From its richly decorated temples to its quaint French-Indochinese architecture, you’ll soon realise why Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed wonder.
Laos’ ancient capital forms the country’s cultural hub, with intriguing history, intense spirituality and inviting cuisine aplenty. To help you make the most of your visit to this charming town, here are 10 must-dos to add to your Laotian itinerary.
1. Watch the alms giving ceremony
Every morning at sunrise locals line the streets to put offerings of sticky rice into bowls carried by saffron-robed monks. By giving food it’s believed that you “make merit”, which is carried over into the next life. Travellers are welcome to observe this ritual but should keep a respectful distance. Be sure to dress conservatively and turn off your flash to avoid disrupting the monks’ meditation.
2. Take a dip at Kuang Si Falls
30 kilometres from Luang Prabang, a peaceful jungle paradise awaits you. Kuang Si Falls is a multi-level waterfall with flowing turquoise waters, encased by lush trees and hanging vines. Don your swimmers and cool off in its shallow pools. At the entrance gate, you’ll also see the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a program that rescues bears from poachers and provides them with a home.
3. Gorge yourself on local street food
Imagine a narrow tarp-sheltered street, lined with buffet-style food stalls piled high with local delicacies and you’ll start to get a picture of the Night Food Market. This spot is a must-visit for any foodie. Choose between spicy noodles, tangy salads, barbecued meats and more, with several stalls catering for veggies and vegans too. Dig in, before washing it all down with a crisp Beer Lao.
4. Soak up the sights from Mount Phu Si
Right in the middle of Luang Prabang, you’ll find Mount Phu Si, a 150-metre high mountain boasting 360-degree views from the summit. As you clamber up the few hundred steps to the top, you’ll notice its sacred significance because of the multitude of Buddhist statues guiding your way. It’s an achievable climb for anyone of reasonable health and is utterly beautiful at sunrise or sunset.
5. Stop by the Pak Ou Caves
Around 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, at the point where the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers meet, sit the Pak Ou Caves. Two famous limestone caverns that form one of the most respected religious sites in the whole country. Their history dates back thousands of years and combined they are crammed with more than 4,000 Buddhist icons. Don’t forget to pack your torch!
6. Cruise the mighty Mekong
Traversing Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China and Myanmar, the Mekong is a serious river. It also presents the perfect opportunity for a relaxed journey from the Huay Xai Friendship Bridge, on the Laos side, to Luang Prabang. Spend two days on the slow boat reading, playing cards, swapping stories, basking in the amazing scenery and hopping off at places just like the Pak Ou Caves.
7. Dine at Friends International
Born on the streets of Phnom Penh in 1994, Friends International helps young people overcome the barriers to poverty and enables them to become productive members of their community. One of the ways they do this is by offering hospitality training at their vocational restaurant, Khaiphaen, in Luang Prabang. The menu here is full of creative dishes that are ideal for sharing!
8. Browse the Night Market
From 5pm to 11pm nightly local hill-tribe traders arrange their stalls, creating a market running the entire length of Sisavangvong Road. Shop for Hmong handicrafts and trinkets like ceramics, silk scarves and bedspreads, as well as coffee beans, homemade whiskeys and books. Remember to bring your haggling a-game and be prepared to shop around for a reasonable price.
9. Explore the Royal Palace Museum
Built over a century ago, the Royal Palace is a French-Lao architectural combo and was created for King Sisavang Vong during the colonial era. After the 1975 revolution the complex was taken over by the government and later converted into the museum it is today, opening to the public in 1995. Inside you’ll discover a range of vintage cars, a gold-gilded royal barge, throne room and more.
10. Embrace your inner zen
Home to dozens of different temples, Luang Prabang is the spiritual hub of Laos. You could easily while away a day or two wandering around the temple grounds, admiring their ornate decoration. A few to get you started include Wat Visounnarath, one of the oldest built back in 1512, gold-gilded Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Mai, which was once the home of the head of Laotian Buddhism.
There’s so much to see and do in this marvellous town, that this list only really scratches the surface. Other things you should also try to squeeze in, include a visit to Ock Pop Tok, a weaving cooperative run by women for women. The captivating Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, which helps preserve the country’s diverse culture and the morning market for a plate of sin daat (a typical Lao barbecue hot pot).