Luang Prabang is a widely revered location in Laos, often discussed in dorm rooms across Southeast Asia as a future destination or a great memory. Because of this buzz and chatter surrounding the town I had developed some high expectations. In this article, I will cover where to eat to stay on budget and the best things to do in Luang Prabang on a budget without paying for expensive tours.
I had expected amazing scenery, waterfalls and possibly a huge backpacker scene. What I found was a highly developed, westernized little town. On the outskirts of the town the shacks, street carts and other commonalities of Southeast Asia could be found. However, the town itself was planned out, western food options in every direction, fancy cafe’s and restaurants and manicured gardens. You won’t get bored even if you stay for a week. There are plenty of unique things to do in Luang Prabang and if you are backpacking in Laos, this iconic town will definitely be on your itinerary.
The town has a curfew of 11:30 pm. Don’t worry it isn’t literally a curfew it is just when most businesses, bars, and restaurants shut up shop. This is out of respect for the monks who are waking up in the early hours of the morning to do the rounds of the town receiving alms from locals.
I spent 8 days in Luang Prabang after catching the Luang Prabang bus from Siem Reap, Cambodia and in amongst some relaxing days managed to visit most of the attractions and then some in this scenic region of Laos. For the purpose of this article know that 8000 Kip is $1 USD as of December 2016.
THINGS TO DO IN LUANG PRABANG
#1 MT. PHOUSI VIEWPOINT
In the center of the town, a staircase leads up Mt. Phousi, home to the Wat Tham Phousi Shrine. Entrance to the temple is 20,000 Kip and bizarrely you can buy a caged bird to release at the summit if that interests you. I made the mistake of visiting the shrine at sunrise hoping to catch a nice view, some color and an interesting time-lapse. Like most of the mornings in Luang Prabang in December, it seems the fog is a constant and not a once-off. The view was still great but nothing in comparison to the sunset I witnessed the following day. From the top, you will have views of the entire town, the Mekong River and the mountains that surround the valley. Be warned there will be a huge hoard of other tourists as the top so if you take your photography seriously, it is best to get there at least an hour before sunset if not earlier. I arrived late and stood atop a fence that had a pretty decent drop down to get a shot of the Mekong River as the sunset.
#2 WITNESS THE MONKS RECEIVING ALMS
To be honest I came across this by mistake. I knew this tradition happened daily in the early hours of the morning but hadn’t risen early enough to experience it. I woke at 5am the day I went to Mt. Phousi for sunrise. The streets were empty, except for the steady stream of fog that flowed above my head. All of a sudden a single-file line of steady-faced monks came out of the fog doing their morning rounds. Local vendors rest on the sidewalk, sitting on stools while waiting for the monks to pass by. Each monk is given a small portion of rice or food, which he places into his container. This is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Luang Prabang.
There is a great Luang Prabang tour that combines an almsgiving experience with the monks and a tour to Kuang Si Falls for under $25.
#3 KUANG SI WATERFALLS LUANG PRABANG
These majestic waterfalls are the most popular tourist attractions and most common things to do in Luang Prabang. Any time you venture out of your accommodation, you will be propositioned by drivers offering you a trip to Kuang Si. The waterfalls are beautiful beyond belief, a grand attraction at over 50 meters. The falls cascade down several platforms before plunging into the azure pool below. Also at the falls, you will find the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Sanctuary and the Kuang Si Butterfly Park. Entrance is 20,000 Kip and a van ride to the falls will cost about 35,000 Kip depending on your haggling ability.
KUANG SI WATERFALL TOUR: HALF-DAY (Includes Transport)
There is one Kuang Si Waterfall tour that I recommend as it is quite unique to the others! The best part about this top-rated tour is that you actually reach Kuang Si Waterfall via a boat ride on the Mekong River. Normally you take a mini-van down a windy road. This is a much better way to get there.
Once you arrive you will enjoy a guided tour (English speaking guide) of the entire Kuang Si Waterfall area and then be treated to a beautiful picnic lunch at the waterfall.
Book your tour: Half-day Kuang Si Falls tour (with Mekong River cruise)
#4 EXPLORE THE MEKONG AND NAM KHAN RIVER
While there are a number of boat tours to take you down the Mekong River, I opted to just explore the banks at an opportunity. There is always action on the river whether it be fisherman setting up nets in the strong current, bridges being built and families washing themselves and clothes.
#5 TAD SAE FALLS
This was a bit of an obscure excursion from start to finish. I took a moped for 100,000 Kip for the day and drove 45 minutes to Tad Sae Falls. Well actually first you park your bike and pay 10,000 Kip for a boat to take you across the river. Now you pay 20,000 Kip to enter the falls. It was beautiful but also one of the most over-developed waterfalls I’ve ever visited. One cafe wasn’t enough, with multiple eateries parked right at the falls. Boardwalks criss-cross throughout the area and zip-line platforms hang overhead. There was a even a giant pipe in the water in one section. Once again the falls are beautiful but it was a little overwhelming to see how commercialized a natural formation had become. Monkeys and peacocks were in cages and elephant riding was available which wasn’t what you want to see. If you have plenty of time in Luang Prabang it’s worth a look but if you are limited for days, it is missable.
#6 WHISKY VILLAGE / BAN XANG HAI
After the adventure to Tad Sae, I still had plenty of time left in the day to head north in search of a whisky village. It was a 45 minutes drive from Luang Prabang on some pretty dodgy roads. When I arrived I couldn’t see too much whisky aside from a few small alcohol bottles but there was plenty of silk and cotton weaving going on. This was one of my favorite parts of Luang Prabang, watching the weaving, hanging out with the kids and exploring the banks of the Mekong at sunset. Definitely suggest making the effort to head out to Ban Xang Hai. Click Here to read the full blog post.
#7 PHAN PHAO TEMPLE
Before Tad Sae Falls, I made a quick stop at Phan Phao temple, which had a decent view but wasn’t the prettiest temple I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The golden temple is atop a hill overlooking Luang Prabang and is often referred to as the “other” temple in reference to the more popular Mt. Phousi.
#7 RENT A BIKE/MOTORBIKE
Cruising around town on a townie is a great way to explore the temples in town, the museum, night market and the river. You can definitely walk it all but a bike makes the whole experience a bit more comfortable in the heat. If you rent a motorbike you can venture to the Whisky Village, Weaving Village, Tad Sae Falls and venture through local towns along the way. I highly recommend renting some form of bike, in my opinion it is one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang.
#8 NIGHT MARKETS
Each night the entire street below Mt. Phousi temple is covered in tents, each one displaying local goods, silk, whisky and other trinkets. The markets were interesting but very repetitive. I bought a couple of drawstring bags and I am sure many, many tourists bought elephant pants because everybody seems to be wearing them.
I don’t really need to include this in the Luang Prabang things to do guide, you are going to end up there anyway. The place to be on any night of the week is without a doubt Utopia. High up on the banks of the fast-flowing Nam Khan River, Utopia exudes chill. Bamboo seating, woven rugs lay on day beds, communal seating, a volleyball court and good music are what to expect at this popular hangout. During the day they encourage relaxing, yoga, drinking and sleeping and at night relatively cheap alcohol and good food at a bit above budget prices is available. Each time I went to Utopia it was packed. As I mentioned earlier it closes at 1130pm due to the curfew but many people go bowling afterwards, which is odd but probably a lot of fun. I never took my camera but shot from across the river on a different day. Hanging out is one of my favorite things to do in Luang Prabang.
WHAT TO EAT
Okay, so this isn’t going to be a foodie’s dissection of Luang Prabang. It is going to be how to get fed cheap on some average to pretty decent food.
Vegetarian Buffet: Alongside the market is a cramped lane full of people all attacking different Laotian delicacies. At the end of the lane is a buffet for 15,000 Kip. The catch: It’s only vegetarian although there were at least 15 different options on the buffet including pasta, rice, tofu, vegetables, salads and other mixed rice type dishes.
Baguettes: The French definitely left their mark. Each morning I would grab a bacon, avocado and cheese baguette, which was pretty much a Subway footlong size. Price $1.25 or 8,000 Kip.
Smoothies: I have to say the quality of smoothies dropped a little in Luang Prabang after the heights of the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia. However, an average smoothie for a buck is still a great deal. A mango smoothie will set you back 10,000 Kip.
LUANG PRABANG WIFI
Internet Cafe in Luang Prabang: Joma Cafe definitely isn’t a budget option but it had the best of the worst wifi in Luang Prabang so consider it a Wifi fee when you buy a 15,000 Kip coffee if you are like me and need to hit the internet solidly every few days.
MORE LAOS TRAVEL BLOGS
HIKING IN VANG VIENG: HIKING TO BEAUTIFUL VIEWPOINT IN VANG VIENG
BLUE LAGOON IN VANG VIENG: BLUE LAGOON VANG VIENG DAY TRIP
KUANG SI FALLS: KUANG SI WATERFALL
THE WHISKY VILLAGE: THE WHISKY VILLAGE – LUANG PRABANG