Welcome to the most charming town in Southeast Asia. Small but blossoming, Luang Prabang is located at the confluence of two rivers and surrounded by limestone mountains. As the old capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encapsulates the entire town, Luang Prabang is magical and mysterious. Though Laos is easily one of the best Asian countries to visit, with plenty of tourist attractions concentrated in Luang Prabang, only those who are in the know actually make the effort. Those who have heard the praise through the grapevine or done their research.
Breathtaking ancient temples, local markets, French colonial architecture, the smell of freshly baked pastries, purple and pink bougainvillea, sunsets by the Mekong River, and stunning waterfalls nearby. The town is a unique blend of cultural traditions, colonial touches, and modern features. There is an abundance of things to do in Luang Prabang, and it will take you by surprise. We expected Luang Prabang to be as quaint and charming as Hoi An, Vietnam but it well and truly exceeded our expectations. Let us tell you why Luang Prabang is worth visiting and, dare we say, will become your favorite place in Southeast Asia.
Reasons to Visit Luang Prabang
Well Preserved Heritage
Legend has it that Luang Prabang was conceived with Buddha’s prophesy of a flourishing city when he rested in its place during his travels. After the city’s conception, it changed names a few times before becoming Luang Prabang and serving as the Kingdom’s capital in the 14th to 16th centuries. As the center of Buddhism and trade, with its advantageous location on the Silk Route, Luang Prabang still conserves its cultural and religious heritage and boasts a stunning mix of traditional and French architecture. Get acquainted with Luang Prabang by renting a bicycle and cruising around the center. Take in the intricately decorated temples, wooden Laotian houses, and French-inspired buildings. Since the historic heart of the town is declared a UNESCO World Heritage, trucks and buses are banned from entering, so you can ride around in peace.
Mountain Hike Right in the City Center
300 steps up a steep staircase to the top of Phousi Hill in the middle of Luang Prabang, you will find yourself in the city’s spiritual core. The peak is topped with a temple with a reclining Buddha that is a sight in and of itself, but the majority of the visitors make the effort for the 360-degree views. And, of course, the famous red sunsets over the Mekong River. A word of warning: make sure you get to the top ahead of time and secure the best spot (especially if you are into photography), as the nature show is always in high demand, and spots go quickly!
Breathtaking Wats and the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is a beautiful building, located in the center, it is absolutely unmissable. It houses the Haw Pha Bang Temple, the most recognizable of all, and the National Museum of Luang Prabang, which we recommend visiting to learn about Lao history and culture. It’s the perfect introduction to Laos, just make sure to cover your shoulders and knees, a dress code that also applies when visiting temples.
Although it’s unlikely that you would get through all of the 30+ temples dotting Luang Prabang in the time of a typical tourist itinerary. Unless you give into the temptation to extend your stay for an entire month (we nearly did)! But try to make time for at least a few. Wat Xieng Thong is the one you shouldn’t miss. With all of its incredibly detailed mosaic and shimmering gold exterior, it is the oldest and the most highly revered temple in Luang Prabang.
Morning Market is the perfect way to start the day in Luang Prabang. It is located right next to the Royal Palace where locals line both sides of the street, squatting in front of their fresh produce. It is the best place to observe daily life in Luang Prabang and support local farmers.
And in the evening, you should take a long stroll down Sisavangvong Road, where vendors set up tents to sell all kinds of trinkets, souvenirs, and street food, of course. It seems as though the entire town’s population gathers at this Luang Prabang night market. But if you thought that you struck the street-food-gold on the main street, wait until you reach the street food market that ventures off into its own separate adventure. This entire lane is dedicated to all things Laotian street food, offering cheap and cheerful platters and skewers. The only tip you need to have a good time here is to come on an empty stomach and with curiosity in tow.
Observing Alms Giving
Luang Prabang is a spiritual place with over 30 temples and an uncountable number of orange-clad monks. And their saturated presence felt like a constant reminder to express gratitude. Every morning without fail, a file of monks walks past civilians, who give out small portions of food to each monk. This ritual is called Tak Bat, or almsgiving. Luang Prabang is covered by a thick blanket of silence at this time of the day, which is occasionally interrupted by the flapping of slippers against concrete. If you wish to observe this ritual, make sure to do so from a distance and stay discreet. This is a popular thing to do, but note that this is not a tourist attraction. Be respectful and try to be invisible unless you are a practitioner.
Located about 45 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, waterfalls are the main natural attraction. Kuang Si Waterfall is the most awe-inspiring and picturesque nature spot around Luang Prabang that you most likely have seen circulating the internet. The waterfall cascades down many levels creating turquoise pools that are the perfect temperature to cool off in on a sweltering day.
There is a bear sanctuary on site that houses rescue bears and multiple hiking routes. The trails will take you up and down along the waterfall. It can be a bit steep and slippery depending on the season during which you visit, but the climb is short and so worth the effort. The reward is being one on one with nature, and you will escape most of the tourists. But don’t be too disappointed if you rock up during the rainy season and the water is milky brown instead of turquoise!
Delicious French Bakeries and Cute Coffee Shops
French influence is evident in Luang Prabang. It dwells in colonial buildings and wafts through the streets from the uncountable French bakeries on every corner. We suggest doing some boulangerie hopping to taste the baguettes and pain au chocolat and wash it down with delicious brews. As for coffee, Laos has its very own coffee production for you to sample, and Luang Prabang’s burgeoning cafe culture offers super cute cafes, so you can do it in style. There is everything from Americanos next to the Mekong, refreshing Lao coffee with condensed milk from a cart on the side of the road, and fancy latte art.
Plan to spend at least a week exploring this town. We hope our Luang Prabang travel guide not only gave you enough reasons to add it to your bucket list but also supplied plenty of inspiration for what to do in Luang Prabang. If you have already visited, tell us what you enjoyed most about this magical town in the comments below!