Laos is often thought of (if at all), as the forgotten country in Southeast Asia, and rightfully so. Thailand is the obvious choice for modern-day backpackers and digital nomads, Malaysia is the more “civilized” country, Myanmar is the “mysterious” one, Cambodia is the “Wild West”, and Vietnam the “chaotic” one. But Laos is still relatively undiscovered.
But as backpackers, have we forgotten our purpose? It’s not to move along the paths beaten before us, but to explore and discover places on our own. After all, the Banana Pancake Trail isn’t going to pave itself.
Having said that, there is still a path most taken by backpackers through Laos, and although small, it has created a steady stream of backpackers taking the two-day slow boat journey down the Mekong River from Chiang Khong on the Thai/Laos border, down to the “no holds-barred” village of Pakbeng, on into Luang Prabang – the “gem” of French influence in SE Asia and capital of the North. However, Luang Prebang (and especially the rest of Laos,) isn’t exactly known for having the best internet connectivity. it’s more known for its temples, waterfalls, enjoying the French Indochinese architecture, and sitting drinking a cup of amazing Lao coffee while watching the locals and tourists stroll by next to the riverside.
As a backpacking digital nomad, I tend to veer away from the typical “digital nomad hotspots only” path and join the elephant-pant-wearing, haven’t-showered-in-a-few-days backpacker crew in spots that tend to not be so great for a work environment. However, after a few semi-frustrating days of searching for cafes with solid WiFi connections, I can now bring you the Digital Nomad’s Guide to Luang Prabang.
To be honest, there’s not much to the guide. I found a grand total of (count ’em!) two cafes with the close enough combination of solid WiFi, decent seating, power outlets, and good coffee and environment to be a decent place to work for a few hours. In general, good luck if you have to make a Skype call – you’re better off in your guesthouse if you’re lucky enough to have one with a decent connection. And needless to stay, Luang Prabang isn’t on the digital nomad “must do” list, so there are exactly zero coworking spaces or anything like it around.
Let’s get started:
1. Mekong Coffee Lounge
As part of a guesthouse, this awesome little cafe quickly became my favorite spot to work from. Good seating, including a standing desk area (which clearly isn’t meant to be a standing desk area), a solid WiFi connection, more than enough power outlets around with no extra fee, excellent coffee and food, and a nice view over the Mekong.
The staff is really nice and friendly and on one occasion brought out a free bowl of fresh fruit, just because. Their coffee is a good example of a good Lao Coffee, which is special if you’re a coffee fan.
The only caveats are that it is a little bit pricey, but not too bad, and it’s right on the street which can get a bit noisy. But it was never too busy and always pleasant.
2. Indigo Cafe
This place is a bit more fancy, and is also part of a larger hotel. Indigo House sits on the main street right at the beginning of the night market area. The food is excellent, to say the least. I had the salmon eggs benedict one morning and was blown away. Probably the best I’ve ever had. Needless to say, it’s also a bit on the pricey side. The coffee is also exceptional, and a good example of Lao Black Coffee.
There are also plenty of power outlets here, so no need for strategic seating. Most tables are acceptable for working (not too low), there’s a couch/lounge chair for you “look how casual I am” Macbook Air users, and there’s even one small table that a short person could use as a standing desk. There is some seating near the back of the cafe for a bit of privacy and little more quiet, although when it gets busy (it is on the main street after all) it does get loud.
One thing you have to know is that the default WiFi network for cafe guests (and not guests of the hotel) is really bad. It’s one of those deals where it’s an open network and when you buy something you get a username/password on a receipt. And it’s slow and drops out. So what you have to do is go to the hotel desk and complain that the WiFi isn’t working, and get them to give you the password for the hotel WiFi (with actual security). It’s MUCH faster and more stable, and even allows for video calls.
I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that in the evenings (after say, 8:30pm), the WiFi does get spotty. Sometimes it’s super good fast, and sometimes it’s slow or drops out completely. But before then it’s been a 100% success.
3. Big Tree Cafe & Gallery
Big Tree Cafe & Gallery is a nice little place on the water, a little bit further down toward the end of the peninsula. It doubles as a small art gallery and Korean Restaurant, has friendly staff, decent table seating for working, and while not overrun with power outlets, has enough to satisfy unless it’s busy.
The nicest thing about Big Tree Cafe is the outdoor seating (see image below) in a nicely set up, peaceful garden area. Obviously sitting outside and working works for some and not others, and there aren’t really power outlets out there, but they do have big umbrella coverage which minimizes screen glare. The drinks here are good and unique (they have their own tea blends), and while I didn’t try the food, it did look quite nice, especially if you like Korean food.
Internet here seems solid and reliable, despite not being the fastest, it served me well. Music is a chilled out piano affair in the morning and turns into a nice soft rock/pop mix around lunchtime.
What about Joma Cafe?
I’ve read and heard from people that Joma Cafe is the place to be. I gave it two chances.
My first impression was a typical overpriced westernized cafe with cocky staff meant for tourists and locals that want to feel fancy. It’s definitely overpriced and doesn’t have much personality, and has quite a few western dishes like a reuben sandwich, breakfast burrito, etc. Which is fine, because I love me a good reuben sandwich and breakfast burrito. The first time I went, I ordered a standard iced tea and waited for 22 minutes to get it – and it wasn’t busy. The internet was very slow, almost unusable. But the router is upstairs so I thought I’d give it another shot.
Second time in, I ordered a standard black iced coffee and this time waited exactly 30 minutes to receive it. I couldn’t imagine how long it’d be if I ordered food. I sat upstairs right next to the router. One of the networks didn’t connect at all, and the other one was very slow. After about 10 more minutes the connection dropped completely, so I finished my coffee and left. That’s not to say it doesn’t work sometimes, as others have clearly had a good experience here, but I don’t think I’ll be returning. Except maybe to try the reuben and/or breakfast burrito.
What about Novelty Cafe?
Here’s another one I heard good things about from western travelers. My experience: the WiFi speed is OK but not great, the coffee is typical western style and kind of bland, and everything is extremely overpriced. It’s a hipster-style place on the main street just past the night market and they’re open until around 10pm, which is good, but the drinks are about 50% more than they should be and about half the size (they all come in small glasses). The cakes and bakery goods are fine as well, but again, very overpriced and not a good value. Very disappointed.
It’s worth noting a couple things here.
1. This is obviously not a comprehensive list, as I didn’t try every single place in Luang Prabang. But based on my rate of finding a decent connection in multiple places, these are the solid ones I came across. Please do add to this list by commenting below and I’ll add them!
2. I stayed at Viradesa Guesthouse, which is near the water in a great spot. It’s not a cheap backpacker’s hostel, but a nicer style with one 4 bed dorm (no bunk beds) and a few private rooms (and one weird semi-private room). The WiFi was very good. So I also assume that there are more guesthouses with solid WiFi nowadays, so when you’re booking, check the reviews and if you’re going there in person, I’d suggest downloading the Speedtest app and quickly testing the connection from where your room will be before committing to anything.
I didn’t like Luang Prabang at first, but it really grew on me. The beautiful French Colonial / Indochinese architecture mixed with quintessential Southeast Asian Lao culture along with being on the confluence of two rivers, make for an incredibly unique place to spend some time.