In the central north of Laos, surrounded by mountainous terrain and the meeting point of the mighty Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, you’ll find the ancient town of Luang Prabang. Whether you plan to be here for a few days or a few weeks, there is plenty of things to do in Luang Prabang.
Upon arriving, you might mistake yourself as being somewhere in Europe. Luang Prabang is so well kept, that the town itself is its own storybook – you can read its history through its well preserved architecture and culture.
A bit of background…
The history of Luang Prabang dates back to as early as the 7th century when it was first known as Muang Sua. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Luang Prabang was branded as the ‘Kingdom of a Million Elephants’ because of the powerful kingdom that ruled Luang Prabang at the time.
In 1885, the French set up their consulate in Luang Prabang, which was then followed by the French Protectorate of Laos in 1893. This meant that Laos became part of French Indochina, which included regions of Vietnam and Cambodia. Fast forward to 1954, following the Indochina War, Laos gained independence and became known as the Kingdom of Laos. Luang Prabang remained the royal capital of Laos until 1975.
Today the town of Luang Prabang is a beautiful union of traditional Lao heritage with French colonial influences, which is profoundly seen through its architecture and culture. Luang Prabang is also home to some of the region’s most stunning Budhhist temples and monasteries. So much of the town had been so well preserved that in 1995, Luang Prabang was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
So if you are planning a visit, here are some things to do in Luang Prabang.
13 Things to do in Luang Prabang
1. Explore Royal History at the National Museum
The National Museum was formerly the Royal Palace, and was built between 1904-1909. It remained a Royal Palace until the royal family was overthrown in 1975. The palace then underwent renovation and was reopened in 1995 to the public as the National Museum.
Upon entry, you’ll see the statue of King Sisavang Vong to your left. King Sisavang Vong is considered to be the last King that ruled between 1904-1959 marking the longest reign of the kingdom. To your right you’ll see a Temple like structure. This was previously the King’s Reading Room. It is now home to the Prabang Buddha, the Buddha that gave Luang Prabang its name.
In the centre is the former Royal Palace, now turned National Museum. It is possible to tour the Royal Palace, but know that strictly no photography is allowed inside. You will need to store your bag, shoes and any photographic equipment in the free lockers provided near the entrance of the museum.
The Royal Palace is made up of 10 rooms in total. The painting in the first room that you enter was done by a French artist, which shows everyday life in Laos in the 1930’s. An interesting fact – if you look at the houses shown in the painting, the stairs are all in odd numbers, because in the Lao culture, even numbers are considered bad luck.
My favorite room in the Royal Palace is the King’s Throne Room. It is surrounded by a beautiful red wall with interesting artwork made from glass. The Thone Room also contains many relics and antiques, including the Crown Jewels of Laos.
Of all the things to do in Luang Prabang, the National Museum was one of my favorite attractions to visit, because it is a great way to learn more about the Laotian Monarchy and its culture.
It is open every day except Tuesdays from 8:00am-11:30am, then 13:30pm to 16:00pm. The entry fee is 30,000 Kip/A$5 (fee correct as at May 2016).
2. Visit the Wat Xieng Thong Temple
The Wat Xieng Thong Temple, also known as the ‘Golden City Temple’, is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang, and one of the oldest in Laos. It was built in the mid 1500’s and was the Royal Temple, because this is where coronation ceremonies would take place. Our tour guide also explained that this was the first temple to adopt and build up Buddhism in Laos.
The Main Temple, the ‘Sim’ is used for special ceremonies and prayers, and it is the oldest building in this temple. The White Buildings where mostly built within the last 100 years, and are used as the dining areas and bedrooms of the monks.
The structure with the Hindu style art on the door (the one closest to the entrance) is the one most recently built. It is the funeral chapel of the last King. The carriage you see in the temple was the one used for the funeral.
The temple is opened every day between 8:00am – 17:00pm and the entry fee is 20,000 Kip/A$3 (fee correct as at May 2016).
3. Visit Wat Sensoukharam Temple
The Wat Sensoukharam Temple is located in the heart of Luang Prabang, and is also one of the best spots to witness the Alms Giving Ceremony (which I speak about shortly). This temple was built in 1718 and is known as the “Temple of 100,000 Treasures.” It is said that the temple was built using a donation of 100,000 Kip. If you are on a budget and looking for some free things to do in Luang Prabang, then the good news is that the Wat Sensoukharam Temple is free to visit.
Experience Everyday Life of a Local Lao
4. Witness the Alms Giving Ceremony
The Alms Giving Ceremony, also known as Tak Bat, is an important and sacred ritual of the Laotian culture. This ceremony begins in the early hours of the day. You will see locals kneeling or sitting and offering gifts such as snacks or rice to the Monk. Our guide explains that the practice of giving and receiving alms is so that the Monks can eat. If the Monks have received too much, this then gets donated to the village and/or poor.
It is possible to witness this ceremony, and even take part in it, as long respect is shown to this sacred ritual. If you wish to only see the ceremony, make sure to keep a good distance and do not block the Monk’s passage. Here is an excellent post that outlines 5 things to consider before observing the Alms Giving Ceremony.
5. Visit the Morning Market
After the Alms Giving Ceremony, you should check out the morning market. The morning market mainly sells fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables and meat. It is not a big market, in fact vendors line a street. It takes about half an hour to walk through this colourful market. It is also possible to try a local breakfast such as noodle soup or rice porridge.
6. Barter at the Luang Prabang Night Market
Open every day from 5 to 11pm, the Luang Prabang Night Market is a great spot to buy Laotian souvenirs. You’ll see a mix of local and hill-tribe vendors set up their stall selling a variety of products, incuding textiles, bags, shoes, keychains, Lao coffee…you name it. One of my favorite stalls was one that was selling an array of indigo blue sarongs.
So if you are looking to purchase some beautiful Laotian products, be ready to haggle. The market is located at Sivsavangvong Road. Get there early, before it gets crowded.
Planning a visit to Luang Prabang? Then stay at the Sofitel Luang Prabang, the former Governor’s residence.
7. Cruise along the Mekong River
No trip to Luang Prabang would be complete without a cruise down the Mekong River.
There are so many things to see along the Mekong River from Luang Prabang, including the Tam Ting Caves, Pak Ou Caves, local Laotian Villages, and beautiful natural landscapes that surround. The area is also home to stunning waterfalls worth visiting as well.
The cruise we did on the Mekong River was with Luang Say Cruise. They offer a variety of packages, and our tour sailed from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang. We first overnighted in the Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng, and then the next morning we cruised downstream to Luang Prabang. Several stops were made along the way, including a visit to a traditional Lao village, and the Tam Ting Caves, also known as the Cave of Thousand Buddhas. The cruise included a beautiful lunch on board, as well as tea/coffee/water throughout the day. It was a beautiful way to experience the Mekong River in Northern Laos.
8. Learn the Art of Textile at Ock Pop Tok
Ock Pop Tok is a social enterprise that focuses on the art of producing Laotian textile. They work with the local communities to help educate and preserve local traditions of textile production. In doing so, they have been able to help raise the profile of Laotian textile on a global scale.
If you are looking for unique things to do in Luang Prabang, then check out one of the textile making classes that Ock Pop Tok offer. You can also purchase a huge variety of good quality textile from Ock Pop Tok. You can learn more about this wonderful initiative here.
Eating & Drinking
9. Try out Traditional Lao Cusine at Manda de Lao
The Manda De Lao restaurant is a beautiful restaurant serving really traditional style Laotian dishes. All the dishes on the menu are based off old traditional recipes that have been passed down through generations.
We tried a variety of dishes for lunch and some of my favorite includes:
- The amuse bouche, which was sticky rice with lemongrass, garlic, coriander, lao herbs served on a beetlenut leaf
- Banana Leaf Salad
- Eggplant dip
- Stir Fried Buffalo
- Sticky red rice with grated coconut
I also recommend you trying some of their signature cocktails. My favorite was the Laojito, which was made using Lao vodka, lemongrass, kaffir lime, lime juice, syrup and brown sugar.
10. Have dinner at the 3Nagas Restaurant
The 3 Nagas Restaurant & Bar is located at the 3 Nagas Luanag Prabang MGallery, a lovely boutique hotel that is located in the heart of Luang Prabang. The restaurant serves a variety of traditional Lao dishes.Some of my favorite dishes included:
- Minced chicken coconut curry
- Sautéed Beef with garlic & onion
- Tapioca cooked in coconut milked served with fresh fruit
Another interesting fact about the 3 Nagas – during the restoration of the hotel, it was discovered that part of the 3 Nagas hotel was used to produce ice cream that was supplied to the Royal Palace in the 1900’s. The hotel has now tried to bring to life this history and offer a variety of ice cream that is simply delicious.
11. Enjoy French Pastries at Le Banneton
Because of Luang Prabang’s past, there is so much French influence around town… including in the food. Le Banneton is a French bakery serving up French pastries, including baguette and croissant. And the good news… they are delicious, and taste like the would in France. A Baguette will set up back about 10,000 Kip/A$1.6, which is really reasonable considering the high quality of the product.
12. Learn how to cook Lao Cuisine
If you find that you love the Lao cuisine, then why not learn how to cook it?
I personally have not done a cooking class in Luang Prabang, due to the lack of time, but I heard that it is a lovely experience. I have done cooking classes elsewhere, such as in Malaysia, which I loved. It is such a great way to learn about a local culture, and understand more about its produce.
There are several cooking schools in Luang Prabang, and one of them is at the Sofitel Hotel. The cooking class at the Sofitel consists of a local market tour, so you can learn more about local ingredients used in traditional Lao cooking. Then it’s all hands on deck where you learn how to prepare several Lao dishes…and the best part, you get to eat all the dishes you prepared, while overlooking the beautiful gardens at the Sofitel Luang Prabang.
13. Try the local Laotian beer
I have to say that the local Laotian beer really took me by surprise. I admit, I am not a fan of many other beers such as Tiger or Bintang, so I was a bit weary about trying Beerlao. But I gave the Beerlao Dark a go and must say that I did enjoy it.
The Beerlao Dark is brewed with black malt from Germany. I found it not too bitter, with a lovely sweetness.
If you need more inspiration to visit Luang Prabang, check out this video put together by Robert from Another Traveler.
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No compensation was received for this review. The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, along with Air Asia, Sofitel Luang Prabang, and Manda de Lao kindly sponsored my trip to Luang Prabang (Laos). All opinions remains my own.