I arrived in Luang Prabang on a sunny, warm January morning – and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had just flown in from Hanoi where I had spent a fascinating but bitterly cold two days in Sapa, the hill-tribe area near the Vietnamese/Chinese border. The four prior days in Hanoi had also been really cold so this feeling of Laotian warmth on my body was heaven!
I had been traveling for 3 1/2 weeks with friends on a small group tour of Cambodia and Vietnam. The trip had been wonderful but definitely whirlwind. In Hanoi, I said goodbye to my travel mates who were all heading back home to the States. However, I was extending my travels for another week – this time on my own to visit Laos, a new country for me.
Planning My Laos Extension
How did this extension come about, you might ask? Well, after signing up for the tour many months before, I pulled out a map of Southeast Asia. I saw that Laos was snuggled between Vietnam and Thailand, and sitting on top of Cambodia. Laos, along with Vietnam and Cambodia, had been part of French Indochina. Plus, being a strongly devout Buddhist country, Laos was known to be peaceful and safe – and a friendly, laid back, easy destination for independent travelers.
Visiting Laos, especially Luang Prabang, had definitely been on my travel dream list! I knew that by this point of the trip, after traveling for 3+ weeks with a group of people (even though friends and fun travelers), I was really going to need some “on my own” time. I would also be ready to “chill” and enjoy a less frenetic (and structured) travel pace.
My plan was to spend 4 nights in Luang Prabang, 2 nights in Vientiane (Laos’ capital city) and a final night back in Hanoi before catching my international flight home. Happily, my plan worked and worked well! Laos turned out to be a perfect place to relax, rejuvenate and recharge my travel batteries while being safe and very comfortable for traveling alone.
I particularly loved Luang Prabang. My four days in this small, charming town went way too quickly – I definitely want to go back! In this post, I share some highlights of my visit to Luang Prabang – with a particular focus on my experience as a solo woman traveler. This is a great destination that I hope you will consider adding to your travel list, whether going solo or with others.
Finding The Perfect Luang Prabang Hotel
In planning my trip to Luang Prabang, I took special care in choosing a “good” hotel. I find this is especially important when you’re an independent (and solo woman) traveler. Your hotel/ lodge/ B&B (whatever the type) becomes your new “home away from home” – a trusted family that provides you with good advice and needed assistance in a variety of ways. However, the term “good” doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or staying at the best place in town. Often, for me, it’s a family-run establishment with lots of local charm and warmth – yet with the necessary amenities.
A good central location is one of the most critical factors. I wanted to be close to Luang Prabang’s main sights as well as local cafes and restaurants – plus be in an area that was safe for walking to these locales, day and night. With this in mind, I poured over my Lonely Planet guidebook’s maps, noting the key sights and restaurant locations in relation to the different “mid-range” hotel choices. Once I had created my hotel shortlist, I went online to customer review sites (like TripAdvisor) as well as each hotel’s individual website to dig deeper.
The vigorous research paid off – I had picked a real winner! Lotus Villa was everything I was looking for and more! It is a beautiful boutique hotel (from 2008) in a traditional French-Lao style house with 15 rooms and 2 suites. The rooms have timber paneling and a private balcony overlooking the tropical courtyard garden (some open onto a verandah). I stayed in a Lotus category room, which runs around $75 USD/night.
My Lotus Villa Hotel Experience
Arriving at the hotel by taxi from the airport, I was greeted by friendly Kip who showed me to my room (which I loved). After a quick unpack, I sat outside on my balcony with a view of the beautiful garden and read for a little while before heading out to explore. Lotus Villa (which proudly claims they do not provide TVs or music) was so peaceful. I could already feel myself relaxing and moving into a slower, more soulful pace. Bliss!
Lotus Villa is located on a quiet, residential street in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old quarter. It was close to everything, including beautiful Buddhist temples, many good eateries, the Mekong River and local life. Also, the hotel conveniently sits on the route where saffron-cloaked monks in bare feet parade by every morning (around 6:45am) to collect their alms from the local people (and tourists too!) who fill their bowls with rice. (I participated one morning and will write a separate post on this very cool experience.)
I loved the hotel’s all-you-can eat, made-to-order breakfast each morning, served in the garden. The first morning I had scrambled eggs, toasted baguette with fresh jam, fresh-squeezed juice (tamarind), a fruit plate (papaya, watermelon, pineapple and jackfruit), and hot tea. The garden was a lovely place for resting or reading a book during the occasional break from touring. I met a few other delightful hotel guests there – often solo women travelers like me.
The Lao staff was helpful and very sweet. The three young men (in the photo) who worked part-time at the hotel were all students (one is going to be a teacher). When I was there (in 2011), I used the lobby / reception area’s one computer with free Internet for my emails, since I didn’t yet own an iPad. Today (per the website), the rooms all have complimentary Wi-Fi for their must-be electronically-connected guests.
Another Lotus Villa perk is that they offer laundry service for a really cheap price. Staff weighs your sack of laundry before sending it out for a quick turnaround at 15,000 Laotian kip/Kg. My laundry weighed 1.5 Kg (3.3#) and cost only 22,000 kip – which was less than $3! Such a pleasant contrast to today’s international high-end hotels where that would be the cost of just one item.
Because it’s been five years since I stayed at Lotus Villa, I wanted to check out TripAdvisor to see what current guests were saying. I’m happy to report that TripAdvisor customer reviews for Lotus Villa are still glowing!
Exploring the Charms of Luang Prabang
Most of the town’s key sights are within the UNESCO World Heritage designated precinct, set on a small peninsula between the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan River. Luang Prabang’s charming old quarter is filled with beautiful buildings (a mix of French colonial and traditional Lao styles), good French bakeries, cute cafes, great restaurants, nice shops, and a myriad of “travel agencies” servicing the throngs of global travelers, young and old.
In addition, there are many beautiful Buddhist wats and temple complexes sprinkled throughout the town. It’s quite common to see monks and young “novices” in saffron-colored robes casually walking the streets. The country’s deeply ingrained Buddhist culture and traditions added greatly to Luang Prabang’s special charm and provided a true sense of peace and tranquility for me.
My hotel was a great base for exploring the historic precinct. I took long leisurely walks around town, visiting many of the temple complexes, shops, and other sights – whatever caught my eye. Once again, as a solo woman traveler, I felt safe and comfortable in all the touring that I did. I met friendly people all along the way – both locals and fellow travelers.
Some of My Touring Highlights: (more details in a later post)
- Walking 328 steps to the top of Phu Si Hill for great views over the town and the Mekong River.
- Shopping at Luang Prabang’s colorful Night Market filled with food and handicrafts.
- Taking a full-day excursion to Pak Ou Caves (crammed with 4,000 Buddha statues of all sizes). The tour included a 2-hour boat ride each way on the fascinating Mekong River with a couple stops at villages on the way. The trip was booked through a travel agency in town.
- Visiting the pretty Kuang Si Waterfall, an hour’s tuk tuk ride from town. The hotel booked the tuk tuk driver for me.
- Renting a bicycle one afternoon for further exploration of the town’s outer reaches.
- Visiting the interesting Royal Palace Museum. It was the King’s former palace built in 1904 (and utilized until the monarchy was overthrown in 1975).
- I observed the fascinating Buddhist ritual of the morning procession of monks collecting their daily alms. Read my post to learn more: Luang Prabang’s Colorful Monk’s Alms Procession is a Must See.
Last But Not Least – Enjoying Tasty Local Cuisine
I imagine you will agree that enjoying the local cuisine is an important part of any travel experience. Luang Prabang has many good restaurants offering a wide mix of Lao, French, international and fusion cuisines. I definitely ate very well! For dinner my first night, the hotel staff recommended the Tamarind Restaurant (just one block away) for great Lao cuisine. (photo below). I sat at a table by the window and ordered the soup – coconut, pumpkin and ginger – which was incredibly delicious!
While there, I began a fascinating conversation with two young women at the next table. Erin (from Los Angeles) was in Luang Prabang on a one-year contract, working at Ock-Pop-Tok, a local weaving organization. Her friend Nelle from New York was visiting for a week. The very next day, I went to visit Erin at her Ock-Pop-Tok shop and bought a beautiful locally made silk scarf.
Another night, I ate at Tum Tum Cheng/Bamboo restaurant (I think it’s now called Bamboo Tree) for a tasty Lao meal of a cucumber salad, chicken in lemongrass, and fried pineapple in honey. Four local musicians entertained during the meal, along with two dancers – a man and a woman. Their graceful arm and finger movements reminded me of the Thai and Cambodian dance I have seen.
The final night, I walked back to Tamarind to have my wonderful soup again but sadly, the restaurant was full. So, Plan B – I walked along the street running parallel to the Mekong River, which was filled with riverside cafes and restaurants. I chose one that looked good and sat down. I ordered the Mekong Fish Laap (tasty chunks of fish with spices), fried spring rolls and a yogurt fruit shake.
I chatted with Terry, a nice man from Ashland, Oregon who was traveling solo for six weeks. He had come to Luang Prabang last year with his sons and was back for more. Luang Prabang does that to you – it is captivating! And, like Terry, I will return!
Comments: Have you been to Luang Prabang? How was your experience? If not yet, would you like to visit Laos and Luang Prabang? Would you be comfortable doing a trip like this on your own?