We stayed at the Villa Mahasok Hotel ($45/night including breakfast). It was nice enough but way overpriced for what we got, and it is about a 30 minute walk to the center of town (we rented bicycles rather than do multiple treks to the center each day). Fortunately it is a pretty small town and it is easy to get around.
Luang Prabang is a popular tourist destination, and as such there is plenty of infrastructure such as restaurants, tour companies, and things to do. While in Luang Prabang we enjoyed some good Lao and western food, saw a couple of wats, did an east one-day jungle trek with Green Discovery, and saw the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) Laos Information Center. We also spent a day planning the rest of our trip through Laos. The plan quickly changed, but at least we had a rough idea of where we wanted to go and about how long we would likely spend in Laos before moving on to Cambodia.
While in Luang Prabang we got our visas extended for another 20 days at a cost of about $2 per day each, plus one day processing time. The extension allowed us to stay in Laos until February 15, which we figured was plenty of time for us to see a good bit of the country.
Our jungle trek took us through two ethnic villages. The first vIllage was Ban Long Lao First, populated by Khammu people. This village, like most of the villages we would subsequently see in Laos, was quite poor, with most people living in wood and bamboo houses. The people are subsistence farmers, and depend on their crops and livestock for their survival. They did have commercial electric power and satellite dishes, and a dirt road leading from the nearest paved road about 10 km away. The second village was Ban Long Lao Second, populated by Hmong people, and not too surprisingly was located quite near Ban Long Lao First. At the end of the trek we stopped for an hour at Tat Kuang Si waterfall where Denise had a swim in the cold water.
We also took a tuk-tuk to the Tat Sae waterfall, where we had the opportunity to do an hour-long elephant ride. These are amazingly agile animals, but a bit uncomfortable to ride, so an hour was plenty of time. We passed up the zip lines, preferring not to trust life and limb to the prevailing safety standards. True to form, Denise took a swim in the cold water.
We left Luang Prabang for Pak Beng via a fancy tourist boat up the Mekong River (Shompoo Cruise, $83 each, included hotel pickup, breakfast, and lunch). The trip was nice, and was well worth the price. We noticed that the water level in the river looked pretty low, given that we are only about halfway through the dry season. According to our boat guide there are one or more hydroelectric dams in China which affect the river flow such that in the dry season flows are lower than normal, and in the rainy season flooding is more severe than before the dam(s) were built.
We had hoped to do much of our travel in Laos via river boat, but from what we understand from the locals, in the last few years dams have been built on many of the rivers and roads have been improved significantly. As a result, river travel is either not possible along many stretches (due to dams), or boats no longer run because most travel now is by bus on the new and improved roads. Too bad for us, but at least we got one nice day-long trip on the Mekong