Luang Prabang, despite its position on the Banana Pancake Trail, likely isn’t the first place you think of staying as a creative professional. But the city’s relative remoteness within Southeast Asia gives it a relaxed pace of life and has preserved much of its traditional art and culture. The colonial center is easily the most beautiful town in Laos, and despite the limited availability of WiFi, the city makes a comfortable place to spend at least a couple weeks as a digital nomad.
When to Go
Like most of Southeast Asia, Laos has its dry season between November and April, but within that timeframe December and January have the best temperatures. This is, of course, peak season. If you prefer to avoid larger crowds, May to October is the rainy season. But crowds in Laos is a relative term. The landlocked nation is far enough off the beaten path that you won’t be competing with as many tourists, even in high season, as you might in Thailand or Bali.
How Much to Spend
A hostel dorm bed will cost about $5 per night, while a private room is in the neighborhood of $10-12 per night. Some of the nicer sit-down restaurants along colonial Luang Prabang’s main street are surprisingly pricey for the region at $15 for dinner and a drink. Western-style bakery meals will come in at $5-10, and for super budget meals at just $2, grab a sandwich, crepe, or other snack at the street market. Altogether, you can travel comfortably in Luang Prabang for about $25 per day.
If you’re traveling from Thailand, the best way to get to Luang Prabang is on the slow boat from Chiang Mai. The three-day journey isn’t exactly for the faint hearted, but the friendly fellow passengers and striking jungle scenery along the banks of the Mekong River are worth any inconvenience.
Alternately, you can fly into the city. Luang Prabang has an international airport less than five kilometres from the city center.
Luang Prabang is a small colonial town that makes for easy walking. There are plenty of hostels within reach of the historic center, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most shops and restaurants are concentrated around two main streets.
To reach attractions outside the city center, like Kuang Si Falls, you’ll need to take a tuk tuk. Drivers typically gather in the main square to solicit business. Many will have photos or brochures of available tours. Prices do have some flexibility, and if you’re willing to share with other travelers, you can get around for next to nothing.
What to Pack
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Loose, lightweight clothing that covers your arms and legs is the norm in all Southeast Asian countries, and Laos is no exception. Being a little farther off the tourist trail, the country is a bit more conservative than Thailand. You’ll also see more mosquitoes in Laos than in other parts of the region, so adequate clothing coverage will benefit you there as well.
No need to leave your swimsuit at home though – Kuang Si Falls is a popular day trip from Luang Prabang and has a few swimming holes scattered throughout the park.
WiFi is very weak in Luang Prabang. The best signal in town is at Joma Bakery, but even it cuts out from time to time. Creative professionals are best served by bringing their own portable WiFi hotspot, like Skyroam, Tep Wireless, or MyFi.
Tap water is not potable in Laos, so you’ll need a water bottle and some form of water purification. I love my SteriPen, but you can also use iodine tablets if you prefer.
(SteriPen is a UV water purifier and I think it is a must for traveling in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else that doesn’t have potable tap water.)
Where to Stay
There are hostels and guest houses in many parts of the city. I found Kounsavan Hostel to be the best location for its price, sitting just around the corner from the main square of Luang Prabang. The staff is very friendly, particularly if you’re staying for a longer period of time, and rooms are cleaned daily. (Though the bathrooms are in poorer shape.) Be forewarned though – while there are female only dorms available, bathrooms are all co-ed.
Where to Eat
Luang Prabang has a wide range of dining options available. At the lowest end of the budget spectrum are streetside sandwich and smoothie stalls, where you can grab a meal for $2-3. Many of the city center’s restaurants have strong Western influences. Laos’ status as a former French colony have left it with some excellent bakeries and even a couple decent spots to grab a glass of wine – a rarity in Southeast Asia. You’ll also have no trouble finding more expensive $10-15 meals including pizza at Dao Fa and Asian-fusion tapas at La Casa Lao. For more local food, the national dish in Laos is laap, a ground meat salad with seemingly infinite varieties. The country also serves up many Southeast Asian staples like spring rolls and sticky rice.
Where to Work
The strongest WiFi in town is at Joma Bakery, a Western-style chain popular in Southeast Asia. The menu includes sandwiches and bagels, as well as a fairly wide selection of baked goods. The menu also frequently includes seasonal offerings like turkey, cranberry, and stuffing sandwiches or gingerbread lattes around the holidays. Tea, coffee, and Italian sodas are all on the beverage menu. There is a small dining room downstairs, and significantly more seating space with ample outlets available upstairs.
You can also find WiFi at the Silk Road Cafe, next to the Ock Pop Tock boutique farther down the main road, but the opening hours here are less reliable than at Joma.
What to Do
Luang Prabang is largely an attraction in and of itself, with the whole colonial city center listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can easily fill half a day simply strolling along the two main roads admiring the unique architecture. You might stop in one of the city’s many temples along the way, or take a break in a European-style cafe. If you’re an early riser, climb Mount Phousi to the hilltop temple for a stellar sunrise view before starting your tour of the town. After dark, the main street converts into an extensive night market, lauded as one of the best in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most popular day trip from town is Kuang Si Falls. After about an hour-long tuk tuk ride, you’ll enjoy a short easy hike past shallow turquoise pools, leading up to a striking 60-meter three-tier waterfall. A couple of the smaller pools along the hillside allow swimming. The park is also home to a bear sanctuary, rescuing animals from medical projects.
A popular souvenir from Laos is traditional weaving, but it’s easy to take this to the next level. Ock Pop Tock offers half-day and full-day workshops in silk dying and weaving where you can learn about natural dyes and then work with a master weaver to fashion a silk placemat in a traditional Lao design on a loom. Workshops can be booked at either of their boutiques in town, and are held at the Living Crafts Center, a large complex set in a lush, tropical garden overlooking the Mekong River.
Prefer to settle in someplace with stronger WiFi? Head back down the Mekong to creative professionals’ paradise Chiang Mai.