The name Luang Prabang already sounds Asian exotic! And, this charming small town in northern Laos really delivers. After visiting the high-intensity, traffic-choked big cities of Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is the perfect place to chill and enjoy its natural beauty & peaceful vibe of this devoutly Buddhist country.
Luang Prabang lies in a lush valley at the confluence of the mighty Mekong River and the Nam Khan. The town is known for its many beautiful Buddhist temples, including the gilded Wat Xieng Thong (from the 16th century). Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos until 1975. And in 1995, the historic city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I spent four magical days in Luang Prabang several years ago (in January), at the end of a grand tour of Vietnam & Cambodia so I was ready to chill. I instantly fell in love with this delightful, laidback town with a population of less than 50,000. In addition, the Lao people are truly sweet, gentle, and unassuming – and will definitely steal your heart (just like the town)!
The Charms of Luang Prabang
It’s easy to see why Luang Prabang is Laos’ premier tourist destination, with an appeal to the backpacker crowd & upscale international visitors alike. The old town’s architecture is a fascinating blend of traditional Lao and French colonial from the days when Laos was part of French Indochina (along with Vietnam & Cambodia) from 1893 -1954.
The historic city, where visitors mainly spend their time, is compact and easily walkable. Its peaceful streets are perfect for leisurely meandering and exploration. The town is filled with cute sidewalk cafes, French bakeries, lots of good restaurants, travel agencies, alluring shops, boutique hotels, and simple guest houses.
The many (33 to be exact!) beautiful & ornate Buddhist temples that are scattered throughout Luang Prabang greatly add to the town’s charm. It’s quite common to see monks and young “novices” in saffron-colored robes casually walking the streets. The large monk community here is very welcoming and offers visitors a chance to learn more about their rich Buddhist traditions.
Even though Luang Prabang is a great place to relax & refresh, there are also lots of interesting things to see & do. Below, I’ve listed 14 of my favorite “must do” activities to give you a full taste of what the town (and its environs) has to offer – primarily told via photos (with short captions). I really hope you are able to visit Luang Prabang one day, whenever you happen to be in the “Southeast Asian neighborhood.”
1) Explore the Town’s Many Buddhist Temples/Wats
These Buddhist temples (wats) are usually complexes with a variety of buildings, including residences for the monks, places for study, as well as the main shrine or temple where the worship takes place – like chanting of mantras, reading of holy texts, prayers and meditation. The temple architecture is beautiful – with rich colors & ornate carvings.
Another temple complex (above) with its beautiful Lao Buddhist architecture. Inside one of the shrines was a golden Buddha statue on a glittering, mosaic-covered base in front of an ancient painted wall. You can enter many of these shrines, but always need to remove your shoes first.
I enjoyed exploring quite a few different wat complexes where you could witness the usually young monks going about their daily life, such as studying & washing their laundry. The monk on the right was happy to pose as he gazed with affection down on one of the many “temple dogs” that are beloved by the monks. Luang Prabang is certainly a great place to be a dog!
2) Hike Up Phu Si Hill for Great Sunset Views
This is the entrance to the steps leading up the Phu Si hill. But, first you must pass by the friendly “gauntlet” of local ladies selling marigolds for the shrine at the top. They are also selling bamboo cages with two small birds inside – which you buy to set the birds free for receiving good luck. Of course, I did that!
These are the stone steps that lead all the way up to the top of Phu Si hill, where there is a Buddhist temple & fabulous views of Luang Prabang. The good news – the stairs wind through beautiful scenery. The bad news – there are 328 steps! But, I promise you the view is totally worth the effort!
Phu Si Hill (Mount) is a local religious site. At the hill’s summit is Wat Chom Si, a Buddhist temple, where visitors can pay tribute to the Buddha at this shrine (pictured).
The top of Phu Si Hill gives you beautiful views of greater Luang Prabang! This view looks east over the lush Laotian landscape, with the Nam Khan river working its way to the Mekong River (to the west).
The view from the top of Phu Si Hill is great anytime of day. However, it’s a particularly popular place for watching the sunset! Looking west you get a great view of the Mekong River. Get those cameras ready!
3) Observe Monks Doing Their Evening Chants
Perhaps, while exploring Luang Prabang, you might hear the wonderful sound of monks chanting inside one of the town’s many Buddhist temples. That happened to me one evening as I passed by the Wat Mai temple complex. I was able to stand just outside the open door, listen & watch the fascinating, colorful scene in front of me – 12 young saffron-robed monks kneeling in front of a golden Buddha, during their devotional time!
4) Have A Chat With a Local Monk
The town monks love to speak to visitors & practice their English! It’s such a great way to learn about the daily lives of a Laotian monk. Some boys as young as 10 join the temple, usually until the age of 20 or so. And then they decide whether they want to continue being a monk or quit the temple and go to work or university.
I had a great conversation with this delightful novice monk named Si – after the monks at the Wat Mai temple (two photos above) finished chanting. I learned that Si, then age 20, had been at the monastery in Luang Prabang since age 14. He was in “college” studying English and wanted return to his village after studies. He came from a family of 10. Like all monks, his last meal of the day is around 11:30am!
5) Cross The Bamboo Bridge for Mekong River Views
Here’s the very cool & iconic Bamboo Bridge that crosses the Nam Khan river just before it flows into the Mekong. I loved crossing this bridge, which is located at the furthest end of the town’s peninsula. Once you cross, you can head out to a point overlooking the Mekong. On the right side, you can see a simple hut where you pay the toll to cross the bridge.
This sign says it all. Yes, I happily paid a small fee to cross the bridge!
Above left is another friendly monk I had a nice conversation with before crossing the Bamboo Bridge. And, no, he was not the bridge toll-taker. That was the job of an adorable 11-year-old girl (above), off school that day & helping out her mother (also there). They collected 5,000 kip (around 60 cents USD) for a roundtrip passage. Plus, she sold me a doll from her tray of tourist goodies! How could I resist that beautiful, sweet face?
This photo is of the always fascinating Mekong River – showing where the Nam Khan River flows out into the Mekong. You can see the many colorful long slender wooden “ferry boats” parked along the shore. I took one on an all-day excursion on the Mekong up to Pak Ou Cave (featured in #13).
Another view of the Meking River in that same area. I loved seeing the different types of boats plying the river, like this combo barge and house boat.
6) Visit The National Museum / Former Lao Royal Palace
Photo of the property & front view of Luang Prabang’s National Museum. This was the former Royal Palace of the King of Laos. The palace was built in 1904 – and utilized until the monarchy was overthrown in 1975. It’s interesting to tour and definitely worth a visit.
Haw Pha Bang is a beautiful ornate temple on the grounds of the National Museum. It was built recently to house a revered statue of a standing Buddha, the Prabang Buddha (see photo below). When I was there, the Prabang statue was still housed inside the Royal Palace Museum, but apparently it has been moved by now to this temple.
The photo & sign above shows the “Vor Prabang” which is made of wood gilded with gold leaf. It is used in a Buddhist ceremony during Lao New year (in mid-April) to carry the Prabang Buddha from the Museum to Wat Mai, where it remains for 3 days and 2 nights. It takes 16 people to carry the Vor Prabang.
Inside the Haw Pha Bang temple you can see the ornate shrine designed to house the revered Prabang Buddha.
7) Enjoy a Ride in a Colorful Tuk Tuk
Another iconic Luang Prabang sight are the town’s colorful 3-wheeled tuk tuks – which make transportation fun! I used the tuk tuks a few times, including a trip to Kuang Si Falls & the 15-minute ride to the airport.
One of the best things about visiting Laos is meeting its warm, friendly people! These adorable tuk tuk drivers were waiting for their next ride – and clearly got a kick out of me taking their photo!
8) Visit An Authentic French Bakery for Delectable Treats
Le Banneton Café has been going strong for years, offering wonderful breads, croissants and French pastries along with a good selection of coffees! One TripAdvisor reviewer exclaimed: “Best Bakery Outside of Paris!” Yes, I visited Le Banneton a couple times, including for an ice cream fix! After all, Laos was a French colony for over half a century – so this is local food!
9) Enjoy Delicious Lao Cuisine
You will eat well – very, very well – in Luang Prabang! There was a wide array of restaurants when I was there and there are even more now. One of my favorites was Tamarind Restaurant, which has since moved to a bigger, better location and opened a Cooking School too. They specialize in authentic Lao cuisine and are definitely worth a visit!
The Coconut Pancakes are another tasty treat you must sample! The “Ka nom kok” (coconut pancakes) are a dessert food commonly found around Luang Prabang. The batter is made with coconut milk, sugar and rice flour and cooked in a round cupcake-esque baking sheet. The two halves are cooked separately then sandwiched together to make bite-sized sweets. Yum…
10) Visit Luang Prabang’s Night Market – Food & Shopping
You can’t (and won’t want to) miss Luang Prabang’s Night Market, which takes place each night between around 5pm-10pm. The street in the center of town is closed to vehicles and canvas covered stalls are quickly erected. One area is the food market where you can get tasty, inexpensive food – like grilled fish and local dishes at the buffet.
Here’s one of the Night Market’s local bars – where you can purchase your drink of choice from some adorable baristas/bartenders!
The Night Market offers all kinds of shopping opportunities – including various textiles and apparel, ceramics, bamboo lamps, antiques, paintings, bed covers, shoes, and an extensive array of handicrafts made by local ethnic groups. There were some beautiful fabrics like the silk scarves above.
This woman is a sweet vendor from whom I purchased this painting. The gentle Lao people are generally less “aggressive” than market sellers in other parts of the Asia. Of course, like any market, you will want to negotiate the final price!
11) Shop & Learn About Lao Textiles at Ock Pop Tok
Ock Pop Tok (meaning “East Meets West” in Lao) has become a real force in Lao textiles. They have been doing fair trade & ethical fashion long before it became popular. OPT now has two shops in Luang Prabang’s historic district where you can peruse – and buy – an inspiring selection of hand-loomed textiles from over 15 ethnic groups in Laos.
The Ock Pop Tok (OPT) Living Crafts Centre is where the world of Lao textiles comes alive! Set in the grounds of a stunning tropical garden on the Mekong, it’s the perfect place to learn more about this unique Lao art. They offer free guided tours where you can meet their weavers, artisans and even the silkworms. For lovers of textiles, OPT also offers visitors hands on workshops in silk and cotton weaving, dyeing, Hmong batik and bamboo weaving.
One evening at dinner in Luang Prabang, I began a conversation with two young women at the next table. Turns out, Erin (from Los Angeles) was in Luang Prabang on a one-year contract, working at Ock-Pop-Tok, and her friend from the States was visiting for a week. The very next day, I visited Erin at her Ock-Pop-Tok shop and bought a beautiful, locally-made teal-colored silk scarf (which she is holding).
12) Witness the Fascinating Daily Morning Alms Procession of the Town’s Monks
One of my favorite memories from Luang Prabang was observing – and participating in – the daily Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Every morning, several hundred monks & “novices” from the different monasteries walk through town collecting donations of food and rice from the locals – and tourists alike.
My hotel was conveniently located on the processional route! Each morning (around 6:20am), staff would dish freshly cooked “sticky rice” into rattan baskets for each hotel guest who was participating. It was 6:40am when I got my first view of the monks, walking barefoot, in single file. The monks would briefly stop in front of each of us alms-givers, lifting off the lid of their metal alms bowl so we could place a small amount of rice – with our fingers – into each bowl! (I’m in the blue shirt)
If you visit Luang Prabang, make sure to witness (and possibly participate) in the Monk’s Alms Giving ritual. I promise you, it is definitely worth getting up early! I’ve written a blog post all about this experience – Colorful Monk’s Alms Procession is a Must See.
13) Cruise the Mekong River – Visit the Pak Ou Caves
One day, I took a very fun, full-day tour to the Pak Ou Caves, filled with centuries-old Buddha statues. The trip included a scenic 2-hour boat ride up (and down) the Mekong River, which was a big part of the appeal. I booked the trip through Green Discovery Laos, which has an excellent reputation for its eco-tourism & adventure tours. My tour group of 6 had a wonderful local Lao guide!
I especially loved the boat cruise on the mighty Mekong River, enjoying spectacular scenery and witnessing idyllic scenes of rural riverside life (like the children playing in the water above!).
The Pak Ou Caves, which sit amongst limestone cliffs, are among the most revered holy sites in Laos! The caves are split in two, one named Tham Ting and the other Tham Theung. They are both filled with thousands of Buddha images and statues which have been deposited there over centuries. The first cave is at the top of the white steps (to the right). We walked along the walkway (to the left) for the 2nd cave.
Closeup of the Pak Ou Caves – with the first cave at the top of the white steps – and one of the river boats that ferry the visitors docked. No, I don’t think the man in blue is trying to escape or fall overboard, but it’s anyone’s guess!
The two Pak Ou Caves are crammed with 4,000 Buddha statues of all sizes.
On our way home, we stopped to visit the village of Ban Xang Hai (aka “Whiskey Village”) which has for centuries made the clay jars which are used to ferment Lao wine. Today, the village also specializes in producing a wide range of ‘Lau Lao’ Lao whisky and ‘Lau Hai’ Lao wine. They offered us whiskey tasting but it’s not my drink! I preferred taking photos, including of this sweet local vendor “demonstrating” a beautifully carved opium pipe. No, I did not bring that home with me!
Green Discovery Laos still offers that same tour, which is called “Pak Ou Caves River Trip.” The trip takes 6 hours (9:30am-3:30pm) which includes about a 3.5 hours boat ride & 2 hours walking.
14) Take a Visit to Kuang Si Waterfall
Kuang Si Falls is a popular side trip from Luang Prabang – since it’s only 30km away (a 1-hour drive). My hotel helped hire a tuk tuk to take me there. My driver was great – and he waited to drive me back to town. Plus, the drive was very scenic!
A map of the Kuang Si Falls Park. The water from the falls collects in turquoise blue pools as it flows downstream – and you can swim in some of the natural pools (see below).
The natural pools & the whole park setting was beautiful. I didn’t see anyone swimming at the time I was there but I have no doubt this is very popular!
It was also lovely wandering through the lush park with its different walkways and bridges.
Beautiful Kuang Si Falls – with its lovely multi-tiered waterfall. Of course, everyone gets close for that mandatory waterfall photo opp! A visit to the Falls & the park is definitely a worthwhile outing! It gets you outside of Luang Prabang so you can experience a little more of the Laos countryside.
Check Out My Other Luang Prabang Blog Posts:
- Colorful Monk’s Alms Procession is a Must See
- Luang Prabang: Laos’ Peaceful Paradise for Solo Travelers
Comments: Have you visited Luang Prabang? If not, is it on your list now? And, if you have, what are some of the favorite things that you did while you were there?
Here’s A Recap of the Luang Prabang Must Do List:
- Explore the Town’s Many Buddhist Temples/Wats
- Hike Up Phu Si Hill for Great Sunset Views
- Observe Monks Doing Their Evening Chants
- Have A Chat With a Local Monk
- Cross The Bamboo Bridge for Mekong River Views
- Visit The National Museum / Former Lao Royal Palace
- Enjoy a Ride in a Colorful Tuk Tuk
- Visit An Authentic French Bakery for Delectable Treats
- Enjoy Delicious Lao Cuisine
- Visit Luang Prabang’s Night Market – Food & Shopping
- Shop & Learn About Lao Textiles at Ock Pop Tok
- Witness the Fascinating Daily Morning Alms Procession of the Town’s Monks
- Cruise the Mekong River – Visit the Pak Ou Caves
- Take a Visit to Kuang Si Waterfall