We were in Laos just before Christmas and flew into Luang Prabang from Vientianne. Booked Laos Airlines and paid online. If you are taking taxis (tut tut) from the airport to town, tickets are sold for USD5. We stayed for 4 days, which was too short. I can appreaciate why other travellers choose to stay longer. If only our plans were more flexible.
Wherever you stay, the atmosphere and the town itself gives the lodging the good feel. The main street in town was not as quiet as I thought it would be but quiet enough. After all, it is the peak of the tourist season. Be sure that you book your hotel well in advance for December/January as we could see new arrivals walking around desperately looking for accomodation.
If you are staying within the town area, there is no need to book any tours for the sights within the town itself. We walked around ourselves. Most sights within the town can be covered within a day or two.
Get up early to watch the monks receiving alms (6.15 to 6.30 a.m.) along Th Sakkarin and the side street of Th Sisavang Vatthana is a must. We watched each morning from across each road from where the monks walked. Whilst many tourists were mindful and respectful enough to understand that this daily event is something unique, meaningful and with deep significance, there were many who treat this as some sort of a circus. Some even set up their tripods right in front of the monks' walking path and start clicking and flashing away as they pass. This is very sad indeed. Even my 13 year old son shook his head.
Some notable places of interest is the Royal Palace, the walk up Phu Si hill, Wat Xieng Thong. For out of town sights, you can book an entire boat to the Pak Ou caves for USD25 although they may even take you there for a bit less. The ride along the Mekong river was good enough for me. Try to go, as we did, right after an eraly lunch so that your trip back will see you go down river right into the sunset. The caves itself contains thousands of statues of the Buddha, which is sight . However, also make sure that, as part of the bargain, the boat will take you to at least one or two villages along the river. Around the villages, just before sunset you can suddenly see throngs of people coming down to the river banks to have a bath, play or do their washing or to collect pails of water. My son had the opportunity of playing with some local kids along the river, joining in a game of takeow (rattan ball game played). Time: around 5-6 hours.
We have shopped around for good deals for trips out of town but generally the prices are quite the same and will not vary very much. You will find deals all around town and especially along the main road Th Sisavangvong. Generally, one does not get the feeling of paranoid or the fear of being scammed in Luang Prabang.
We got a jumbo (half van half tuk tuk) just off the road, to Kuang Si Waterfall. Start early. What is another waterfall right? Well, that was exactly my thought. Believe me, it is worth it. The water of each pool is turqouise in colour and the place clean. There is a tiger at the base of the waterfall. Never got that close to a tiger before, which was fascinating but can't help feeling a bit insecure as the tiger was only separated by a what looked like a chain link fence only. There are also many bears opposite the tiger enclosure, saved from illegal wild life traders and the like we were told. Make sure your jumbo or tuk tuk stops at some villages along the way as part of the deal.
We also booked a half day tour to an elephant village (XL camp)which included the transfer to the elephant camp, walk down to the river, boat across the river, short walk to the camp, 1 hour's elephant trekking through the woods, boat ride to Tad Sae waterfall, back to the camp, lunch and the transfer back to your hotel. There are many variations but this was the shortest day trip. It was a bit commercial but how many places can you get your kid (or the kid in yourself) an hour's ride on an elephant through the woods? Only one complaint. The ride in an open Land Rover to the camp was about an hour and a half and through some very dusty dirt tracks. Very exciting but bring along something to cover up as the dust can be quite bad.
The seaweed (or rather river moss) harvesting takes place around December /January in the Mekong and Nam Khan and can be seen on the boat ride to Tad sae. Deep fried, it is a must try.
Of course, there was the handicraft night market. from some literature we read, the night market was said to be on Th Sisavangvong, the main street. However it seems to cover a much larger area. Most parts of the night market is lighted up but there are many traders in their full traditional ethnic wear along Th Sisavangvong (the main street) just outside the palace entrance which do not have any lighting. Wonder why? Check these out as they have some really authentic stuff. I have visited many night markets all over and the night markets in Luang Prabang is just so quiet. it is just so calm, no shouting, no rush, no angry traders. We never felt pressured into buying anything.
Food wise, there are enough eateries to cater even for the high season. We recommend The Tamarind for an excellent introduction to Luang Prabang food. It is tucked away in a quiet street between Th Sakkarin and Th Khem Kong (the Mekong riverside road). We tried to check out only places serving local cuisine and this place tops them all. Food prices in Luang Prabang are generally slightly more expensive than Vientianne but you can see the difference and the effort taken in each set up.
Walking along the main street in Luang Prabang at night is most pleasant. Each eatery and hotel is lit upand the air is cool in December and January. The place is absolutely child friendly and some couples with young children we met agreed with us. We felt safe.
We are told that they will be building a new airport soon to cater for Boeing 737's and the Airbus. One can also see quite some building activity in the town, which means more hotels and more shops in future. Go see it now and while there, do our bit to keep it the way it is.
Oh yes, one more thing. We could not, for some reason, check on our return flight to Vientianne by Laos Airlines while we were in Vientianne airport's domestic terminal. We booked online and paid online. Our flight time was changed twice in a week. It was postponed an hour and then we were informed that it was brought forward by 2 hours, which means the flight was an hour earlier than originally stated in the airline's schedule. Please check your flight times again and again.
Luang Prabang is definitely a 'will go back again' place.