Luang Prabang is top of everyone’s list when it comes to lovely Laos. But what makes this city so special, and what should you get up to while you’re there? In this post, I’ll explore some of the things that made my visit to Luang Prabang so great – but this is far from everything you could do with enough time in Laos’s World Heritage city!
8 things to do in Luang Prabang
1. Admire amazing architecture
Luang Prabang is, quite rightly, renowned for its beautiful architecture. Quite different from either Vietnamese or Cambodian architecture – in fact different from that of Vientiane and Xieng Khouang too – the many Buddhist wats of Luang Prabang have more in common with the architecture of northern Thailand, and indeed the two regions were part of a single kingdom for several centuries.
These temples are the most impressive in all of Laos, with low, sweeping roofs whose eaves almost touch the ground in some cases (like a mother hen protecting her chicks, the Lao say) and lashings of gold leaf. Don’t miss the amazing mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong, the city’s most important temple – they’re incredible and I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere outside Laos.
In addition to its venerated Buddhist temples, Luang Prabang is home to beautifully preserved French colonial architecture that’s well worthy of appreciation in its own right. In fact, there is barely a single ugly building in Luang Prabang. Period.
2. Have a beer by the river
Positioned on a thumb of land projecting out between the Mekong and Nam Ou Rivers, you’re never far from the water in Luang Prabang. Sitting at an outdoor terrace with an iced coffee or a cool glass of beer overlooking the Mekong, you can watch colourful boats ferrying people and vehicles to and fro and gaze across the waters into the jungle fringes on the opposite bank. It would be very easy to stay here indefinitely, and there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t.
3. Climb Mount Phousi
Less of a mountain and more of a big hill, Mount Phousi sits right in the middle of Luang Prabang – its entrance just opposite the Royal Palace Museum. Pay the minimal entrance fee and climb the winding pathways past shrines and Buddha statues to the temple at the top, where you’ll have fantastic views across the city, rivers, jungle and hills beyond. The view is particularly impressive after the rainy season, when the rivers are full and the scenery particularly lush, but it’s an awesome sight at any time of year.
4. See the Royal Palace Museum
If the thought of museums makes you yawn, don’t look away just yet! I’m not generally a museum-lover, but in my opinion the Royal Palace is worth its entrance fee. The Palace was built in 1904, during the French colonial period, for King Sisavang Vong – and was occupied by Lao royalty until the monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975.
Today, the palace has been preserved as a museum, with everything left as it was back in the days of the royal family. What I found particularly impressive were the huge murals on the parlour walls, painted by French artist Alix de Fauntereau to depict jungle scenes of life in the town, and the magnificent throne room – the entirety of which is decorated with dazzling mosaics similar to those at Wat Xieng Thong. There are also exhibits of items given to Laos by other countries, including a piece of moon rock brought back by one of the Apollo missions!
No photography is allowed within the palace, so you’ll have to go there to see it all for yourself.
5. Visit Kuang Si Falls
One of the great things about Luang Prabang is its tropical setting, surrounded by easily accessible jungles and mountain scenery. Jump in a tuk-tuk and ride for 40 minutes through tiny villages and past lush green fields to arrive at Kuang Si Falls, a truly lovely, turquoise-coloured waterfall that thunders through the jungle.
Though the main falls is impressive, the best part of a visit to Kuang Si is exploring all the lesser cascades as they tumble through the trees, creating picturesque pools perfect for splashing about on a hot day.
6. Head to the night market
Luang Prabang isn’t a party town, but this laid-back city has a nightlife of its own. When the sun goes down, head to the main street (between the Royal Palace and Mount Phousi) to find the town centre transformed by countless colourful stalls selling crafts, clothes and trinkets. Much of the merchandise on offer is pretty similar to what you’ll find in other tourist-orientated markets in the region, but the street food stalls that line the side streets, heading away from the main drag, are certainly worth a bit of exploring.
7. Have a fresh smoothie
Never have I been anywhere with such a proliferation of delicious-sounding fruit smoothies on offer than in Luang Prabang. From mango and mint to strawberry and coconut via pretty much anything else you can think of, choose one of the suggested flavours or feel free to concoct your own from what’s available. This one Luang Prabang institution you shouldn’t miss!
8. See the morning alms ceremony
The morning alms ceremony, which takes place in the quiet of dawn each day in Luang Prabang, is one of the city’s most famous “attractions” – and as such it deserves a place on this list. The sight of hundreds of orange-robed monks filing silently through the streets is certainly a memorable image, but anyone who does decide to visit the ceremony should remember that this is a religious tradition and not a spectacle arranged for their amusement.
Heading to Laos on holiday? We can tailor a trip to suit your interests, needs and budget. Get in touch with one of our consultants to start planning today. If you’d like some inspiration, our Cambodia & Laos Revealed Small Group Tour, or World Heritage Indochina itinerary is the perfect place to start.