Sleeping and Dining in Luang Prabang, Laos

After three nights in town I can understand why people are enamored with this quaint, small Asian city. It has all the charm that other destinations promise. I’ve been disappointed many times but this one actually delivers.

The town of well-tended buildings is situated in a lush landscape along the Mekong River and has good services, restaurants and hotels at various price points. This is still Asia so it’s not immaculate, but it is a pleasant setting for dining, relaxing or enjoying the local scene.

Belle Rive Boutique Hotel

Belle Rive Boutique Hotel an upscale river side establishment has accommodations across the street from the Mekong. It should be noted that all of the river side accommodations that I saw in Luang Prabang are actually across the street from the river with large trees blocking most of the hotels’ river views. What the hotels have instead are attractive shaded restaurants on the banks of the river. The belle Rive’s terrace is lovely for breakfast or sunset views for drinks or dinner.

I wouldn’t spend your money on trying to get a room with a river view, but having a hotel that has a river side terrace is a plus.

The Balcony Suite at the Belle Rive has a sitting room and bathroom on the first floor and a bedroom and writing desk in the loft above. A comfortable set up if you are OK with stairs down to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Staff is friendly and will arrange whatever you like. We used them to book a motorbike rental for the day and a shared minivan to Vang Vieng. There is also an option for a private minivan to Vang Vieng, which I would recommend. See the Vang Vieng post.

The location on the peninsula end of town is a peaceful area to stay. The lush quiet setting is perfect for strolling in the evening after dinner.

Belle Rive Sunset Cruise

The hotel offers a complementary one hour sunset cruise during your stay complete with beer, wine or other beverage and peanuts. While it sounds great it is not well executed. Leaving at 4:30 and returning at 5:30 when the sun sets at 5:35 you miss the prettiest light on the water.  5 to 6 would be a much better time for a “sunset cruise”.

That said it isn’t much of a sunset. At this time of year, late October,  the sun goes behind the hills across the river from town. There was a little color in the sky and water but not much.

The second issue with the cruise is that it is more of a float than a cruise. We went up river for about 20 minutes and then floated back. The problem with floating is that there is not much air movement and it gets warm sitting in the middle of the river with the west sun beating down on you.

It’s a nice idea but they need to put a little more thought into it. It is much nicer sitting on their terrace with a gin and tonic watching the evening action on the river – sunset cruise boats and the fishermen along the banks.

Breakfast and Dinner at the Belle Rive

Breakfast, served on their pleasant river side terrace, is ordered off a menu with both Western and Asian choices available including fresh fruit plates and coffee drinks. Everything on the menu is included in the room price. A nice touch.

The limited dinner menu has mostly Asian dishes. Trying for something more local we started with a spicy eggplant dip with fresh veggies.

The smoked eggplant had a bit of heat and the carrot and cucumber slices were very fresh. I’m not sure, however, that the combination works well as the eggplant dip is not creamy.

For mains the fish steamed in a banana leaf was nicely cooked with green curry flavorings served with a pile of cabbage and cooked carrots. A healthly and tasty dish.

I tried the sun dried dish. An oddly themed dish with everything on the plate dried and served with two dips – more of the spicy eggplant dip and a tomato dip which was not spicy.

The dried items included pork two ways – sliced and julienne cut with a sweetish coating and sesame seeds. Kind of like having jerky for dinner but not as dry. Also on the plate were rice crackers and sheets of seaweed (actually river weed). An interesting idea for a dish but no real wow factor.

Service is friendly and eager to please, but it’s the river side setting that makes this restaurant.

Other Restaurants

Lunch at Viewpoint Restaurant

Located at the tip of the peninsula where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong this restaurant, run by the Mekong Riverview Hotel, has a delightful river view terrace shaded by lush trees.

We tried the chicken curry and ginger fish. Both were well executed.

Dinner at Tamarind

Highly recommended by Lonely Planet and less so in TripAdvisor I had my doubts, but LP nailed it! A fun dining experience with tons of opportunity to try well prepared authentic dishes. We thought the restaurant wasn’t doing much business when there were just a few tables taken at 6:30. Turns out it’s a later dinner crowd and many of the tables were reserved. We were lucky and got one of the last tables on the front porch which overlooks the Nam Khan River.

We started with the Soop Pak, a great dish if you like veggies and are partial to bitter. One of the vegetables they often use, the pea eggplant, is seriously bitter but I’ve come to like it when mixed with other ingredients.

We then tried the Orlam Gai, a chicken stew with wood chips. You can supposedly chew on the bits of wood but don’t eat them.

The Buffalo Laap, for the adventurous, can be ordered with the traditional buffalo tripe for texture and bile for bitterness. We tried both and I didn’t notice much bitterness. The pea eggplant is far bitterer. We ordered it spicy but for me the little red chilies were too intense to eat outright.

For dessert we tried the custard cooked in pumpkin. Garnished with molasses it was not too sweet, but was not a Western style egg custard and was too stiff with gelatin for my tastes. Pleasant flavor but not my favorite texture.

Overall a very fun evening and it seems everyone knows it so it’s best to book a table.

Dinner at Big Tree Café and Gallery

This shaded establishment is recommended in Lonely Planet not so loved on Trip Advisor. People were fond of the ambiance on the garden terrace, but with so many shaded river side eaters I’m not sure why the fuss.

The menu is a hodgepodge of Western, Japanese, Lao, and Korean fare. Touted at a place Koreans like to come I was surprised at how few Korean choices there were.

We started with the mixed vegetable tempura. Although nothing like tempura other than it has vegetables and batter I was intrigued by the photo thinking they looked like the tasty pakoras we had in Bhaktapur last week. Served hot and fresh they were doughy vegetable cakes that were filling but sadly not flavorful.

The bibimbap was nowhere near as good at in Bhaktapur, Nepal. I actually don’t know what this dish is really supposed to be like, but this version had a small amount of vegetables surrounding a large mound of rice with a fried egg on top and was not interesting or flavorful.

The best dish of the evening was the pork kimchi soup set – a rich flavorful broth with tofu and tender pork served with 15 or so small dishes of veggies (often pickled) and condiments. This dish alone was good, not fabulous, and not enough for me to recommend the restaurant, despite the friendly and efficient service.

Arriving in Luang Prabang

We had an easy flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang with the A320 less than half full. Immigration forms are passed out on the plane but you need an additional visa form which is available at immigration in the airport.

At immigration they ask for a passport photo but not everyone had one. I’m not sure what they did. Maybe you can get it taken there for an additional charge. Visas cost $35USD for Americans. We paid in Thai baht, because we had it and wanted to conserve our USD. Once through immigration baggage claim and exiting the airport went quickly. This is a sleepy little airport.

Our ride from Belle Rive Boutique Hotel, included in the price of the room, was waiting for us and drove us the 15 minutes into town to the hotel.

October 28-31, 2018

For links to all the posts in this series see the Laos/Cambodia page.