I visited Luang Prabang by train from Vientiane shortly after Laos reopened in 2022. While Luang Prabang was abnormally quiet then, it was evident that Luang Prabang would be transformed by the Laos-China Railway. This is my trip report and general observations.
Visiting Luang Prabang before the train
My first visit to Luang Prabang was by an overnight bus from Huay Xai on the Laos-Thailand border. I forget exactly how long the bus took, but it left in the afternoon and arrived after sunrise. It was a gruelling trip, and I remember wishing there was a train instead.
Since that trip I became more interested in transport in Southeast Asia, to the point that is is now my job at Future Southeast Asia.
While a train on that route would be the ultimate fantasy railway, I discovered a map from a mad dreamer in China who had the same idea of connecting Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai via Huay Xai.
That’s extremely unlikely to happen, but what I didn’t know at the time of that bus trip was that there had been plans for years for a railway from China to Laos.
I returned to Luang Prabang in 2018 to observe the construction of the Laos-China Railway. At the time it seemed unbelievable that such a large project was happening in little Laos. I planned to visit it as soon as it opened, but the covid pandemic had other plans.
Visiting Luang Prabang after the reopening
The railway opened in December 2020, but Laos remained closed for international travel until May 2022. When it was announced that Laos was about to reopen, I was in Thailand and ready to make the trip. I ended up crossing into Laos about 2 weeks after the country reopened.
I went to Vientiane and waited for an expat friend from Saigon who was to join me on this trip. We then got the train from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and I have already written my trip report for the railway in Laos.
We were in Luang Prabang at an unusual time in history. With international travellers only trickling in, the town was quiet and many places were still closed. I kept running into the same few travellers who also happened to be here.
For Sale/For Rent signs were prominent around the city.
The night market is usually bursting with people, so it was unusual to be walk down the street with as much space as this.
The border with China was still closed as well, shutting off an important tourism market for Laos. I noticed many Thais on the train, which makes sense as this is an easy trip to satiate the pent-up demand for international travel. There is also the fact that Laos now has a better railway than anywhere in Thailand, so there would have been train tourists like myself. Thai travellers would have made up most of the visitors here.
We were here during rainy season, which would also be a factor in the lower numbers compared to peak season. More Europrean visiotrs come in the dry season, when it is winter in Europe.
Rainy season is not as bad as it sounds. A typical rainy season day rains in the afternoon, so if you are lucky you can get stuff done then be back at your hotel for siesta while it is raining. The rain makes everything fresh and green, and it keeps the rivers topped up.
Food in Luang Pranbang
Fortunately some of my favourite local places survived the pandemic. I was dreaming of a khao soi place for my first meal back, but I wasn’t sure if it would be open for late lunch when we arrived. We dropped our bags off and arrived in time at the Khao Soi Noodle Shop on the old town main road. This is a different khao soi from what you might be used to in Northern Thailand.
I enjoy the food scene in Luang Prabang as it has influences and similarities from all its neighbours. At the night market I was absolutely captivated by this display of ingredients for Laos papaya salad.
Near the salad vender was a vendor grilling up a meat storm, so there was no way I could walk by without ordering.
Don’t come to Nomadic Notes looking for food explanations though. All I know is that I know what I like, and I liked this very much. Here is an article on the differences between Thai vs Laos papaya salad.
Influence from Vietnam is also evident in khao piak soup.
I was happy to find that banh cuon from Northern Vietnam is also served at the old town market in the morning.
Cafes in Luang Prabang
There are plenty of great cafes in Luang Prabang, and one of my favourite places to hang out at is at Saffron Coffee. They have a seated area by the Mekong, and my friend and I sat by the river for many hours drinking too many coffees on this trip.
There is a little island in the middle of this section of the Mekong, and I observed the river level rise and swallow up the island after a big rain.
The fuel shortage
Another notable thing about this trip was that we were there during a fuel shortage. My friend and I rented motorbikes, only to discover that the petrol shortage was causing queues at all the petrol stations we visited.
(Petrol and gasoline are interchangeable names for the same thing, but maybe we should call it guzzolene in this early-stage dystopia.)
[Cars queue for petrol in Luang Prabang.]
It didn’t seem right to go for a joy ride through the countryside burning precious guzzolene, when that tank I used could have got someone to work. After looking at the queue we decided to return the bikes. At least my friend got something out of the trip, as he wrote an article about the Laos fuel crisis.
Future tourism and train travel
In the year since my visit, tourism has been picking up, especially now that the border with China has reopened and cross-border train services are running. This article about Chinese travellers to Luang Prabang has noticed the change:
“August rains tend to keep visitors away from this picturesque town in northern Laos. But things were different this year.”
I’ve often thought about staying here for a month (which I said last time I was here). For now though I will be satisfied with return visits by train. It seems likely that I will come back to ride the train all the way to Kunming. It might be an easier place to get a China visa, which is a hassle in some cities (don’t try to get one in HCMC).
Luang Prabang will also become easier to get to when the high-speed railway from Bangkok to Nong Khai is finished. There is also meant to be a new cross-border train from Nong Khai to Vientiane before the high-speed rail is finished.
Beyond Luang Prabang
My concern about the train is that people are only going to Luang Prabang and nowhere else. I would like to see other destinations promoted within the vicinity of Luang Prabang.
I wanted to explore beyond Luang Prabang but the fuel shortage changed my plans. There is also the fact that Luang Prabang is by far the most visitor-friendly destination in Laos, so it is going to take a lot of work to make other places more appealing for a regular tourist who is not going to to an out-of-way destination in a beaten-up bus.
I hope the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICT) have a plan for spreading the tourism traffic during Visit Laos Year 2024.
After visiting Luang Prabang, I continued on the railway to Muang Xai.