Sitting at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan, Luang Prabang is a major city in north central Laos that consists of 58 adjacent villages combined into one administrative center. Centered on a small peninsula at the joining of the two major rivers, Luang Prabang is famed for the hundreds of Buddhist temples and monasteries, and for the daily monastic pilgrimage for alms.
Luang Prabang was the original capital of the Kingdom of Laos until 1975, and is now a UNESCO protected site of 33 of the 58 villages. Over the last two decades, Luang Prabang has seen a flood of investors that have revived what were once run-down French-colonial villas into trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. And while this city is slowly becoming larger, the peninsula area retains that sleepy, friendly village atmosphere, as if time has stood still.
Outside the historical and quaint old town lie a myriad of attractions and adventures, from aquamarine waterfalls and the outstanding natural beauty of the area to kayaking trips and river cruises. Surrounded by hazy green mountains, the area also has some great trekking opportunities, spectacular mountain bike trails, and more than thirty-three gilded wats to explore.
Best Time to Go
Like the rest of the country, Luang Prabang is subject to two distinct seasons, which are roughly consistent throughout the country. The wet season runs from May to October, while the dry season is normally between November and May. With no coastline for the beach lovers and sun worshippers, Laos is a country of exploration and excitement, rather than relaxing on the beach and sunbathing. This means that there is no real requirement for it to be hot and sunny to have a great time.
Dry Season (November—May)
The dry season in Laos runs from November to May, when rain is at a minimum and the temperatures are relatively moderate. The best time to visit is normally between November and January, when the weather is at its most pleasant. Temperatures at the higher elevations of Luang Prabang are a little cooler than in the lowlands, and temperatures can drop to near freezing at night. However, while the temperature at night can get a little chilly, it is pleasant and comfortable during the day. The dry season is also the peak season for Luang Prabang, and it can mean more expensive accommodation and more crowded attractions.
From March until May, the temperatures start to rise again, and can get as high as 38-40 degrees in the hottest month. The humidity also increases, making it a little uncomfortable, even in the highlands. However, April is the month for the Lao New Year, and the celebrations can be worth the discomfort, especially since it often consists of throwing a lot of water at each other. This is also the time when rivers drop to their lowest levels, in what is almost a drought.
Wet Season (May—October)
The rainy season in Laos is not actually as rainy as the name suggests, and it can be a good time to visit, especially in the north. The area around Luang Prabang is at a higher altitude than the main tourist destinations in the country, such as Vientiane. In certain parts of the province, it reaches as high as 2,300 meters, which makes the rainy season even less rainy than in the lowlands. Majority of the rainfall happens in the afternoons, and it is rarely a heavy downpour. Temperatures are still fairly hot from May to June, but start to cool down in August and September, which are the rainiest months, and the Mekongoften floods during this period.
It may be wetter, but the humidity is a lot lower, and the afternoon rains mean that the rice paddies and jungles are at their lushest. The summer flowers start to bloom from July, and by August the region is abloom with color, as thousands of colorful butterflies flit between the open flowers. The waterfalls, which are often dried up in the hottest months, are full again, and are at their most impressive. This is a good time to see the dramatically cascading waterfalls of Kuang Si and Tad Sae; or to take a trip along the Mekong River to explore the Pak Ou Caves.
With fewer tourists around, there are a lot of cheaper accommodations available, as prices go down in the off season, and there is the added attraction of the Dragon Boat races on the Nam Khan in September and October, which take center stage in Luang Prabang, and are an unmissable event. People travel into Luang Prabang from all over the area for the races.
The currency in Luang Prabang is the Lao kip, although most of the people prefer to receive payment from foreign visitors in US dollars or Thai baht. The kip is useful for making small purchases, so it is handy to have a good supply of bills. Also keep a good supply of dollars, as this will make it easier to pay for things like your hotel, restaurants, vehicle hire, etc.
You can get money changed at most banks and there are several foreign exchange offices in the town. The dollar value fluctuates between 8,000 and 8,500 kip per dollar, and it is useful to note that the currency cannot be exchanged outside the country, so if you have any bills left over, change them before you leave Laos. Banks are normally open from 8:30am to 4:00pm from Monday to Saturday.
The simplest and easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is by air. travel overland is difficult and uncomfortable, and takes a long time. If you love river travel, you can also take a boat.
Most visitors reach Luang Prabang by direct flight from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, or Hanoi, as there are no long-distance international flights. The town has its own international airport, which provides a visa-on-arrival service for those flying in from outside the country and is just 20 minutes from the town itself.
Laos is a country with a multitude of airports, and for such a small country, it has four that are international airports, although they do not have international flights from outside Asia. If you are flying to Luang Prabang internally, the trip is relatively cheap, and connecting flights from all over the country terminate in Luang Prabang.
There are currently four carriers that operate internationally to Luang Prabang. Laos Airlines is the national carrier and provides direct flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, and Hanoi. Bangkok Airways also provides flights direct to Luang Prabang from Bangkok, as do Thai AirAsia. Flights from Hanoi to Luang Prabang run courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.
There are several international border checkpoints into Laos from neighboring countries and you can obtain your visa upon arrival at most border crossings. However, when coming to Laos from Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar, it can take more than a full day of driving to reach Luang Prabang. Road conditions are also not very good, and it can be a bumpy ride. It is also not recommended in the rainy season, as the many dirt roads can get bogged down and cause problems.
There is also a land border crossing with Cambodia, although it is a very long drive to get to Luang Prabang in the north. People who travel into Laos overland from Cambodia normally take a flight to Luang Prabang from one of the local airports in southern Laos.
For the boat lovers, there are regular river trips along the Mekong River that can take you from northeast Thailand into Laos. The journey starts at Huay Xai in Chiang Rai Province, and follows the course of the Mekong all the way to Luang Prabang. It is a two-day trip, and you will stop for the night at Pak Beng in Laos. There are also speedboat trips for those who want to get there faster, which take only six hours, but are very expensive.
Getting around in Luang Prabang is not difficult, and there are numerous tuk-tuks, taxis, and bicycles for hire. Walking is also a great way to experience the old-town charm of the center of Luang Prabang. The town is on level ground, with only the one hill in the middle, and walking is not strenuous. Bicycles can also be rented at dozens of shops around the town, and are a great way to get around the area if you are not in a hurry.
Tuk-tuks are suitable for short-distance sightseeing and are widely used in daily transportation. Visiting by car is much more convenient when exploring the villages around and transferring from one hotel to another. However, while the road system has improved a lot in recent years, some roads are still in poor condition.
Luang Prabang also has a great network of waterways, including the Mekong river and its local tributaries. There are several day tours that can be arranged with local tour operators that visit places like the Tad Sae Waterfalls and the Pak Ou Caves. There are also long-distance trips that take you on the Golden Triangle route, from Golden Triangle through Huay Xai, Pakbeng, Pak Ou, Luang Prabang, Kuang Si, and end in Vientiane.
Luang Prabang has the best selection of hotels in Laos, with distinctive residences, boutiques and villas. The price of tourism during the high season from November to February is much higher than during the low season, with more hotels booked-out. A standard room in a 3-4 star boutique hotel costs about $100—$150 per room per night, while a 5-star hotel costs more than $200 per room per night during the peak season.