Luang Prabang province is located in Northern Laos and shares a border with Northern Vietnam. The population is more than 400,000. Roughly 50,000 live in Luang Prabang city, which is the fourth most populous in Laos after Vientiane, Pakxe and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 and has maintained its old world charm much better than the current Lao capital of Vientiane. It served as the royal capital until the monarchy was dissolved in 1975. The best comparison to Luang Prabang outside of Laos is its official sister city of Bagan, Myanmar (Burma).
Take a Lao Cooking Class
Cooking classes are a way to personalize your travel experience. Lao cuisine is difficult to find outside of Laos. Most classes will show you the most common dishes like green papaya salad (ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ), larb (ລາບ), mok pa (similar to Khmer amok) and sticky rice. While Thailand may be one of the world’s top rice exporters, Laotians eat more sticky rice than anyone else.
While Thai and Vietnamese restaurants seem to be on every corner in most major cities, Khmer and Lao cuisine are relatively unknown outside of Southeast Asia. Ethnic Lao people are said to outnumber ethnic Thais by a ratio by six to one in the Isan region of Thailand. When you eat green papaya salad and larb (two of the most popular items at Thai restaurants), you are eating Lao cuisine.
Visit UXO Information Center
A visit to the UXO Information Center is a sobering experience. Although the Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago, unexploded bombs are still maiming and killing Laotians to this day. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed nation in history. An estimated 30% of those bombs did not explode. 10 of the 18 Lao provinces are still considered to be severely contaminated.
More than 1 million UXOs (unexploded ordinances) were destroyed between 1996 and 2009. Some of them are on display at the information center. There are also exhibits and videos in English. Admission is free.
Learn About the Hill Tribes
According to the Lao government, there are more than 160 different ethnic groups in Laos. While ethnic Lao are estimated to make up slightly more than half of the population, the Khmu and Hmong each make up roughly ten percent. The hill tribes even have their own Lonely Planet phrasebook.
If you don’t have time to venture outside Luang Prabang (city), you can still visit the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC). The three rooms offer enough information to give the visitor an insight into Northern Lao Hill Tribe culture without being overwhelming. Permanent exhibits focus on the Akha, Hmong, Kmhmu and Tai Lue. Even if you are planning to visit a hill tribe, it’s a good idea to visit TAEC first. Exhibits are in English and Lao.
Visit the Markets
There are morning, afternoon and evening markets in Luang Prabang. While bottles of snake and scorpion wine may shock first time visitors to Southeast Asia, there are several crepe carts and smoothie bars for every vendor selling live bats. Laos is still a developing country and instead of fancy Beats Pills, you can buy a “non-electronic” iPhone speaker dock for less than the cost of a cable car ride in San Francisco. Make sure you have cash. Credit cards are not widely accepted at outdoor markets in any part of Laos.
Sample the Street Food
While you don’t have to go to a market to enjoy the street food, markets are certainly the best option if you want variety. Either way, you can get quality food on the street for a fraction of what you would pay in a restaurant. Many street food peddlers have small seating areas as well. Most are cash only.