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   Laos > Luang Prabang > Luang Prabang > The city of Luang Prabang
The city of Luang Prabang
The city of Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Section 5 on 5

Luang Prabang

Area related : Luang Prabang

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Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the fourteenth century by Fa Ngum, himself descended from a long line of Lao kings, tracking back to Khoun Boulom.
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Lan-Xang prospered until the eighteenth century, when the kingdom was divided into three principalities, which eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. In the 19th century, Luang Prabang was incorporated into the 'Protectorate' of French Indochina, and shortly thereafter, the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane were also added to the protectorate. Under the French, Vientiane once again became the capital of a unified Lao state.

Theravada Buddhism is a dominant influence in Lao culture. It is reflected throughout the country from language to the temple and in art, literature, performing arts, etc. Many elements of Lao culture predate Buddhism, however. For example, Laotian music is dominated by its national instrument, the khaen, a type of bamboo pipe that has prehistoric origins. The khaen traditionally accompanied the singer in lam, the dominant style of folk music. Among the various lam styles, the lam saravane is probably the most popular.

The country has two World Heritage Sites : Luang Prabang and Vat Phou. The government is seeking the same status for the Plain of Jars.

Pressures to modernize tourist infrastructure, particularly to cater to package tourism, are expected to significantly impact Luang Prabang and other culturally important Laotian cities. The people of Laos have a reputation for being very kind and welcoming to all visitors.

Rice is the staple food and has cultural and religious significance. There are many traditions and rituals associated with rice production in different environments, and among many ethnic groups. For example, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant the rice variety Khao Kam in small quantities near the hut in memory of dead parents, or at the edge of the rice field to indicate that parents are still alive.
Get in

By plane
The airport is just north of town and has scheduled flights from/to Vientiane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap. Bangkok Airways offer flights from Bangkok and Siem Reap.

Visa-on-arrival is available at the airport. Price is variable based upon your nationality. You need a passport picture to obtain a visa. If you don't have one, they'll scan your picture from your passport and charge you an additional US$1.

ASEAN nationals do not need a Visa to enter Laos for stays not exceeding 30 days.

Taxis into town cost about US$6, whether you are by yourself or with three other people. There is a taxi counter just outside the arrival hall.

By road
Highway 13 connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the south and via Highway 1 to the north. Highway 13 is sealed and in good shape all the way to Vientiane. Though there have been incidents of violence along this stretch of road in the past, presently it is safe.

There are three bus stations, each a little bit out of town, which serve different directions. Tickets can be bought at every travel agent in town, at the bus station, or when boarding the bus (if there's space). Booking bus tickets through travel agents usually incurs hefty surcharges compared to doing it yourself. Just plan to arrive at the bus station between 30/45 minutes before your departure, and you should have plenty of time to make your purchases before you bus leaves. Tuk-tuk drivers know which bus station to go to for which destination. Ask around for bus schedules.

* Vang Vieng : The air-conditioned so-called VIP bus costs 90.000 kip. Mini-buses leave from Vang Vieng at 09:00am and cost 100.000 kip. The trip takes 6/7 hours (on a very windy road). The mini-bus station is just north of town.
* Vientiane : Air-con VIP bus costs 115.000, more if booked through an agent. It should be noted that tickets purchased in Vientiane to Luang Prabang are more expensive than those purchased in Luang Prabang. Travelers have reported that the VIP bus can been a bit of bumpy ride, but is generally more reliable than the public bus. Those prone to motion sickness should know that this trip travels a winding, mountainous road.
* Muang Xay : Takes about 5 hours. Costs 40.000 kip and points onwards, such as Luang Namtha, is done by public minibus only. Big backpacks are carried on the roof. Reservations are usually not necessary, just take care to go early in order to secure a good seat.
* Luang Namtha - Takes 8/9 hours. Parts of the road leading from Oudomxay. Direct local bus via Muang Xay at 09:00am. Otherwise take bus to Muang Xay and switch there.
* Nong Khiaw : 3 hours away by public bus from the Northern Bus Station or 8/10 hrs by boat for about 110.000 kip. From there boats connect to scenic Muang Ngoi Neua.
* Huay Xai : Up to 15 hours away. Public buses leave at 09:00am (arrive 12:00pm) or 05:00pm (arrive 08:00am - normal sleeping bus, not sleeper). Costs 135.000 kip. VIP buses leave on alternating days, tickets purchased at the Northern Bus Station will cost 35.000 kip less than those purchased at an agent in town.
* Phonsavan : Bus takes about 8 hours and costs 100.000 kip. It leaves Southern Bus Station around 8:00am. Minibus takes around 6 hours and leaves at 9:00am. You should be able to buy your ticket at your guesthouse and arrange to be picked up and taken to the minibus station. You can stay on the minibus until it unloads the local people in the centre of Luang Prabang though tuk-tuk drivers may try to make you get off earlier at the bus station.

By boat
Boats ply the Mekong to and from Huay Xai at the Thai border, stopping in Pakbeng where you can catch overland connections towards the northeast and the border with China. The trip takes 2 days (6h + 8h) by slow boat, or 6 bone-rattling hours by speedboat. There are also operators now offering 2-day "luxury" cruises.

If you have the opportunity, purchase a pillow from a local market before embarking on any boat ride that lasts longer than 2 hours. Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you're taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Luang Prabang exhausted from six hours in a speedboat. There is also a twice-weekly "one day comfortable boat" between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, but the cost is significantly higher.

Slow boats leave every day, usually around 08:00/09:00am. The trip to Luang Prabang costs 200.000 kip (July 2010). If you can, just purchase your tickets at the boat landing because all the tour agencies in town charge a commission, and agents usually don't have reliable information about the quality of the boats. It is not uncommon to have to switch to a new boat in Pakbeng, so you may end up in a boat of higher or lower quality for the second half of the journey.

The slow-boat is generally packed - so much so that there may not enough seats to go round. Arriving early will mean a longer day, but most likely a better seat, towards the front and away from the engine. Earplugs are recommended, regardless of where you end up sitting. Travelers report that those who show up better-dressed may end up with better seats.

The slow boat trip proceeds in a pleasant 20-30km/h and offers nice views to the nature and village life on the banks of the Mekong river. Most of the passengers are foreign tourists. Occasional locals take the boat only for short hops between the river side villages, but prefer to take the bus for the full distance from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. So you won't be able to observe any local boat travelers, as the boat ride offers just the usual sight of tourists drinking Beerlao.

If you choose to travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket should be provided - it is not recommended to travel in a speedboat without this essential safety equipment. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof/water-resistant as possible and wear a rainjacket - the boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any small showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin. On sunny days, sunscreen is invaluable as there is no roof/shade on these speed machines. The journey to Huay Xai can be reduced to as few as 4 hours in the wet season, with a lunch stop at Pakbeng. However, some consider this means of transportation less safe, especially in the dry season. Earplugs are strongly recommended. Travelers who are concerned about creating as little environmental impact as possible may want avoid speedboats, as they are heavier polluters than the slower options. Travel agents in LP will sell the tickets for 320.000/370.000 kip, you will need a minivan to take you the 10km north to the fast boat pier.

The third option is to take a "luxury" cruise. The major operators are Luang Say and Nagi of Mekong . As of 2009, both operate two-day cruises to Hauy Xai that stop in Pak Beng for the night. Although the journey takes as long as taking the slow boat, both operators offer vastly superior facilities and equipment than public slow boats, and you should be prepared to pay a premium for it.

There is no public boat service to Vientiane, but it may be possible to do the trip by private tourist boat when the water levels are high enough.

* Alms ceremony : 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. Please note that 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 a local tradition as a means of making easy money, and sometimes sell unsuitable, stale and even unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings, and resistance to continuing the tradition. However, the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances and thereby keep the tourist dollars rolling in. So if you wish to participate in this ceremony, prepare the food or fruit yourself, and avoid giving food of unknown quality. Strongly consider only watching this old tradition from a distance instead of using it as a tourist attraction, as this may detract from the beauty of the ritual - both for locals and tourists alike.

* Bear Rescue Center : Located adjacent to the way to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, the Bear Rescue Center has a enclosure for endangered Asiatic Black Bears that have been rescued from poachers. There was also an Indo-Chinese tiger, but sadly, the tiger had passed away as of May 2009.

* Haw Kham : The former royal palace. There's also sometimes local drama or dance performances in the adjacent theatre. Presently under renovation so closed to public review. Also Haw Kham visitation has specific opening and closing hours, with lunch break closure from 11:30am to 01:30pm. It is important to check the timings and plan the visit accordingly.

* Kuang Si Falls : 29 km south of Luang Prabang. A large multi-stage 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 travelers. There are multiple pools at different levels, all of which are reportedly safe to bathe in, and are extremely picturesque.

* Night market : The night market features vendors selling all the typical Lao arts and crafts, some more touristy than others, and is set up every day along the main street parallel to the river. Be warned that it closes down around 09:00pm, unlike the similar markets in Thailand that go on well into the early hours. Please note that 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.

* Pak Ou Caves : The famous "Buddha caves" are north of town on the Mekong and can be reached by road (approx 1 hour) or river boat (around 1.5 hour). 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 Laolao (lao rice spirit) 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 efforts. A candle or torch recommended to see the upper cave, as it is dark.

* Phou Si : The main hill in the city from which you have a good view of the whole area. It's not a very steep climb from the bottom and sunrise and sunset are the most sensible and rewarding times to go up. There is a near-panoramic view from the top. Entrance fee 20.000 kip.

* Vat Xieng Toung : The oldest monastery in town and one of the most beautiful. Opens from 06:00am to 06:00pm. Entry fee 20,000 kip. One entrance on the road along Mekhong river, the other on the by-lane off the main road.

* The 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 please check in advance.

* Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre : Situated on the banks of the Mekong just 2 km south of Luang Prabang town, this artisans oasis offers 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. Free Tuk Tuk departs daily from both Ock Pop Tok Shops in town: 10:00am - 12:00am - 02:00pm.

* Cooking class : One of the best ways to experience the local foods. The best bet is at the Tamnak Lao restaurant. The cost is 250.000 kip for the day class (10:00am - 05:00pm) and 200.000 kip for the evening class (05:30pm - 08:30pm). The day class includes a visit to a vibrant local market, 2 English-speaking Lao teachers, and fully-equipped cooking stations. Participants cook 6 dishes (which are eaten for lunch and dinner) and take home a recipe book highlighting 12 recipes and sections about local and essential Lao ingredients. The evening class teaches 3 dishes (which are eaten for dinner) and participants also take home a recipe book. Both classes include sticky rice and jeowbong.
* Lao Red Cross : A traditional Lao sauna and massage, very popular with locals in the afternoon. Th Wisunarat, in front of Wat Wisunalat - 1 hour massage 40:000 kip - sauna 10.000 kip.

* Rent a Motorbike : Although prices are astronomical by Southeast Asia standards (US$17/US$20 per day as of September 2009), riding around the surrounding areas of Luang Prabang is a fantastic way to see the countryside. It is recommeded to hire from the Government Tourist information centre, although there are several vendors around. Tank up with gasoline worth 10.000 kip (a little more then US$1) for the whole day. As usual practise, they will keep your passport, so make sure they know when you leave and how to recover your passport, as saturdays and sundays they are fully closed and other days they have specific working hours.

* Vipassana temple and park : This golden temple, highly visible from Phou Si, is a shrine for Buddhists who practice Vipassana meditation.

* Bowling - There's a perfectly decent bowling alley a few kilometers away from the city center that is open until 03:00am After 10:00pm it gets crowded with Westerners who generally seem more interested in partying than bowling. Whatever your interest, this place is worth a visit if you want to have a break from the usual tourist stuff. Tuk-tuk drivers will know how to get there. The price of a game is 15.000 kip per person until midnight when it goes up to 20.000, though they may try to charge you more.

* Sunset on the waterfront : Take a walk along the Mekong, or sit and enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants and watch the sun sink into the horizon.

* 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 which is probably the only community based tourism initiative that really brings money into the funds. More info on the website or at Tiger Trail Tour Company shop.

* Dinner at Lenou's Library : Lenou is a law student who recently opened a lending library for the local kids. For a few bucks he'll organize a home-cooked meal at the library, complete with drinks and a tuk tuk to get you there/back. All proceeds benefit the library.

Before you can buy anything in Luang Prabang you will need some money. US$ and Thai baht are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. As of May 2009, there are a small number of ATM's accepting Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards. These ATM's are situated mostly in Sisavangvong Rd just near the end of the Night Market. The ATM's dispense currency in Lao kip and generally allow a maximum withdrawal of 700.000 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.

There are a growing number of money changers, located 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.

A night market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters for tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want and closes at about 10:00pm. 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. Very good are hanging lamps, which are foldable to bring back. 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 kids to the elderly who usually made crafts, arts and goods by themselves for sale. Good natured bargaining is the go 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.

Laotian asthetic sense is quite evolved in its own way. For instance check out some of the higher end higher stores:
* Caruso Lao, 60 Sakaline Rd, Luang Prabang, ☎. A fabulous gallery store showcasing the very best quality Lao silk and other handicrafts.
* Erawan Arts - This two floor showroom is in a traditionally renovated historic house that dates back over 100 years. Displaying the finest 100% hand-woven and naturally dyed Lao silk and exotic wood products from throughout Laos, a share of the profits go directly to supporting Lao communities in need through several initiatives from installing fresh water systems to villages, providing books for schools, and running medical trips to remote areas. The owner is very informative and approachable, and happy to answer questions on Laos and give a tour on the architecture of this beautiful building.
* Ock Pop Tok, 73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang, plus 2 other stores in town, ☎ . An ethical trading company with superb galleries. Also run classes and visits to village weaving faciltiies.

Miscellany :
* Weird cast-off Chinese goods at the local market.
* Laos t-shirts, various local handicrafts, sewable flags, and scrapbooks for your tickets and other items are also available here.
* Paintings on Lao handmade paper
* Notebooks made with Lao handmade paper

Books can be a travelers home away from home and a way to escape heat/boredom/long bus rides. However, several book stores operating in and around the area that sell photocopies to unsuspecting travelers. For photocopies, if you do buy them, insist on checking them as many times pages are missing or pages are basically unreadable.

* Book Exchange : If you want to exchange or buy a book (or books) go to the Tamnak Lao Restaurant Book Exchange. They have the best selection of books in Luang Prabang. The book exchange operates on a "one for one" basis plus 20.000 kip, and all books are available for purchase as well. All of the money raised by the book exchange goes to buying provisions for the Luang Prabang Government Orphanages and Ethnic High Schools. The Book Exchange is in the laneway next to the restaurant.

Get out

* By boat on the Mekong to Huay Xai amd then cross to Chiang Khong in Thailand.
* Vientiane by long distance bus.
* Fly direct to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

From Wikitravel
Text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation
Site's content    

Mekong River in Luang Prabang
Night market
Sisavangvong Road
Sisavangvong Road
Baan Khily Gallery
Beaux-Arts School in Lunag Prabang
Brick-built alleys of Louang Prabang
Day Hmong market
Elementary school of Luang Prabang
Laha Quality Natural Textiles
Luang Prabang Province Tourism Office
Streets in reconstruction of Louang Prabang
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