Luang Prabang is a gorgeous little piece of colonial French architecture mixed with Laos tradition. Luang Prabang was the first UNESCO World Heritage-listed site in Laos and continues to provide a fabulous mix of nature, culture and stunning photography opportunities. Whether you come to Luang Prabang for one day or longer, there are a variety of things to do in Luang Prabang that will have you wishing you stayed longer.
The city seems to retain an almost village-like feel most of the time, if you can mentally edit out the other tourists, it is sleepy, yet filled with life. There are unique things to do in Luang Prabang – from the Tak Bat alms giving ceremony to visiting historical Buddhist temples and even arriving or departing on the mighty Mekong River. Come on over and explore what to do in Luang Prabang.
The Best Things to Do in Luang Prabang
Just getting out and exploring the streets of Luang Prabang is one of the best things to do here. Early morning and late afternoon light tend to be best for photographs and also keeps you out of the midday sun! As Laos first UNESCO World Heritage-listed location the city is well preserved and you’ll see a whole lot just by taking a walk! That said there are several must-dos in Luang Prabang and we think that these are them.
Experience the Tak Bat – the Luang Prabang Alms Giving Ceremony
Each day before sunrise, the monks of Luang Prabang set off on a walk from their monastery to their Wat (temple), taking a regular route and accepting alms of sticky rice, cookies and other food items. What they collect forms the entirety of what they’ll eat during the day. The alms-giving takes place between 0500 and 0600 every day.
The monks walk (mostly) in age order, the oldest first, carrying baskets to collect the rice and cookies in. They wear their distinctive saffron robes and are barefoot. Alms have been given by Lao Buddhists for centuries. Now it’s become the biggest tourist attraction in Luang Prabang.
Depending on where (and how) you watch this can either be a simple part of the Luang Prabang daily life in Laos or it can verge on a human zoo. We walked from the Old Bridge and saw monks heading to Wat Visoun, this was the most simple ceremony that we saw and it was quite simply beautiful. Life going on. No tourists apart from us walking to somewhere else trying to keep out of their way. No photos from there though, it seemed wrong.
If you want to experience the alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang away from other tourists, try booking a local experience with an experienced guide to understand more about this cultural aspect of Luang Prabang – book now
Along Sisavangvong it was horrible. Vendors set out mats and stalls to sell sticky rice and cookies.
There are signposts giving prices for alms purchases. Large groups of tourists, hang around and then take to the small stools and mats to take part in the ceremony, friends compete for space, brandishing video cameras and phones to record the event for posterity, many getting in the way of the monks and using flash photography in their faces.
“Stay out of the monk’s way, only do this if it means something to you and dress conservatively,” says the tourist office.
It’s a shame more people don’t, first of all, read that advice and then actually do it!
If you walk to the street parallel with Sisavangvong, you’ll still find tourists watching, but in much smaller numbers, and it’s the locals who are giving alms here, many with a weary look on their faces that indicates that they’ve seen us all before.
I’m very glad we saw this, but I do feel slightly dirty and voyeuristic for having done so, so we left behind the hordes and headed to the top of Mount Phousi.
Climb Mount Phousi – Luang Prabang’s Spiritual Centre
In the centre of Luang Prabang is Phousi – the tree-clad spiritual mountain with a golden stupa at the top, it’s a favourite tourist spot for sunset when it becomes very crowded, so we head there at the opposite end of the day – before 0700, paying our 20,000 kip entrance fee after an initial hike up. There are steps all the way, but it only takes us 15 minutes to get to the top and there’s no wonder it gets crowded, it’s pretty small up here, but it’s empty right now as it’s misty and the view is restricted by the low cloud. Still, we get to see the Old Bridge, which leads to our hotel and the Mekong River, which seems sublime from wherever you see it.
Access to Mont Phousi is open from 0700 until 1800, meaning you can just a say take in a sunrise on Mount Phousi or a Mount Phousi sunset.
If you prefer to be on the water at sunset, this fabulous Mekong River sunset cruise will let you experience the power of the Mekong River at sunset, while enjoying a local picnic. It’s a popular tour, so you’ll want to book early.
Visit the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang
The Lao Royal Family ended their reign here in Luang Prabang and the Royal Palace Museum is amazingly still intact. The Pathet Lao forced King Sisavang Vatthana to abdicate in 1975, ending the royal line. The Royal Family themselves were ended two years later, as the communist government exiled him (allegedly of course) to a cave from which he and his family never returned.
We blew 30,000 kip to visit the Royal Palace Museum as despite decades of civil war, the Secret War and the fact that there hasn’t been a monarchy in Laos since 1975, the palace is still standing. It takes us less than 30 minutes to walk around the whole Royal Palace Museum but is interesting for the fact that this palace is a bungalow. A big one perhaps, but it’s still a single-story dwelling.
My knees are not allowed uncovered entry (but Nigel’s are) and neither are my bare shoulders and upper arms (cover-ups are rented for 5,000 kip). There are no bags or cameras allowed – but they mean big cameras (phone size is ok) and they mean NO BAGS AT ALL. There’s a locker room to leave it all in.
There are signs in Lao and English, but some of them don’t really say much and there’s little to see – the over the top throne room with red walls and mirror inlays, the library with more furniture than books, the king and queens bedrooms and the children’s bedroom which now contains musical instruments.
This is bling Lao style. Seriously so.
There are crystal and bronze Buddha’s of note, gold and silver swords, the king’s howdah (elephant seat) and some remarkably large furniture in the bedrooms, other than that, it’s much more interesting from the outside. The Royal Palace Museum is located in the same compound as the temple that houses the Pha Bang.
Pay Homage to Laos’ Pha Bang
The Pha Bang, Lao’s most sacred Buddha image lives in the Haw Phabang – the gorgeous building by the entrance to the Royal Palace Museum grounds. The Pha Bang itself is tiny. Just 83cm high. There are no photos allowed and shoes must be removed at the staircase before you approach the Buddha. The marble is hot and there’s a distinct smell of burning skin as we skip across the sun-scorched floor.
This Buddha possesses miraculous powers that safeguard the country in which it’s enshrined. According to legend, the Pha Bang was cast in gold, silver, copper, iron and precious stones and cast in the heavens above the Himalayas it was then delivered to the capital of Sri Lanka. It then journeyed to Cambodia and Luang Prabang – which was previously called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong but renamed in the Buddha’s honour to be Luang Prabang (the Great Pha Bang). It’s been stolen by the Vietnamese twice and returned twice as they figured it was bad luck for them.
Visit the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang
While the UXO museum in Phonsavan is more detailed and explanatory, and the one in Vientiane is extensive if you’re not going to make it there, you really should stop here and understand the situation in Laos many decades after the American/Vietnam war and understand the situation that unexploded ordnance creates in Laos still now.
Visit the Important Temples of Luang Prabang – Wat Xieng Tong
The city literally teems with Wats (temples).
The most historic temple in Luang Prabang – some say in the entire country – is Wat Xieng Thong – the Golden City Monastery. We avoided it during the day when it was packed with people and when it afforded a 20,000 entry fee even to enter the grounds. In the early evening, it was gloriously empty, free and afforded a wonderful view of the full moon. We visited Luang Prabang during the Festival of the Fire Boats which you can read about here and which is why the temple was free (and open) in the evening. Normally Wat Xieng Tong is open from 0800 until 1700.
SOURCE: Basile Morin [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
While Wat Xieng Tong in Luang Prabang is the most important complex, it was here that royal coronations took place, and it is probably the most opulent of the temples in Luang Prabang, it’s not the only one. You’ll find a lot of temples in Luang Prabang. And you can walk into them, so long as your clothing and behaviour are respectful.
Take a Food Tour of Luang Prabang
You can knock off 2 bucket list items when you’re in Luang Prabang by taking a food tour and in doing it by tuk-tuk. Starting at 1600 and lasting for nearly 5 hours, you’ll get to experience local food from Luang Prabang and be driven around in a Vintage tuk-tuk. There are 6 different stops on the tour when you’ll get to try Orlam, Laos Salad, Phao Soi, Mok Pa, local cakes and Namvam. (read more about Laos Food and Drink in our guide here) – and book this tour for a fabulous cultural experience in Luang Prabang.
Eat at the Night Market – Buffet Street
There’s a night market every night in Luang Prabang, where you can pick up food very cheaply and enjoy, while sitting outside after the heat of the sun has gone. Its great for a good feed, plus there are some AMAZING smoothies to be had!
Walk Across the Old Bridge in Luang Prabang
The old bridge in Luang Prabang is iron built but definitely rickety. Tuk-tuk drivers won’t go across it, but it’s a fabulous walk, with some great views of the town and beyond. It’s also much quieter on the other side!
Take a cooking class in Luang Prabang
One of the best ways to learn about the culture of a city and a country is to do it through their food. There’s no better way to do this than by taking a cooking class. The local Hmong food is unique and in this cooking class, you’ll learn how to make several dishes and sauces which complement the dishes. Plus, of course, you get to ear your creations. It’s a fabulous way to explore the back streets and local life of Luang Prabang. Book now to experience this tasty cultural experience in Luang Prabang.
Take a Cruise on a Mekong Slow Boat
This is an amazing way to arrive in or leave Luang Prabang – read here about how travelled from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai and then onto Thailand. If you don’t want to take the 2 day trip up the Mekong, then you can take an hour-long cruise from Luang Prabang.
Visit Luang Prabang for the Fire Boat Festival in October
One of Laos’s most spectacular festivals, Boun Lai Heua Fai is the celebration of both the end of the monsoon season and the end of Buddhist Lent. The entire city of Luang Prabang takes part – temples, homes and properties are decorated with paper lanterns, which are lit at night. At the culmination of the festival on the full moon in October, a parade from the Royal Palace Museum to Wat Xieng Tong ends with the fire boats and offerings being given tp the river. It is a glorious, glorious time to visit – and you can read more about it here.
The Best Cultural Experiences in Luang Prabang
Experience the Luang Prabang Alms Giving Ceremony with a Local Guide
Without a doubt seeing the Tak Bat alms giving ceremony is a serious cultural experience in Luang Prabang and the best way to experience the Buddhist culture too is understand more about this experience with a local guide who explains it all in more detail to you. You can arrange this locally, or prebook and maximize your time in Luang Prabang. This highly recommended tour and cultural experience of the Tak Bat takes you beyond the tourist hordes at Luang Prabang’s Alms Giving ceremony – check your options and book now.
Learn how to make Lao Wine
Many visitors to Laos try the famous Laos Whisky, Lao Lao, but there are considerably fewer who experience Laos wine. Take a cultural experience from Luang Prabang and learn how to make Lao Hai – Lao Wine with a local. This sweet rice wine is usually created by the Khmu hill tribe for the Lao New Year and other festivals. In this experience, you’ll get to understand the culture behind it and get to taste a sample. Your workshop will introduce you to how to make Lao wine and then you’ll ferment the rice and mix it with crushed rice husk. When you’re finished, you’ll store your creation in an earthen jar and get to take it with you as the rice wine needs to ferment for 3-4 days before drinking. Learn how to make Laos Wine today!
Take a Hmong Vegetarian Cooking Class in Luang Prabang
While many complain that its difficult to find traditional Laos food in Luang Prabang you won’t be one of them if you take this cooking class. You’ll learn about authentic Hmong food and learn how to create several sauces, papaya salads and then eat your creations. This is a vegetarian cooking class that will take place in a local’s house with traditional tools. You’ll also get to choose the dishes that you learn. Book now to experience this tasty cultural experience in Luang Prabang.
Take a Laos Weaving Workshop and Create a Unique Souvenir of Luang Prabang
This half-day workshop is led by a local expert seamstress and you’ll learn the traditional art of scarf weaving. You select your own design, use the weaving loom and get help from the local expert. You should be able to complete a scarf during your workshop, but if you don’t your host will take over and your scarf will be delivered to your hotel when completed! This is an awesome way to create a unique souvenir of your trip to Luang Prabang or a fabulous way to create a special gift! Book your preferred time and date now!
Take a Zen Meditation Journey in Luang Prabang
This is probably the most unique of cultural experiences in Luang Prabang. You’ll get to practice meditation with a Zen Buddhist and witness the habits of the local monks. Your journey starts at Luang Prabang’s oldest temple, the Wat Visounarat. You’ll get to understand more about the history of the temple and then learn about the art of meditation. Any and all questions are allowed. Relax even further at a sauna run locally by the Laos Red Cross – you’ll experience a Lao sauna with the unique spices and fragrances of Lao herbs and flowers and then enjoy a 1-hour massage. Take this incredible experience in Luang Prabang by booking here
The Best Places to go near Luang Prabang
While there’s a lot to see and do in Luang Prabang itself, there are several other attractions close to the city. These won’t be entire day trips from Luang Prabang but come highly recommended for an escape into nature and culture surrounding Luang Prabang.
Visit Kuang Xi Waterfall
The Kuang Xi Waterfalls is less than an hours drive from Luang Prabang and a great trip from the city. You can reach it by tuk-tuk, on a bicycle or this tour takes you there and back with ease. Book now to avoid disappointment.
Source: Visions of Domino [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
The waterfall becomes busy in the afternoon, so a morning visit is best. There’s a 20,000 kip fee to enter the falls. You can climb part of the Kuang Xi Waterfall and also swim quite safely in the pools.
Visit the Pak Ou Caves, the Kuang Xi Waterfall and Explore LaoLao
This full-day tour takes you up the Mekong River and lets you explore the thousands of Buddha statues indie the historic Pak Ou Caves. Your guide will explain the history of the caves, which dates back thousands of years. The tour includes a local Laos lunch and then you’ll get to see how the local Laos whisky, Lao Lao, is made. Lao Lao is well worth trying and here you’ll get to see how its made and sample it too. At the end of your trip, you’ll visit the Kuang XI Waterfall and be able to cool off in the turquoise pools beneath it. All transport and lunch are included. Check out your options and book now.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
Book ahead in Luang Prabang! Luang Prabang is BUSY and you’d be wise to book your accommodation ahead of schedule. We stayed across the Old Bridge – outside of the main town area, for a little peace and quiet
You can walk across the Old Bridge and this area is MUCH quieter and stay at the gorgeous Bel Air Boutique Hotel here.
As usual, when we’ve booked ahead, we always check on arrival what the cost of a room would be if we hadn’t booked. 99% of the time it’s cheaper to book online (and infinitely less stressful!)
How to Get to Luang Prabang and How to Leave
The best option for online bookings for buses in Laos is 12goasia – check out routes and options here.
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