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Luang Prabang is a small but beautiful city located in northern Laos. It was once the royal capital of the country and is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It is full of French influence and is somewhat reminiscent of a European town, but with one large difference, it’s surrounded by jungle. For such a small city, Luang Prabang has plenty to do. There are temples, caves, and waterfalls to explore and the food is pretty incredible as well. Continue reading for the top things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Top Things to Do in Luang Prabang:
1. Explore Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si Falls is located about 45 minutes south of Luang Prabang and is the largest waterfall in the area. It consists of multiple tiers and has a 164 ft (50 m) drop at the end of a short fifteen-minute hike. Depending on water levels, you can continue onward. There’s a path located on the side of the falls that leads to a viewpoint and a secret pool for swimming.
Unfortunately, there was too much water when I visited and the path was closed. This is one of the downfalls of visiting during the wet season. The area had recently received a large amount of rain and the falls were too powerful for any swimming. In addition, the usually blue water was brown due to the heavy rains.
There are tours that you can join in town that will take you to Kuang Si, but I decided to grab a taxi and leave early in the morning. It was worth the extra cost to me to be able to enjoy the area without crowds of people. It was incredibly peaceful, even with the raging waters of the wet season. Make sure you bring cash for the entrance fee of $2.50 USD.
2. Climb Mount Phou Si
One of Luang Prabang’s major landmarks is Mount Phou Si, a 328 ft (100 m) high hill that sits in the middle of the city. It offers gorgeous 360° views from the top and is well worth the steep climb up its many steps. There are two entrances on either side of Mount Phou Si that can be used to access the hill.
I would recommend using one to go up and the other to come down. The path beginning at Sisavongvang Road is a total of 328 steps and there isn’t a whole lot to see on this route. It is pretty much a direct climb to the top. The second way up is located at Thanon Phousi, next to the Nam Khan River. It has 355 steps. This path has a few viewpoints along the way and the temple, Wat Tham Phou Si can be found about halfway up the hill.
At the top, you’ll find another temple, Wat Chom Si. There’s also plenty of seating to relax and take in the views. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset. On one side there are views of the Mekong River and on the other side, the Nam Khan River. I would allow a couple of hours for both the climb and temples.
Admission is $2.50 USD.
3. Boat to Pak Ou Caves
The Pak Ou Caves are located about an hour north of Luang Prabang within a limestone hillside. They are considered sacred and are filled with thousands of Buddha statues that people have brought over hundreds of years. There are two caves to visit, Tham Ting and Tham Theung.
Tham Ting is the upper cave that sits about 50 m (164 ft) above the river. Tham Theung sits right on the Mekong River and is the more impressive of the two. The cave is dark and you will need a flashlight (you can rent one at the cave entrance for a small fee). It contains more than 2500 Buddha statues of varying sizes. The caves are a religious temple, so make sure you dress respectfully and bring something to cover your shoulders.
The Pak Ou Caves can only be reached by boat. You have the option of visiting on a group or self-guided tour. Tours leave each morning from Luang Prabang and boat down the river to the caves. I chose to hire a taxi since I had such a short amount of time in Luang Prabang. The taxi dropped me off near a dock and then I took a ferry across the river to the cave entrance.
This was easy to do, but the drive included remote, dirt roads that resulted in a long and bumpy ride. I would opt to go with a tour that takes you the distance by boat. I imagine it’s much more enjoyable and it takes about the same amount of time.
4. Shop the Markets and Boutiques
Luang Prabang has both a morning and night market. The morning market is more for the locals, whereas the night market is geared more toward tourists. The morning market can be found off of Sisavangvong Road and in the streets surrounding Wat Mai. Vendors begin setting up before sunrise and it is busy by 7 am.
All kinds of food items can be found here, including but definitely not limited to fresh local fruits and vegetables, dried frogs and insects, and other exotic ingredients from the jungle. The morning market isn’t for everyone, though, and being an animal lover, it was difficult for me to see all the animals stuffed into tiny cages for sale.
The night market can be found every night on Sisavangvong Road. It starts at dusk and lasts until about 10 pm. The street is closed to vehicles and vendors are set up on either side of the road. You will find crafts, clothing, souvenirs, food, and more. I recommend trying the coconut pancakes.
There are also various shops and boutiques mixed in among the many restaurants and cafes. You’ll find crafts, handmade clothing, linens, and jewelry. Stop by Queen Design Lao for beautiful clothing and jewelry.
5. Tour the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was built for King Sisabong Ving in 1904 and later occupied by Crown Prince Savang Vatthanna. The family of the Crown Prince was the last to occupy the grounds. In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by communists and the palace was eventually converted into a national museum that opened to the public in 1995.
The architecture of the Royal Palace is a mix of both traditional Lao and French colonial. It’s an amazing place to explore. The interior is full of elegant furnishings and the exterior grounds are beautifully landscaped. Don’t miss the small collection of cars housed in a building next to the palace. Many of them were gifted to the royal family from the United States, which I found interesting.
6. Observe Morning Alms
Sai Bat, or morning alms, is a ceremony dating back to the 14th century and is one of the most sacred traditions in Laos. It is a beautiful and peaceful act to observe. Every morning, locals wake up early to prepare food as a gift to the monks. Right before sunrise, they quietly take a seat along the roadside and wait for the hundreds of Buddhist monks to depart from the many temples throughout the city.
The monks make their way through the streets gathering the offerings of food (mostly sticky rice) in baskets. The entire ceremony is done in silence. The act of giving alms is a way for the Lao people to make merit. They receive spiritual redemption through their offerings and the monks are able to collect food for the day. A great place to observe morning alms is on Sisavangvong Road near Wat Mai. From March to October, the ceremony starts around 5:30-6:30 am and from 6:00-7:00 am from November to February.
The giving of morning alms is a tradition that’s in danger of disappearing because of the lack of respect from visitors. Visitors are allowed to participate in the ceremony but need to abide by tradition. Observers need to be aware of their actions as well. One needs to remain quiet, dress conservatively with shoulders covered, and keep their head lower than that of the monks’.
If you wish to take photos, please bring a camera with a zoom lens so you can keep an appropriate distance from the monks. It was disappointing to see how many tourists put their cameras directly into the monk’s faces, with the flash on nonetheless.
7. Visit the Local Temples
In 1887, China’s Black Flag Army looted the city of Luang Prabang and destroyed many of its original monasteries. Today Luang Prabang has thirty-eight temples that are UNESCO protected. You’ll come across many of them while walking the main roads of the city. Three temples, that I consider top things to do in Luang Prabang are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, and Haw Pha Bang.
Both Wat Mai and Wat Xieng survived the Black Flag attacks. Wat Mai dates back to 1780 and is the largest of the temples in Luang Prabang. It’s home to over a thousand monks. It is also one of the most elaborately decorated of the city and houses an emerald Buddha. Wat Xieng Thong is probably the most well-known of the temples in Luang Prabang. It sits within a larger complex near the main road where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. It’s easily identified by its low, scalloped roof.
Haw Pha Bang is one of Luang Prabang’s most attractive temples and is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace. It is a relatively new temple compared to others in the city. It was originally built in 1963 and restoration took place on it from 1993 to 2006. Even though it is a bit more modern of a temple, it is still in traditional style.
8. Dine on French Food
Lao was part of the French Colonial Empire in Southeast Asia until it was granted its independence in 1954. A lot of French influence can still be seen in Luang Prabang today, especially in the food. There are numerous French cafes and restaurants scattered throughout the small city. Visiting the cafes is one of my favorite things to do in Luang Prabang. There are so many incredible pastries.
Tangor is one of Luang Prabang’s best French restaurants. It has a small but great patio and the food is delicious. I made a mid-day stop here to escape the heat and had their cheese plate and a glass of wine. Truly, some of the best cheese that I’ve had.
Le Banneton has been a staple in Luang Prabang for years. It’s a bakery that has become famous for its soft, buttery croissants. I visited Le Banneton twice. Once for their must-try croissant and a coffee and then again the next afternoon for one of their with amazing crepes with ice cream. Le Café Ban Vat Sene is another must-visit. It is a lovely restaurant that still has touches of Lao culture. The expresso is delicious and I highly recommend one of their open-face sandwiches.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
Muangthong Boutique Hotel is located on a quiet street not far from town. The hotel is very reasonably priced and offers simple but clean rooms. The property has a wonderful pool area and a friendly staff.
Victoria XiengThong Palace is a beautiful hotel located near the river. It sits next to Wat Xiengthong Temple and is within walking distance of town. The property has a restaurant on site that offers garden dining and a full-service spa. The hotel also offers free breakfast and airport pick-up.
Maison Dalabua is the perfect little boutique hotel. It’s also one of my all-time favorite hotels. It’s conveniently located within walking distance of the center of town. It’s a beautiful property and is an excellent value. The hotel has a swimming pool and a great restaurant on site. It also offers complimentary bike rentals.
Have you been to Laos? What are your favorite things to do in Luang Prabang?If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Planning a Southeast Asia trip? The temples in Cambodia are a must. To learn more about the temples of Angkor Wat, continue my post, “Eight Must See Temples in Siem Reap“.