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Luang Prabang, a city located in northern Laos, is a small but beautiful city. It was once the royal capital of the country and today, is 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 amazing as well. Here are the top things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos:
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 its fifty meter drop can be found 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 was 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 morning. It was worth the extra cost to me to be able to enjoy the area without crowds of people. It was incredibly peaceful and beautiful, 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 100 meter high hill that sits in the middle of the city. It offers gorgeous 360 degree views of the city and is well worth the steep climb up its many steps. There are two sides of Mount Phou Si and you can access the hill through either side. 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 and is 355 steps. This path has a few viewpoints along the way and the temple, Wat Tham Phou Si can be found about half way up the hill. At the top, you’ll find another temple, Wat Chom Si, as well as places to relax and take in the views. On one side, you will see the Mekong River and on the other side, the Nam Khan River. I would give yourself a couple of hours for the climb and to explore the temples. I would also try to time it so you can enjoy sunset from the top!
Admission is $2.50 USD.
3. Boat to Pak Ou Caves
The Pak Ou Caves, located about an hour north of Luang Prabang, are sacred caves found within a limestone hillside. The caves are filled with thousands of Buddha statues that people have left over hundreds of years. There are two caves to visit, Tham Ting and Tham Theung. Tham Ting is an upper cave that sits about 50m above the river. The cave is quite dark and you will need a flashlight. They are available to rent for a small fee at the cave entrance. Tham Theung sits right on the Mekong River and is the more impressive of the two. It contains more than 2500 Buddha statues.
The Pak Ou Caves can only be reached by boat. You have the option of visiting via tour or on your own. Tours leave each morning and boat down the river to the caves. I had such a short amount of time in Luang Prabang, my only option was to hire a taxi to take me to a ferry, which I then took across the river to the cave entrance. This was easy to do, but the drive included some fairly remote, dirt roads that resulted in a long and incredibly bumpy ride. I would opt to go with a tour that takes you the whole distance by boat. I imagine it’s much more enjoyable and it takes about the same amount of time. The caves are just like any temple, so make sure you dress respectfully and bring something to cover your shoulders.
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 begins at dusk and lasts until about 10 pm. The street is closed down to vehicles and vendors set up on both sides of the road. You will find crafts, clothing, souvenirs, food and more. I highly 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 some especially beautiful clothing and jewelry.
5. Tour the Royal Palace
The Royal palace was built for King Sisabong Ving in 1904 and after his death, was later occupied by the 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 and the interior is full of elegant furnishings. The museum is surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds that you can walk around and explore. 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 an incredibly 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 there 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. 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 make sure they abide by tradition. Observers need to be extra 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’.
Please bring a camera with zoom lens so you can keep an appropriate distance from the monks. I can not begin to tell you how many tourists I saw shoving their cameras into the monk’s faces, with the flash on nonetheless. It was really disappointing to see. 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.
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 must-sees, 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 remains 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 built in a traditional style and is really beautiful.
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 city. These cafes may have been my favorite part of the city. There were so many amazing pastries! Tangor is one of Luang Prabang’s best French restaurants. It has a small, but great patio area and the food really 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 is 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, both of which were great 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.
I can’t wait to return to Luang Prabang and explore some more. It’s an incredible little place with so much to offer. There are so many amazing things to do in Luang Prabang and they are definitely not limited to this list. I wish I had given myself more than two days there. If you are looking for accommodations in Luang Prabang, I recommend staying at a small boutique hotel called, Maison Dalabua. It’s inexpensive and was one of my favorite hotels of my entire Southeast Asia trip. It’s also walking distance from the center of town and they offer complimentary bikes for all of your exploring!
Interested in seeing more temples on your SE Asia trip? Cambodia is a must. To learn more about the temples of Angkor Wat, read my post, “Eight Must See Temples in Siem Reap“.