Sure, Laos might not have quite the reputation of its neighboring backpacking havens, Thailand and Vietnam, but with breathtaking landscapes, top-notch food, and a relaxing, uncharted atmosphere, this undiscovered gem is truly unmissable. But choosing just one of its charming cities can be challenging, especially when it comes to Luang Prabang vs Vientiane.
Like the rest of Laos, both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are rich in natural beauty, with plenty of historical architecture and vibrant nightlife to enjoy – and don’t get us started on the temples, lush jungles, dramatic limestone, karst mountains, hidden caves, and adventurous activities in the surrounding regions. Still, they do have some differences.
Luckily for you, we’ve created this guide covering everything that makes Luang Prabang and Vientiane unique to help you choose the perfect destination. Let’s get into it.
Luang Prabang or Vientiane: General Vibe
Although Vientiane is the biggest city in Laos, it’s frequently described as one of the most laidback capitals in the world, and a firm favorite amongst travelers craving peaceful retreats. It’s also home to a host of French-influenced architecture, Buddhist temples, and a gorgeous riverfront, all of which you can explore at your own leisure.
You’ll even find quirky markets like that in Chinatown, located alongside the Mekong River. Here you can buy a wide array of souvenirs, shoes, clothes, and local cuisine. The Lao National Cultural Hall in central Vientiane is another highlight, and classical performances, as well as French films, car shows, and occasional puppet displays, are all put on here. Naturally, there’s no shortage of world-class restaurants in Vientiane either.
On the other hand, Luang Prabang is a slightly more modernized city, with stunning bougainvillea-lined streets. It’s widely considered to be one of Laos’ top travel destinations thanks to it being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, and it’s popular for couples as well.
Like Vientiane, Luang Prabang has plenty of museums and temples to explore, but you’ll also find adventurous activities on offer like cycling through the winding mountains that surround the city. Additionally, you could traverse the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river, or take a cooking class, where you’ll learn about the local produce and cuisine. There are quite a few cooking schools to choose from, just make sure to book in advance, as they can get quite packed.
The night market is another fun thing to explore. Here you’ll find a melting pot of snacks, fruit drinks, colorful fabrics, handmade arts and crafts, and side streets serving local meats and fish. If crowds aren’t your thing, you could visit the morning market, located on a side street next to the Royal Palace instead. You won’t see souvenirs here, but it offers some insight into how the locals live, and you’ll find plenty of vendors selling quality fruits, vegetables, and meat.
Ultimately, when it comes to the general vibe, we think Luang Prabang is the winner, offering a bigger variety of experiences despite being up against Laos’ capital city. Vientiane is brimming with culture but tranquil and less electric than Luang Prabang.
Winner: Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang or Vientiane: The Natural Attractions
From the caves to the waterfalls to meandering rivers, Luang Prabang is blessed with incredible natural scenery, all of which is worth exploring. For starters, you could take a tour through the Pak Ou Caves, which are set within dramatic limestone cliffs at the point where the Mekong meets the Nam Ou River. The caves are full of over 4,000 Buddhist icons, believed to have been left there by locals thousands of years prior.
You could also take a tuk-tuk and marvel at the surreal but beautiful Kuang Si Waterfall, or even hike to the top, and enjoy a traditional picnic there. As a bonus, you can wander through the Bear Rescue Center on your way, where plenty of furry creatures are sleeping and lounging around. Another option is watching the sunrise over Mount Phousi, which stands at 100 meters above sea level, and is Luang Prabang’s highest point. If you’re planning to visit between the months of August and November, you could also take a boat to Tad Sae Waterfall, and go for a swim in one of the big pools below the falls.
In contrast, Vientiane doesn’t have quite a range of natural attractions to explore, but you could always visit the infamous Mekong River that runs through it. Here you’ll have the opportunity to experience a diverse culinary haven while marveling at its rich ecosystem and seeking unique products at factories, local stores, and houses in the area. Be that as it may, Luang Prabang takes this one, with its wider variety of natural attractions.
Winner: Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang or Vientiane: History
Laos doesn’t hold back when it comes to heritage. Luang Prabang and Vientiane both have particularly rich histories, and they’re fairly evenly matched when it comes to opportunities to learn about this.
Laos was originally known as the French Colony of Indochine, and the French influence is prevalent in the architecture throughout both cities. The Royal Palace is arguably the most memorable example of colonial architecture in Luang Prabang, built for King Sisavangvong between 1904 and 1909 to replace his former palace.
Today it houses a museum that traces the turbulent past of the Lane Xang kingdom and the colonial era, through to the present day. Additionally, you’ll also find plenty of French-style cafes in Luang Prabang, like Le Banneton Café, which offers Parisian-quality baked goods at Southeast Asian prices.
In Vientianne, you could visit The Patuxai Victory Gate, which is an enormous concrete arch on Lang Xang Avenue, resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. You’ll be blown away by the monument’s Buddhist symbols and Hindu deities, as well as its five ornate towers which have been built in a traditional Laotian style. On top of this, it’s surrounded by Patuxai Park, where you could have an evening stroll or climb a spiral stairway to the tower’s observation deck, which offers sweeping city views.
Naturally, you could also take a lesson through these cities’ rich Buddhist heritage at one of their many temples and leisure parks. Wat Wisunarat is one of the best places to do this in Luang Prabang, as it’s the city’s oldest Buddhist temple, and once served as its Museum of Religious Arts. It dates back to 1513 and was named after King Wisunarat, who ruled Laos from 1501 until 1520. This charming temple is reminiscent of a lotus flower and was built in a traditional Laotian style. Here you’ll see plenty of religious artifacts related to both Buddhism and the royal family.
Other highlights include the Wat Long Khoun temple, which is also known as the ‘Monastery of the Happy’, and features 18th-century Laos architecture, with 2 single-level sections. The front part features gilded columns and intricate wood carvings, while the second section houses Jataka murals, which tell the stories of the 547 lives of Buddha. Additionally, you could visit Wat Xieng Thong, one of the biggest temples in Luang Prabang, or witness the alms giving ceremony in the main street, which is a longstanding Laos Buddhist tradition.
Vientiane doesn’t have any shortage of historical sites to visit either, and we strongly recommend checking out Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan. It’s an open-air park with giant sculptures of Buddha and Hindu deities, which was founded in 1958 by monk and sculpture artist, Bunleua Sulla. Pha That Luang is another one of Laos’ most impressive religious structures. This gold-covered monument is believed to date back to the 3rd century, but the structure in its current form was built in 1566 after Vientiane became the capital of Laos. To top it off, you could also visit other sites like Ho Phra Keo, which is a former Buddhist shrine dating back to 1565, operating as a museum of religious arts in Vientiane.
All in all, these two cities have a similar amount of historical significance, but as the capital, Vientiane has seen Laos through its thousands of years of turbulent history with all the sites to match.
Luang Prabang or Vientiane: Getting There
In terms of location, Luang Prabang and Vientiane are both fairly easy destinations to get to. For starters, you could fly into Luang Prabang, and land at its International Airport, or you could opt for a scenic boat cruise from the Laos border town of Houay Xai near Thailand. From the airport, you’ll need to hail a taxi to get into the city. This journey should cost around 50,000 LAK, roughly $5.75, but it’s important to note that most locals speak minimal English, so remember to smile and speak slowly.
It’s probably the only time you’ll need to hail a taxi since there’s no shortage of charming local tuk-tuks or bicycles to rent. Short tuk-tuk trips around the city should cost you around 20,000 LAK or $2.30 per trip, with longer trips costing 50,000 LAK at most, which is equal to around $5.75 per trip. As mentioned above, a bicycle is another option, and there are plenty of rental shops all over Luang Prabang, typically costing around $1.75 to $3.45.
At Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport you could get to the city by using a pre-paid taxi service at a fixed price, which typically comes to $7 for cars and $8 for minivans. Although, you could also bargain with tuk-tuk drivers. Alternatively, you could travel from Nong Khai in Thailand via a shuttle train that journeys across the Mekong river to Thanaleng station, before jumping on a Tuk-tuk to Vientiane.
Cycling is one of the best ways to get around once you’re in the city, but you could also hail one of its many air-conditioned busses or rent a car from one of its Western-style car rental companies at a very cheap price.
Laos is an undeveloped and rustic country, but this makes travel very cheap, be it slightly slow. Still, it’s easy to get around and as exciting as visiting any Southeast Asian country where it’s just as much about the journey as the destination. There’s really no clear winner here and you can get around both cities just as easily as you can reach them.
Luang Prabang or Vientiane: Cost
Laos is a budget-friendly destination and a great backpacking hotspot that you can still travel on a shoestring wherever you go. Luang Prabang and Vientiane are similarly priced cities, but of course, there are still some disparities, and comparing their day-to-day costs could help you decide which destination offers the most bang for your buck.
Taxi trips in Luang Prabang cost the average visitor around $2 per trip, with tuk-tuks coming to $4 a trip on average and food to around $7 per day. In Vientiane, you can expect to spend about the same on taxis, but closer to $10 on food, thanks to the wider variety of upscale options the capital city provides.
Likewise, budget accommodation, such as the many backpacker hostels and quaint guest houses costs between $4 to $15 a night in Luang Prabang and around $5 to $25 in Vientiane, while mid-range hotels cost the same in both destinations at an average of $30 a night.
Looking at these figures, Luang Prabang is the marginally less expensive destination overall, albeit only slightly so. A two-week trip to the capital could cost as little as $600 for two people, but this is even less in Luang Prabang at $500 on average. The discrepancy is small and unlikely to affect your decision on which to visit, but Luang Prabang is decidedly cheaper on average.
Winner: Luang Prabang
When is the best time to visit Laos?
Laos has a subtropical climate with two distinct weather seasons – the wet and the dry. The rainy season in Laos lasts from around May until October when monsoons and tropical storms are much the norms. Humidity remains high in the major cities, but temperatures can drop dramatically in the mountain regions, to as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The dry season in Laos is the best time to visit, lasting from November until April, hitting its peak just after the festive period. Temperatures sit comfortably in the 80s with plenty of sunshine. Laos is at its busiest here but the country is by no means tourist-choked and cheap wherever you go, so there’s no reason to miss out on the great weather.
Is Laos safe?
Due to widespread poverty, crime is more of a concern in Laos compared to well-trodden Southeast Asian routes in Thailand and Vietnam, but don’t let this deter you from visiting. Tourists should also be vigilant because petty crime is rife, but violent crime, especially towards visitors, is very uncommon. Be wary of pickpockets and scammers, but the country remains one of Asia’s safest destinations for solo females. Laos is also vulnerable to natural disasters like floods and landslides, with many remote areas. Visit outside of the rainy season to avoid these risks.
How many days do you in Vientiane?
Vientiane is Laos’ bustling capital and largest city. It might be smaller than sprawling Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, but there’s still plenty to see and you could spend weeks wandering its colonial streets and authentic markets. If you’re strapped for time, however, two to five days will give you enough opportunity to tour the most popular attractions as well as some of the surrounding region and the Mekong River in Laos.