Travel Itinerary: 5 days in Luang Prabang, Laos 2018

June 09, 2018

So I've recently gone to a place that's been on my bucket list ever since I've worked on the SilkAir account. SilkAir flies directly from Singapore to Luang Prabang in Laos, which is the ancient royal city of Laos (Vientiane, the capital, is more just administrative) and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was such an amazing trip of the lifetime with my adventure buddy Steph over 6 days 5 nights (but really just 5 days 5 nights). This destination as well is just so underrated and unexplored that I have to share it with you guys. Because travel does not have to be just to Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo, amirite?

(Funny story, Steph had no idea where we were going but was ok to come along since I kinda had a plan for it.) Think she really enjoyed the trip, and I was also pleasantly surprised to be honest! I was expecting a lot more scams, touts, begging and run-down things given the state of it in rest of Southeast Asia. Instead, all I got was tranquility, peace and a mix of culture and nature. 

Anyway, here's a rough guide and itinerary for anyone who is thinking of an alternative travel destination (great for families, couples and friends!). Skip to the end if you just want the places/names.





Money and tourist sim data

We can't change Laos kip in Singapore, so the best way is to either bring USD and change it at the money changer at the tiny airport (there are money changers in town but rates are not as good) or draw one lump sum with your debit card all at once from the ATM (avoid too many withdrawals as there's an additional fee). They also accept Thai baht and USD (1 USD = 8000 kip) directly in shops, though the rates are probably not as good. Here are the rates at the airport as of end of May 2018.



Tourist sim is super easy to get, and I got one for 5 days 3GB at 4 USD. There are many booths at the airport that sells data sim cards. Once you get out it is much much harder to find, so do it at the airport.

Getting around 

We got a taxi from the airport to the hotel for 50,000 kip, which was around SGD $8.10. It is a fixed rate and they will write you a receipt to go to the driver. I love it. None of that Bali nonsense. From the airport to our accommodation, or anywhere in town really, is a 15-minute drive.

Rest of the time if you want to get around, try walking because most things are close by, or take a free bicycle (from your accommodation, they usually provide). Otherwise you can rent a scooter for quite cheap, like 30 USD a day? or even a car (more expensive). Then there's tuk tuks, which are also affordable if its slightly further away or at night. We did one at night for 30-35k kip ($4.80) for a 10 minute ride.



The town is really small and simple, as you can see from the map here (click to open large version in new window). The yellow star is Lotus Villa, our hotel, and the green ones are all the places we have gone to.

Map of Luang Prabang

Where to stay

We stayed at two places - the more budget, guesthouse style Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel (pictured first) in the old town, and Kiridara Villa that is further away and more expensive - but comes with a pool.




Our room was simple and had a very open concept but there was no mozzies and the aircon worked. 


Here's how Kiridara looked! It was probably twice the price and twice as big, but it was not as convenient as Lotus. So we split our 5 nights into 3 and 2, and that was a right decision! They have free tuk tuk to send us to town and shuttle pick up timings from town back.

 

Where to go and where to eat

Because there are only so many places in this small town, you could definitely cover everything in 3 days. But because you might want to just chill out and decompress, do like what we did and choose 5 days instead. Most of the streets there look like this.


On our first day after reaching the hotel (and gaining an hour, from Singapore!) we decided to check out a French bakery/cafe called Le Benneton for lunch first. That was quite nice because we realised how small the place is and it was just dead quiet. There was not much traffic or cars on the street around 2pm+ till 5+ because it is swelteringly hot during May, I'm guessing. Everyone's either indoors having a siesta or a coffee, perhaps?





We then walked around with not much of an agenda... just soaking in the views in peace. This is Mekong River, around the bend.





We looked at some of the handwoven textiles that they were known for, from Ock Tok Pop. 



We then reached largest temple near the bend of the river called Wat Xiengthong. Note that you should be covered in sleeves and long skirt/pants. We didn't so we had to rent some clothing for 5,000 ($0.81) each. There's also a small entry fee to the temple.


Then some coffee at the famous Saffron Coffee, which has their own coffee plantations and beans. That means really fresh, authentic Laos coffee but done in the Western style. Because it was swelteringly hot I had some cold brew instead!


We then went back to the hotel because it was friggin' hot for a quick shower and massage for Steph, before we walked towards the Night Market looking for dinner and souvenirs. We headed straight to the food street first (besides Indigo Hotel, the only building with 5 stories, built before the UNESCO ruling).



We were so knackered by the time we went through the night market! It was time for bed because we have to get up at 6am the next day to go to the Kuangsi Waterfalls. On day one we found a tuk tuk driver who was willing to pick us up at 6.30am at our hotel for 200k kip to go there and back without having a fixed wait time in between. So we 'booked' him and his tuk tuk.

Next morning, bright and early at 6.40am+ (I had a tiny stomachache, haha). It was a 45-min smooth journey to the outskirts. We were literally the FIRST to get to the famous Kuangsi waterfalls and there was nobody at 7.45am. We walked past the bear conservatory to get to the falls. This was what greeted us.





It was great! You could tell it is a high traffic area normally with all the flattened earth and tables, but there was ZERO people around. Steph went in, and I chickened out on the waterfall dipping to take photos only. The morning was beautiful and cloudless.



After that we had breakfast by a waterfall at Carpe Diem restaurant (we saw the sign on the way in) at 10am, because we really didn't have much more to do inside haha. Then it was a smooth and sleepy journey back to town. But an idea struck me, and I googled for "elephant conservatory no riding luang prabang" and chanced upon this article on Mandalao. So I told Steph about it, and we decided to go enquire about it! We somehow managed to make the 2pm small group tour (80 usd).

First though, we had some local lunch at Cafe Touie (which was so fantabulous - number 1 recommendation!). The local food is so similar to Thai + Chinese + Vietnamese without being overall spicy, it was excellent! Pictured here is their Chicken Laarb, a cold meat salad with lots of spices.


After that and a 20 minute car ride out to nature from the town office we reached Mandalao, where they have 8 adult elephants and a baby elephant. The relatively new sanctuary rents these elephants from loggers and tour companies and keeps them in the land as elephants, as they should be. No riding, no shows. Just them being themselves. It was really quite the experience, learning about the efforts towards elephant conservation and protection and seeing them in the flesh.


We were able to feed them bananas and rice balls with salt, take some photos carefully with them and watch them bathe before following them back to their "home".



Then it was back to town. We decided to have dinner at Silk Road Cafe, where I finally get to have my northern Thai style Kao Soi curry noodles! It was great. Then we went for a cocktail at Tangor (really chill, great atmosphere facing the main street) before going back to zzz.


Monday was probably our slackest day. We woke up late and had breakfast at the Lotus hotel (yum!)


before going to another cafe - Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene (great wifi and aircon on 2nd floor plus decent pho for my breakfast 2, but so so coffee).


We then had lunch at Bouang which served up the most delicious green curry gnocchi we both ever had, and really good Laos-fusion dishes. We then tried to go to the Royal Palace aka Museum, but was turned away because they close at 3.30pm. So early!


So we decided to take a sunset river cruise in the evening, after chilling at another roadside cafe with our coconuts. It was a drizzly day, that's why. Steph found Sa Sa Cruise, which was top rated on Tripadvisor, and we went for the 2-hour sunset river boat cruise which was pretty worthwhile! 70k kip per person including free a mojito and BBQ chicken skewers. Unfortunately there was no sunset, it just got dark.



So we went up and down again, to try out BBQ mookata (Laos fondue) across the river at Dyen Sabai. We had to cross the rickety bamboo bridge, which is built every year for 6 months before being torn down again with the river tide of the monsoon. No alcohol, for we had to make it back across the bridge... It was a really good meal though, for S$16 each! We had to sleep early because the next day...



.... because the next day we were to wake up early to watch the alms-giving ceremony with the monks, which starts from 5.30am at the main street.


There's some controversy surround this ceremony (tainted by tourism). Some of the Chinese tourists were quite rowdy and spoiled the morning a little. And we see what happened during the ceremony (monks collecting the rice and food given by people kneeling along the street) but really it was just that. Not really a must-do if you are not a morning person, though really you should.

Anyway, we went back to sleep after that because we had a cooking class with Tamlaklao booked from 10am-3.30pm! We started with a morning wet market visit (where locals actually shop)



before starting to observe our teachers show us 2 dishes which we recreated (quite easy) and ate for breakfast.


Then we watched them do 5 dishes after and we picked 3 to recreate. I thought we did really well, for two people who don't normally cook. They also gave us glutinous rice and chilli paste (oh so yum!).


We ended super early at around 3pm, so a quick coffee and cake at Saffron before going back to take our luggages, for we moved to the new villa that day. After not much of a sunset swim at the pool, we went back to our rooms and had what we cooked in the day for dinner. So satisfying. The next day, we had another leisurely morning with the hotel breakfast before we went to the pool again to achieve our tans. We did! It was really sunny and nice.

We then went on a cultural immersion free & easy trip, first with the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC). It was a small but interesting museum with textiles and culture of the tribes surrounding Laos. Then we went to Joma Bakery & Cafe for lunch (it was passable but very touristy... I would skip it) before heading to Utopia. That's the chillest place on earth. It is a cafe that overlooks the river with lots of cushions and you just lie there with drinks.





Steph helped to take some awesome portraits for me, and this was a selfie using my Samsung Note 8. In fact all the photos in this is from that, and the Google Pixel 2!


Anyway, we reluctantly left Utopia, to descend upon dystopia by ascending the tallest hill in town - Mount Phou Si, for a chance at our last sunset. There are several ways to ascend the hill (some steeper than others) - we picked the entrance near Cafe Touie to go up. 


We managed to climb up and it was sooo crowded with tourists up there and MOSQUITOS. I'll never forget how the two Korean girls in front of us at the photo queue were trying to stomp the mozzies to death. LOL. 


I really like this "NG" photo below - I am slightly afraid of falling to my death from the 200+m hill cos #irrationalfear.


Somewhat decent sunset, TBH, but not the best for our effort. LOL. 


We then went down the hill and reached the night market (so that's another entrance) as it was getting dark and used up almost every single last kip on buying stuff. It was tough trying to make it work without cash. LOL. Dinner at Tamarind after that, which was beautiful. We had the sample platter, and some lemongrass chicken. 


Then it is back to the villa for our last night before we had breakfast and checked out, for our longer journey back to Singapore! There wasn't any direct flight back so we had to transit at Vientiane for 30 minutes to board the same plane again to Singapore. 

And that's it! Our 5 days in Luang Prabang. If I were to sum up where to...

GO / DO

1. Kuangsi Waterfalls
2. Mandalao (don't do elephant tours with riding please)
3. National Palace
4. Wat Xiengthong
5. Night market / food street
6. Utopia for chilling
7. Ock Tok Pop and TAEC Boutique for shopping
8. TAEC if you have time
9. Sa Sa Cruise, if it is nice weather
10. Mount Phou Si, if it is nice weather

EAT

1. Cafe Touie - local cuisine restaurant 
2. Le Benneton - French bakery 
3. Bouang - fusion Laos 
4. Tamarind - local cuisine restaurant with cooking class
5. Dyen Sabai - Laos mookata across the river
6. Tamlaklao - local cuisine restaurant with cooking class
7. Silk Road Cafe (beside Ock Tok Pop) - local and regional cuisine
(We did not make it to Secret Pizza because they are closed on many days so check..)

DRINK

1. Saffron Coffee
2. Tangor - cocktails
3. Utopia
(We did not make it to 525 Cocktails, which is supposedly amazing too)

That's it! I hope you find this useful and inspiring for you to book a trip to Luang Prabang. SilkAir flies there direct from Saturdays (no this is not sponsored). Have a great holiday if you do!

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