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Luang Prabang , also Luang Phabang, Luang Phrabang and Louang Phrabang is the former capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city.
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Points of Interest in Luang Prabang
Arts and crafts
- Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre (On the banks of the Mekong 2 km south of town). An informative free tour to all visitors. Operating as a fairtrade traditional weaving centre, you can take classes in bamboo/textile weaving, dye your own silk, draw your own batik or just relax at the Mekong garden cafe. A free tuk-tuk departs daily from both Ock Pop Tok Shops in town at 10:00, 12:00, and 14:00.
- Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. This small, but perfectly formed museum is dedicated to the ethnic cultures of Laos. Find out more about the groups that make Laos so unique and enrich your visit to Luang Prabang. Sometimes closed for Exhibitions, so check in advance.
Local landmarks and culture
- Alms Ceremony, Sisavangvong Rd. Monks at dawn collecting alms of rice from kneeling villagers (and early-rising tourists). Ask your guesthouse host to assist you the day before in preparing if you'd like to get up and give alms in the morning. The alms giving ceremony is one which, while picturesque, is not without its detractors. Unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of tourists to participate in this tradition as a means of making easy money. They sometimes sell unsuitable, stale and even unsafe food, resulting in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings, Hence the growing resistance to continuing the tradition. The government, however, has made it clear that the monks must continue the custom or be replaced by lay persons clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances, thereby maintaining tourist revenue. If you wish to participate in this ceremony, prepare the food or fruit yourself. Avoid giving food of dodgy quality. Another problem is the rampant photography. While a photo might look nice in your collection, think about how it must feel for the monks to have hundreds of tourists photographing them every day. Some lowlifes even stand right next to the monks, blinding them with flashebulbs. Consider watching this old tradition from a distance instead of degrading it.
- Haw Kham. Daily except Tu, 08:00-11:30 and 13:30-16:00. The former royal palace, now a national museum. No photos/videos/bags/shoes allowed, free locker provided. Sometimes there is a play or dance performances in the adjacent theatre. In Aug 2011 for example, every M-W-F-Sa, there was a performance at 18:30 of Search of Princess Sida, a royal ballet, with prices from 80,000 to 150,000 kip. Check the schedule and plan your visit accordingly. 30,000 kip.
- Phou Si. The hill that dominates the city from which you have a good view of the whole area. It's not a very steep climb from the bottom. Sunrise and sunset are the most sensible and rewarding times to go up. There is a near-panoramic view from the top. The ticket office closes at 18:30, so climbing to the top is virtually free afterwards. Which gives you about 30 minutes before it gets dark. Entrance fee, 20,000 kip.
- Vat Xieng Toung. 06:00-18:00. The oldest monastery in town and one of the most beautiful. One entrance is on the road along the Mekong, another on the by-lane off the main road. 20,000 kip.
- Vipassana Temple and Park. This golden temple, highly visible from Phou Si, is a shrine for Buddhists who practice Vipassana meditation.
Out of town
- Bear Rescue Centre (adjacent to the path to the Kuang Si Waterfalls). Has a enclosure for endangered Asiatic black bears that have been rescued from poachers.
- Kuang Si Falls (some 29 km south of Luang Prabang). 08:00-17:30. A large multi-tiered waterfall, accessible by boat or truck hire. You can also rent a motorbike to transport yourself there. There are food and tourist stalls outside the waterfalls. It is worth putting a whole day aside (or more) for seeing these because they are a great place to relax and meet other travellers. There are multiple pools at different levels, all of which are reportedly safe to bathe in, and are extremely picturesque. Shared tuk-tuks charge about 30,000-50,000 kip (cheapest seems to be near slow boat pier, though you can get them for 40,000 kip near Joma Bakery). You may have to wait until the tuk-tuk fills up. Tuk-tuks are legally only allowed to take six people, and there is a checkpoint at the falls, so some drivers may try to get a 7th person in the front seat. Private tuk-tuk will cost you at least 150,000 kip, but you will need to bargain for some time; don't hesitate to start from 100,000 kip if the driver tells you 150,000 kip. Drivers may try to show you documents that quote 200,000 kip or more depending on driver. Just ignore this and insist. Try and go with 5 people and insist on 30,000 kip each. The driver should wait for 3-4 hours at the waterfall gate area. Make sure your 150,000 kip includes there and back. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Just remember that there are dozens of tuk-tuks around, so you have the advantage. If you lack companions, offer 30,000 kip and wait until he finds more passengers. A seat in a minibus costs 40,000 kip, more if booked through a travel agent. 20,000 kip.
- Pak Ou Caves. The famous "Buddha caves" are north of town on the Mekong and can be reached by road (approx 1 hr) or river boat (around 1.5 hrs). Alternatively, you can hire canoes and a guide for the day, which would allow you to view the beautiful scenery and visit the caves without throngs of other tourists. It's also possible to finish the trip at the "whisky village" where the local Lao lao (rice spirits) is made. There are two caves, one on the entry level and another, the upper caves, on top of the hill. A very steep climb, but worth the effort. A torch is needed to see the upper cave, as it is dark. Simply cross the river for for 3,000-5,000 kip, walk up the hill and turn right, crossing the school grounds, to find your way to the caves.
- Tad Sae Waterfalls (You must take a river boat to reach the place). Tiered waterfalls which are not as big as Kuang Xi, but very beautiful. You can bathe there and elephant rides are available. Admission, 15,000 kip.
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About Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang rose to prominence as the capital of the first Lao kingdom (Lan Xang - land of the million elephants) from 1353 onwards. The city owes its present name to the Pha Bang, a revered Buddha image (now in the Royal Palace Museum) which was brought to the city by King Visoun during the golden age of Lan Xang in the early 1500s.
The fragmentation of the Lao kingdom at the end of the 16th century saw Luang Prabang become a militarily weak independent city state paying tribute to the surrounding kingdoms. Ultimately the 1887 sacking of the city by the Chinese Haw led the Luang Prabang monarchy to accept the protection of the French, whose influence led to the construction of the many fine colonial villas that sit harmoniously alongside the traditional Lao architecture.
The city fell into decline in the latter half of the 20th century following the reluctant withdrawal of the French, and the 1975 revolution which brought an end to the Luang Prabang monarchy. The relative poverty of newly-independent Laos perhaps helped save Luang Prabang from the ravages of 20th century city planning.
The reopening of Laos to tourism in 1989 resulted in a remarkable turnaround in the city's fortunes, as crumbling timber houses and colonial mansions were sensitively restored and transformed into immaculate guesthouses and boutique hotels. In 1995 the city was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- Big Brother Mouse (Off the main street, down a side street next to 3 Nagas restaurant.). M-Sa, 09:00-11:00. A worthwhile organisation devoted to encouraging literacy in young adults. Depending on sponsorship and volunteers, it welcomes tourists to help with English conversation and reading practice. They publish and distribute books in Lao and English. Consider buying some books to take as gifts to village children as you travel through Laos. They are also to be found in Vientiane.
- Fair Trek Project. People who love activities and treks may find some interesting interactive tours which are designed to support villages outside of Luang Prabang in the north of Laos.
- Lao Red Cross Sauna, Wisunarat Rd (In front of Wat Wisunalat). 16:00-20:00. A traditional Lao sauna and massage, very popular with locals in the afternoon. 1 hour massage 40,000 kip (open 09:00-21:00), sauna 10,000 kip.
- Lenou's Library. A great way to experience Lao village life without a tour bus. The owner started a library and children's English tutoring center in his house a few years ago and since has been steadily expanding services with help from some volunteers. Lenou sometimes organises dinners on the Num Ou river by request and generally seems to appreciate a helping hand.
- Rent a Motorbike. Although prices are astronomical by SE Asia standards, riding around the surrounding areas of Luang Prabang is a fantastic way to see the countryside. Fuel for the whole day will cost around 15,000 kip. Normal practice is to keep your passport, so make sure they know when you leave and how to recover your passport. USD20-25 per day.
There are no McDonald's restaurants nor any multi-national fast food outlets in Luang Prabang or Laos, for that matter. Restaurants line Sisavangvong Rd and the roads along the Mekong and Nam Khan. Food runs the gamut from standard SE Asian backpacker fare to more traditional Lao dishes, including buffalo sausage right up to very high quality French cuisine. There are also numerous market stalls for cheaper food, including baguettes, crepes, and pancakes.
Stalls along an alleyway between the night market end of Sisavangvong Rd and the Mekong offers superb Lao street food at bargain prices. The much recommended street-food market located east of the Tourist Information building as posted in PBS Gourmet.com to be one of the must-see street food markets in SE Asia is quite disappointing though. A dozen or so buffet dishes per table-stall is offered at 10,000 kip per round of full plate on any selection. They are displayed in aluminum basins with no warmers and by the time it's 20:00, the food is dead cold. The taste is also bland, nothing outstanding or more noteworthy than any buffet offerings in other parts of the world. Plus one must contend with a barrage of flies. Basically, if one sees one table, one sees it all.
While the "buffet" tables is the cheaper way to eat, be wary of the hygiene. You'll never encounter fatter flies elsewhere in SE Asia. A bit more of an investment, but an excellent tasty alternative are the grilled fish, chicken legs and buffalo sausages just before the main buffet area. Delicious and worth every overcharged kip; even tastier if you are tired of fried rice from the cafes that have sprung up on every corner.
Do not pay more than 10,000 kip for a large Beerlao or 8,000 kip for the small dark lager version, pretty much standard throughout the country. Most riverside places offer the same prices for beer and generally the same foods. Prices of food can vary wildly, though. Shop around and don't be shy about asking prices if anything is unclear.
Probably the thing most recommended to eat is the Lao version of fried spring roll, vegetable at 3,000 kip or pork at 5,000 kip per piece.
Be careful of buying the bundles of dried seafood snack if you have the knack for it, the texture is like chewing salty paper.
Local specialities include:
- French baguettes and other bakery items. Extremely well-done here.
- Local watercress which is very peppery.
- Fried dried seaweed with sesame seeds dipped in a chili sauce.
- Buffalo steaks and sausages.
- Luang Prabang Khao Soi: spicy clear mince and noodle soup which is very different from the Chiang Mai version
Cafes and restaurants
- Le Banneton (Opposite Wat Sop, Sisavangvong Rd). Amazing, authentic French bread, tarts, pastries, and cakes. Their pain au chocolate is buttery and delicious!
- Big Tree Cafe. Consistently good Western and Korean food. Under the big tree on the Mekong River. Good service and free Wi-Fi.
- Blue Lagoon Restaurant (Beside the national museum), ☎ +856 71 253698. Offers Luang Prabang-Lao dishes and Swiss classics as well as a variety of snacks and fresh salads.
- Boulevard Restaurant (Behind Joma Bakery). Al fresco restaurant at the New Daraphet Villa. For those wishing a quiet meal be warned the owner has recently brought in sound equipment and a new acoustic guitar for music enthusiasts to jam. The restaurant has 2 sides for both proper dining and casual drinking. Serves decent draft Tiger beer and a great atmosphere for meeting new friends from the guesthouses along the street.
- Eisgarten German Cafe (Near the old bridge on Phommathat Rd near Ban Meuanna, opposite Visoun Namsok Hotel). Owned by a German couple, the cafe is a nondescript house with a tiny sign board. It is easy to miss but do look out for it. The homemade ice cream is absolutely divine at 10,000 kip per scoop. The apple cinnamon and coconut flavours are stand outs. Customers dine al fresco in their yard so bring adequate protection from mosquitoes, particularly in the evenings.
- L'Elephant (Around the corner from Saffron Cafe). A lovely restaurant with a mix of Lao and French foods. The food is extremely good, but has its price. Ingredients are of the highest quality, ranging from French camembert to Laotian lemongrass and river weeds. The menu is both pricey and some items do not justify the price tag. Great ambience.
- Hmong Night Market. 17:00-22:00. One food stall says vegetarian and the other "végétalien" (vegan). Approximately 5,000 kip for a plate. Popular with budget travellers, but not an option for those looking for tasty food. Cash only. Eat at your own risk as hygiene is questionable.
- The House (At the Nam Khan riverside of Mount Phousie, a few min away from main street and night market), ☎ +856 71 255021, e-mail: email@example.com. The only Belgian restaurant/bar in Luang Prabang. Excellent price/quality food. It has an appealing range of Belgian beer, cocktails, and wine. Known for its lasagna, stews, and curries. Recommended for vegetarians. A green bamboo garden with fairy lights confers a pleasant ambience. Attentive staff.
- Indochina Spirit. Excellent Lao and Thai food. Great value. Everything is tasty, but try the minced fish and aubergines. Has old, stuffy, and a not so pleasant odor at the interior tables.
- Joma Bakery Cafe (near the post office at the end of the night market), ☎ +856 71 252292. 07:00-21:00. The best cafe in Luang Prabang. Enjoy their original bagel egger (bagel, egg, ham, cheese, and mayo), oat French toast, the best reuben in SE Asia and best coffee in Laos. Free Wi-Fi, air-con on both floors and free full-menu delivery service from 07:00-19:30. Great music and very friendly staff. 8,000-43,000 kip.
- Lao Lao Garden. Attractively designed bar/restaurant notable for it's Lao-style barbeque. You cook meat on a barbecue mounted in the centre of the table. A backpacker favourite and busy in the evenings with loud club music. If you prefer to cook your barbecue in an atmosphere of quiet contemplation there are other BBQ options along the riverside.
- Un Petit Nid-Biblio Bistro. Very relaxing bistro serving excellent Lao and Western food in a nice atmosphere. Watch out for the kittens. Try the orlam with spicy wood. Good vegetarian menu.
- Riverloft Restaurant (Down the road from Tamarind), ☎ +856 30 2005228. Reasonably priced, high quality foods. Superb breakfast. Or for lunch or dinner you could do Lao with northern treats like "orlaam" or mok pa (steamed fish in banana leaf) or have a salad and sandwich. The amazing highlight is the 10,000 kip bottomless coffee cup which is true Lao Arabica unlike many other places that serve Nescafé. Free fast Wi-Fi. Fantastic place to hang out for an afternoon.
- Rosella Fusion Restaurant. Clean and well-cooked food. A small place (blink, and you'll miss it) that looks like a fruit shake place. Locally owned by Lao guy who trained at Amantaka Restaurant. Possibly the best steaks in town, certainly great cocktails. Slow service, but worth it!
- Saffron Caffè (Around the corner from L'Elephant Restaurant in Wat Nong village). The best coffee in Luang Prabang. It comes from the surrounding mountains. The banana shake macchiato is recommended. Delicious fresh baked goods such as their cinnamon swirls and banana muffins go quickly. Granola and salad wraps are good.
- Sala Café. Nice place with a view of the Nam Khan River. This restaurant-bar is an open air terrace where you can relax while trying homemade Vietnamese, French, and Lao specialities. Some think it expensive, but quality has its price. Try the chocolate brownie!
- Scandinavian Bakery. Quality Western breakfasts, burgers and pizzas. Food must be paid for before eating. Delicious Italian-style pizzas.
- Shakes & Crepes (In front of Croissant d'Or on the main street). A no name place serving delicious shakes for 5,000 kip and fantastic sweet crepes starting at 7,000 kip.
- Tamarind (On the bank of the Nam Khan River next to Apsara). Specialises in introducing Western tourists to Lao food, so the dishes are offered with explanations and the menu is full of information. Traditional Lao food in sampler format. Platter combinations of dips, salads, etc., as well as set menus. Only a small wine list, but good range of fruit drinks. Popular cooking classes in a garden setting. Sells food products, recipe books.
- Viewpoint Café and Restaurant, Mekong Riverside Rd, Xieng Thong Village (Next to Mekong Riverview Hotel), ☎ +856 71 254900. 07:00-23:00. High quality Lao and Western food.
There are a number of places to drink around Luang Prabang, though the late-night club scene is pretty much nonexistent. The liveliest and busiest bars are in a small cluster between Mt Phousi and the Nam Khong.
Luang Prabang's status means that curfews are strictly enforced here. Bars start winding down at 23:00 and close at 23:30 sharp. The only late-night options permitted are outside the main part of town, a discotheque patronised mostly by locals and bizarrely, a ten pin bowling alley.
If you do plan on staying out after hours, check the arrangements with your guesthouse first to avoid being locked out.
If you're simply looking to relax and enjoy the river views, most riverside restaurants have tables outside where you can sit back with a beer or two.
- Books and Tea L'Etranger. Downstairs is a book shop/swap and upstairs is a bar selling drinks and cake in a room covered in cushions for lazing around and reading. Movies everyday at 19:00. A tad greedy and unfriendly on the book exchange business.
- Hive Bar, Phousi Rd. closes 23:30 sharp. Established and highly popular watering hole, with cosy brick-lined rooms and an outside terrace. Notable for their ethnic fashion shows at 19:00 most days of the week and their range of Lao Lao cocktails.
- Lao Lao Garden and the adjacent Lao Lao Bar, Phousi Rd. closes 23:30. Popular with the backpacker crowd. In addition to their acclaimed food, it is marketed as a place to "drink like a fish for the price of water".
- Mekong Sunset Beach Bar. The place to go to watch the sunset. Located at the river mouth of Nam Khan and Mekong, you have to cross the bamboo bridge behind Wat Xieng Thong and walk 3 min. Very simple but unbelievable. Floods in the rainy season.
- Morning Glory Cafe (On the quiet end of the main street, after 3 Nagas). Run by a laid-back couple. Thai and Western food. Good wine, by the glass. Garden seating. Temple in front and street life can be enjoyed.
- Utopia (By the Nam Khan River. Follow the signs from near the Hive Bar). 08:00-23:30. Aims to be a relaxing garden by day and tropical jungle lounge by night, when it fills up with backpackers. Gorgeous views along the Nam Khan River. Caters to backpackers wanting to chill, and other than the beer there is nothing Lao about this place. Free Wi-Fi.
Thai baht and USD are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. There are some ATMs accepting Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards. These ATMs are situated mostly in Sisavangvong Rd just near the end of the Night Market. The ATMs dispense currency in Lao Kip and generally allow a maximum withdrawal of 1,000,000 kip with a charge of 20,000 kip. Multiple withdrawals are allowed to a daily maximum of 5,000,000 kip. If you arrive by plane, there is an ATM and a money changer at the airport which is open for a few hours of the day, so don't count on changing there. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in town.
For Malaysians, it is best to change money to baht, where the rate is RM 10 = 100 Baht or more, then change the baht to kip in laos. This is because they give not so good rates in laos for malaysian ringgit.
There are a number of money changers who generally do not offergood rates, and are located either on Sisavangvong Rd or in the permanent markets further East. One is next to the ATM near the Night Markets, another is about 50m further North along the street, located out the front of one of the first restaurants (looks like a little tollbooth/shack). The rates offered may vary, so shop around before you change. Better maybe to stick with official money changing services at a bank which are easily found. There are reports of scam by using money changers to take cash advance. They will charge you more in USD with different exchange rate than written, even after complaining it's not possible to cancel the transaction.
The night market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters for tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want and closes at about 10 PM. Particularly good are the duvet covers, cushion covers and pillow sets. They can even make one up to the dimensions you require in one next day. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with and amazingly non-pushy by the standard elsewhere in Asia. Traders range from young children to the elderly who usually made crafts, arts and goods by themselves. Good-natured bargaining is advisable but don't obsess over this and ruin your experience as well as giving the trader a bad day. It should be understood that the quality and design of goods is lower in the market than in the legions of increasingly chic stores in the town. There may be some souvenirs available made from endangered animals. Avoid buying rare pets, leather, ivory, talons, dried sea creatures (starfish, etc.), fur, feathers, teeth, wool and other products. This is the best place to buy lower end souvenirs and hone your bargaining skills.
Laotian asthetic sense is quite evolved in its own way. For instance check out some of the higher end stores:
- Ock Pop Tok, 73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang, plus 2 other stores in town, ☎ +856 71 253219. An ethical trading company with superb galleries. Also run classes and visits to village weaving faciltiies.
Several book stores operating in and around the area that sell photocopies to unsuspecting travellers. It's worth checking copies as pages can be unreadable or even missing.
- Book Exchange – the Tamnak Lao Restaurant Book Exchange have a very good selection of books. The exchange operates on a “one for one” basis plus 20,000 kip, and all books are also available for purchase. All of the money raised by the book exchange goes to buying provisions for the Luang Prabang Government Orphanages and Ethnic High Schools . It is located in the lane next to the restaurant.
During lunch break or siesta time which starts 12:00 to 13:30, the dry summer sun can be scorching. To spend time comfortably while waiting for the sun to mellow at around 15:30, hang around at the public library across the National Museum about 4 or 5 buildings down where the US-sponsored reading room is located. There are English language old newspapers issued months ago still in circulation. Or better still surf the net for free from the six Internet stations for the rest of the time.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Luang Prabang on Wikivoyage.