UNESCO World Heritage Site and capital of Northern Laos; Luang Prabang is one of the cities in South East Asia with most on offer for the traveller. Many backpackers arrive in Luang Prabang numb-bummed from a two-day slow boat journey on the Mekong from Chiang Khong in Thailand. The unhurried delights of Luang Prabang will soon relax and enchant the weary voyager and you may end up staying here longer than you had planned.
Grown around the banks of the Mekong like many of the towns and villages in Laos, Luang Prabang is impossibly picturesque; with glittering temples, a mix of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture, colourful markets and quaint streets where you’ll spot strolling monks with matching robes and umbrella. It can be hard to put the camera away.
With the presence of French cafés, bakeries, restaurants and French Mansions with green shutters, the town is a fascinating throwback to a time when Laos was part of the French colony of ‘Indochine’. And, just a short bicycle ride away from the town, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Laotian countryside with lush rice fields, stunning waterfalls and traditional local villages. Luang Prabang is a great introduction to Laos and a fantastic place from which to explore and plan further adventures in Laos.
The tourist scene in Luang Prabang:
Rather than an intrepid backpacker destination, nowadays, Luang Prabang is becoming rather touristy, attracting an older, more sophisticated traveller with money to spend on the delicious cuisine and expensive tours. However, there is something to suit every taste type of budget in Luang Prabang; and backpackers won’t be disappointed – with delicious stuffed fresh baguettes and banana and chocolate roti that can be bought on the street for a dollar – the people here certainly know how to please backpackers! At night, there are some lively bars popular amongst travellers; try Lao Lao Garden for some good old sitting around a bonfire, drinking beer and making new friends!
Things to Do in Luang Prabang:
The Alms Giving Ceremony: If you manage to wake up at the crack of dawn, you’ll witness the local monks receiving morning alms from villagers on the streets of Luang Prabang. Sadly, the once traditional spiritual ritual is becoming increasingly more touristy and tourists are sometimes encouraged to take part by hawkers eager to sell them food to present to the monks.
Climb to the top of Mount Phousi: One of Luang Prabang’s loveliest temples is positioned on a hill in the middle of the town. There are great panoramic views of the whole area atop the hill and many people take the climb at sunset. There’s also a Buddha Cave and supposedly a preserved footprint of the Buddha himself!
Waterfalls: The stunning waterfalls of Kuang Si and Tad Sae can be visited in a day, either by hiring a tuk-tuk, motorbike or if you’re feeling energetic, you can cycle the 60km there and back round trip. The journey there takes you through in the countryside you’ll witness the traditional way of life, pass villages, local schools, farming and waved at by excited local children.
Wat Xieng Tong: A twinkling temple; one of the oldest and most beautiful in Laos built around 1560 by King Setthathirat who was the ruler of Laos from 1548 to 1571 and also a patron of Buddhism. One legend says that Luang Prabang itself was founded here by the placing of a boundary stone by of two hermits. Located in beautiful surroundings on the banks of the river, the Wat is definitely worth a visit for its intricate mosaics and carvings, notably the tree of life mosaic.
Night market: Unashamedly touristy, but fun nonetheless, the Luang Prabang night market takes over the entire Sisavangvong Street from sundown to around 10 pm each evening. Candle-lit and squashed; it’s an atmospheric affair that can get really busy, with local vendors selling a myriad of silks, souvenirs, jewellery and handmade Lao goods.
Trekking and other Eco-Adventures: There are further trips to be taken to the surrounding mountainous countryside. booked by tour agencies in Luang Prabang. Kayaking, rafting, trekking to hill tribe villages, elephant trekking and rock climbing adventures can all be arranged from Luang Prabang. Many of the better tour agencies such as Green Discovery and White Elephant provide eco-conscious tours taking the precious countryside and traditional village lifestyles of hill tribes into consideration.
Ten Pin Bowling!? In Luang Prabang? What? Whisper to the tuk-tuk drivers after curfew drinking hours where the best place is to carry on the drinking sesh and they’ll no doubt suggest the nearby bowling alley. It seems as though the Bowling Hall has been solely created for foreigners not wanting to go home as the alley packs with backpackers from midnight onwards. A bit of a strange thing to do in Laos, we admit, but a popular and good place to meet other travellers – if you’re not already too drunk by the time you make it here.
Visit Pak Ou Caves: Either an hour by road or an hour and a half North up the Mekong by boat, are the ‘Buddha Caves’ of Pak Ou located on the top of a hill. The site is now a major tourist attraction – with the opportunity to finish the day at ‘Whisky Village’ – where the local LaoLao (Lao rice spirit) is made.
Luang Prabang Yoga is a community resource site covering class schedules, locations, workshops and retreats in Luang Prabang. Classes take place at various establishments around town and the website keeps up to date on the latest yoga happenings.
Getting to Luang Prabang:
By Boat from Thailand: One of the most popular ways of getting to Luang Prabang is via the two-day slow boat from Chiang Khong, on the border of Thailand and Laos. It’s one of the well-trodden routes with hoards of backpackers cramming on wooden boats departing every day. The journey takes in the wonders of the Mekong; passing by remote villages on the banks of the mighty river. You’ll stay one night in the tiny village of Pak Beng, before arriving in Luang Prabang around sunset the evening later.
Check out this journey as part of the 7 Epic Journeys of South East Asia!
Fly: Luang Prabang’s airport now caters to flights from Vientiane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Siem Reap. Check out Laos Airlines and Air Asia. Although most backpackers travel by bus, flights can be really cheap and for those short on time or those not wanting to endure Laos’ arduous overnight buses – flying can be a pleasant alternative. From the airport, it’s about a half an hour taxi ride into the town.
By Bus: Buses from Vang Vieng leave Northbound for Luang Prabang every day taking around 6 hours to get there. There’s some gorgeous scenery on the way – and as with all buses in Laos – the journey can be unpredictable.
Where to go next?
- Vang Vieng: Once a notorious party town renowned for ‘tubing’, Vang Vieng is becoming an eco-adventure hub with rafting, rock climbing and caving! 3-5 hours from Luang Prabang by bus – south.
- Vientiane: Sleepy capital of Laos where many travellers can cross the border to Nong Khai, Thailand.
- Nong Khiaw: Head north for fewer tourists, incredible mountain landscapes and amazing trekking opportunities to hill tribe villages.