The best things to do in Luang Prabang, the beguiling UNESCO World Heritage-listed former royal capital, whose peaceful streets are lined with splendid colonial villas and sparkling temples containing golden Buddhas, include everything from observing the early morning alms-giving ritual to learning to cook Lao food.
Lovely Luang Prabang lies on the banks of the Mekong River in northwestern Laos. Its compact, well-preserved, UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic centre is located on a sleepy peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Its palm-shaded streets are lined with shimmering Buddhist temples, handsome French colonial villas, and charming shop-houses that are home to boutiques selling textiles and crafts and atmospheric restaurants, cafés and bars.
An ideal escape from chaotic Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Saigon and Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang is one of the region’s most serene cities. Aside from boisterous festive holidays, such as Lao New Year, the bustle of the morning markets is about as busy as things get. Pre-pandemic, the late afternoon arrival of travellers on the slow boats from Thailand brought a little more activity.
That tranquillity and the unhurried pace of life are big parts of the appeal of Luang Prabang, along with diminutive size of its historic heart. You can leisurely stroll from one end of the 2km-long heritage area to the other in twenty minutes. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take long to experience the place. On the contrary, there’s a lot to do for such a petite town.
Some of the best things to do in Luang Prabang include observing the early morning alms-giving ritual (from a respectful distance), discovering the countless mural-clad temples, learning to weave on a traditional loom, ambling the lush botanic gardens, sampling buffalo ice-cream, and climbing Phousi Hill for Mekong River sunset vistas.
You can’t travel to Luang Prabang right now unfortunately as the Lao borders remain closed to foreign tourists. Although there’s talk of travel bubbles and opening up to safe countries. Laos has only had 20 coronavirus cases and zero deaths, so who can blame them for wanting to keep things that way. But you can still dream about travelling to Laos and when you can these are the best things to do in Luang Prabang.
Things to Do in Luang Prabang from Temple Touring to Learning to Cook Lao Food
Stay at a Heritage Hotel that Oozes History
One of the first things to do in Luang Prabang is to check into one of the many atmospheric heritage hotels that ooze history. The Hotel 3 Nagas in Lamache House, built in 1898 as a venue for royal court meetings and a former residence of Lao royal Tiao Sithideth Sisaleumsack and his French wife Dany Lamache.
Across the road, there are more rooms at Khamboua House, built in 1903 for the King’s counsellor and named after one of the 15 wives of Sisavang Phoulivong, King of Laos from 1904 until his death in 1959. Lamache House was once the official ice-creamery to the Royal Palace in the 1930s, and Khamboua’s ground floor now serves as an ice-cream parlour and café. You can hire one of the hotel’s vintage cars, either a 1957 Mercedes-Benz or a 1953 Citroen.
A grand whitewashed French-colonial mansion, Maison Souvannaphoum was home to four-time Prime Minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the half-brother of Prince Souphanouvong. The Prince’s former lodgings, the Maison Room has polished parquet floors, a Victorian style bathtub and a pretty balcony overlooking the lush garden.
Satri House was built in 1904 by Prince Bounkhong, the last uparat (viceroy) of Luang Prabang and father of Prince Souphanouvong, who lived here as a child and was the first President of the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Rooms are furnished with four-poster beds, antiques carpets, artefacts, and crafts.
Set on the riverside in lemon-coloured colonial-style buildings with grey-blue shutters, The Apsara Rive Droite has polished teak floors, rattan furniture, and balconies with river views. Built around a former royal summerhouse, Belmond La Residence Phou Vao has lush gardens filled with frangipani and mango trees and dotted with lotus ponds.
Tour the Glittering Temples of Luang Prabang
Touring the glittering temples to gawk at the magnificent murals and shimmering mosaics is one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang and the next thing you should do after checking into your historic hotel. Luang Prabang was the capital of Lane Xang, ‘Kingdom of a Million Elephants’, from the 14th to the 16th century.
It was an important centre of Buddhism, which explains the abundance of gleaming mosaic-covered pagodas in the historic centre. Allow at least a few days to discover the scores of dazzling temples, richly decorated with engravings, gilding, stencilled patterns, sculptures, and paintings.
While you could visit the temples on your own, we recommend venturing out with a local guide on a temple walking tour (at least for the first time) for an insider perspective on the history as well as the chance to learn about local customs and experience local rituals, such as fortune telling.
Highlights include Wat Visoun, also known as Wat Wisounalat, Wat Visounnarath and Wat Wisunarat, which is named after King Wisunarat, who reigned during the temple’s construction in 1512. Neighbouring Wat Aham or the Monastery of the Opened Heart, built in 1818, is set in sprawling grounds shaded by colossal banyan or Bhodi trees.
Wat Xieng Thong or the Temple of the Golden City, at the tip of the peninsula where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath and is Luang Prabang’s most important temple. A Royal Temple, it was the site of royal coronations, festivals and cremations for centuries, which is why the stupendous, carved, gilded funerary carriage house is crammed with gold Buddhas, intricately carved urns, and a gold cremation chariot decorated with naga heads.
It’s the most magical of Luang Prabang’s temple complexes. This Buddhism Tour with a Local Guide takes in the most significant Luang Prabang historical Buddhist temples, as well as offering the chance to participate in the early morning alms giving ceremony, which you do with locals.
Observe the Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks in Luang Prabang
For most travellers to Laos, observing the early morning alms giving to monks is at the top of their to-do list, and it’s easily one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang. Called tak bat in Lao, the morning procession of monks from nearby monasteries through the heart of the historic centre to collect rice from locals is all about making merit for the Buddhist residents making offerings to the monks.
Sadly, with the rise in tourism of recent years, photographing the monks became a spectacle due to the picturesque background, and even a bit of a circus, with many tourists obsessed with securing the perfect photo, getting too close to monks, shoving their lenses in their faces, and demonstrating disrespect to Buddhists and Lao culture. When the borders open, make a beeline for Luang Prabang before the masses get there to miss that obnoxious behaviour.
We recommend doing a temple tour first with a local guide so you can learn about Buddhist rituals and how to observe the alms-giving from a respectful distance, and if you’re really keen to participate in tak bat, learn how to do so considerately.
Luang Prabang’s best hotels provide information on ‘do’s and don’ts’ for guests, advising travellers how to behave and even arranging for their guests to join hotel staff in making merit. If you choose to set out on your own to experience tak bat please do click through to our link above to read our advice on how to do so respectfully.
Learn How to Cook Lao Food in Luang Prabang
Learning how to cook the local food of the places we go to has always topped our to-do list when we travel and Laos was no exception on our first trip. If you’re a food-lover, learning how to cook Lao cuisine is easily one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang and the best person to learn Lao cooking from is chef Joy Ngeuamboupha of Tamarind restaurant.
A former novice monk, DJ and bartender before he became a chef, Joy opened his restaurant and cooking school with his Australian wife Caroline, and quickly established Tamarind as the best place to learn to cook Lao food in Luang Prabang.
We joined Joy for a cooking class, which began with a morning market tour, on our first trip to Laos and it was easily one of the best cooking classes in Southeast Asia that we’ve done in all our years in the region. Lao cuisine is not well known outside Southeast Asia — unlike Thai food and Vietnamese food – which is reason enough to learn how to cook Lao cuisine.
If you don’t want to do the cooking class it’s possible to just do the market tour, which we highly recommend for lovers of local markets.
Hike Up Phousi Hill for Golden Buddhas and Luang Prabang Sunsets
Another one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang is to hike up Phousi Hill or Mount Phousi for the panoramic vistas of the picturesque old town, the Mekong and Khan Rivers, and the surrounding majestic mountains, as well as the stupas, shrines and shimmering Buddhas that speckle the hill itself.
We recommend using the ‘back entrance’ to Phousi Hill and climbing up the steep dog-legged stairs that start on Ratsavong Road, rather than take the busier staircase that begins in front of the National Museum. When we last did it we were quite alone, except for a novice monk foraging in the forest.
Aside from the spectacular views, there are a few sights on top of the hill, including Wat Pa Huak, a golden stupa, a small chapel, the ‘Buddha’s footprint temple’ of Wat Phra Buddabhat with a seated Buddha image in a grotto, and Kuan Ou, the Goddess of the Waters shrine. Do dress modestly, cover your shoulders and legs, and take plenty of bottled water with you.
How to Get to Luang Prabang
While coronavirus travel restrictions remain in place and the borders are currently closed, there are usually direct flights to Luang Prabang from Bangkok, Hanoi, Siem Reap, and other Southeast Asian cities. You can also travel to Luang Prabang by boat from Thailand along the Mekong River. There is a fast boat and a slow boat and we recommend the latter. We loved our few sultry days cruising down the Mekong on the Luang Say boat.