Luang Prabang is one of the lesser known destinations in Southeast Asia and a gem of a city.
Located in a valley and surrounded by mountains and greenery, it is a fantastic place to relax, enjoy fresh Laotian food, explore the UNESCO listed sites and drift down the Mekong in the peace and quiet of a place that is yet to hit the tourist numbers of Thailand or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
For such a small place, Luang Prabang has enough things to do to keep you busy for a few days.
As soon as we arrived, we were immediately relaxed. The city has an aura of peace that is hard to explain. Life moves at a different pace, as we were warned by the GM at Belmond La Residence Phou Vao, where we were staying.
These are the nine best things to do in Luang Prabang.
1. Alms Giving
One of the deepest and most spiritual events to take part in is the daily morning alms giving. The Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang walk the streets of the city at dawn to collect food from the locals who provide their subsistence. We joined in the celebration at 5,45am. The hotel prepared a large pot of steamed rice for us and we purchased cookies from street sellers in front of the spot we chose.
We got mats and a scarf that the hotel prepare for us. It is customary to wear the scarf across your chest, just like the monks do. Since it was a period of lent for the monks, we could only give vegetarian food so rice and cookies were the suggested food. Slightly strange to be giving cookies but it seems that was the practice as this was what the street sellers were offering.
As soon as we took our spots, sitting on our knees, the monks started to arrive, walking in a single line along the street where other locals were waiting for them. We picked a bit of rice with our bare hands and a small individual packet of cookies and placed them inside their bowls as they walked passed out spot.
It was a fascinating experience to participate in. The monks would then go back to their temple and eat. We were told they only ate what they were given and only before 11am when they would stop eating until the next day.
2. Sunset cruise on the Mekong
Onboard our luxury boat, we set upstream on the Mekong just before sunset. We got snacks and Lao beer and we laid down on our comfortable sun loungers as the sun set behind the mountains. It was a very relaxing and beautiful moment. I was so disconnected and genuinely soothed by the boat’s movement that I even fell asleep.
Even if you hotel does not have a boat you may join one of the cruises available, the sunset is still worth it. Make sure to pair with a Lao Beer.
3. Visit the UNESCO listed temples
Luang Prabang is mostly known as a UNESCO awarded city. There are countless Buddhist Laotian temples to visit but four of them are specially beautiful and recommended.
Wat Xieng Thong, the most visited of the city’s temples, is an explosion of gold and red. It is in fact a monastery from the 16th century made of more than one building. The inside and outside of the various buildings are decorated with bright and colorful designs and paint which make it an extremely eye-catching place. Inside, the many Buddha status continue to be covered in gold. There are conducts used to bathte the Buddha status and candles made by the locals and lit in offering.
Outside the main building a beautiful Tree of Life mural covers the back wall. A very detailed and appealing place. Look out for the mirror mosaics and the elephant head statue.
Another important temple is Wat Mai Suwannaphumahan, located next to the National Palace. It is designed in the typical tiered roof that is common of Laotian architecture and the name comes from the fact that it was the new (mai) temple. The golden and green decorations are also very colorful.
One of the most stunning ones we visited was Wat Sene. Being the first we stopped at with our guide, I was left in awe at the beautiful paintings and the gold.
If you have time, Wat Wisunarat is another interesting place. You will find a collection of Buddha Statues there.
4. Mount Phou Si
A small hill in the middle of the city, Mount Phou Si can be seen from all four corners of the city. Take on the 300+ step trek up the mountain for sweeping views over the city and a nice sunset over the Mekong. Recommended to go either at sunset or sunrise because the walk up can be sticky and hot otherwise. Find the entrance to the stairs in front of the National Palace.
5. National Palace
A very interesting museum to visit to find out more about royal life and Luang Prabang history. The Palace was built during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong. The site for the palace was chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could disembark from their river voyages directly below the palace and be received there. In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the Royal Family were taken to re-education camps. The palace was then converted into a national museum.
Best visited with a guide, as there are no signs or explanations otherwise. No cameras inside.
6. Night market
Luang Prabang has a pretty, orderly and clean night market that takes over the streets in front of the National palace every night before sunset. You will find the usual souvenirs and also fresh fruit juices. various stalls selling freshly blended juices with all the local fruits are available. You pick the fruits and they mix it for you.
Don’t forget to check out the various food stalls at the end of the market by the intersection, lots of yummy local food and sandwiches. The French left their baguette imprint.
7. Tat Kuang Si Falls
About 30-45min away from Luang Prabang the Tat Kuang Si Falls are a beautifully eerie and baby blue set of flowing waterfalls starting at a large drop. Wander from the bottom up and take a dip if you are brave enough to survive the cooler waters. At times, there are local kids playing and jumping from tree branches.
The waterfall is made of travertine which gives it this turquoise unreal color resembling a cloud.
The tat Kuang Si Falls are best visited early and a good idea would be to combine them with the Alms Giving. This way you get there before the tourists and can enjoy the peace and calmness of the water flowing downstream instead of the screaming of backpackers jumping into the chilly water.
8. Free the bears rescue center
When you headed to tat Kuang Si Falls you probably didn’t expect to see bears. Moon Bears, typical from Asian countries like Laos and Malaysia are rescued and kept save and taken care of at the rescue center at the bottom of the waterfalls. It is a lovely place full of large spaces where around 30 bears are taken care of.
Although they may seem playful and happy, the poor animals don’t have any chance of returning into the wild where they face a sad future and are most likely going to return to captivity and torture. Bears in Laos are confiscated as little cubs by the Laotian authorities in illegal trade. They are captured and kept in cages to extract their bile which is believed to have value in traditional Chinese medicine. Those who make it to the rescue center will live there for the rest of their lives. They are fun to watch but one can’t help but feel terribly sorry that their future can only happen in captivity.
9. Pak Ou Caves
More than 4,000 Buddha statues are housed in these two caves about an hour from Luang Prabang city. Pak Ou Caves are best reached on a boat on the Mekong. You can relax and watch life go by as you slowly cruise upstream and it is almost as fast as a car.
There are two caves. A lower cave with a few stalactites and Buddha statues on various levels and a higher cave a few steps up which is in almost complete darkness except for a few candles. You will need a torch for that one. Go up the stairs and follow the path. Donations for preservation are welcome. Inside, you will hear and possibly smell the bats and there are a few Buddha statues lined up. Fascinating.