In Asia

Luang Prabang, Laos | A Two-Day Travel Guide

I never heard of Luang Prabang until a friend of mine ping me, telling me about this cool place with a waterfall you’ve gotta see to believe. I saved it on Google Maps and didn’t think about it for years until we started planning our trip to Hanoi and Ninh Binh, wondering where else we should go in Southeast Asia. That’s when I felt it in my gut. I had to go to Laos.

Laos is the perfect place for a traveler like me. Overall, lesser-traveled, a little harder to get to from the US and Europe, and history that, sadly, is greatly intertwined with that of my country. (At the same time, the horrors that befell the Laotian people during the US bombings does not define them, so don’t go here in search of tragedy porn.)

I was in Luang Prabang for about a day before I had the cliché thought of, “Yeah, I think I should move here.” Who knows if that’d be a good idea. All I can say is that more than any other place I visited in Southeast Asia, my soul misses Luang Prabang the most.

Where is Luang Prabang?

Luang Prabang is a small town that sits in central, northern Laos on the Mekong River. If you zoom out on the map, it looks pretty isolated. But it’s actually well connected by rail and air.

The once-upon-a-time royal capital of Laos has become a burgeoning backpacking destination thanks to a blend of curious travelers and Chinese investment. In December 2021, the Chinese-financed and constructed Lao-China high-speed railway opened for businesses, sprinting from southern China through the mountainous Laotian spine into the capital, Vientiane. And based on the number of vans and tuk-tuks we saw shuttling tourists around, things are changing around here.

How to get to Luang Prabang?

You can reach Luang Prabang directly by air from a number of neighboring countries. Cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Hanoi all have direct flights. We came from Hanoi and the flight wasn’t even an hour. There are overnight buses you can take from Hanoi. And with the luxury of time, I would’ve loved to slow travel through Sapa in Vietnam and continue onwards to Luang Prabang. But crunched for the tim

Best time of year to visit Luang Prabang

There’s a reason I traveled to Luang Prabang in late February / early March. That’s because I read it falls within the timeframe of the best time of year to visit Luang Prabang. And you know what? It checks out! The weather is comfortably dry with nice temperatures. I don’t think we had a drop of rain our entire time in Laos. Things started to heat up when we left Vang Vieng. But compared to Bangkok, it was nothing.

Things to do in Luang Prabang

For a comparatively small town, there’s an absurd amount of things to do in Luang Prabang. Obviously, just spend time walking around to take it all in. You’ve got calm streets with the occasional motorbike puttering by, trees stretching their old limbs over the sidewalk, and temples on temples on temples.

Below, I’ll leave some notes with my favorite stops.

Go Farming and eat Laotian food with the Living Land Company

Fortunately, mass tourism has yet to reach the rice paddies. At the Living Land Company on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, Louis Chanthavong and his crew of born-and-raised farmers take us out into the rice paddies to show us how they make sticky rice from seed to grain.

Fortunately, mass tourism has yet to reach the rice paddies. At the Living Land Company on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, Louis Chanthavong and his crew of born-and-raised farmers take us out into the rice paddies to show us how they make sticky rice from seed to grain.

Louis says they’ll support students through vocational school and the local university as well as at the nearby orphanage school. They’re also offering free English lessons for anyone in the surrounding villages between the ages of 5 up to 17 years old.

Tourist money also means funding for their education programs. Besides supporting a worthy cause, you get to learn about Laotian manna from heaven––sticky rice.

Suffice it to say, sticky rice is a beloved Laotian staple. People brag around these parts about eating it three times a day with the kind of glee an American child might brag about sneaking in a sugary bowl of Lucky Charms.

And the process of farming rice is no joke. You gotta schlep around in the mud, plant the seeds, and til the land with Susan the water buffalo. Once it’s started growing, you move it to a new paddy, you harvest it, you dry it and summon the rage of a mildly inconvenienced air traveler to whack it against a board and knock the grains out. Then you fan the grains to separate them from the debris. Then it’s another schlep over to pound it, dehull it, and dump it into the mill. It takes a trained hand 4 to 5 hours to make the 3 to 4 kilograms that feed a family for 1 or 2 days.

Merciful hosts that they are at the Living Land Company, they spared us further humiliation and sent us off to lunch. Tofu Soup, Red Curry with Chicken, and a Laotian salad or laab with chicken or pork. Honest to God, maybe the best spread of the entire trip.

Phousi Hill Sunset

I’m including this not because I think you should do it, but because I’m sure you’ll read about it elsewhere. Trying to catch sunset at Phousi Hill was easily the most touristly crammed thing we did in our entire trip around Southeast Asia. The place was buzzing like a hornet’s nest. Except instead of stingers, you could get poked with a selfie stick.

We got to the top and immediately bailed on the endeavor. Instead, we went back down on the northern side and found a totally uncrowded spot to see the same sunset above the night market.

The Night Market

The Night Market starts every day at five in the evening where you can shuffle along with the crowds for a variety of textiles and high-quality, hand-crafted goods. And all roads at the market lead to a large plaza full of different food stalls. Grab some food, a cold Beer Lao, and thank your lucky stars that you somehow landed here in Luang Prabang.

The Morning Alms

The Morning Alms, a traditional ceremony where local monks collect their daily offerings from the devout during sunrise. It’s a silent and sacred occasion. At least, it’s supposed to be.

The way some folks crowded the monks and posed for selfies, you’d think they had a side hustle with TMZ and they just found out where Elvis has been hiding all these years.

It left me feeling a little gross, to be honest. Prior to our trip, we’d seen some YouTube videos that seemed to be a bit less crowded. So maybe go a little earlier than March if you want to see this? My other theory is that travel from China had just opened back up, so perhaps the YouTube videos were showing Luang Prabang below its tourist capacity.

Kuang Si Falls

After the morning alms and breakfast, we settled onto the motorbike for a long ride out into the countryside in search of Kuang Si Falls––the place that first put Laos on the map for me after a friend visited years ago, in those quaint old days when Corona was just a beer for the beach and that guy running for office is just a joke! He definitely won’t win.

At the foot of the falls, we skip the golf cart escort most visitors took, transferring from their white tourist van. It’s a 15-minute walk up through the adjacent village to a dirt trail leading to the falls that for reasons beyond me, some people can skip. Lazy.

The short trail skirts alongside the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center with a handful of Asiatic Black Bears chilling in the mild morning balminess. Kuang Si teases with a series of smaller pools that you hear in the distance and think, “Is this it?” No, not yet, friends…

Until, blammo.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not an enormous, thundering spectacle like Niagara Falls. Kuang Si is imposing, but majestic with several streams of water gracefully sliding down the rock face. It’s one of those natural spectacles that looks too perfect to have been created at random over 4.5 billion years.

Unfortunately, word has gotten out about Kuang Si and we were far from the only ones despite showing up at 10 in the morning. Now I didn’t think this needed to be said, but… Please don’t smoke and throw your cigarette bud on the freakin’ ground, you shinings spectacle of human garbage.

Restaurants in Luang Prabang

Some of the best food we had Luang Prabang came at the farming experience with The Living Land Company. (Seriously, don’t miss out on that!) Otherwise, just be sure to walk around and follow your nose.

That said, Tamarind is a tasty restaurant worth your support. It was opened by Chef Joy Ngeuamboupha who grew up just a few hours outside of Luang Prabang. They also run cooking classes, which I regrettably missed out on, but hope to partake in next time I’m in town.

Hotels in Luang Prabang

I didn’t love where we stayed, so I’m afraid I can’t recommend it. It was okay enough. But after my incident (watch the video above), they were really pushing me to leave the hotel even though I was very clearly ill. Melanie had to advocate on my behalf just to be able to go into a room (we weren’t allowed back in ours) to change clothes, which very much needed to be changed.

But I’m not the name-and-shame type. Plus, everything was great up until that point. So as long as you don’t get suddenly ill, you’ll be fine if you end up at this hotel!

Want more Laos travel tips? Check out my tips on things to do in Vang Vieng and things to do in Vientiane.

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