecture, language, and culture all have similar influences.
Unfortunately, there was no Wi-Fi. But, there were tons of delicious tasty pastries and drinks. My friend and I split a Pain Au Chocolat (Chocolate Croissant) and a Tarte Aux Pommes (apple pie). I also ordered a Café Au Lait (Coffee with Milk). It was really good coffee, and I don’t typically like coffee.
The bill came out to be about 50,000 Kip for the both of us. It’s definitely much pricier than what typical Lao food costs, but it was a nice splurge to eat something different for a change.
Location: Th Sakkarin
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Definitely the highlight of this trip, go do a visit if you can! The water here is blue because of the limestone rock formations. The park is really clean and well maintained. The journey on road is about 40 minutes.
By Tuk Tuk
The most common is for you to hire a tuk tuk. The typical cost is about 30,000-50,000 Kip round trip per person (depending on your negotiation skills and how many people you have). If you are going solo, they will definitely charge you more. I heard it can be as much as 200,000 Kip. However, usually the tuk tuks want to fill up before going up so they sometimes will wait around in the city, asking for more passengers. Also, the road is really bumpy and winds a lot, so it may be quite uncomfortable.
I ended up doing this option. Luckily, my hostel had a prearranged trip with a driver for 35,000 Kip. For about $4.38, it was worth the price. The van fit 12 people and our driver was really great and nice. He picked us up at the hostel at 11:30 am and then waited for us outside. We had 2.5 hours to explore the falls. So this made a great half-day trip, well worth it. We came back around 4 pm.
The entrance fee into the park costs 20,000 Kip and includes entry for the “Beer Reserve” (where all half drank beers are rescued). All joking aside, it’s actually a bear reserve, where sun and moon bears are rescued from poachers. At the entrance they usually take your ticket, but ask to keep it because it has a map on the back. The ticket map calls it a “beer reserve”. The bear reserve is a nice little area to stop and admire some animals before heading off for the falls.
Climb and Swimming
Depending on the weather, a lot of people choose to go swimming in the water. There are several pools where you can go swimming in at the bottom and at the top. The hike to the very top gets a little challenging, as there are parts where you literally had to grab and climb up giant steps. The steps were really just made in the trail and are not a real pathway. I recommend you bringing a pair of decent shoes to help you with the climb up and down. There is an alternative way up, but it’s longer and less exciting.
At the top, there are parts where you will have to go across in water, so be prepared to go barefoot or bring sandals. There are no changing rooms or lockers for your stuff, so if you plan on going swimming, don’t bring too many valuables with you. There’s a guy who works for the park at the top that can help watch your stuff, but he’s really there to sell beer and water and to laugh at tourists that jump in the water.
The only changing room is at the bottom of the falls, where the first pool is. That first pool has a jumping platform and to the side there is a little wood hut where you can change.
On the way down, you could either go back the way you came up, which is really steep and hard. Or you could go down another way that is slightly faster. The other way down, you would just keep continuing past the pools. The way down has actual stairs, but the waterfall comes down on the pathway, so it gets really wet and slippery.
Cost: 20,000 Kip Entrance Fee + Transportation (30,000 Kip +)
For dinner I went to Tamarind. On Fridays they have a special set menu for a traditional Lao meal called Pun Pa that is shared family style with the entire table. It’s 110,000 Kip per person and you need to reserve ahead because the food preparation takes a day. The deposit is 50,000 Kip. Dinner starts promptly at 6 pm.
The food was fabulous. This was probably my favorite meal by far. It was literally a giant feast where all we did was eat for 3 hours. We had 4 courses of food. The meal was so much fun and it was incredibly delicious.
Course 1 – Dried Mushrooms and Bamboo Chips
Course 2 – Tasting platter of jeow (Lao chili dips) with Sticky Rice Course 3 – Lettuce and Betel Wraps and Steamed Whole Tilapia
Course 4 – Sticky Rice Desert and Fruits
Location: Th Kingkitsarat
Day 3 – Saturday, Dec 19, 2015
Tamnak Cooking School
After a busy day, I decided to spend the day doing something more laid back. I decided to go to a cooking school, and eat some more. Tamarind was my first choice, but they were booked out for the whole week. I then found Tamnak close by offering classes for the day.
We got to watch them make 7 different dishes and then we got to cook 5 of our choice after trying them. You were paired up with another person, unless there was an odd number, which one person would be alone. The trip also included going to a local Lao market and seeing how food was sold and prepared. We got a recipe book to keep as a souvenir.
The cooking school that I did in Thailand at Asia Scenic Thai Cookery School was much better and cheaper, but this was still fun.
My partner and I decided to make these 5: Feu Khua,
Luang Prabang Salad
From Back to Front: Chicken Larp, Kheu Muk Kheu Gup Moo, and Gheng Phet. Side of jeow and sticky rice. Cost: 250,000 Kip ~$30
Hours: 10 am – 5 pm
Day 4 – Sunday, Dec 20, 2015
I only had a couple of hours in the morning before my afternoon flight at 1:05 pm. I knew I only needed about 15 minutes to get to the airport so I had some time and decided to spend a couple of hours at the Royal Palace Museum.
Royal Palace Museum
The palace used to be the residence of King Sisavang Vong (1905-1959). The palace was built in 1904. To enter, you have to be moderately dressed, covering your knees and shoulders. You also have to take off your shoes and leave your bags in a locker. Also no pictures are permitted inside, so if you want pictures, take them outside on the grounds.
Inside, it’s mostly a collection of furniture, clothing, and wares. The information around the palace was really informative. I admired the details in the architecture and the mosaics on the walls. My favorite thing was actually walking around the perimeter of the rooms and reading the story of a prince who was exiled from his kingdom after he sold off the rare white elephant. I don’t want to ruin the story, but it was fun to read. I was surprised that everyone was passing by it.
Outside of the palace is the Royal Car Collection. Honesty, nothing special here but just 5 cars and a boat from the 50s-70s that the former King used as transportation. Again, you cannot take any pictures. The entry is included in your ticket for the palace, so you might as well walk to the back to the garage to see them.
Additionally, there is a temple, collection of floating Buddha photographs, and a theater on the compound. I skipped the theater and the floating Buddha as I ran out of time. The temple is called Wat Pha Ho Bang. You must take off your shoes as you approach. You cannot enter the temple, but only see the interior from afar. Inside is a large Buddha known as Pha Bang.
Cost: 30,000 Kip
Hours: 8-11:30 am & 1:30-4 pm
Afterwards, I went back to my hostel and grabbed my bags. My hostel helped me order a car, which arrived within 15 minutes. The taxi from my hostel to the airport cost 40,000 Kip. From here it was off to Vientiane on another Lao Airlines flight.