Laos is a small country in Southeast Asia that has largely escaped the heavy tourism of the region. Though it does attract some, it’s a bit off-the-beaten-path, helping it to maintain its charm and culture.
Luang Prabang is a historically important city with a sleepy historic centre worth visiting to get away from the hustle and bustle of some of the more heavily touristed areas and to get a real taste for the charm of Southeast Asia.
Here’s what you’ll need to know about visiting Luang Prabang and a travel guide, including the top attractions with other useful information to plan your adventure.
Why Visit Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is an important place in Laos as it was the former royal capital city called Xieng Thong in northern Laos.
Meaning “royal Buddha image,” Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for its cultural, architectural, and religious heritage.
It is located at the juncture of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan Rivers.
The historic town centre is quaint and quite beautiful with its mix of wats, or Buddhist temples, and French colonial architecture. It’s a small area packed full of some amazing things to see and do.
Travel to Luang Prabang
There is a small international airport in Luang Prabang, not far from the historic centre of the city. It’s a regional hub with a good number of regular flights from Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Hanoi, Vietnam, and Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Regional flights are affordable, and it’s easy to arrange transportation from the airport to the town centre. Taxis are cheap and only run around $7 USD to get to the historic centre. If you want to have some fun and take a tuk-tuk, it’s a little less.
Another option is to take a boat ride to Luang Prabang down the Mekong River from Chiang Mai in Thailand. There are options available for a slow boat ride and a fast boat ride, so look into both to decide if you choose this option.
Buses run regularly from Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Vientiane and Vang Vieng, Laos.
From Vientiane and Vang Vieng, there are some other great areas to see. It’s worth stopping in both, and Vientiane is the capital of the country. From there, you can go to 4000 Islands, a cluster of islands in the Mekong River and a popular backpacker’s retreat.
Top Places to go in Luang Prabang
The historic centre of Luang Prabang is very small and walkable, so you don’t need transportation once you’re there.
If you decide you want a ride, you can grab one inexpensively on a tuk-tuk. Wander along the Mekong River and enjoy the shops and restaurants.
Get a Laos massage or two—they are similar to Thai massage with a little bit less stretching. Here are some of the other popular things to do.
Tak Bat Ceremony
The alms-giving ceremony is a must-see when you visit Luang Prabang. Every morning, hundreds of monks from monasteries in and around Luang Prabang walk through the city collecting alms. These small gifts of fruits, rice, and snacks are what the monks get for their daily food. This long-standing tradition dates back to the 14th century.
This ceremony begins at sunrise when monks wearing different shades of orange and red robes make their way down the main road in town. You’ll want to follow the rules of etiquette including covering your shoulders, chest, and legs for respect, maintaining at a suitable distance, and not touching the monks or talking with them.
If you want to take photos, please do so at a distance and never with a flash. It’s a quiet and solemn experience worth experiencing and important to remain respectful of the traditions.
Visit the Temples
There are more than 30 Buddhist wats in Luang Prabang, and many of them are free of charge to visit. The temples historically have served not only for religious and educational purposes. When you visit the temples, you’ll want to dress modestly keeping your knees and shoulders covered. Some of the popular temples include:
Haw Pha Bang
This Buddhist temple is located at the Royal Palace of Luang Prabang. It was constructed recently, completed early in this century, but it’s stunning and worth seeing. It was built to house the Pha Bang Buddha.
Wat Xieng Thong
Also called the Golden City Temple, this is one of the largest in Luang Prabang. It was built in the 1500s and served as the royal temple until 1975.
There are several beautiful shrines in this temple complex, and it is very ornate.
Wat Nong Sikhounmuang
This striking wat has a tiled roof with a large pagoda decorated with ornate stencilling and gold design. Its artistry and intricately-beautiful details make it worth visiting.
Haw Kham, the Royal Palace Museum, is where the last rulers of this area lived. It beautifully blends traditional Lao architecture with French colonial architecture.
There are a number of buildings on the palace grounds, and the main structure is very large and draped in gold.
Tours are available to share the life and history of the Laos Royal family as well as the local people. You’ll find glass mosaics held to the walls with rice glue and items that belonged to the royal family including clothing, art, furnishings, gifts they received, and more.
The Luang Prabang night market is a great place to buy good quality locally-made items directly from the people who made them. Unlike many of the night markets in other parts of Southeast Asia, the sellers here aren’t pushy. It’s a pleasure to wander around and see what catches your eye.
The prices are very reasonable, and you can negotiate for a better deal if desired.
You’ll see textiles, food, spices, teas, carved wooden items, souvenirs, and many other local items. The vendors are mostly women, though not all, and you’ll often see their young children playing or sleeping next to them as they work.
There are some great food carts at the edges of the Luang Prabang night market as well in case you get hungry.
Mount Phousi is in the centre of the old town and dominates the landscape providing great views of the surrounding area. It’s across the road from the Royal Palace. There are around 300 steps to climb to the top, and for the effort, you’re rewarded with some amazing views.
At the top of the peak is a shrine, Wat Chom Si. It is small, and the building itself is not very ornate though it does have a golden dome on top. It’s a great location to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Mekong; however, it does get quite crowded.
Top Luang Prabang Day Trips
In addition to the fun you can have in the historic centre of Luang Prabang, there are two other great places to see as well that are easy to get to.
Kuang Si Falls
The most popular day trip from Luang Prabang is to visit the Kuang Si Falls. They are beautiful turquoise blue-green waterfalls meandering through the forest.
It’s around an hour from the town centre of Luang Prabang.
However, it’s easy to get a tuk-tuk or van ride there or to take a group tour. You can also rent mopeds and go on your own.
You’ll first see the Asiatic Black Bear rescue, which started to save these beautiful and endangered animals.
You can watch bears of all ages sleep and play and learn more about how they are kept in captivity used for Chinese medicines, as well as how to help. There’s no cost to see them, and they are adorable!
Then you’ll hike to the falls, which are simply stunning. There are three main areas with waterfalls and a lot of smaller areas as well.
You can swim in the watering holes and soak in their soothing beauty.
If you’re interested, there is a butterfly park nearby where you can visit an enclosed area with several dozen types of butterflies.
The owners also grow many kinds of beautiful orchids, and the grounds are beautiful with pops of colour from the water feeding the falls. It’s also a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching sciences which aren’t taught in the local schools.
Living Land Farm
Another fun half-day trip is a visit to the Living Land Company. It’s located in Luang Prabang around 15 minutes from the historic centre, and they offer pick-up and drop-off from hotels in the old town with their entrance fee.
Here you can learn all about the process of growing rice in the traditional ways on an organic farm.
This is also a non-profit organization that supports the community both with teaching English classes for free and helping the needy by giving them the rice grown on the farm.
They sell their fruit and vegetables in the local market to help support the farm and its mission and employ their students learning English.
It’s not just a tour but a truly interactive experience. You’ll get to really understand the work involved in the14 steps of growing rice by wading into the rice paddies with a water buffalo helping with the work.
Rice may be an inexpensive staple food in much of the world, but after this tour, you’ll never look at in the same way again!
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
Staying in the historic part of Luang Prabang is the best place to be, where you can walk to the amazing sites. A great recommendation for a hotel is the Lotus Villa Boutique Hotel as it’s right on the route of the alms-giving ceremony.
They have a second-floor balcony where you can take great photos without being impolite. It’s a good idea to take a morning to participate as well if you have the time.
You’ll also find some really inexpensive hostels to stay at in the centre. The City Central Hostel is well-rated and right in the historic district.
If you want to visit a place in Southeast Asia that maintains an authentic cultural feel, Luang Prabang is a great place to go.
Wander the sleepy streets to relax and unwind from some of the more frenetic areas in the region and take in all that there is to see in this charming historic town.
Take some time to look out on the Mekong River and think about how many have stood in that very spot before you.
Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog when she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap.
You can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip. Pinterest Facebook Instagram Twitter