My husband and I spent 5 1/2 days in Luang Prabang in between a visit to Bangkok and Hong Kong. We arrived via Bangkok Airways at the Luang Prabang airport where you need to get a visa upon arrival. The airport is very small; ours was the only plane on line waiting for visas and the whole process took about 25-30 minutes. In the first line, you hand in your passport with a separate passport photo (that you've brought with you). Then you move to a second line where you pay $35 per visa and they return your passport with the visa inside. Move to the third line which is passport control.
Upon luggage retrieval, we went outside where there is a small ticket booth to enlist a taxi. Approx cost to most hotels is $7. You don't have to worry about exchanging money since US dollars or Thai Bhat are both taken - change is often given in local currency - kip. Exchange rate was $1 = 8000 kip. Our taxi was supposed to be private, but since this was busy season (xmas week), we dropped off another couple enroute to our hotel Maison Souvannaphoum.
We were greeted outside the hotel by manager Serge who proved to be extremely hospitable during our entire stay. Green tea was served while we checked in. The hotel is the former residence of the prince. Our room had a large balcony with marble tile and overlooked the pool. The room was modern - bed was comfortable - polished wood floors - limited storage - flat screen tv (which we never turned on so not sure about channels). The bathroom was very small, but modern and quite clean. One of the reasons we picked this hotel was wanting to be within walking distance of town. Shopping and restaurants are about a 5 - 7 minute walk.
We spent our fist afternoon getting acquainted with the small town which is a mixture of French architecture and Buddhist temples. Had coffee and delicious mint lemonade, fresh yogurt and baked goods at Joma Coffee which turned out to be one of our favorite stopping places to sit outside and watch the town go by. At first pass, I was concerned that we had booked too much time at this destination, but as the days went on, the town grew on us -- ultimately we were sorry to leave. We were able to sightsee at a very leisurely place. The town is a quaint Buddhist town with small active temples. The temples are numerous around the town, but not nearly as ornate as other Asian destinations. Dinner was at Villa Santi - they have a balcony that looks over the main street with a limited number of tables. I remember dinner as being good, but unremarkable. There is a night market with most vendors all selling the same merchandise. Fun to walk through and bargain for small items.
The day started looking very overcast and almost like rain - 60's. By 11, the sky was blue and temps were in the 70's. Everyday started the same dismal way, but cleared up to beautiful skies. After a very ample breakfast at hotel which included the most delicious Lao coconut pancakes, we started with a walking tour which took us to TAEC - the ethnology center - small, but very informative, major temples and finally to the main shopping street. If you go to TAEC, there is a small path to the left of the center which brings you through a residential neighborhood on the way to Mt. Phousi. If a hot day, bring water for Mt. Phousi since it is quite a climb of stairs. There were many young monks studying around the temple and we talked with one who told us he wanted to practice his English. Lunch in town at a cute french place - Cafe Ban Vat Sene. Dinner was at 3 Nagas. They have 2 separate dining options across the street from each other. One is a lovely outside patio; the other is indoor dining - even though all the windows and doors are open so you almost feel like you are outside. It is funny seeing the waiters run back and forth across the street carrying plates of food. Menu was very varied. Started with river seaweed with 2 kinds of dips, spring rolls, whole fish stuffed. Excellent food - reservations recommended. If you stop in the restaurant to reserve your table, you actually pick out the table you want to sit at and they write your name on a banana leaf to hold your table.
We had signed up in advance for a cooking school through Tamarind Restaurant. There were approx 15 people in the class. They took us via tuk tuk to a large local market which was about 10 minutes out of town. If you don't do the cooking class, I would still recommend visiting the market (Phousi Market). It is much larger than the local market right in the town of Luang Prabang. Our instructor gave us a tour of the market explaining many of the fruits/vegetables/meats used in Lao cooking. Another 10 minute ride brought us to the cooking school which is on a Lotus Pond. Everybody in the class made all the same dishes - Lao dips, fish in banana leaf, stuffed lemongrass, buffalo laarb salad, sticky rice dessert. At the culmination of our cooking, we all sat down together and feasted. The cost of class was $30 (alcohol was extra) per person.If you don't do the cooking class, I would definitely dine at Tamarind. The menu is similar to what we cooked. Every time we walked by the restaurant, they were busy. We returned to hotel late afternoon where we enjoyed some great spa treatments (some street noise) . We opted out of dinner having ate so much at our late lunch.
We rose about 5:30 to see the monks come down from their temples with the alms bowls. I had done this on another trip in Northern Thailand and it was a similar, solemn and touching experience. We waited for the monks outside our hotel.There was a woman who was selling rice and crackers which we dutifully bought so we had food to give the monks. I suspect that depending where you locate yourself to see the monks, you would see different numbers of monks. There were about 15 that came by us from the nearby temple.
Luang Prabang is fantastic place to rent bicycles and there are many shops/hotels that rent bikes. We went in search of Trek bikes, but this being a busy time of year, they were all sold out. We decided to rent a motorbike. You need to give your passport which we reluctantly did in order to rent the motorbike. We were assured that all shops required this. We drove across the Nam Khan river - the bridge had wooden boards laid out just for motorbike path. On this side of the river there were small weaving shops and sa paper stores. It is very different than the shops in town - less expensive and we bought multiple silk scarves. We had lunch on the same side at Dyen Sabi. Dyen Sabi is also accessible via bamboo foot bridge from the Luang Prabang side during the dry season. The restaurant is open air, take off your shoes and sit on floor cushions. There are backgammon and other various games if you want to whilst your day away overlooking the river. We did a mixed appetizer plate which was average. Setting was a 10! From there we took the motorbike up to Kouang Si water falls which was about 20 miles - about 50 minutes. The ride was very scenic driving through many small villages and we admired the mountains and farmers in the fields. There is a small Hmong village you can stop by to shop. Scenery similar to northern Thailand. The waterfalls are a series of falls with the most beautiful aqua water. Worth the drive. Dinner again at 3 Nagas.
Our last full day was spent walking through town, visiting the National Palace and the other temples we had missed. One of my favorite stores - really there are 2 locations - separated by 3 stores in between - was Naga Creations. This jewelry store sells beautiful silver and other beads. The owner told us that many of the night market vendors will tell you that you are buying silver when in fact it is nickel. After shopping around, you can see the difference between the two. We also purchased some silver bracelets just past Joma Bakery - on the side streets heading out of town. These small shops are only open during the day. Lunch at Le Banneton - next to a small shop selling very nice clothing made from bamboo. We went for spa treatments at La Residence Phou Vao which is hotel located outside of town. The hotel is stunning, however I would miss walking to and from town so I was glad we did not stay there. Our very expensive spa treatments were disappointing because there was a local Lao wedding going on. The party was right outside the spa and it was so loud and noisy, we couldn't relax. We were told that it was wedding season and this was a problem not only for spa guests, but hotel guests as well. Dinner at L'Elephant which had both a French and Lao menu. There were several tour groups here, but service or food did not suffer. We had frog legs, carpaccio, boar terrine, eggplant appetizer (excellent ) and chocolate mousse with caramel ice cream for dessert. Dinner with a bottle of wine was $101 - expensive by Lao standards. Most of our dinners were half that amount including wine.
some quick morning shopping and then off to Hong Kong.
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Trip Report - 5 1/2 days in Luang Prabang