Luang Prabang was the capital of the former Lao Kingdom and is situated in northern Laos. It has about 100,000 inhabitants and is World Heritage Site listed. Greatly influenced by the Buddhist Temples within the city, its French Colonialism and a car-free center, this city is definitely a jewel in Southeast Asia. The Buddhist Monks leave their monasteries every morning at sunrise to collect alms, so there are hundreds of Monks in their spotless orange robes walking through the streets. Certainly quite a surreal experience to witness!
Luang Prabang can be reached by bus, boat and plane. There are non-stop flights to the neighboring capitals. There is a road to Vientiane and Vang Vieng in the south, which also connect further to Cambodia. Route 1 heads up to the northern province of Oudomxai, and there is a road to Huay Xai, the border town to Thailand.
It is however probably a better idea to travel there by way of the natural route, the Mekong river. Not only a traditional trading route, the Mekong is being used for tourism purposes nowadays. Highly recommended for the Southeast Asia trip of every Backpacker, and there are more comfortable options to cater for the bigger budget, as well.
The trip on a slow boat takes 2 days from Huey Xai to Luang Prabang with a stopover in Pak Beng. Tickets can be bought for around 600 Thai Baht at the Pier, or anywhere around town, but the Pier might be the cheapest option.
The boat ride can be a quite crowded undertaking, but the more the merrier and you can be sure to meet some great people on the journey. While it may be advisable to bring some food for the day, there is a cooler filled with soft drinks and cold beer, so that the hard wooden benches are getting more comfortable as the day passes by. Make sure you bring along your camera as you will find numerous photos to take. Some of the wildlife you witness will not be believed by your friends back home unless you have photographic or video proof.
The stop at Pak Beng can be a little bit chaotic at first, especially during high season. Everybody wants to get a bed in the cheapest and nicest guesthouse, and if it is busy and you are too slow, you might end up sleeping on a mattress on a floor...(Highly recommended is the Bounmee Guesthouse). The generators stop working around 9pm, so it is torch, candles or off to sleep . This certainly is a different life, far away from home!
The sunset over the Mekong River, water buffalos and working elephants on the river banks, or children playing and washing in the water, women selling all sorts of creatures to feed the locals - there are definitely some eye-catchers that make this journey worthwhile.
Sore bottoms surely find a way to relax once you arrive in Luang Prabang. Unless you jump on a bicycle to explore the beautiful streets and alleys, visit the temples such as Vat Xieng Thon or the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. There is lots of steam rooms with herbal treatments and terrific Lao massages to be had anywhere, so a good mix of sightseeing and spoiling yourself is the way to go.
Walk up the hill in the middle of town and enjoy the terrific views! When you come back down after a sunset, you can dive into the Night Market. You will find good quality souvenirs, from paintings to handbags and silk scarves to teas anything you desire.
A good way to spend a day is to visit one of the cooking courses, and learn about local herbs and spices on the market (a seriously different experience from home â€“ eggs are marked to see the development of the embryo inside ...to name only one of their delicacies!). Don't be shy about trying the local cusine as you may find stuff that you truly enjoy.
If you feel like exploring the area, there are some great waterfalls (Tat Kuang Si) around Luang Prabang. You can jump off the trees there, or ride an elephant. The Pak Ou Caves are also worth a visit. Make sure you get your picture took while you are riding an elephant. Your friends and family will find the picture very amusing when you get back to the States.
Try the delicious barbecue Lao-style in one of the numerous bars and restaurants and have a cool drink at the riverside bar Utopia, one of the nicest places to spend a lazy afternoon!
There is a curfew in Luang Prabang, so make sure to return to your guesthouse in time!
If you plan on bicycle touring in this region it is advisable that you use a steel framed bicycle. If you do happen to break your frame you can get the steel framed bike welded up pretty easily, but Aluminum will be almost impossible to get fixed in this region.
If you are not touring then you can simply rent a bicycle and ride around. The local bikes will not be like your Specialized or Gary Fisher mountain bike back home, but it will still be a lot of fun.