Welcome to Luang Prabang, the heart of Laos! I was visiting the city for over the week in March 2023 and at the beginning I was quite surprised that the tourist hotspot was there, and not in the capital city of Vientiane. After the first day of sightseeing, it became clear why.
Located in the northern part of the country, at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, this charming city is a vibrant mix of culture, history, and natural beauty. From its ancient temples and breathtaking mountains to its delicious cuisine and hospitable locals, Luang Prabang has a lot to offer. The city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the must-see attractions and activities, as well as tips on where to stay and eat. Let’s go!
When to go?
The most popular time to visit Laos is between November and April, at least if you don’t like rain as it’s the dry season. However, nothing is as easy as it seems. You won’t get wet, but it’s the time of intense agricultural burnouts with dense haze hanging over the mountains and the air quality is regularly rated as unhealthy.
I traveled to Laos in March but next time I would go at the very beginning or at the end of the rainy season, so in October or May. Getting a bit wet is certainly better than breathing in all that air pollution!
How to get there?
Luang Prabang is probably the easiest city in the country to get to. Buses, trains, flights, or even boats, all of those are possible.
You will have no problems finding buses or mini buses going from all the other major cities to Luang Prabang. Check the latest schedule with your guesthouse or local travel agent. You may also book your ticket at 123Go.Asia.
Laos-China Railway offers ticket booking for 6 stations in Laos, including Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Muang Xay, Luang Namtha, and Boten.
The airport is very very small but it operates domestic flights to Vientiane and Pakse and a few international ones to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, and Siem Reap.
Slow boat from Thailand
The 2-day journey costs 210.000 LAK and takes you from the Laos border town of Huay Xai all the way down to Luang Prabang. The boat stops for the night in Pakbeng so you need to book accommodation there.
Where to stay?
I spent in Luang Prabang quite a bit of time as it was the starting and finishing point of my North East motorbike loop. During this time, I stayed in three different guesthouses.
The first one was Beauty Season 1935 Hotel. Nothing too fancy but a pleasant stay. I didn’t like the entrance door to the room with a kind of wooden shutter so you can hear everything from the outside and probably people outside could hear you talking inside the room until late hours at night. Not ideal for digital nomads to have Skype calls.
The second and best one was Chaliya Boutique Garden. Comfortable room with fast internet and free bikes available for exploration of the city. The only problem was the price (25 – 30 USD per night) and I also didn’t like the fact that everything was quoted in USD and not in local currency.
The last one was PP Guesthouse where are arrived without booking. You should get a double room for around 12 USD, including a decent breakfast. Unfortunately, during 5 days of staying there, the room was never cleaned and I had to empty the rubbish bin myself as the teenage staff was too busy with their mobile phones.
How long to stay?
There are a lot of nice things to do in and around town. I would suggest a minimum of 2 full days not only to check many temples in the historical center but also to visit Kuangsi Waterfall or even the very calm villages on the other side of the Mekong River. It’s so beautiful that there’s no point in rushing!
Where to rent a motorbike?
Most hotels and guesthouses rent themselves or can organize a motorbike for you. If you want to do it yourself, try Anousay Motorbike Rental. They are a little bit pricier but have a decent selection of bikes. This should be also your place for renting bikes for longer trips to other provinces, as not all rental companies allow doing that.
Luang Prabang is a major center of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and home to over 30 Buddhist temples and monasteries, many of which have played an important role in the spiritual and cultural development of the region. Spending a day visiting them all is a must-do experience and it really is enjoyable. One small tip from my side: wear flip-flops or sandals as you will need to take off your shoes very often!
The top of the hill is a sacred site for Buddhists and contains a number of temples and shrines, including Wat Phousi, a temple dedicated to the guardian spirit of Luang Prabang. From the summit of the hill, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the city with rivers and the surrounding mountains. If you want to take pice photos, arrive early as the place gets ridiculously busy at sunset time.
Wat Xieng Thong
This best-known temple in the town dates back to the 16th century and is renowned for its exquisite murals and architecture. There’s a stunning ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on its western exterior wall.
Other temples worth visiting
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Wat Xieng Mouane
Wat Ho Pha Bang
Wat Pa Huak
Almsgiving, or Tak Bat, is an important daily ritual in the city of Luang Prabang, Laos. Every morning before dawn, hundreds of orange-clad Buddhist monks descend the streets of the old city to receive alms from local people. Alms are typically given in the form of food, such as sticky rice and other offerings, which are then shared among the monks. The ritual has its roots in the Buddhist tradition of dana, or generosity, which is believed to bring merit to the giver. It is also a way for communities to show their respect and reverence for the monks.
Sakkaline Road is the most popular place for observing the activity. Just walk past the temples at around 6 AM. Many tourists want to participate in a ritual so sometimes it all turns into a circus of photographing everything and everyone. Be mindful and respectful.
It was built in 1904 by King Sisavang Vong and was the residence of the royal family for many years. Today, the palace is a national museum where visitors can explore a variety of exhibits including royal artefacts, photographs, and sculptures. The palace also contains a library with a vast collection of traditional Lao manuscripts, as well as a throne room with a magnificent throne made of carved ivory.
UXO Information Center
UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) Lao is a non-profit organization in Laos that works to clear landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war from the country. They are also actively educating the public about the dangers of UXO, providing assistance to victims of UXO accidents, and advocating for increased international support for UXO clearance and victim assistance in Laos.
In the information centre, you can see examples of UXO but the most interesting and shocking are probably short videos shown in a small multimedia room. Similar centres can be found in Vientiane and Phonsavan.
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre
The museum showcases a wide variety of artefacts (musical instruments, outfits, etc.) from traditional Lao culture, with a particular focus on the ethnic minorities of the country.
It’s a perfect place to buy beautiful souvenirs as well as get dinner. Foreign and local food is sold on the main square while purely local and delicious food can be enjoyed in the small alley just on the other side of the road. Try grilled fish, papaya salad, and a wide selection of sausages, of course together with sticky rice!
Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre
Founded in 2001, it is a social enterprise that works with local Lao artisans to produce quality handmade textiles, crafts, and home décor items and by that build sustainable livelihoods. You can join hands-on workshops to learn about traditional weaving and dyeing techniques or simply visit a souvenir shop and buy something beautiful there.
Heuan Chan Heritage House
An authentic traditional longhouse on tree-trunk stilts that acts as a small museum on the lifestyle of Luang Prabang, a cafe, and a handicraft centre.
Across the Nam Khan River
When the water level is low in the dry season, the Nam Khan River can be crossed over a bamboo bridge. It is an experience in itself. It’s best to do it in the late afternoon, around sunset time. On the other bank, check out Wat Xiengleck and relax at the Sunset Viewpoint.
Across the Mekong River
The public ferry can be found behind the Royal Palace. On the other side of the river, there is a series of nice and quiet monasteries: Wat Xiang Maen, Wat Chomphet, Wat Long Koon, Wat Tham Sakkalin, Wat Had Siaw, Wat Nong Sa Keo, Wat Khokphap. Bicycles and motorbikes can be taken to the ferry but the area is perfectly walkable too.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is a non-profit organization in Luang Prabang, Laos that provides children in rural villages with access to books, education, and literacy programs. You can join one of their 2 hours conversation session with local students to help them learn English and familiarize yourself with Lao culture in the best possible way. There is also an option of full-day volunteering at school from Monday to Friday.
Mekong Sunset Cruise
One afternoon I decided to go on Khopfa Mekong Cruise. A very nice and relaxing cruise on a two-floor boat with sitting areas, resting chairs, hammocks, good relaxing music, a bar, and an option to order food. The trip lasts for 2 hours and starts between 4.15 PM and 5.30 PM depending on the season and the sunset time. The ticket costs 15 USD (~260.000 LAK).
Bamboo Tree Restaurant and Tamarind Restaurant are just next door and both offer hands-on lessons in preparing traditional Lao dishes. Learn everything from how to buy ingredients in the local markets to the basics of Lao cuisine.
A trekking itinerary in Luang Prabang may include a visit to the Kuang Si Waterfall, a visit to the hill tribe villages in the mountains, and a trip to some of the local caves. Trekking can be done either on foot or by bike and there are many different routes to choose from. Get in touch with Tiger Trail Travel or Discover Laos Today and ask for details.
Outside of town
Kuang Si Waterfalls
One of the most beautiful waterfalls in South East Asia. The water cascades down a series of limestone tiers and creates stunning pools of turquoise-blue water. You can’t swim in the main pool but at the other ones down the stream. The 1.5km trail leads to the top of the falls where you can take a wooden raft to the water source. It’s a nice hike but the raft experience was a slight waste of time though :)The area is also home to Asian Black Bear Rescue Centre and Butterfly Park. The ticket costs 25.000 LAK and the electric car takes you to the entrance to the nature area.
Tat Sae Waterfall
Absolutely don’t come here in the dry season as there is nothing to see. From the parking area, you need to take a boat to the waterfall but the guys sell tickets not even mentioning that there is no water. Total waste of time!
The Living Land Company
Definitely one of the most memorable experiences on my trip to Laos. You will learn the traditional method of growing, harvesting, and preparing rice from end to end. It involves getting dirty and I loved it! The staff is very friendly, speaks good English and will be happy to take photos of you.
The tour without lunch costs 30 USD and with lunch 40 USD. It’s well worth it! They can pick you up at your hotel or provide a discount if you decide to come by yourself.
Nahm Dong Park
They offer activities like zip-lining and tree-top guided walks. Moreover, there’s a large area with options for hiking through the forest and swimming in secluded waterfall pools. The road leading towards the park is in quite bad condition so be careful.
Laos Buffalo Dairy
You can join quite a pricey guided tour (about 8 USD) to be able to pet and learn about pigs, rabbits, buffalo, and goats as well as try buffalo dairy products. If you don’t want to join the tour, they sell ice cream by the roadside, but the taste was nothing special.
Pak Ou Caves
The Pak Ou Caves are located along the Mekong River about 25 km upstream of Luang Prabang. You can reach them by a scenic two-hour boat trip or by road and then take a short boat ride to the other bank. The caves are filled with thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues of various shapes and sizes that have been placed there over the centuries. I would say that the area and the way to the caves are more interesting than the caves themselves.