Top things to do in Luang Prabang
They told me 5 nights in Luang Prabang was too long.
They told me the town is no longer ‘authentic’.
They told me I’d get bored.
They were so wrong!
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The search for the ‘authentic’
Travellers tend to either love or hate Luang Prabang, with the disbelievers lamenting the fact that the town is no longer ‘authentic’. These people clearly have no grasp of the meaning of the word. Luang Prabang is a unique place with it’s own distinctive flavour and culture, and anyone who tells you otherwise must have walked around with their eyes shut. I suppose many tourists think of Laos (that’s if they’ve even heard of it in the first place!) as the backwater of Southeast Asia, and therefore expect everyone to still be wandering around in conical hats with a buffalo in tow. But why should the people of Laos not enjoy the rewards of change and economic progression that come with the inevitability of time?
Incidentally if you’re after conical hats and buffalo, you need look no further than a 5 minute tuk tuk drive or boat trip to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, where Laotian life has changed little over the centuries! A perfect balance and the best of both worlds for locals and visitors alike.
Laidback sleepy Luang Prabang in northern Laos worked it’s charms on us the moment we touched down in our wobbly twin prop plane, which we’d shared with only 8 other passegners on the flight from Bangkok. Anticipation had been building since our first glimpse of the mighty Mekong river far down below, and as the little red roofed buildings and swaying palms came ever closer we tried eagerly to spot our hotel on the very distinctive town peninsula. We couldn’t wait to get stuck in and discover the top things to do in Luang Prabang.
Things to do in Luang Prabang
We managed to fill 4 full days in and around Luang Prabang, and could easily have had another 2 if we’d wanted to visit elephants or go trekking! So quite why some people feel 2 days is enough is beyond me! We had 3 brilliant days visiting the Living Land Rice Farm, boating down the Mekong, scrambling up Kuang Si Waterfalls and being creative at the Tamarind Cooking School. All of which were so much fun they all have their own blog post!
This left us a day and a half to enjoy what the town itself had to offer, just the right amount of time to see everything we wanted at a pleasant leisurely pace.
Looming up right in the middle of town, Mount Phousi definitely shouldn’t be missed if 360 degree views are your thing! Certainly one of the top things to do in Luang Prabang. Wat Chomsi greets you as you stumble up the last of the 355 steps, but the panorama is the real reason you’re here:
The climb is easy if you pace yourself, with plenty of shade from the surrounding forest. Just make sure you take some water.
Cost: Kip 20,000
Tips: There are actually 2 entrances, the most popular being directly opposite the Royal Palace Museum. You could do a circular route up one side and down the other, allow about an hour and a half to do it justice at a leisurely pace. It’s a popular spot for sunrises, but photographers may struggle with the morning haze which doesn’t tend to clear until the sun is well up in the sky.
Check out the view from the top…
Royal Palace Museum
Although billed as one of the top things to do in Luang Prabang, I have to be honest, the Royal Palace Museum was rather disappointing. The outside temple views are probably the best in town, but the palace museum itself didn’t really do it for me. No doubt because the history is actually very recent (the palace was only built in 1904) and photographs weren’t allowed! I was impressed that there were free lockers for your bags (also not allowed in the museum), and the main hall with colourful murals depicting everyday Lao life.
Cost: Kip 30,000
Wat Xieng Thong is an architecturally magnificent temple complex at the northern end of the peninsula, and is famous as the coronation location for Lao kings. Bursting with gold, the temples are decked out with montages and mosaics unlike any we’ve ever seen.
Cost: Kip 20,000
Tips: Make sure you cover up when entering the complex, sarongs can be hired at the entrance.
You could spend a week visiting all the temples in the area, and just wandering around town there are several you can visit. Just be respectful to the monks that live there, and don’t be shy, they enjoy chatting and practising their English. A particular treat is seeing them pounding the huge drums and cymbals at the different temples, every day at 4pm. If you’re in town you won’t miss hearing it!
Tak Bat, or alms-giving, is one of the big draws for travellers looking for things to do in Luang Prabang. Each morning (around 5.30 in summer, 6.30 in winter) villagers dutifully rise early to kneel and offer food to the procession of monks and novices walking silently past in their distinctive orange robes.
It’s a humbling experience, and one you should quietly observe from a respectful distance on the opposite side of the road. Too many tourists have turned this tradition into a spectacle by their total disregard for the monks. Many ignorant visitors dress inappropriately, interrupt the procession for a photograph, and stick their camera flashes in the faces of the monks. Some even take part in giving alms, something you shouldn’t even contemplate unless it is meaningful to you (and not just for photographs!). If you do decide to offer food, you should ask your guest house to prepare some sticky rice for you rather than buying it off the unscrupulous women who come across from the other side of the river to make an easy buck by selling bad food (often last week’s rotten leftovers) to naïve tourists. We saw that one local alms-giver had a large green box which was used by the monks to dispose of this bad food.
There were very few tourists there with us during our June visit, but I can imagine during the more popular cooler season the streets with be heaving. You have been warned.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
In the interets of research and wives who just can’t make a decision, we stayed at two guest houses in town, laughably only a couple of minutes away from each other. Hubbie has given up asking why we don’t just stay in one spot on our travels.
We loved this place! The Mekong Riverview is perfectly located on the tip of the peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, and being a few minutes walk away from the centre of town was a lot quieter resulting in some good sleeps. The amazing remote controlled Swedish beds certainly helped too – I’d thought they sounded a bit ‘old person’ before we arrived but boy were they comfortable!
The rooms were charming, and our superior Mekong River View on the far right of the top floor was the only one with it’s own private balcony. Not that we spent much time out there, it was simply too hot in June, but you know I love a room with a view.
It’s a nice touch that owner Urban makes such an effort to get to know his guests, and often holds an informal wine reception in the evening at the hotel’s gorgeous breakfast/dining area across the road on the riverbank. He first came to Laos in 2004 after a fascinating life which has taken him from a restaurant on the Champs Elysées, through to United Nations work in Gaza and the Congo, and building hotels in Sweden. The staff are lovely too, with just the right amount of genuine friendliness (unlike many places in Thailand where it’s a bit over the top and can be suffocating) and always on hand with advice when you need it.
Breakfasts are great…we were there enough nights to sample all the different flavours of pancakes. For me, the winner was the vanilla!
They also give you free lifts into town in the golf buggy, which makes you feel a bit lazy as it’s only a few minutes walk, but hey, you’re on holiday, and it’s hot, so why not! All this, as well as free airport transfers, wifi and afternoon tea is included in the $160 (low season) price, which for our money we felt was spot on.
This photogenic boutique guesthouse has a desirable spot right in the town, moments from the main temple with the white wall where the monks walk during the morning alms procession.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of the 3 Nagas. I think the flashy website and reviews on boutique sites such as Mr and Mrs Smith do set expectations rather high, and on arrival I thought it it just didn’t quite live up to the hype. It was simple things, like the stained and peeling toilet seat, the poor finish of the bath and rather suspect plumbing. Not really what you’d expect for $150 a night (low season). The website also says rooms have private verandas (they don’t!), there is afternoon tea each day and free bicycles to hire (we were never told this) and there are photos of nice finishing touches like bath slippers (we didn’t have these in our room). All things that could have been forgiven if the website hadn’t promised so much.
Our deluxe double room was pleasant however, lots of dark wood, space and amazing air conditioning. It was fairly quiet being on the upper floor of the building across the road from the restaurant with nice garden views and an extremely comfy bed. There is a balcony, but this is actually shared by all the rooms, and not really somewhere you’d sit out.
One of the selling points is that you can watch the monk procession from this balcony, and indeed you can, but you’ll only catch glimpses of them through the foliage, and if you want to take photos from there, forget it. The best spot is a few metres down the road outside the main temple with the long white wall.
Breakfast was hearty and high quality, and staff were polite and courteous, if perhaps not as friendly as at Mekong Riverview. Perhaps it was just because they didn’t see much of us so didn’t have chance to form a relationship.
It’s a great spot just a few minutes walk from all the main sights, and looked lovely all lit up at night. Yes it was nosier than the Mekong Riverview, but you’re in a town for goodness sake, where people and noise happen! However there is a ‘curfew’ at 11.30 and everyone has to be back at home or in their hotels by midnight so peace soon reigns, before starting up early again the next morning. It’s worth going to bed and rising early to get in tune with local hours, you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.
They also have a vintage car which for $35 can take you to the airport. Great fun if a little embarassing as it slowly chugged it’s noisy way down the road, turning the heads of locals and tourists alike.
We stayed here on a 3 for 2 night offer, and feel that the resulting $100 was reasonable (guest houses in LP are not cheap, as perhaps you might expect of Laos), but wouldn’t really have been happy paying full price each night. If the website was a more honest reflection on reality we would still have chosen to come here, and would have enjoyed it more because of lower expectations.
Where to eat in Luang Prabang
I did find the pricing of food in the town rather inconsistent. A bowl of fried rice in one spot would be a very reasonable £1, yet next door at a similar looking joint it could be £7. So do your homework, shop around a bit before you take your seat. It all tastes good so why pay extra.
One thing we noticed was the lack of ‘authentic traditional’ Lao food on the menus. Sure, they all have a ‘western’ and a ‘Lao’ section, but fried rice and noodles are not traditional Lao, rather the Thai that most travellers love, expect, and assume is the same all over Southeast Asia.
You can’t visit Luang Prabang without sampling Beer Lao. It’s not cheap (most locals drink rice wine instead as it would cost several day’s wages for just a single Beer Lao) but it’s an institution, and I have it on good authority it tastes marvellous after a hot day yomping around the sights.
A few of our favourite spots
Hands down the best restaurant in town, and pretty much the only one to offer a really local Lao food experience. The menus at Tamarind are more like food bibles, with pages of information and explanations about local dishes, ingredients and customs. They even come with pictures to show what you’ll be eating to help you decide, and when the dishes are brought to the table, the server explains each of the items and tells you how to eat each one. Often it’s with your fingers, so there are thoughfully provided wet flannels on the tables to wipe those sticky digits.
The food and atmosphere was so good we ate here twice, and then spent a day at their cooking school where we amazed ourselves with our unanticipated culinary skills. I can recommend the tasting platters, the fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken, baby pumpkin with kaffir lime and ginger salad, and Lao sweet treats to finish. Drinks are all local, natural and refreshingly delicious. Not a soda in sight. My favourite was the cinamon lemongrass, drunk through a bamboo straw!
Lao Lao Garden
One of the few places where they do manage ‘traditional’, Lao Lao Garden is famous for it’s BBQs…a hands on eating experience where they very cannily get you to cook your own dinner, and pay for the experience! You’re given a pot of broth sitting on some hot coals to which you add your meat, noodles and greens as you wish. Great fun but hard work. They also do a great simple plate of buffalo noodles/rice too which takes much less effort on our part! We loved the unique garden feel of the place, with trailing foliage and mood lighting it’s a bit like being in a greenhouse, albeit a surreal one.
Zen by day, groovy by night – we loved Utopia. Perched in an enviable spot on the banks of the Nam Khan, this colourful futon-strewn place really is heaven on earth. Vintage motorbikes, bomb casings and fairy lights hang from the wooden rafters of the open-sided pavillion, and after digging into your bowl of chips and beer you’re actively encouraged to lay back and take a snooze amongst the comfy piles of cushions that make up the floor. The chilled out music and strategically placed fans certainly help! A great place to unwind, meet fellow travellers and just be!
Other bloggers have written of their horror at the prices at the night market, and how they are much higher than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Is there another Luang Prabang that I haven’t heard of? Are we indeed talking about the same place? Hubbie and I put our haggling ‘hats’ on and strode determinedly through the market ready to barter as if our lives depended on it. We were soon stumped as the initial price for first item we decided to buy (2 parasols) came in at a ‘whopping’ £2! We’d been expecting more like £20 with a view to battling down to £2. Where do you go from there? Feeling ridiculous we offered 50p and after a very relaxed couple of minutes with smiles all round (who says Laos don’t smile) we settled on 80p with all parties more than happy. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I call expensive! We thought visiting the night market was one of the most fun things to do in Luang Prabang.
We’ve been to night markets all over Southeast Asia, and hands down this has to be the cheapest one we’ve ever come across. I think it’s because unlike in hotspots like Bangkok’s awful Chatuchak market, the vendors haven’t been spoilt by ignorant tourists agreeing to astronomical amounts. Sure, a lot of the traditional textiles aren’t really worn by the locals themselves, but really, is that not the case everywhere in the world?
Tips for visiting Luang Prabang
Don’t worry about visiting during the ‘rainy’ season. Sure it’s hot and it does rain a bit, but the place is transformed into a lush green paradise, and you’ll have it pretty much to yourself! We visited during June and it only rained twice during 5 days. Each time this was during the evening, very light, and only lasted half an hour.
The most useful bit of kit you can take is an umbrella – for the rain and the sun!
Air conditioning is essential during the summer if you want to get any sleep.
You won’t find a swimming pool on the historic peninsula as it’s a World Heritage site, but several out of town hotels allow guests to use their pools if you really can’t go without a dip.
One of the main things to do in Luang Prabang is simply to chill out, enjoy the the laid back pace of life and just soak up the atmosphere. Unless you’ve allowed time for a bit of relaxation in your itinerary you won’t ever really ‘get’ what Luang Prabang is all about.
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Sounds like Luang Prabang is a wonderful destination to explore! Your food looked delicious, especially those chocolate banana pancakes. Also, your hotel rooms seem rather spacious and luxurious. I’d love to stay in a room like you did at 3 Nagas. Great tip about the A/C! I’ll keep that in mind since I’d love to travel through Southeast Asia someday, and a stop is Laos would be a must.
I think Laos is our favourite of all the SE Asian countries, hope you get to visit yourself some day, and stay at the 3 Nagas!
What can I say went there 5 years ago, it was Paradise on Earth … but please don’t tell anyone it’s our secret. Loved Thailand, Nam, Cambodia, & Hong Kong but Luang Prabang left me spell bound! As a result I have decided to sponsor an orphanage there, and thus will have an incentive to make regular trips. Bliss…..
That’s a lovely thing to do, and what a wonderful excuse to return (as if you need one!). I kinda almost didn’t want to write this post as I don’t want to encourage too many people to visit, but we loved it so much I couldn’t keep quiet! Maybe see you there some day 🙂
We really enjoyed Luang Prabang! We didn’t spend as much time as you, but its a great place. Loved Mount Phousi! Great post!
Thanks! It’s a fabulous place isn’t it, and those views are worth the climb!
Great article and beautiful pictures! You did Luang Prabang and Laos justice indeed. Laos is tops on my place to visit and your article will help immensely. Keep up the good work.
Thanks Lila 🙂
Wow! Amazing shots! This looks like my kind of place. I would love to chill out on that veranda with a nice book to get lost in.
What a gorgeous place! I love all the colors! I’d love to get there some day, whether others think it’s authentic or not.
The mosaic colours in the temples are just stunning, never seen anything like it!
Wow, amazing place and experience. Nice trip tips at the end.
If people are actually worried about visit a place that isn’t “authentic”, then most of the rest of the world is probably off limits, too. Haha! So silly. And boring of them! Anyway, it looks so beautiful here! I’d LOVE to go.
Ha ha, perhaps it is better if they just all stay at home and leave the beauty to the rest of us 🙂
What an awesome post! I’ve heard only great things about Luang Prabang and would love to visit myself someday. Your photos are just stunning and some of the best I have seen of this area.
Thanks Jen, flattery will get your everywhere 🙂 Hope you make it to LP one day, you won’t be disappointed.
This post proves that you have to make your own experiences and not listen to other people all the time. One person might like what another hates. I absolutely love the pictures you took and I think you just made me want to go there 😀
Thanks Ben, glad it’s not just me who doesn’t always listen to others 🙂
Some of these hotels look fantastic. I love the picture of the monks walking in the street.
Thanks Carmen. Wasn’t happy getting up at 5am but couldn’t grumble too much, the monks do that every day.
How can you get bored in a city like that? It looks like there’s so much to discover! Yes, the alm-procession might be a bit spoiled by some type of tourists, but I’m sure that Luang Prabang houses lovely corners where almost nobody goes. And the food, wow!
Yes, definitely not a place to be bored. The tourists weren’t a problem in June, hardly any, but I think I’d get really annoyed on the monks’ behalf at busier times of year. I’m missing the sticky rice, particularly the sweet purple rice. Mmmmm
I hate it when other’s try to tell me to stay away from places because it’s not ‘authentic’. I get that a lot when I tell people that my favourite city is Venice. Just because they had a bad time and didn’t like it doesn’t mean you won’t! I think Luang Prabang looks awesome, love the look of the royal palace museum and temples, and I know I would have a blast at the night market!
Everyone is different and entitled to their opinions, but it’s the assumption we’ll think the same that annoys me too. Plus the incorrect use of ‘authentic’, rapidly becoming one of my least favourite words. I loved Venice too, and we visited a couple of days before Christmas when there was no-one around except us, a few pigeons and a couple of hardy and over-optimistic gondoliers! A great choice for your favourite city!
Wow, what a journey and what a place. I’m so glad you proved them wrong!
Me too! Think it’s my new favourite place in SE Asia 🙂