Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your buck hotel
The Mekong Riverview Hotel in Luang Prabang because you can’t beat the location. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula carved out by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and the Riverview sits right at the tip of that peninsula, on the main drag of town but in the quieter, UNESCO World Heritage-cited old quarter (the night market is just a five-minute walk away). Since the least expensive rooms (called “Deluxe Riverview”) have balconies, you needn’t upgrade to a suite. Our travelers get early check-in and late check-out, and for those interested we can set up a meeting with the owner, who has done a lot of restoration work around Luang Prabang.
La Folie Lodge, south of Pakse in the Champassak province. Its location could add a day to your itinerary, though. It is the only hotel on the island of Don Daeng, which is in the Mekong River and across from the ancient temple of Wat Phou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each cabin has its own balcony overlooking the Mekong, which is great for taking in the sunset. Families should book those closer to the pool, honeymooners those at the other end of the property, with a better view of the river. The hotel offers guests free bicycle rentals, allowing you to explore the island of Don Daeng on your own, which is easy to do as there are no cars and a few paths that take you from one side to the other.
Restaurants the locals love
In Luang Prabang: Ban Khili Khao Piek Noodles. Khao piek is a Lao noodle soup that has been perfected in Luang Prabang, and this shop offers the best in town. Only the one soup is available and you can get it with pork, chicken, or vegetarian. It’s a small shop with only a few tables, so go before the lunch rush at 11:30 a.m. or after 1 p.m.
In Vientiane: Pak Pa Sak. This eatery and bar is packed every night with people grabbing a bite and a couple of Beerlao lagers. It’s not far from the town center, located on the corner of Sithane Road and Quai Fa Ngum, and offers views of the Mekong, live music, and cheap eats and drinks.
Dish to try
Lao food is famous for complex flavors presented with incredibly fresh local ingredients. The dishes seem endless and are all made with a lot of preparation and love. A couple of my favorites include:
The Luang Prabang sausage sold by Mrs. Noy at the local market beside the Amantaka Hotel during lunchtime. You can have a delicious meal of sticky rice, sausage, and jeow (dipping sauce for your rice, made from eggplant, tomato, or pepper) for $2. If you miss Mrs. Noy at lunch, you can pick a close second at one of the stalls near the night market.
Mok paa, which is steamed fish in banana leaf. The fish, herbs, garlic, and peppers are all pounded together and packed into the leaf, which is then steamed over an open fire. The dish is refreshing and highly fragrant. It’s popular throughout the country, but Vientiane is especially famous for its mok paa.
Meal worth the splurge
Anything at the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao. This hotel, located on top of a mountain, overlooks Luang Prabang and Phousi Mountain temple, which is lit up in spectacular fashion every evening. There are lanterns hanging throughout the trees surrounding the open-air restaurant, which provides top-notch service and international cuisine you can’t find anywhere else in town.
What to See and Do
Most overrated place
Vientiane. Laos is known for its laid-back atmosphere, deep-rooted culture, and natural beauty, all of which are lost in Vientiane.
Unless you love jostling with large crowds pushing to get a shot of the setting sun, skip the sunset at Phousi Mountain. While everyone visiting Laos should make the trek up these 328 stairs, it doesn’t need to be at sunset. If you are already up for morning alms giving, go before or after for the sunrise. It’s quieter, cooler, and offers the same 360-degree views. And there are plenty of other less-crowded spots to catch the sunset along the Mekong River, such as at the beautiful Wat Phon Phao.
Houaphan Province, which claims to be the birthplace of modern Laos, is steeped in history from the Indochina War (Vietnam War), as it shares borders with northern Vietnam. Don’t miss the Vieng Xai network of more than 100 eerily picturesque caves, built into limestone cliffs, that were used by fighters to hide from the U.S. bombing campaigns. The area is also known for producing highly intricate and sought-after textiles.
Rent a motorbike or a bicycle in any of the cities. Not only will you get to move freely around the sights, but you’ll also be able to easily travel to the outskirts of town on your own schedule, without worrying about finding a ride back home. Depending on the shop, you can pay anywhere from $3 to $15 a day for the rental.
Local Lao cuisine is a cheap adventure all by itself. You can easily go to a market in any town and order a couple of traditional dishes for about $1 each. The dishes will be much more authentic than what you would get in a restaurant in the main parts of town—and one-fourth of the price.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Take a leisurely bike ride around Luang Prabang, stopping for drinks or snacks along the riverside and having a massage. Sunday is a great day to ride a bicycle because there are not as many cars in town, as locals will either be home resting or have driven outside of town for the day. This gives you more open road.