The ancient town of Luang Prabang, situated in Northern Laos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. This historical city is considered by many to be the heart of Laotian culture and is encircled by lush green mountains and the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. What once served as the royal capital now functions as the main source of economy for the region by way of its tourist trade, eclipsing Vientiane as the destination of choice for travelers visiting Laos. The former royal capital still remains the main center for Buddhist learning and spiritual contemplation and this sense of peaceful tranquility can be felt throughout the city and by the local people as well.
With Luang Prabang’s crumbling French architecture, impressive temples (aka ‘Wats’ – 33 in total) and extensive natural beauty, it’s easy to see why it tops so many travelers’ bucket lists. Here’s our guide to getting to most out of Luang Prabang.
Take the Best Shower of Your Life 30 kilometers southwest of Luang Prabang lies the multi-tiered waterfall of Tat Kuang Si. Tumbling over steep limestone cliffs into a series of cool swimmable pools, Tat Kuang Si is the perfect destination for a day fun and adventure whilst visiting Luang Prabang. When you’re not swinging off ropes into the turquoise waters below then you can sit back and relax at one of the many picnic tables and tuck into a tasty picnic lunch.
Check out The Kuang Si Rescue Center Whilst visiting the Tat Kuang Si falls, hit up this rescue center near the park’s entrance. Here you’ll find Asiatic Wild Moon Bears that have been confiscated from poachers and have been given a new lease on life.
Float Like a Butterfly The forest around Kuang Si Waterfall has always attracted a large number of butterflies and now the Kuang Si Butterfly Park gives both local and foreign visitors a chance to see these beautiful winged creatures up close.
Take an Early Morning Stroll through Luang Prabang’s Old Quarter Experience the peace and tranquility of the old city via simple perambulation. The Old Quarter itself is located out on a peninsula, surrounded by lush, green mountains and is home to numerous Buddhist temples and colonial French architecture.
Visit Luang Prabang’s Best Known Buddhist Monastery The dramatic sweeping roofs of The Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) fall low to the ground and there’s a beautiful ‘tree of life’ mosaic set into its western exterior wall.
Navigate the Hundreds of Steps to Climb the 150m-tall Mount Phousi This mountain’s summit is a popular spot to watch the sun both rise and set over the Mekong river. Allow yourself a couple of hours to both climb and descend the mountain with some well-earned rests to take in the spectacular views in between.
Take a Trundle Through Luang Prabang’s Night Market Peruse the many wares of the local people at their various shops and stalls. From silk scarves and wall hangings to handmade ceramics and bamboo lamps, take your time wandering through what is one of Luang Prabang’s top tourist spots.
Take a Traditional Cooking Class Immerse yourself in Laotian food and culture by going straight to the kitchen. Most cookery classes start with a tour of the Phosy Market to both purchase and familiarize yourself with the ingredients that you’ll be using throughout the day. Then head back to the kitchen and learn how to make five or six classic Laotian dishes. Prices start from $25 USD.
Take a Trip to the Royal Palace Museum (or Haw Kham) Set amongst a spacious and well-tended garden just off one of Luang Prabang’s main boulevards, the Royal Palace Museum is a great way to spend the afternoon as you get to know more about the culture, history and traditions of the Laotian people.
Where to Stay
High-end Belmond La Residence Phou Vao is located just a few minutes drive from the city center and is one of Luang Prabang’s premier 5-star lodgings. With an infinity pool that overlooks a UNESCO-protected forest and a fully-equipped spa with individual treatment rooms, sauna and steam room, you won’t be able to stop yourself from falling into the deep tranquility that is La Residence Phou Vao. Prices start from $370 USD.
Mid-range Thongbay Guesthouse is located right on the Nam Khan river and is made up of individual bungalows that boast either stunning views of the river itself or of the peaceful and tranquil gardens on the property. The staff members are all charming, friendly and very helpful. Prices start from $50.
Budget Phanthasone Guest House is a home away from home, the friendly and helpful staff are always on hand when you need them and the modest rooms are perfectly comfortable and clean. One of the biggest attractions of this budget hostel is that it is located just opposite the night market (one of the main tourist attractions of the city) but down an alleyway, so it’s not too noisy. Prices start from $4 USD.
Where to Eat
The staple food of the Laotian people is steamed sticky rice; in fact, they’re said to be the biggest consumers of sticky rice in the world. After you’ve had your fill of the glutinous side dish then check out these top spots for a bit of variety.
Dine under the stars, surrounded by a UNESCO-protected lotus pond and immerse yourself in traditional Laotian family cuisine as well as colorful cocktails with a kick at Manda De Laos. Just remember to cover up and bring some insect repellent!
The Khaiphaen restaurant works closely with local NGOs to train young Laotians and give them a skill set in order to live and work independently. It derives its name from a popular Laotian snack made from crispy Mekong River weed that is unique to Luang Prabang. The restaurant itself serves up traditional Laotian plates in a modern and comfortable setting. Well worth a visit!
Where to Drink
One of the major draws of Luang Prabang is actually its lack of nightlife; typically the streets clear at around 7-8 pm and all that can be seen is candlelit homes and restaurants with just the tranquil sounds of the river trickling by. That being said, if you head over to 525, you’ll find a speakeasy-style restaurant-cum-cocktail lounge that offers up decent eats and classic cocktails in a fun and laid-back setting.
Local Customs and Insider Tips
Marijuana in Laos is everywhere, but it’s important to remember that even if you’re able to buy it in a shop, it’s still very much illegal as well as being detrimental to the local communities. For this reason, it’s best to keep you distance, lest you incur a hefty fine and possible jail time.
Discover what rural life is like as a farmer in Luang Prabang on the Living Land Farm. Take a full-day excursion out to a working community farm where you can learn all there is to know about the rice growing process and have an opportunity to take apart in activities such as: identifying viable rice seeds, plowing the land with a buffalo, weeding and harvesting rice and threshing seed. Prices start from $110 USD.
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