Luang Prabang, the Lao national treasure

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R

© Damien Bouhours

Luang Prabang is the must-see city in Laos. Much more interesting than the capital Vientiane, this city of north central Laos, is located at the confluence of the Nam Khan River and Mekong River. If it is a bit of a hassle to reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is definitely worth it.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

Luang Prabang was a royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos and many treasures are spread around its vicinity. Lucky for you, it is easy to discover the numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, the French colonial buildings and the famous Phou Si Mountain, by feet, by a rental bicycle or by motorbike.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

The green mountains surrounding the ancient city and the rivers make for beautiful scenery. More and more touristic over the years, go to visit Luang Prabang when it is still charming and relaxed.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. One of the major landmarks in the city is a large steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si. The best (and wetter) time is probably during Pi Mai Lao, the Lao New Year (in April), when the whole city is turning into a water battlefield.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

How to go there?

By plane

The airport is just north of town and has scheduled flights from/to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Jinghong, Pakse, Siem Reap and Vientiane.

Bangkok Airways offer flights from/to Bangkok.

Laos Airlines [1] offers flights from/to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Jinghong, Pakse and Vientiane.

Vietnam Airlines [2] offers flights from/to Hanoi and Siem Reap. Vietnam Airlines’ pricing scheme is somewhat questionable, with tourists paying higher prices on last-minute tickets.

The new airport opened on the 26/6/13 which is much larger, clean and fairly quiet for an international airport.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

Visa-on-Arrival is available at the airport. The price is variable based upon your nationality, with US$35 being typical, with an additional US$1 processing fee. You need a passport picture to obtain a visa. If you don’t have one, they’ll scan your picture from your passport and charge you an additional US$1. Ensure you have US$ otherwise you will need to use the ATM outside the front entrance or exchange money at the exchange counter. Exchange rates at the airport are reasonably competitive with the prevailing outside rates, unlike a lot of other international airports. ASEAN nationals do not need a visa to enter Laos for stays not exceeding 30 days. Visa extensions are possible at the Immigration Office opposite the Rama Hotel. The cost is US$2/day plus a US$2 form fee. The process is very easy; turn up in the morning with your passport and one photo; fill in a form (in Luang Prabang they do this for you) and come back in the afternoon for your extension.

Taxis into town cost about US$6, whether you are by yourself or with 3 other people. There is a taxi counter just outside the arrival hall. There are tuk-tuks driving down the main road which charge about 20 000 kip (US$3) for 1 person into town. If there is a couple of you then you can get a better price. Most guesthouses can organize pickup for about 100 000 kip.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

By road

Highway 13 connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the south and via Highway 1 to the north. Highway 13 is asphalt and in relatively good shape during dry season all the way to Vientiane. Simply put, it is long, bumpy, and winding road trip. The road resembles of a lunar landscape and there are endless potholes due to poor quality surface, the top layer eroded to reveal the gravel underlayer, which causes a bumpy ride. Though there have been incidents of violence along this stretch of road in the past, presently it is safe.

Upon arrival at a bus station, there will be tuk-tuks that will cram in as many tourists as possible for a flat 20,000 kip to the city centre, which is near the Royal Palace. Many tourists alight here, but if your hotel is not nearby you can request that the driver take you to your hotel at no extra charge, as long as it’s within the historic part of the city.

There are three bus stations, each a little bit out of town, which serve different directions. Tuk-tuk drivers know which bus station to go to for which destination. Ask around for bus schedules.

Tickets can be bought at every travel agent in town, which makes more sense than buying them at the bus station as there is only a difference of roughly 20,000 kip, which pays for the the tuk-tuk from place of accommodation to the bus station (impossible to walk), so it nullifies the gain. Pick those agencies which absorb the shuttle ride from the fare quote as others do not. Compare first before biting the quote. Book tickets in advance, particularly for “VIP” buses as they have reserved seats, and you don’t want to end up sitting next to the toilet. If you have a preference for aisle or window seat, ask for a seat before the toilet (i.e., between the toilet and front of the VIP bus) where the seat numbers are predictable. The seat numbering jumps a couple seats after the toilet (which is located in the middle left of the bus), and what should have been an aisle seat number becomes a window seat number and vice versa.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

By boat

Boats ply the Mekong to and from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng where you can catch overland connections towards the northeast and the border with China. The trip takes 2 days (both days about 9 hours) by slow boat, or 6 bone-rattling hours by speedboat. There are also operators now offering 2-day “luxury” cruises.

Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you’re taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Luang Prabang deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated from six hours in a speedboat. There is also a twice-weekly “one day comfortable boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, but the cost is significantly higher.

Slow boats leave every day, the last one at 11:00. The trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai costs at least 250,000 kip. The trip to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai costs around 900 baht/220,000 kip or 110,000 kip to Pakbeng. Be sure to retain your ticket stub as they check again when you board again at Pakbeng.

Make sure you stock up on food and drink before travelling as the on board prices are practically double (20,000 kip as opposed to 10,000 at a restaurant). Many guest houses at Pakbeng sell small, but somewhat pricey, packed lunches for the onward journey.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

In Huay Xai it’s best to take a tuk-tuk from the border crossing to the boat landing (or about 15 min walk) and purchase your tickets at the boat landing because all the tour agencies in town charge a commission, and agents usually don’t have reliable information about the quality of the boats. It is common to have to switch to a different boat in Pakbeng, so you may end up in a boat of higher or lower quality for the second half of the journey. The two day boats have nice comfortable car seats, and so it is no longer necessary to purchase any cushions.

The slow-boat is generally packed, so much so that there may not be enough seats to go round. If you insist before leaving, plastic chairs may be added for the benefit of the unlucky late-comers. Arriving early will mean a longer day, but most likely a better seat, towards the front and away from the incredibly loud engine (maybe take ear-plugs just in case). The best seats are located near the captain as they allow access to large open ‘doors’, however, this area can get cramped with locals and their belongings or alternatively with shouting, Samsong-drinking party-backpackers while the few locals are shoved in the back. Please consider to give up or at least share your seats for the elderly.

The slow boat trip proceeds at a pleasant 20-30 km/h and offers nice views to the nature and village life on the banks of the Mekong river. Most of the passengers are foreign tourists. Occasional locals take the boat only for short hops between the river side villages, but prefer to take the bus for the full distance from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. So you won’t be able to observe many local boat travellers, the boat ride offers just the usual sight of tourists drinking Beerlao but is a great way to meet other tourists and discuss rout plans and travel info or get very sick of them.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

If you choose to travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket will be provided, but once you have taken the trip you will realize they are mostly show only and will not help you if something goes wrong. Regardless, it is not recommended you travel in a speedboat without this safety equipment. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof/water-resistant as possible and wear a rain jacket. The boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin. On sunny days, sunscreen is invaluable as there is no roof/shade on these speed machines. The journey to Huay Xai can be reduced to as few as 4 hours in the wet season, with a lunch stop at Pakbeng. However, some consider this means of transportation less safe, especially in the dry season when boats travelling at 80 km come within a few metres of exposed rock. Earplugs are strongly recommended. Those concerned about their environmental impact may want avoid speedboats, as they are heavier polluters than the slower options. Speedboats run on LPG with boats stopping regularly to get supplies (8 bottles required per trip) and it is not overly comforting to the weak-hearted to have two full bottles at the front of your boat as you negotiate 3 m diameter whirlpools to avoid 6 m rocky outcrops almost close enough to touch. Travel agents in Luang Prabang will sell the tickets for 320,000-370,000 kip, you will need a minivan to take you the 10 km north to the fast boat pier. Unless you’re an adrenalin junky, look for other transport options.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

The third option is to take a “luxury” cruise. The major operators are Luang Say and Nagi of Mekong. Both operate two-day cruises to Hauy Xai that stop in Pakbeng for the night. A third player, Shompoo Cruise, has now entered the market. Although the journey takes as long as taking the slow boat, these operators offer vastly superior facilities and equipment than public slow boats, and you should be prepared to pay a premium for it. Tickets for all three operators can be bought at most travel agents in town.

Prices are approximately 220,000 kip for a slowboat, 280,000 kip for a speedboat. 3,000,000 kip for Luang Say, 1,200,000 kip for Nagi of Mekonand (both including a night in a hotel) and 640,000 kip for Shompoo. There are reports that prices for Luang Say and Nagi of Mekong can be bargained down.

There is no public boat service to Vientiane, but it may be possible to do the trip by private tourist boat when the water levels are high enough.

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