Luang Prabang is a beautiful city, it’s like the adored child who is the apple her parents’ eye. The city crawls along the Mekong River. The gilded tips of temples peek above the palm trees.
In 1995, UNESCO designated the entire city as a World Heritage site. Key aspects of the city are now protected from tourism, time, and development. Even in a decade, the views won’t include multi-story concrete buildings like in Vientiane. Instead, parts of this Laotian city are frozen in time.
Time-worn wooden buildings line the streets and historic temples (wats) climb the hills around the city. Throughout it all, Laotians quietly run this laid-back Buddhist city.
It’s a peaceful city with a perfect balance of culture, convenience, sights, and things to do. While other spots in Laos are gorgeous, like Nong Kiau and Vang Vieng, I stayed in Luang Prabang long enough for me to develop a routine. We centered our days around food, picking our favorite vendors, cafes, and restaurants. Within a few days, the local street vendors knew our names, remembered our orders, and always whispered a sweet sabaidee, the local of local greeting.
A Few of My Favorite Things About Luang Prabang
Affordable, Tasty Eats
Each day in Luang Prabang I kept to consistent daily routine. Once I found some tasty vegetarian eats, I decided to mostly just branch out for dinner. For breakfast and lunch, I opted for fresh fruit smoothies from the main tourist road in town. these cups line the stalls and for 5,000 Kip (that’s less than 70 cents!), I had a cold, tasty fruit smoothie to start my day.
By lunch, Laura and I stopped our temple visits and daytrips for a fresh baguette. Lunch was frequently a 10,000 Kip veggie sub. The vendors chop the ingredients to order, add cheese and condiments and serve it all on a soft baguette.
Dinner time tended to usually include a vegetarian dinner buffet from the night market. Several buffets line the streets at the night market, there’s a side-street with a treasure trove of options. Laura and I found one stall with a heaping selection of veggie eats accompanied by a delicious spicy chili sauce. We were hooked. Other nights we ventured into a few of the restaurants offering traditional Laotian fare — it was a tasty way to spend our lazy days in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang Night Market
The night handicraft market in the city is wonderful. The market runs for half of a mile and is a highlight no matter what budget you have for souvenirs. The stalls are lined with handmade crafts — everything from comforters to paintings to knickknacks. And a bonus are the friendly, low-key conversations with locals.
Around dusk the locals begin to carefully lay out scarves, purses, jewelry, and more. This was a treasure trove of neat handmade gifts so I bought a few items to send back home. One of my favorite moments came when I bargained with the lady over a small wooden toy. The general rule for the night market is that you half whatever they tell you and settle somewhere in between. This isn’t about being cheap, but instead, bargaining is a part of the culture. It’s completely acceptable to bargain so long as you take the local approach of respectful and calm.
In this case, I halved the amount from 20,000 to 10,000 Kip. The seller countered with 15,000. I’ve been in Asia for a while now, so I have some haggling under my belt. I countered with 12,000. Well, this poor lady must have had a really long day because she let out one of the loudest and most exasperated sighs I have ever heard — she even startled herself! We all looked at each other and burst out laughing, even the seller was wiping tears out of her eyes. At that point, I knew I had reached the lower end of what was acceptable to pay so I handed over the 15,000 Kip and considered the laugh worth the extra couple of thousand Kip.
The Soft Sell
Buying things in Laos is an entirely different experience than nearby Thailand. When I needed something in Thailand, I had to stand my ground and there was often a slight edge of aggression with the tuk tuk drivers, and even the vendors on occasion. Here in Laos, it’s very different. Everything is coated with a layer of calm. The people certainly try to sell me on things — I frequently hear “tuk-tuk miss?”— but the vibe of the interactions have a different tone. It’s all very chill.
It makes me more inclined to shop a bit, something I haven’t done much of until now. I bought some groovy bracelets from vendors along the Mekong River (Laura and I are slowly building the “backpacker arm” — you can tell how long a backpacker has been traveling by the number of bracelets adorning her wrist). The kids were cute and since it was a weekend, I hoped that they truly were attending school as they had promised.
And through it all, I learned that a smile goes a long way in Laos. That is true the world over, but here in Laos, friendliness shines from every interaction. It’s a warm and welcoming place to visit.
The Panoramas of the Mekong River
Laura and I found a spot just on the other side of the Nam Khan with a spectacular view of the Mekong River at sunset.
There was one catch though, we had to cross a rickety bridge to get to the other side. The river we crossed was a tributary of the Mekong, it’s smaller and we found a bar at the confluence of the two rivers. There’s a tiny bar at the corner and we grabbed a drink and waited for the sun to set. As we sipped our drinks, we had a perfect view of the traffic on the Mekong. A gentle breeze brought to me the sounds of river-workers taking their long-boats home and children splashing in the shallows.
We caught a pretty sunset and recharged our batteries to the quiet lapping of water and the murmur of conversation.
The small town on the far side of the river was very low key. There were a few wholesale crafts vendors who were packing up their goods for the night market. Once the sun set, there wasn’t much left to do so we gathered ourselves, crossed the rickety bridge, and hightailed it to the night market.
Our lazy days in Laos were a joy. I like taking a slow pace to my travels. I still need to head to Cambodia, but that’s not a pressing concern. Instead, I am here with Laura and enjoying the culture, sights, and the fun of having a friend with whom I can travel.
I also traveled to Laos three years later — you can enjoy my photoessay and stories of the Laos people and culture here. And if you’re backpacking through Vang Vieng, I have information in things to do and how to enjoy rock climbing and the Lonely Planet is my favorite guide for backpacking anywhere in Southeast Asia.