It was a spur of the moment decision to make a trip to Luang Prabang (seems like there has been lots of last minute travel plans in 2016). This ancient capital city in north central Laos has always been on my list of places to visit; and when I heard that there was a new route added on AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur to Luang Prabang, I decided that it was time to go. Another reason I wanted to make the journey was to complete my Southeast Asia travel list — Laos was the final country I needed to visit. And now my list is complete!
Luang Prabang is a charming city that lies at the point where two rivers meet — the Mekong River, and the Nam Khan. This UNESCO World Heritage city was once the capital of Laos, and part of Indochine’s French colony. Though somewhat touristy nowadays, much of the past is still retained in its beautiful royal palace, gilded and mosaic-decorated wats; as well as streets lined with a mixture of traditional wooden Lao houses and French villas.
There’s much to do in Luang Prabang other than delving into its historic and religious past. So from river cruises and bicycle rides to gorgeous waterfalls and dark caves; here’s sharing my list of fun things to do when you’re visiting.
1) Swim in the Kuang Si Waterfalls
There are plenty of tours that take tourists to the Kuang Si Falls — but if you want to beat the crowds, get your own ride. I shared a van with a couple of travelers from my guesthouse, and only paid LAK40k ~US$5 for the return trip. The journey takes about an hour per way. It costs an additional LAK20k~US$2.5 to enter the waterfall area.
The stunning Kuang Si Falls was the highlight of my trip. I started my visit at the main waterfall that cascades down 60m. It leads to several levels of aquamarine pools downstream; and some are fit for swimming so I jumped into the cooling waters (that was the best part)! For the more adventurous, you can hike the slippery trails to see the pools at the top of the falls. There’s also a Bear Rescue Center in the area that houses several Asian Black Bears that were saved from poachers.
2) Cycle around the Old Town
There’s no better way to explore Luang Prabang than on a bicycle (it’s also a great way to find your bearings). That was the first thing I did when I arrived in the city — I rented a bicycle for LAK20k~US$2.5 (some hotels provide them for free) and went for my very own tour. Cycling around the Luang Prabang is relatively safe; just be extra careful and alert as the motorcycles can be a little reckless sometimes. Laos drives on the right side of the road.
Powering through the scorching hot weather, I managed to visit a good number of temples, interesting city sights, as well as local shophouses and unexplored back lanes on my bicycle.
3) Explore the Temples of Luang Prabang
There are a total of 34 UNESCO-protected wats in the small city of Luang Prabang. Most of these temples are living institutions and house thousands of Buddhist monks, learning and practicing the ancient religion. It is important to adhere to proper etiquette and dressing when visiting — never touch the monks. Entrance fees range from LAK10k-20k ~ US$1.5-2.5.
One of the most important temples in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1559, it is famous for its gilded wooden panels and the gorgeous tree-of-life glass mosaic. The oldest temple in the city, Wat Visounnarath was founded in 1512. I also dropped by Wat Manarom to see its simple hand-painted murals and old Buddha statues. There are also many beautiful temples along the main Sisavangvong and Sakkaline Roads, like Wat Mai and Wat Sene.
4) Watch the Sunset on Mount Phousi
Time your visit to Mount Phousi to witness the sunset at the top of the hill. There are two entrances that lead to the top (it costs LAK20k~US$2.5) — and it’s best to start from the Thanon Phousi entrance facing the Nam Khan (river). I started my climb an hour or so before sunset, and by using this entrance, I got to visit several interesting sites while maneuvering up the 355 steps — beautiful viewpoints, the Wat Tham Phou Si, a cave, various gilded Buddha statues, and even saw Buddha’s footprint!
Wat Chom Si and its golden stupa stands on top of the hill, and the 360 degree view of Luang Prabang from here is absolutely breathtaking. The place was crowded when I arrived, but I still managed to witness the beautiful setting sun over the river and the mountains. The journey down the other side is 328 steps shaded by trees, and ends at Sisavangvong Road.
5) Visit the Royal Palace Museum
Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong. The monarchy was overthrown in 1975 and the Royal Palace was turned into a museum. Entrance costs LAK30k~US$3.5, and no photographs are allowed inside the palace. I absolutely enjoyed exploring the Royal Palace — the beautiful murals at the King’s Reception Hall, the crown jewels and the gorgeous glass mosaic walls in the Throne Room, as well as the simple yet elegant chambers and rooms. Prized art pieces and collections are also displayed all throughout the palace. It was an interesting walk into Laos’ historical past.
And while you’re visiting museums, do drop by the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center as well. The museum gives a good insight into the different ethnic tribes of Laos — their heritage, cultures and way of life. I also got to dress up in one of the tribes’ traditional costumes!
6) Pay Homage to Monks
One of the most sacred Buddhist traditions in Luang Prabang is the Alms Giving Ceremony. This is a ritual practiced by the monks every morning — barefoot and draped in their saffron-colored robes, they walk in line while locals (and tourists) sit in a row, putting food (rice, snacks and fruits) into their metal bowls. By 6am, the entire main road gets crowded with visitors and devotees.
For something so sacred, the Luang Prabang ceremony is extremely touristy. Vendors encourage tourists to buy their alms bowl and a spot on the row, and tourists crowd around the monks trying to get their National Geographic shot. I tried to be as discreet as I could, stealing a shot and then quickly walking away. Most of the time though, I watched (the commotion) on the opposite side of the road. If you decide to experience this ritual, remember to practice respect and awareness for this centuries-old tradition. Despite the commercialism, I’m glad I woke up to see it.
7) Glide along the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves
You can’t say you’ve visited Luang Prabang if you didn’t go on a river cruise along the mighty Mekong. There is a public boat service that leaves the jetty (opposite Saffron Cafe) at 8.30am every morning — they gather groups of travelers and put them in a boat 6 by 6 for LAK65k~US$8 (good for solo travelers). The return trip includes a stop at the Whisky Village (where they sell bottles of whisky with snakes and insects in them) and the Pak Ao Caves. It takes 2 hours upstream, and an hour back downstream.
It is an experience itself sitting in the long narrow wooden boat while cruising along the river — every time I shuffle around a little, it tilts! The main stop on the cruise is the Pak Ao Caves, which are two caves overlooking the Mekong. The upper cave is dark and damp, while the more impressive bottom cave is too crowded. Both caves are filled with hundreds and hundreds of miniature Buddha sculptures all over its shelves — it is quite impressive.
8) Go Shopping at the Morning and Night Markets
Like all Southeast Asian cities, a visit to the Luang Prabang Night Market is a must. This is the best place to buy local arts and crafts, and souvenirs to bring home. Come 5pm, Sisavangvong Road (in front of the Royal Palace) closes up to traffic, and vendors start displaying their wares in the middle of the road. Most of the stalls sell almost the same things, so remember to look around and haggle for the best price. Don’t forget to look out for the Food Alley along the Night Market as well. I was instantly drawn in by the aroma of freshly barbecued meat and sausages filling the air.
The Morning Market is pretty interesting too. This is the place to get a taste of the local culture as it is where locals do their shopping. Lining several quiet streets near the Royal Palace, vendors sit on floors selling everything from fresh vegetables and fruits, to meat, fish, frogs and even bats.
9) Take a Trip to the Other Side of Luang Prabang
Most people don’t know, don’t bother, or can’t take the trouble to make a trip just across the Mekong River to the other side of Luang Prabang — the Ban Xieng Maen Village. It is here that I got to witness authentic Laos; the village is so peaceful, and so real. During my wander, and visits to a couple of its temples (one has beautiful views overlooking the Mekong and Luang Prabang), I met two little girls who followed me everywhere I went. They showered me with potpourris of flowers, got into my photos and sat down with me, giggling all the way. They absolutely made my day.
The best time to cross the river to Ban Xieng Maen is in the evening. I allocated a couple of hours to explore the village, and then headed back to Luang Prabang by boat just as the sun began to set. So I got to witness the sunset in the middle of the Mekong!
10) Relax and Rejuvenate
After a tiring day of exploring the city, I always ended it with a soothing and relaxing Lao Massage. There are tons of small massage parlors located along the waterfront and the main road; but if you’re looking for something with better service and quality for your money — head to either Peninsula Spa (recommended by the owner of my guesthouse), or L’Hibiscus Spa with its gorgeous rustic interior. I tried the ‘Lao Massage’ for LAK60k~US$7.5 one night, and the ‘Lao Massage with Hot Herbal Compress’ for LAK120k~US$14.5 the next day. They made me feel wonderful!
Another way to rejuvenate after a long day is to treat yourself with some delicious Lao Cuisine. I had fantastic Laotian meals at the riverside, the atmospheric Coconut Garden Restaurant, and the fine-dining L’Elephant Restaurant. Dishes to try are mok paa (steam fish in banana leaf), laap (meat salad), oh lam (stew), Lao sausages, kai phaen (river weed) and sticky rice. There are also lovely cafes for a cuppa — Jo Ma Cafe and Le Banneton are the city’s popular joints. And don’t forget to drop by the roadside stalls for the local Khao Soi noodles.
Here’s a suggested itinerary on how to experience these 10 things do in Luang Prabang:- 3 Days in Luang Prabang, Laos