Luang Prabang! City of Gold, UNESCO World Heritage site, a relatively recent star in the Southeast Asian tourist bucket lists. That said, I’d never heard of Luang Prabang, to be completely honest, till the team from Unravel Travel SG engaged me to host a travel video campaign for them in collaboration with Changi Airport Group. But I am always game for new destinations and the romantic idea of the unknown – and how glad I am that they ended up sending me, and my girlfriend Cindy, here.
First up, the obvious: Luang Prabang is gorgeous. It is insanely, gut-wrenchingly, in-your-face beautiful. The scenery here is just on another level altogether, but we’re not just talking superficial beauty. When you get past the breathtaking views, you dust off the dazedness to reveal the real beauty of Luang Prabang – the people. I have never met people more open, inviting, and warm, and coming face to face with the culture of Laos is somewhat dazzling. That is something money truly cannot buy, that enveloping sense of tradition welcoming you with open arms. It’s something you have to experience yourself, which brings me to my second point –
Luang Prabang is extremely accessible. Southeast Asia in general usually is, and this in itself gives the destination a huge advantage over other gorgeous choices, simply because you have the option of hopping on a two hour flight and slipping away from Singapore for the weekend. In this way it truly is perfect – for both the busy Singaporean looking for a short getaway, and the ambitious backpacker winding his/her way through the Laos/ Cambodia/ Vietnam route.
So with that, lets get to it: yet another BSG, the Southeast Asian counterpart to my Rome BSG, if you will. The Broke Student’s Guide to Luang Prabang: how to do LP for under a hundred dollars!
*Once again, this hundred dollars does not include my flight there. It includes everything else – food, local transport, entry fees, and so on. Changi Airport Group paid for my flight and accommodation, but here I also include the rough cost breakdown for travellers looking to fly over on their own.
Lao Airlines flies to Vientiane from Changi Airport most days, and from Vientiane there’s a twice daily domestic flight to Luang Prabang. The entire return journey will cost you about 300SGD.
I think that’s pretty decent as it is, but for budget travellers, you can just fly into Vientiane, and then take an overnight bus to Luang Prabang. It will cost you about 140,000kip for the overnight, air conditioned bus. I suggest doing Luang Prabang and another destination like Vientiane, just to make the most of the airfare, or at least staying longer than we did – we only had one full day there. It was a fly in at night, one full day, fly out the following afternoon kind of situation. While we were there though, we met lots of people who had been there over a week and counting.
This is the only time in my life I can lay claim to the title of millionaires. Laos uses the kip as their currency, which sounds like an adorable type of fish food. The exchange rate when I was there was approximately 1SGD to 6,000kip, which means that the cheap thrill of being called a millionaire can be yours for the low, low budget of 170SGD! Oh, I make myself laugh.
Although you can change your SGD to kip in Laos itself, you’ll have an easier time changing your SGD to USD in Singapore, then changing USD to kip once you touch down. I couldn’t find a place that’d change my SGD to kip directly in Singapore. Once in Laos, USD is more widely accepted and you’re going to need it immediately anyway, getting a taxi out from the airport.
A side point: I found it more helpful to think in terms of the Thai Baht, because 50,000kip is 200BHT, and it’s easier to draw dollar for dollar comparisons since you can find relatively similar things in Laos and Thailand. EG. 1 hr Thai massage in Thailand is 200BHT, 1 hr Thai massage in Laos is 40,000kip. Conclusion: it’s a steal, do it in Laos! (Though honestly, everywhere is a steal compared to Singapore.)
There are a bunch of telcos available in Laos – the most common being Unitel, which is frequently lauded as the best telco around. However, the locals told us that Unitel is best for calls, but other telcos are better for internet connection, which works out if you just need connectivity like we did.
We paid 19USD for 10GB of data, valid for 30 days, shared out between the three of us with one of those wifi egg devices (Hafiz brought his). The telco was called M Broadband. There’s a little booth right at the tiny Luang Prabang airport that will sell and set up the sim cards for you, and you’ll be good to go!
We stayed at the Sayo Naga Guesthouse, which was about three minutes walk from the city centre and much more comfortable than its Agoda photos might suggest. It was lovely and functional, but at the same time, accommodation in Luang Prabang is widely available and extremely affordable – basically a backpacker’s dream, so there’s not much to worry about on that front. I’ve heard good things about LPQ Backpackers, which should cost under $10 a night and which is pretty near the city centre as well – we passed it every morning, walking to town.
Sayo Naga Guesthouse
Sisavangvong Road, Town Centre
Luang Prabang, Laos
Wat That street.
Ban Wat That.
Luang prabang. Laos
You can and should walk everywhere in Luang Prabang because it’s so small. The only time you’ll need to take a tuktuk/ van is to and fro the airport, and when you leave the city centre to get to the famous Kuang Si waterfalls.
1. To and fro the airport
Will cost you 50,000kip for three people each way. That’s 200 BHT, or SGD8.30 in total. It’s a pretty standard cost, but we saw some European tourists get charged 80,000. Basically, you just need to know what the pricing is like and not look gullible or you’ll be taken for a ride both literally and metaphorically.
2. To and fro the Waterfalls
Any tuktuk you approach will try to charge you upwards of 200,000 kip for a return journey to the waterfalls per vehicle. This is a case of gross overcharging – because the standard rate is 50,000 for a return journey per person. To get this rate, you need five or six people to share the tuktuk, the drivers wont leave otherwise, or will end up charging you 200,000 kip. Perfect – because this means that you not only get to save money, you also learn a valuable life lesson/ skill, which is that travelling alone forces you to make friends with strangers on demand.
Food in Luang Prabang is nothing to shout about, unfortunately. It’s alright, but most of it doesn’t warrant the word delicious at any point. We tried nearly everything – street side noodles, asian style tapas, stick food, lao baguettes, crepes.. and the conclusion is, the most value for money thing to get is the baguettes, available nearly everywhere and starting at 10,000kip for the most basic version with one ingredient. (Each additional ingredient is about 5,000kip more. So: Egg baguette, 10,000kip. Egg and Tuna baguette, 15,000kip.)
We did, however, get very lucky one night in Luang Prabang – stumbling upon this innocuous noodle store along the streets at the tail end of the Luang Prabang night market. Operated and frequented almost exclusively by locals, it serves up homemade kuay teow noodle soup with pork, minced meat, whatever, for 15,00kip per bowl. Have it with copious amounts of chilli or in it’s original naked form – either way, it was amazing. So tasty and flavorful! Best dish in Luang Prabang, all right. We had it again at Lao Coffeeshop, a little shophouse a short walk from the city center.
cnr Th Sisavangvong & Th Kitsarat,
Luang Prabang, Laos
Chao Fa Ngum Rd
Things to see
You can watch my video travelogue – 24 hours in Luang Prabang, filmed for the Unravel Travel SG campaign, once it’s out on the Changi Airport youtube channel! But meanwhile, let’s break it down:
6AM – Alms ceremony.
Laos is a deeply cultural and religious place. Every morning, the monks embark on an alms ceremony through the town, which is definitely worth getting up for at least once. Bear witness to the ceremony itself and get intimate with Laotian culture – but if you’re looking to also take good photos, please don’t be an obnoxious tourist and wave your camera around in their faces. Respect the ceremony. Opinions on the internet differ on whether participation in the ceremony is a good idea, but as a general rule I think be wary of buying the alms sold by the roadside hawkers in the morning, because I’ve heard that a lot of it is leftover or day-old food that could cause the monks to fall sick.
We actually woke up at 4AM for this but missed the monks slightly and only caught a smattering of them while looking for the bridge. However, the best place in town to catch them is about a 15 minute walk from the city center, a semi-famous bamboo bridge. There’s a little platform higher up on the steps where you can plant yourself for photographs, and still stay a respectful distance away from the monks. If you’re in town, definitely make the effort to watch the ceremony.
8AM – Kuang Si Waterfalls
The entry fee for the waterfalls is 20,000kip, and this is on top of the tuktuk rental. So in total it should set you back 70,000kip. It is worth every cent. Arrange the time spent at the falls with the driver before setting off – they’ll suggest 2 hours, but I think 3 or more is better. You’re going to need the time to climb up and down, especially if you want to swim.
The waterfalls can be accessed basically all day, but it gets crowded really fast, so I suggest you go early to get beautiful unobstructed views of the pools before they get littered with cheerfully swimming tourists. It actually reminds me of Turkey’s Pamukkale.
At the same time, visit the Luang Prabang Bear Conservatory. It’s included in the entry fee to the Waterfalls, and lets you get up close and personal with bears rescued from the rapidly growing bear poaching culture. Feeding is at approximately midday but varies daily, so check when you’re there!
There was also a butterfly garden right by the Waterfall entrance, but we didn’t have enough time to hit it as well because our three hours were up. However, some other international travellers we spoke to positively gushed about it, so it’s probably worth a visit if you have the time!
Midday – R&R
Rest back in your guesthouse, or go for a massage. There are massage parlours all over town, and they should cost you 40,000 kip for an hour’s thai massage. Alternatively, check out the cafes in town, there are only two or three, so it’ll make for a really straightforward afternoon lounging in the cafes!
Entry fee: 20,000 kip. It’s some three hundred steps to the top, tiring, but very worth it. The sun only sets at about 6pm, but this is the best place to watch the sunset in town and it gets crowded really, really fast. See below:
Yes? We went two hours early and there were already a whole bunch of people milling around. It got more crowded by the minute. So go early, and get a seat, because it’s going to be the most beautiful sunset you’ll ever catch in your life.
8PM onwards – Night Market
The night market stretches all over the main street in Luang Prabang, and is a treasure chest of trinkets, elephant pants, and smoky street food. One thing to note – you’ll definitely have to bargain if you’re looking to buy anything, they mark up the price by a pretty crazy amount once they realise you’re a tourist. Elephant pants, for instance, should cost 20,000 to 30,000 (I googled this beforehand), but some places tried charging me 70,000 for a pair. Once I shook my head and said 30,000 though, they brought it down – it seems if it’s obvious you know what the pricing should be, they give up on trying to convince you to pay more. So do your research.
One of the most interesting and slightly heart wrenching things I saw in the night market was the sale of these little silver keychains and cutlery, made from the scrap bits of the bomber planes that devastated Laos years ago in the Secret War. We’ve learnt to make new life from the destruction, the locals shrug, we turn it into new things and sell it as a way to make a living.
What do you say to that? What indeed.
Total Expenditure for 3D2N in Luang Prabang
Transport: (return trip for the airport and waterfalls) approx 84,000kip.
Food and Drinks: (yes, I kept count) 117,000kip
Attractions: 40,000 (entry for the Waterfalls and Phu Si hills)
Gifts: 140,000kip (elephant pants and their local coffee beans)
Misc: 40,000kip for one massage
Total: 421,000kip, or approximately SGD 70
Alright, and there you go! The Broke Student’s Guide to Luang Prabang. If you’re adding in flight and backpacker’s accommodation, your entire trip can actually nestle safely under the 500SGD total mark. The thing I love most about this BSG is this – that you can spend so little, and return with so much. Who was it who said that the only thing that makes you richer while spending is travel?
It just blows my mind how accessible the world is becoming for us – I remember a time when a much younger me thought i’d never make it out of Asia, purely due to finances.. and the rapid development of affordable travel vessels (budget flights, backpacker hostels, couchsurfing) and the ease of which a wealth of information is made available to us at a click has just shrunk the globe completely. It’s no longer purely a luxury to travel – over the course of the last year, I’ve met so many people who embody the notion that travel is necessary to truly broaden your mind and world perspective. And so it is.
Right, and so – thanks are in order. I’m endlessly grateful to the Unravel Travel SG team and Changi Airport Group for sending us on this trip, and I’m so excited to see how the videos turn out! Thank you to Hafiz, our videographer, for patiently trailing us around the town and giving us the 911 on waterfall photography. And Laos – thank you for being so unexpectedly lovely. I can’t wait for my next Southeast Asian venture x