Encounter a colourful town centre, ethnic hill tribes, and a pace of life that matches the tranquil but steady current of the Nam Khan River. The former seat of the Royal Kingdom and a current UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is a breath of fresh air and the gateway to understanding Laos’ cultural diversity and natural splendour. Rachel Shue gives you a complete guide to savouring the best of Lao’s former capital. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Rachel is a freelance writer based in Barcelona, Spain. She has previously lived in Laos' Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Get acquainted with the town and cycle or walk through the centre, stopping off at the temples along the way.Visit Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most ornate and beautiful temples in town, and the oldest. Stop for a minute or two and find a bench in the surrounding garden to soak up the peaceful ambience and breathe in the perfume of frangipani trees.Then, step back in time with a visit to the Royal Palace Museum. Built in 1904, it’s a mix of French colonial and Laotian architectural styles. The residence of King Sisavang Vong was later taken over by the government in 1975 during the Revolution. See how the monarchy lived by walking through the residential wing, where the family’s bedrooms, a library, and dining room are located. Make sure to view the impressive Throne Hall and the Pha Bang Buddha statue, after which the town is named.
Take a tour to Pak Ou Caves and Ban Xang Hay (Whiskey Village) around 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang. It’s a great excuse to drift down the Mekong in a slow boat and experience rural village life. The two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Theung, are replete with golden Buddha statues and set into the rockface.Afterwards, see how homemade rice whiskey is distilled and cooled and taste the fiery but pure spirit before having the chance to buy a bottle as a souvenir. Locals believe it gives you kengheng (good health).
Savour the best of Luang Prabang’s surprisingly myriad flavours and cuisines. Treat your tastebuds to some delicious Lao food at Tamarind, which also has a cooking school if you’re keen to learn more about local cuisine. Otherwise, try Manda de Lao restaurant for a romantic dinner and top-notch cocktails.
Start the morning by watching the sun bring colour and life to Luang Prabang. Hike to the That Chomsi stupa at Phu Si mountain in the centre of town and see the first rays of the day skip across the surface of the Mekong and the hills. It’s open from 5.30am.After breakfast, find a tuk-tuk driver to take you to Kuang Si Waterfalls around 29km outside of town. Bring your bathers, a camera, and sunscreen. The turquoise oasis is a refreshing break from the backroads. Take a dip in the pools at the bottom of the falls and watch rainbows appear in the spray.Return to town and visit the French colonial UNESCO Heritage Building at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Then, make your way to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) to learn about the history of the region and the diversity of Laos’ ethnic minorities. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and educational collection that allows visitors an insight into how groups like the Hmong, Khmu, and Akha live.
Don’t miss the spectacular Hmong night market. It takes over the main road in town and you’ll be impressed by the varied and colourful range of textiles and handicrafts of the Hmong. Vibrant, handstitched bags, silver jewellery, simple bed linen, and cushion covers are traditional specialities, in addition to the silk sinh textiles. It’s also a great photo opportunity, as Hmong and other ethnic minorities often wear their typical clothing and headwear, but make sure to ask permission before snapping away with your camera or phone.
Visit the fantastic Ock Pop Tok to browse homewares and fashion items that marry traditional hill-tribe and contemporary designs. Even better, it’s run by a team of women to help independent female artisans from across Laos. For a unique experience, stay in one of their gorgeous rooms at the Mekong Villa.Next, head to the UXO Information Centre to learn about the sobering legacy of the Indochina Wars. It’s one of the best ways to gain deeper insights into Laos’ history and one of the most important problems still facing rural Laos. Donate what you can to help unexploded bombs be detected and detonated safely.
Spend the afternoon pretending you’re at the beach. Chill out and soak up some rays at the surreal but entertaining Utopia bar and restaurant on the banks of the river. With a volleyball court made of riverbank sand, group huts, and a slew of sun lounges, play a few rounds of cards or board games with friends, sit at the bar and watch a football match, or enjoy some solo time and read a book. At night, lanterns and candles give it a romantic atmosphere. Great for typical backpacker fare.
Relax even further with a massage or spa treatment. Try the luxurious Angsana Maison, a deep tissue massage at Spa Bursari, or a coconut scrub at Kiridara Hotel. Wind up the evening and enjoy a refined dining experience at L’Elephant, which offers a French-inspired menu and excellent wine choices. Popolo Cantina, Tangor, and Buang are also highly recommended for sunset drinks and international cuisine.
Visas: If you haven’t already obtained a visa, you can get one on arrival at Luang Prabang International Airport. Contact the Lao Consulate to check the documents required and conditions.
Getting there: It’s best to combine your holiday with a trip to Vientiane, Bangkok, Hanoi, or Chiang Mai. There are also direct flights from Siem Reap.
Getting around: Consider renting a bicycle to get around town, and scooters for short trips outside the centre. Walking around is pleasant and easy, while tuk-tuks are cheap and plentiful. Remember that the Lao drive on the right-hand side of the road.
Weather: It can get cold in Luang Prabang during the winter months. Temperatures average from low-teens to mid-twenties in winter, rising to 30+ degrees celsius in the wet season.