This past June I returned to Luang Prabang for the first time since 2008. I’m proud to say the country of Laos is still strikingly serene and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang remains one of my favorite places in South East Asia. Just as the Laotian landscape seems untouched and frozen in time, the cuisine also awaits discovery. This is especially true of Northern Lao cuisine, which unlike what we consider “issan food” has not gained notoriety from being claimed as “Thai” like papaya salad, sticky rice, and other dishes we have come to expect on Thai menus around the world.
Thus this guide, like all my guides, aims to give you a food-centric perspective on traveling in Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. Below you can find a list of dishes to try, recommended restaurants, Youtube videos (incase you’re can’t be bothered to read this guide) and details on hotels and guest houses in Luang Prabang.
Note: Above is the full playlist of videos from Laos. To view this list on Youtube, click here.
General Tips and Observations about Laos
- Thailand and Laos share many historical and cultural similarities. This includes language, where most Laotians will understand Thai even if they can’t speak it. While much of the vocabulary is different in Laos, the structure and script share many commonalities.
- Lao people seem more genuinely curious and welcoming in their interactions with foreigners.
- In general, things are more expensive than in Thailand.
- References to red meat are almost always mean buffalo, as their is little beef available in Laos.
- In contrast with the green-ness of the country, trash is discarded without discretion.
- Flies are everywhere and on everything, which is not just a nuisance, but can make the street food and markets you find available less hygienic.
- Strategize about how to beat the heat. Stay hydrated, take a dip in the pool, bring airy athletic wear, sunglasses, sunblock, hats, etc and an umbrella if you visit during the rainy season.
- While it can be extremely hot, you are also expected to dress politely, especially when visiting significant sites. Women should be especially careful to make sure their shoulders, legs, and chest are covered when visiting temples or giving alms.
- The internet access has improved greatly since my previous visit and I found wifi of acceptable speed in both the hotels and guesthouses where I stayed.
- Luang Prabang is very walkable, but if you need to explore the city quickly consider renting a bicycle or motorbike.
- You can use US Dollars in nice places, but expect to get small change in kip and have an idea of the exchange rate you expect as it may effect your haggling for rides or trinkets in the night market.
- Unlike Thailand, there is no obvious sex tourism happening in Laos, making it decidedly a more family friendly place.
Traditional Lao Cuisine to try in Luang Prabang
Khai Pen – Toasted Mekong seaweed encrusted with sesame and dehydrated lime
Mok Pa – The more homely sibling of the Thai ‘hor mok’ this dish consists mostly of fish and herbs, especially dill which are wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled before serving.
Larb – This dish often claimed by Thais is a minced meat salad with plenty sour and spicy flavors to ensure each bite provides it’s on special kick in the throat
Jaew Bong – popular chili paste, often referred to as a jam for it’s thick texture and sweet taste, but the highlights of a great ‘jaew bong’ is how the sweetness is balanced with the savory notes from the chili and buffalo skin
Khao Biak – Often referred to as ‘khao piak sen’ this is a popular cool weather dish in Laos composed of thick noodles in a gloupy chicken broth. A bowl of this is a satisfying equivalent of a Laotian chicken noodle soup.
Pho Lao – Pho is most well known for being Vietnamese, but there is also a popular Vietnamese version. I recommend you give it a try with rare buffalo meat while visiting Luang Prabang and it may change your perspective on this famous soup!
Khao Poon – The Thai version is more commonly known as ‘kanom jin’ but in Laos this heavyweight dish is a common meal of locals consisting of stringy fermented rice noodles and the thick, spicy curry or meat broth of your choice.
Tham Ma Hoong – Also known as papaya salad or ‘som tum’ to Thais, this is a dish of sliced and pounded green papaya, chilies, and a melange of other ingredients including lime, funky fermented fish paste ‘pa daek’, and the not so secret ingredient MSG
Koi Ga/Bla – Laotian salad of herbs and spices tossed in lime juice with lightly blanched meat, often chicken or fish. Expect to find this meat salad less spicy and with larger chunks of meat than your typical larb. You will not find restaurants preparing the raw version of this dish because of health risks.
Or Lam – a thick herbal stew with a tingling sensation given from the use of the ‘sakan’ tree bark
Khao Soy – Thick cut noodles and salty broth ladled with a thick tomato based curry (no coconut milk like you would find in the Thai version)
Beer Lao – This local lager is great with a meal and both the regular and dark versions are similar to the popular Thai beers
Restaurants to Try in Luang Prabang
– Le Banneton Cafe and French Bakery
Le Banneton (Le-BEN-ton) is a beloved bakery with local and foreign fans alike for pumping out pastries reminiscent of the high quality baking available in France. The cafe is across the street from Wat Sen (the large temple near the public school on Sakkaline Road).
– 3 Nagas Restaurant
One of the most popular restaurant serving contemporary Lao food is 3 Nagas, in a colonial building on Sakkaline road across from the hotel of the same name. Look for the classic cars parked in front.
– Manda de Laos Restaurant
This restaurant serves beautifully presented Laotian cuisine with impressive, contemporary presentation. Find the restaurant in the Maison Dalabua Hotel, which is built next to natural, UNESCO protected ancient ponds. The ponds make for a serene atmosphere to enjoy your meal or Lao style cocktail. Set meals start around $25 (200,000 kip) and the average a la carte item is around $10 (80,000 kip).
– Xieng Thong Phonsavnh Restaurant
Local Lao restaurant just next to Mekong Riverview Hotel. There you can find beautifully friend fish and one of the tastiest renditions of koi pla.
– Joma Coffee Shop
One of the more popular chains in Laos, you can find it packed with travelers hunting western food and baked goods, no matter which location in Luang Prabang or Vientiane you visit.
– Delicieux Luang Prabang
Not to be confused with a cafe of similar name, this long standing Luang Prabang Pho shop has recently moved into a new building. While there have been some upgrades in the signage and small details, the Auntie-made pho is still true to the original location and the expanded menu offers variety to frequent visitors. Don’t forget part of what makes this one of the best noodle bowls in Luang Prabang are the incredible selection of condiments, including fresh herbs, pea nutty homemade jeow, and the bizarre preserved cabbage. Typical place is 20,000 kip and the shop is located on Phu Vao Road, a short walk from Jade Hotel on the opposite side of the road in a cluster of townhouses.
– Phosy Market Pho Shop
This dimly lit, small shop has been operating out of the eastern end of the the market for ten years or more. Here you’ll find some of the cities best pho and khao piak. Worth the journey out to the market for a bowl or two, or three!
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
– Hotel: Sofitel, Luang Prabang
Part of my most recent visit to Luang Prabang included a stay at the Sofitel in Luang Prabang, formerly known as Hotel de la Paix. The luxury property was the former prison in Luang Prabang, but you can hardly tell by the feel of it’s expensive garden and plush rooms. The hotel is ideal for romantics or people who enjoy their quiet. Active types may prefer their sister hotel 3 Nagas MGallery which is located more centrally in Luang Prabang.
– Guest House Lane: Nittaya Guest House
The area with the most guest houses in Luang Prabang are the roads between Chao Fa Ngum and Khem Khong roads (Joma is on the corner of Chao Fa Ngum). This is the area going away from the Morning/Night Market area on the road towards Phosi (or Phosi) Market. There you will find a few consecutive streets that are packed with guest houses. The largest and fanciest ones starting at around $40 a night in the low season, while I found a small guest house with friendly owners for $13 per night. The price included air conditioning and wifi in my room.
Things to Do in Luang Prabang
– Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks of Luang Prabang
Known locally as ‘tak bhat’ ceremony, it is an opportunity for locals to make merit by offering alms to monks in the area in exchange for a blessing. The number of temples in Luang Prabang make the procession of monks quite the site, giving the tradition plenty of notoriety with visiting tourists. However, if you plan to participate and take pictures remember to dress appropriately and avoid interfering with locals, or annoying people with your behavior such as loud talking (participants are normally silent) or things like flash photography, which can distract from the ceremony.
– Luang Prabang National Museum
The Luang Prabang National Museum is the former royal palace grounds of the Lao’s royal family and was built in the early 1900s. Since the royal family was deposed there are few other places in the communist country where you can learn about the family and have an idea of how they lived and their significance to the people of Laos. The former palace is also where you can find the home of the “Phra Bang” Buddha, an ancient gift from which the city takes it’s name. The grounds cost 30,000 kip to get in and are usually open from 8am.
– Wat Xiengthong
Regarded as the most beautiful temple in Luang Prabang, it is also the most culturally and historically significant as the oldest temple in the area. The details in the murals is noteworthy and one building houses the funeral chariot of the last recognized king. This attraction costs 20,000 kip to enter and is open from about 8am.
– Phousi Hilltop Temple and View Point
If you’re up for the climb, you can pay 20,000 kip for the pleasure of going up to the hilltop which has been dedicated mostly as a Buddhist temple and holy place. Popular with tourists Phousi (often spelled Phou Si) offers a nice view over the city and beyond the rivers. This is a good activity for the able bodied, especially on a cool early morning after an alms giving session.
– Kuangsi Waterfalls
Located about 25km from downtown Luang Prabang, it can take nearly an hour to get to this natural attraction. The falls are named after the native breed of deer or ‘kuang’. In addition to the beautifully blue pools offering a cool swim you can take the time to climb to the top of the falls and explore the surrounding forest. There is also a bear conservatory where animals who have been rescued from poachers are kept. Kuangsi Waterfall Park costs 20,000 kip to enter.
– Ock Pop Tok
The Ock Pop Tok (meaning East meets West) is a cultural preservation project aimed at maintaining village weaving knowledge by producing exquisite handmade products for sale. The project works mostly with Hmong villagers, employing them in good conditions and with fair trade wages to operate the small handicraft center which multitasks as a teaching facility, restaurant, and boutique guest house (rooms are around $40 per night depending on season). The restaurant serves good food, including nice gin and tonics you can enjoy with a view over the river. More info at ockpoptok.com
– Pak Ou Caves
The Pak Ou Caves have a lot of historical and cultural significance to Lao people who were originally animist before the introduction of Buddhism. The early inhabitants of Lao believed the spirits of the Mekong river, from which they depended on for all of their needs, lived in these limestone caves not far from Luang Prabang. The caves themselves formerly hosted the “Phra Bang” Buddha and served as a temple, but now they are more tourist attraction where about 4,000 Buddha relics can be found in the lower and upper caverns. The caves cost 20,000 kip to enter and can be reached on a short boat ride from Luang Prabang.
– UNESCO Bamboo Bridge
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is require to preserved the city’s traditions. This keeps the city unique and beautiful, but also presents challenges. No where is this better exemplified than by the city’s famous bamboo bridge. When the bridge isn’t washed away (as it does commonly during the rainy season), you can cross the handmade bridge to find a small town with handicraft products and interesting restaurants. The bridge is on the Nam Kan river just down the street from the UNESCO office and costs 5,000 kip (less than a dollar) to cross.
– Luang Prabang Morning Market
Just near the National Museum you find some alleys full of shoppers with all sorts of fresh products. Some of the vendors will linger into the late evening, but if you want to experience the market in it’s full force you should arrive before 10am when things are the most happening. This a good activity to do after you do alms giving and you can look for an early morning breakfast in the area of the market with ready made food.
Here you can find silver, an array of textiles, clothing, carvings, and mulberry paper products in two long rows in the center of town each evening. On the edge of the market you can also find a variety of food vendors, the most interesting ones occupy a small alley next to the Indigo Hotel where they sell all you can eat vegetarian food for 10,000 kip ($1.20) or a great selection of grilled meats. Venders setup around 4 or 5pm and the market runs until around 10pm when much of the city shuts down.
– Phosy Market
Visits to the morning market and evening night market may give you a warp sense of how residents of Luang Prabang live and shop. If you really want to experience how things happen, go the extra mile to Phousi Market (pronounced carefully as POH-SEE) and you won’t regret it. Here you will find the largest market in all of Luang Prabang and a wealth of all sorts of products at local prices.
How to Get to Luang Prabang
– Fly Direct with Air Asia
Low cost airline, Air Asia, recently announced direct flights in to Luang Prabang. The city was previously only serviced by Lao Airlines and Bangkok Airways at much pricier fares. Thankfully that’s all starting to change!
Protip: Before the end of the summer 2016, they will also begin flying direct to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
– Take the Slow Boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang
If you watch the episodes from my recent video series you’ll see some scenes from the scenic ride down the river. We used a cruise company called Luangsay Cruises who package their ride with one or two night stays in their resorts. From all the other boats I saw and researched this is the most luxury of the boat trip options. A two day, one night cruise from Luangsay ranged from $330-540 per night depending on the season. There are cheaper options, but keep in mind you’ll want to spend at least $150 per night to be in reasonable comfortable boats and resorts.
– Take the Bus from Vientiane
Since the capital city of Laos is more easily accessible by plane or bus ride from Thai sister city Nong Khai, many people enter the country here. The city is much larger and busier than Luang Prabang, but it’s a place where people get their bearings on Laos before journeying down to Luang Prabang by bus. This isn’t always a comfortable ride and is geared more towards young backpackers, stoping for a night through Vang Vieng, a small party city, before arriving the following day in Luang Prabang. This is the cheapest option with some bus services offering the route for around $13.
Thank you for reading. I’d appreciate your feedback in a comment below or just share the guide with a friend interested in Laos.
Note: My most recent trip to Luang Prabang was sponsored by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office. All opinions above are my own.