Although my visit to Laos was limited to Luang Prabang, spending a whole week there was a great decision. It was the perfect city to enjoy good food, great outdoors adventures and a place to practice yoga, breathe and relax. Also the mix of local architecture with a taste of the past French colonial buildings makes it really special. Nevertheless, I am marking Laos as top of my list of countries to come back in South East Asia, as I left wanting to get to know more of this wonderful country.
Day 1: Morning Market, Phu Si Hill and Yoga
After crossing the border from Thailand to Laos super early in the morning and arriving in the middle of dawn, we had an early start of the day. We had read Luang Prabang was famous for its European-like cafés and believe me that first breakfast was a perfect introduction to the foodie world in Luang Prabang. We ate in Joma Bakery and had a wonderful breakfast. After feeling completely satisfied we went for a walk in the morning market.
Had to make the best out of being awake since 5am right? The morning market is a local produce market, and by that I mean they sell some of weirdest things ever. Prepare yourself to see some live frogs, birds and insects.
It is definitely and interesting experience and a way to connect with the local culinary culture. After a quick walk in the city (which already made us feel oriented in town- it is quite small), we had a power nap to recover some hours of sleep from the night bus.
Back on our feet and with energy on the afternoon we climbed up Phu Si to That Chomsi, a small temple at the top of the hill. Here you can get a wonderful 360 view of the city. For me the most special things of Luang Prabang were its rivers. It really creates the chill relaxed vibe of being by the water. From this viewpoint you can get wonderful pictures and get to enjoy a privileged view of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers surrounding the city.
From there we headed to our first yoga class in Utopia. Wherever you read or whomever you talk to about Luang Prabang you will definitely be recommended to go to Utopia, and I can’t agree more, it is a very special place. Utopia is a restaurant, bar, yoga studio and even has a volleyball court. They have yoga classes in the mornings and afternoons.
That afternoon class was really special, as the class is set up on an open porch with a direct view to the river as the sun goes down. The only setback is that there are a lot of mosquitoes at that time, so prepare yourself for that. After our class we decided to stay there for dinner.
Food was good and dining under the stars by the river was a perfect ending to our first night in Luang Prabang.
Day 2: Cafes, Ethnic Museum and Night Market
On our second day in Luang Prabang we decided to stay in the city and have a chill day. We knew we needed to sort our visas for Vietnam, and thus go through some admin on the morning, so our best bet was to just enjoy the charm of Luang Prabang. We began our day by having breakfast in what I could say was the closest French café I went to in South East Asia, Le Café Ban Vat Sene.
A lot of bloggers and guides had recommended it, however I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Maybe I am a little biased as I can’t really enjoy the fine French pastries they offered as they are not gluten free, however I still found it was expensive for what they offered. Nevertheless, the décor and ambiance is really nice and chic.
After sorting visa admin stuff, I headed to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC). The TAEC is a small museum and shop that exhibits the lifestyle and traditional handicrafts of the different ethnic minority groups in Laos. The museum is really well documented and the collection holds beautiful objects from each of the ethnic groups. At the end of the museum there is a little shop that sells local handicrafts and supports a development program of the artisans. There is also a sister shop of the museum in town that I recommend visiting if you don’t have time to make to the museum.
After the museum, I met up again with my friend who stayed reading in the cutest local bookstore and we decided to cross the Nam Khan River to explore the other side of town. To cross the river you are going to find a bamboo bridge, which is built every year by locals as the river washes it away on the rainy season. A small donation will be charged to use the bridge as the money goes for the materials to build it for the next season.
On the other side there is a small jewelry shop and just a little bit further up you will find the Dyen Sabai Restaurant and Bar. We decided to have a drink here. The place as everywhere in Luang Prabang is very peaceful, with its chic bamboo huts by the river. Most people come to this restaurant to try the famous Laos Barbeque. As we didn’t make reservations, we couldn’t have dinner here, however I did have the chance to try the BBQ another night in another restaurant.
We were really lucky that day and had the pleasure to meet a documentary director who was in town to present his Laos documentary (Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice) on the Luang Prabang film festival. Although we missed the festival by a week, I do recommend checking this film to understand the effects of tourism in a small village in northern Laos.
To end our day in town, we went to check the famous Night Market. The market stretches all the way through one of the main streets in town, which is closed to traffic. Here you can find dozens of traditional handicrafts as well as some food stalls, where you can have a good dinner for very cheap.
Day 3: Hike, Kayak, Tad Sae Waterfall, Traditional Laos Dinner, Night Life
After spending almost two full days in town, we decided it was time to explore some of the beautiful sights around Luang Prabang. We booked a combination of a hike and kayak day trip for that day. From town you will drive half an hour outside to a river.
The hike begins by crossing a river into a small village and then through the forest.
From there you will follow a path to the Tad Sae Waterfall. This waterfall has three levels, each with amazing turquoise pools of fresh water. You can swim in the pools and enjoy the cool water. Really seeing the color of the water is almost surreal.
A little piece of advice, stay in the second level as there is less people here. Our tour organized lunch for us in the first level of the waterfall that has small restaurants and a deck to enjoy the view of the waterfall.
After relaxing a little by the waterfall, our tour continued into the river where our kayaks were waiting for us. From there we went down the river for maybe 2 hours just breathing the amazing nature around us. Kayaking definitely offers you some of the most amazing views you can get.
After our tour, we went back to town to shower and relax for a bit. At night we decided to treat ourselves to a very nice traditional dinner. There are a couple of very famous restaurants in town that also offer cooking classes. One of them is the Bamboo Tree.
Here we enjoyed a sampling platter of a variety of traditional Laotian dishes (they also have a vegetarian option). Our dishes included tofu soup, spring rolls, papaya salad, curry, bamboo in a ginger sauce, the famous Luang Prabang weeds (taste like seaweed but they come from their rivers!) and some sticky rice. Really amazing food and service! I can highly recommend having dinner here.
Despite being tired from our active day, we decided to head out to Utopia to have some drinks which turned into dancing. Luang Prabang is not really known for its night live, however that night, I feel we saw all the possible spots to party in this chill city. After Utopia, instead of heading bowling (which to our knowledge was the only thing open in town after midnight), we ended in the local local Laos club, the Dao Fah. Prepare yourself to very loud electro music but no one dancing. Still it was a fun local experience. As if this was not enough we went to our final stop that night, a local pub that was still open after hours called Yensabai Beer. So let me tell you, if you want a night out in Luang Prabang, you can have it!
Day 4: Kuang Si Waterfall, BBQ and Movie Night
Despite having a slow morning that day, it was time to rent a scooter and go for a ride around Luang Prabang. As I mentioned in my other posts of Southeast Asia, learning how to ride a motorbike and renting one in each country you visit is a MUST. It really is the best way to see the surroundings of a city.
That day we headed to the Kuang Si Falls. This waterfall is the most famous one closer to Luang Prabang, and despite being touristy I was still in awe when I saw it. It is similar to the Tad Sae Waterfall, same turquoise color and pools, however this one has one very big fall. You can also swim in some areas while other are prohibited.
Besides the waterfall, the beauty of being in a motorbike is that you can stop wherever you want to take picture, explore, etc. We did on this ride and found some beautiful rice fields and the river.
On our way back to town we decided to give the Laotian BBQ a try in this cute restaurant full of fairy lights called the Brother House BBQ.
The BBQ is on a metal dish that has boiling water and you rub fat on the top to grill your choice of meat or vegetables. I really enjoyed it, both cooking an eating it.
Since we already had a night out the day before, we decided to go for a chiller plan and headed to a movie night in the local bookstore I mentioned my friend explored some days ago.
L’Etranger Books and Tea is the cutest little bookstore and café with a second floor set up for daily free movie screenings. While traveling, or at least my experience is that you barely watch TV or movies, so it was a nice change of scene from our usual outings.
Day 5: Morning Yoga, and Cafes
Our last day was only a half-day as we were beginning out journey to Vietnam that afternoon. So we tried to enjoy the best of Luang Prabang that morning. We rose early for a yoga class in Utopia. Again as last time the view just makes it a special place to do some yoga.
After breakfast in Utopia, we headed to a very cute café next to the Mekong River called Saffron Coffee. It is a local café and roaster with the perfect ambiance to take your laptop and work or catch up with friends and family and have a good cup of coffee. After having a quick lunch we headed to another café in town for the last hours of our time in Luang Prabang.
The Novelty Café is on the main street and is very cozy. They also offer a book exchange, so if you are running out of reading material make sure you stop by this café.
Although at first 5 days in Luang Prabang seemed a long time, I could have stayed here longer. It is such an easy city to linger. I really found it to be the coziest place in Southeast Asia. It has so many cafes and restaurant to choose from, beautiful views of the river a very chill vibe and amazing natural surroundings. The best description I could find for this city was, If was a writer, it would be the city I choose to live to write my novel.
Border crossing to Vietnam (longest trip ever)
If I could pick my worst trip on all my 3.5 months of traveling in Asia it is definitely the bus ride and land border crossing from Laos to Vietnam. Let’s just say we spent 30 hours on a bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. Thirty already sounds like a lot, however add to this the fact that we didn’t have dinner the first night, had problems in the border and were told it was only 12 hours. Believe me not a good day!
Let me break this down though. The 12 hours we were told were only from Luang Prabang until the border, well actually they were 10 hours, leaving Luang Prabang at 6 PM and arriving to the border at 4 AM. However, let me clarify that the border doesn’t open until 7AM, which means we spent 3 hours in the border sort of sleeping in the bus. I still don’t understand the logic behind this, if they know the border doesn’t open till later why do we leave so early? I guess I would never get an answer for this. From the crossing until Hanoi it is at least another 10 hours. So prepare yourself to definitely 24 hours on a bus (plus stops and border crossing).
For our bad luck or miscommunication mistake, we were used for all night buses to stop for a meal (as they did in Myanmar and Thailand). So in efforts of being “healthy” and not buying crap snacks we told ourselves we would have proper dinner when the bus stops (which we asked the driver and he said yes yes). Well it didn’t. So we left at 6PM and until we crossed the border around 9 AM we had no food! Lesson learned, no matter what pack snacks for overnight buses.
Moreover, when we made it to the Vietnam side (we had changed our leftover Kips on the Laos border) we found out there were no ATMS on this border, which meant we only had that change for the rest of our journey. Thankfully when the bus made the second stop for lunch, we somehow were able to buy some fried rice to split after what we had spent for breakfast in the border.
Finally, we had problems in the border because my friend didn’t get a stamp when she entered Laos on the Thai border. As a Swiss citizen she wasn’t required a visa, so the officials let her pass without even stamping her passport. Luckily we were able to solve the problem. Again lesson learned, double check your passport stamps always on the borders.
Overall, it was the longest and most exhausting trip ever. So my advice, if you can afford it, get a flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi.