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What To Do On A Visit To Luang Prabang, Laos

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On his recent round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen traveled to Luang Prabang in Laos for several days. Here are his picks on where to stay and what to do. Check out Eric’s other posts from his Asia adventure: Flying a Round the World Award Using US Airways Miles, Norwegian Air Intra-European 737-800 OSL-ARN, Cathay Pacific Economy BKK-HKG, Singapore Economy Class HKG-SIN

One of my main goals during my recent round-the-world trip was to visit the former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. The city has been a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site since 1995 thanks to its cultural significance, its historic temples and shrines, and its more recent French colonial past. These days, this town at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers is a charming reminder of the past glory of this former mountain kingdom, and a wonderful place to explore for a few days.

Arriving at the little airport in Luang Prabang.
Arriving at the little airport in Luang Prabang.

Arrival

I flew to the city from Yangon via Bangkok on Bangkok Airways. The total one-way ticket with both legs came to about $220 – not cheap, but I didn’t have much scheduling flexibility and most flights to LPQ depart Bangkok or Chiang Mai, so my choices were limited, especially as I was coming from Myanmar.

My flight landed at the cute little airport (LPQ) outside town about mid-afternoon and I booked it off the plane and across the tarmac so that I would be one of the first people in line for the visa on arrival. I’m a fast walker and was, in fact, the first person (sit near the back of the plane because that’s the exit they use), so I jumped right up to the counter, handed over $35 in cash in US dollars, and a passport photo, and watched as it worked its way down a line of officials to where it was handed back to me with a new visa in it.

Then it was just through customs and immigration and I was met by a driver from the hotel I had booked, the 3 Nagas.

The 3 Nagas where I stayed - this building has the restaurant and most of the rooms.
The 3 Nagas where I stayed – this building has the restaurant and most of the rooms.

3 Nagas Hotel

Most mid- and high-range hotel rates in town include transportation to/from the airport. It’s a short ride, though, so if you end up booking a cheap guesthouse and need to get to town yourself, it should still be well under $10.

The garden outside my room at 3 Nagas.
The garden outside my room at 3 Nagas.

I had chosen the 3 Nagas based on a friend’s recommendation and the fact that it is a historic guesthouse right in the heart of town on the main street but away from the craziness of the night market. It is owned by the same folks who own the Hotel de la Paix, which is a luxury hotel that occupies a former prison. The 3 Nagas has just fifteen rooms in two buildings, though, so it’s a bit more intimate and budget-conscious. Rates were $120 per night during my stay, but I actually found a “book 3 pay for 2” promo through Mr. & Mrs. Smith, so the rate came out to $80 per night for three nights.

The bed in my room at 3 Nagas.
The bed in my room at 3 Nagas.

Now, there are luxury hotels in and around town like La Residence (about $500 per night) and Amantaka (about $1,000 per night), and there is a preponderance of little guesthouses where you can get a pretty nice room with air conditioning and free WiFi for as little as $15 per night , so there were other options, but the 3 Nagas’s rates were within my budget, the buildings were beautiful, and I really loved the location.

The little sitting area in my room.
The little sitting area in my room.

My room was one of the smaller ones and was on the ground floor in the building across the street from reception but the same building as the hotel’s gourmet restaurant. It was shady and dark during the day, which was nice, and opened out onto a little garden. The room had a queen-size canopy bed with mosquito netting, a cute little sectional sofa, a small desk and a spacious bathroom with shower-tub combo. While it wasn’t truly luxurious, it was very nice and comfortable and I was happy to be staying.

The bathroom - spacious but not luxurious.
The bathroom – spacious but not luxurious.

My rate included breakfast in the mornings, and the menu featured a fresh fruit plate and choice of beverage, then both western and Lao dishes like omelettes and a delicious rice crepe stuffed with pork, carrots and mushrooms.

I also ate in the restaurant, also called 3 Nagas, the first night and sampled some local specialties like the buffalo-chili jam with fried riverweed and sesame seeds, and a whole river fish steamed in a banana leaf with lemongrass, lime and ginger. For dessert, I chose the banana fritters with coconut sorbet and chocolate sauce.

Breakfast at the 3 Nagas one morning.
Breakfast at the 3 Nagas one morning.

Restaurants

The other two nights I was in town, I ate at two of the higher-end options as well. The first was Tamarind, just around the corner from 3 Nagas. The restaurant is a joint venture by an expat named Caroline Gaylard and a Lao chef named Joy Ngeuamboupha who came to Luang Prabang from the countryside, was educated by monks, and found his true calling in the kitchen.

I had the set menu, which includes highlights from the a la carte menu, and costs 120,000 kip ($15) per person. It started with a bamboo-vegetable soup and then featured a platter of Lao specialties like buffalo sausage, herbed steamed fish in banana leaf and lemongrass-stuffed chicken with a side of sticky rice (all to be eaten with your hands). Visitors can also take cooking classes here including a full-day class that includes a trip to the market for 280,000 kip ($35).

The Lao sampler platter at Tamarind.
The Lao sampler platter at Tamarind.

The other night, my friends and I went to what is probably the fanciest restaurant in town (and the busiest the night we were there), L’Elephant. I had the set Lao menu again, which included pretty much the exact same dishes as I’d sampled at Tamarind, while my friends tried the French menu, which included a choice of magret de canard or quail as a main dish. Both were delicious, though I was glad I had stuck to the Lao options. The Lao menu is also 127,000 kip ($16) versus 243,000 ($30) for the French menu. Both are probably among the priciest menus in town.

Sunset from Big Tree Cafe.
Sunset from Big Tree Cafe.

Of course there are tons of cheaper options in town – everything from noodle stands to sit-down dinners – I just didn’t have the chance to explore everything on my own this time.

Apart from dinners out, my friends and I got drinks one evening down by the Mekong riverbank. We were supposed to go to Big Tree Café, but it was closed for low season, so we ended up at the nondescript place next door. Both had big decks overlooking the river, which made for a nice, atmospheric way to end the day, though be sure to use some mosquito repellant, especially as evening sets on.

One of the most interesting places I visited in town was Saffron Espresso Caffe, right across from Big Tree on the road running along the Mekong bank. The café, and Saffron Coffee the company itself, are owned by an expat from Missouri named David Dale who has been working with local communities to revive old coffee plantations and work with the farmers to grow coffee instead of poppies. He also recently built a roasting facility outside town and is distributing to establishments throughout the country. It’s a truly interesting project with a great philanthropic aspect to it…and the coffee is pretty delicious as well.

The other institution in town I visited for coffee and croissants was Ban Vat Sene. It’s definitely an expat scene, but the perfect place to start the day over a cup of café au lait and a pain au chocolat while eavesdropping on conversations in French around you.

A travel writer friend of mine also suggested visiting “Secret Pizza” night on either Tuesday or Friday at the house of an Italian expat named Andrea who fires up a wood oven for the occasion. It’s apparently an LPQ institution and though I couldn’t make it this time, I plan to go on my next visit!

Waking up early to watch the monks collect alms is a must.
Waking up early to watch the monks collect alms is a must.

Activities and Excursions

There are a couple must-do activities that it seems practically every traveler to Luang Prabang does. The first is waking up at dawn (well, at about 5:30am) to watch the monks from the dozens of monasteries around the area walking the streets of town collecting alms of food from observant residents. There are a lot of rules to follow in order to remain culturally sensitive, such as not talking to the monks, staying out of the way of the procession, being careful about photography and more. Most hotels will give visitors a quick primer on how to act, and with some advance notice, can provide you with steamed rice or vegetables to give the monks as they pass by in the morning. There are also opportunistic rice vendors that will sell you a pot of it cheaply, but it’s best to avoid them.

The view from Mt. Phousi.
The view from Mt. Phousi.

The main natural landmark in town is Mt. Phousi (please don’t ask how it is pronounced). There is a small temple complex at the top, which is about 300 steps up from street level, and evening finds hordes of tourists crowding around up there for perfect sunset photos of town. While a bit overdone, it’s still a nice way to watch sunset and get your bearings in town.

The Night Market takes place along the main street every night, and gets quite crowded in high season with stalls along the sidewalks and running along the middle of the road starting at about an hour before sunset. You’ll find the usual kitschy souvenirs and even handicrafts, but if you are looking for something authentic and/or handmade, better to avoid making major purchases here.

The temple housing the Prabang Buddha at the National Museum.
The temple housing the Prabang Buddha at the National Museum.

During my visit, I had a tour company I work with called Laos Mood give me a tour of the town’s various temples and landmarks, as well as on a river cruise. They usually do group tours, but you can find their info here. I had a guide to myself who spent one morning showing me around Luang Prabang’s various temples including small but central Wat Mai, the 16th-century Wat ViSounnarath, and Wat Xieng Thong, also built during the 16th century where the royal funeral sedan still sits. We also visited the morning market (don’t go if you’re squeamish) and the royal palace, which was actually built by the French in 1904 and is now the National Museum, though the exhibit is fairly limited. However, the temple here displays the golden Prabang Buddha, which weighs over 100 pounds.

Chatting with the young people at Big Brother Mouse.
Chatting with the young people at Big Brother Mouse.

One of the other things I loved doing in town was spending a morning at Big Brother Mouse, a project where local students and young people can come and learn English by speaking with visitors as well as an organization that provides books to rural communities around the country. My friend and I spoke to a number of young men, including some monks, and had a great time learning about their day-to-day lives. These sessions run most mornings around 9:00 – 11:00 am, but it is worth checking in the day before to make sure it will be happening.

On the cultural side of things, I made two other stops. The first was to TAEC, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. It’s up a little road on the side of Mt. Phousi, almost across from Amantaka. The centre was started by two local young women who were working at the National Museum, and its mission is to raise awareness of the traditional arts, crafts and costumes of Laos’s 130-odd ethnic groups. They do this by providing educational opportunities for Lao children and also working with communities throughout the countryside both to promote their traditional crafts to help create sustainable cottage industries. Though tourists pay a fee to get in, Lao people can come for free, and you’ll often find groups of schoolchildren here for a visit looking at the traditional outfits on display. There is also a very good little boutique where you can buy fair trade crafts from all over the country.

Fabrics being dyed at Ock Pop Tok.
Fabrics being dyed at Ock Pop Tok.

The other major cultural arts center is called Ock Pop Tok. There is a little boutique in town next to L’Elephant, but a larger center to the southwest of town in a beautiful garden overlooking the Mekong where the organization has a small inn, a restaurant (that turns into a yoga studio some nights), and a weaving center where visitors can learn how to make traditional dyes, watch local women at work weaving intricate textiles, and even spend a day (or several) learning to weave themselves using traditional materials and tools. Ock Pop Tok is a social enterprise that helps develop artisans and industry all over the country and sells the wares here at the center and their other store, and you can find some true treasures. I only spent a couple hours learning about their outreach projects, enjoying lunch and looking at the weaving studio, but if I had had more time, I definitely would have come back for a dyeing or weaving class.

Watching a lady stencil indigo onto fabric at Ock Pop Tok.
Watching a lady stencil indigo onto fabric at Ock Pop Tok.

Waterfalls, Caves and Elephants

There are also a few excursions outside of town to consider. My Laos Mood guide took me on the 90-minute boat ride up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves where pilgrims have left thousands of Buddha statues over the years. It’s interesting, but once was enough and I’m not sure it was worth spending three hours in a boat. I would rather take a shorter river cruise or visit some interesting towns. Instead, the one stop on the way is in a village that sells crafts and rice wine, neither of which I was interested in.

Most visitors take a boat ride up the river to the Pak Ou Caves to see all the Buddha statues.
Most visitors take a boat ride up the river to the Pak Ou Caves to see all the Buddha statues.

A lot of folks also venture to the Kuang Si Falls about 18 miles south of the city. There are three tiers of waterfalls here and limestone pools to swim in, but I was coming at the very start of wet season, so there wasn’t much water and I decided not to go. There is also the Tad Se Waterfall closer to town (about 12 miles). It’s smaller but there is more water here usually and pools to swim in, though again, I was coming at the end of dry season so no one was offering regular excursions out there.

Riverboats mooring at the Pak Ou Caves.
Riverboats mooring at the Pak Ou Caves.

What I did do, however, was visit the Shangri Lao Elephant Village and Camp about 20 miles from town. They have a variety of options from a half-day tours with a guided elephant ride in the river and jungle as well as lunch, to two-day expeditions with an overnight in the kitted-out luxury safari tents at the Explorer Camp, where there is a nice little restaurant as well as a pool area to relax.

Trekking with elephants at Shangri Lao.
Trekking with elephants at Shangri Lao.

I not only got to ride an elephant, but I also met the camp’s baby elephant during the two hours he and his mother were in an open-air enclosure getting checked out by the camp’s veterinarian and having a snack of bananas, and then I got to bathe in the river with my elephant. Playing with the pachyderms was amazing, but the camp also supports extensive conservation efforts and has become a major employer of the inhabitants of the local villages who help with land management and construction projects in the surrounding area. Half-day excursions start at about $60 and full-day at about $90.

My new friend - we were about to take a bath together.
My new friend – we were about to take a bath together.

I ended up spending a total of five days in and around the city, and as you can see, I got to do quite a lot while I was there, but there is still plenty more I would like to have done. I loved the east-meets-west ambiance of town with faded remnants of royal Lao and French-colonial glory. The people I met were also very kind and friendly, and the surrounding countryside was gorgeous. Altogether, Luang Prabang went well beyond my expectations and I am definitely hoping to visit the city again and see even more.

Have you been to Luang Prabang? What did you do while you were there? Share your recommendations with other readers, and feel free to ask Eric any questions in the comments below.

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