I stared out the window of my shuttle van into the streets of Luang Prabang, the ‘New York City’ of Laos. As I watched the locals slowly setting up for the nightly market and the tourists strolling hand in hand past the shops with fresh fruit shakes in hand, I didn’t quite understand the NYC reference. Every time I went to the big apple it was bustling, frantic, with everyone in a rush. Luang Prabang seemed like the complete opposite; no honking horns, no businessmen and women pushing through crowds as they yelled into their cellphones, and although there were definitely camera-touting tourists, they seemed to be pretty laid back. To me, it looked like the perfect place to kick back and relax. I was definitely looking forward to my 3 days in Luang Prabang.
My shuttle drove up a quiet street and came to a stop beside a large building; my accommodations for my stay. I thanked the driver and headed towards the main entrance, passing fellow backpackers reading in hammocks or having an afternoon beer by the pool. After the frantic rush of Vietnam, and the mass crowds in Chaing Mai for Yi Peng festival, Luang Prabang seemed like a peaceful slice of heaven. I had a feeling I was going to love it, and I did. Here is how to experience the best of Luang Prabang in 3 days based on my experience.
Getting to Luang Prabang
There are a few ways to get to Luang Prabang depending on where you are coming from, your budget, and your patience. If you are coming from elsewhere in the country you can hop on a bus. Depending on where you are coming from, there may also be the option of taking a night bus. It’s a good option so you don’t waste your whole day on the journey.
Those coming from Thailand have a few options: bus or slow boat down the Mekong. The slow boat is said to be an amazing experience with beautiful scenery, but more for those who are willing to ‘rough it’ as it takes two days with a stop at a small village for the night. Check out this guide for more information on how to take the slow boat from Thailand.
If you are coming from Vietnam you can also hop on a bus. The ride will take you more than 24 hours, so it’s only recommended for the brave (or crazy) or those who love long bus rides.
Of course, if long bus and boat rides aren’t your thing, Luang Prabang does have a small airport that is very close to the city centre. If you do fly, try to get a window seat. Flying over the jungle with the Mekong River snaking around the mountains is a beautiful sight. Flights are available from most major Asian cities, however, they tend to come with a hefty price tag (for SE Asia standards).
Visa On Arrival For Laos
Be sure to also check visa requirements and pricing before arrival. Fees are to be paid in USD and there is an extra processing fee (I paid $1USD). Tourists should also make sure to have a passport sized photograph with them as well. Please note there are no banking machines on this side of the airport and they do not accept debit or credit. In a nutshell: bring some US dollars with you.
Once you have cleared customs there you can find ATMs just outside the doors of the airport. For those looking to get into the city, there is a desk that sells tickets to the shuttle bus, or taxis available for hire outside.
Insider tip about the local currency: The Kip is not considered to be a major currency and therefore exchange rates are terrible. Wait till you arrive to use the ATM and either spend it all or convert it before you leave.
Getting Around Luang Prabang in 3 Days
Luang Prabang is a very pedestrian friendly city. There are three main streets all parallel to each other which is where the majority of shops, restaurants, and accommodations can be found. Of course, tuktuks are also available to take you around and can be found on the main street corners, and bikes (both push bikes and motorbikes) can be rented.
Tours to other attractions out of town can be taken by tuktuk or shuttle bus provided either by the company you book with or your accommodation. Don’t be afraid to ask around for the best price!
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang for 3 Days
Luang Prabang isn’t exactly a massive town, so you can’t really go wrong on picking a place to stay as long as you stay within the town proper. The majority of the shops and action takes place around the night market area, making it a good place to stay. If you want somewhere quieter, stay on one of the side streets by the river. My best advice would be to stay close to Phoussay Hill as it is probably the most central landmark.
The Best Things to do with 3 Days in Luang Prabang
Explore the Town
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site, and you can easily spend a day exploring the shops, cafes, and temples of this city. Be sure to climb mount Phousi for the panoramic views (although the sunset crowds ruin the moment so go during the day).
You should also be sure to visit some of the temples (although they almost all have a fee). Some of the most popular ones to visit include Wat Xiang Thong, Wat Mai, and Haw Phra Bang. You can also visit the royal palace grounds which, today, is a museum.
Don’t be afraid to wander through the streets of Luang Prabang. The city is filled with temples, tiny markets, shops, and museums that are worth a look.
Shop at the Night Market
Luang Prabang has a night market every night starting at about 9pm. It’s a great place to wander and pick up souvenirs. You will find everything from woven bags, silk scarfs, lanterns, paper journals, traditional Lao sarong skirts, and all kinds of knickknacks. Some of it is good quality, some of it is the same mass produced junk found in every other market. For a unique souvenir find the stalls that sell keychains and bottle openers made from landmines. Not only is it different, but the project gives back to the community. Don’t forget to haggle!
Visit the Nearby Waterfalls
Kuang Si falls are the most well known waterfalls near Luang Prabang. They are located about 40 minutes outside the city centre and almost every tourist agency, hotel/hostel, and tuktuk driver will offer to get you there. It’s a great spot to spend half a day, and escape the heat. You can absolutely swim here (so wear your suit!) but be warned the water is a bit chilly.
For those that are adventurous, it is possible to climb to the top of the falls where you will be rewarded with a smaller crowd and calmer waters. If you plan on going take the path on the right side. It’s still strenuous (but worth it) and much easier than the left side.
The sun bear reserve can also be found here, on the path as you walk towards the falls, so be sure to stop and take a peek.
If you have more time, or are a waterfall enthusiast, there is another waterfall in the area called Tad Sae that is a little less busy.
Chill out at Utopia
*Note: Utopia is still marked as Temporarily close due to COVID-19
Utopia is probably the best-known hangout spot for tourists in Luang Prabang. Overlooking the Mekong, this bar/restaurant is a favourite for many. Go during the day for a cold drink to escape the sun and lounge on one of the matts overlooking the river. You are more than welcome to bring a book or even have a little nap, so long as you order. At night Utopia becomes the hangout spot. There’s no dance floor, and it closes early, but it definitely attracts a crowd.
Learn about Silk Weaving at a Local Farm
One of the most interesting things I did in Luang Prabang was visiting a silk farm and learn about the process. Best part, it was completely free. There’s a great little shop in the city called Ock Pop Tok that will arrange for their tuktuk to take you to their nearby silk farm. There a guide will give you the tour (about 20 minutes) on how it all works, from the silk worm to the dying to the weaving. The artists are all local women from Laos, with different designs depending on the area from which they come.
For those who are interested in learning themselves, you can sign up for a full or half day class. There is also a shop and a restaurant with a beautiful view over looking the river.
Catch a Free Movie
*Note this is currently closed due to COVID-19. I hope they will return
One of the best things to do after a busy day is relax with a movie. Local shop and cafe L’Estranger Book and Tea recognizes that and offers nightly movies for free, asking only that you order something from their menu in return. It doesn’t have to be a full meal (although they have lots of options of meals and snacks), you could also get a drink. It’s a fun place to relax for a couple of hours and you can find the weekly movie schedule on their Facebook page.
Get a Massage
One of the biggest perks of travel through southeast Asia is the abundance of cheap massages, and Luang Prabang is no exception. There are plenty of massage parlours throughout town offering everything from traditional Lao massage to a manicure. I have an amazing experience, but my friend had two awful ones so ask for advice on where to go first. Sadly I didn’t get the name of the spot I went but if you find Novelty Cafe, look across the road and to the left you will see a small street. Head down there a bit and it will be on your right, with purple signs. It was awesome, so much better than my terrifying Thai massage experience.
Make Friends with Elephants
There are plenty of elephant experiences available around Luang Prabang, however most are not socially responsible. However for those searching for an eco friendly and responsible elephant experience, look no further than MandLao tours. Visitors are only allowed in small groups and can spend a whole (or half day) trekking, bathing, and feeding rescued elephants. It’s an incredible experience. Click the link to read about my experience at Mandalao.
Where to Eat in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, thanks to the French Influence, has a lot of western food options as well as typical Asian fare. Sandwiches (on fresh baguettes), crepes, and fruit shakes are a must and can be found easily around town. Try the lemon, honey, and mint shake, you won’t be disappointed!
This will probably be the only time I say this, but when it comes to dinner I would not recommend the night food market. It’s cheap, and often busy but my experience came with mediocre food and…bugs. And no, there were not supposed to be dead caterpillars attached to my beans. I later heard that a lot of the food, if not sold right away, will get saved to be put out again the next night. So if you do go, go with caution and try to only order things you see prepared right in front of you.
While Luang Prabang does have some good fresh, made to order, street food stalls, they also have a great selection of cafes and restaurants. My favourites include:
-Indigo House for good asian and western fare. The vegetarian pizza was really good. Tip: There’s seating at the rooftop which offers a great view of the area and is really relaxing.
-Coconut Garden for traditional Lao food. Try the Luang Prabang salad and steamed fish in seaweed!
The food at Utopia is supposed to be quite good and I also heard great reviews of Blue Lagoon Restaurant and Tamarind Restaurant.
Nightlife in Luang Prabang
If you are expecting party bars and clubs in Luang Prabang, think again. The main hangout place is Utopia (which is also cool during the day, and is a great sunset spot). But it’s mainly for drinking and socializing, not dancing (although that hasn’t stopped a few tipsy patrons!). Of course it doesn’t stay open too late which leads to the next big nightlife spot in Luang Prabang: the bowling alley.
Yes, I said bowling alley.
Tuktuks will wait as you empty out of Utopia all asking if you want to go. I suppose it could be fun with a big crew but most people shrug it off saying it’s only ok. Personally, I skipped and saved my money for more important things, like fruit shakes and baguette sandwiches.
Final Word on 3 Days in Luang Prabang
While I only had 3 days in Luang Prabang, it quickly became one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia, so I hope you have as good a time as I did. Oh, and if you are wondering about the NYC reference? Apparently, it’s to do with money. Luang Prabang is supposed to be the most expensive city in Laos but worry not, it’s still very cheap by North American standards!
A Note on Travel Insurance in Laos
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.