Luang Prabang - The Jewel of Laos
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Things to do in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Northern Laos is a wonderful place to spend a few days, we spent the best part of a week here on our tour of Northern Laos then came back for more before we left.

Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula, on one side flows the mighty Mekong River, which at around 400m wide is probably the widest river I have ever seen.  On the other side flows the Nam Khan.  Their meeting point is a sacred confluence, which accounts for the fact that on every street corner stands a beautiful gilded Wat or temple.  So magnificent are the Wats that Luang Prabang holds UNESCO world heritage status.

It is easy to spend a day visiting the Wats, the grandest and our favourite was Wat Xieng Thong, which has a magnificent tree of life mosaic on the rear of the prayer hall.

 

Tak Bat

Luang Prabang is home to an estimated 4,000 monks and every morning at dawn the monks emerge from their monasteries for Tak Bat, the call to alms.  They file silently through the streets collecting balls of sticky rice from the pious local people.  It is an awe inspiring sight, I followed them at a distance through the silent streets absorbing the serenity and spirituality of the occasion.  It really is a must see occasion and without doubt my favourite ‘attraction’ in Luang Prabang.  When you are observing the monks, be respectful, be quiet and maintain a low profile, remember that you are observing a spiritual occasion.

Phu Si

Towering above Luang Prabang is the golden stupa of That Chonsi which crowns the steep wooded outcrop of Phu Si.  There is a great view from the top from a small pagoda.  It is really worth the 329 step climb   but I would recommend climbing first thing in the morning, we went late morning and the steep climb was very sweaty!

We climbed up via the TAEC, the Tribal Arts and Ethnicology Centre, a museum dedicated to the Hill Tribe Culture of Northern Laos, although small it is very informative.

The King’s Palace

In the centre of old Luang Prabang is the Kings Palace, home to King Sisavang Vong, the last king of Northern Laos, the palace is open to visitors and is quite a strange place to visit when you think of how the opulence of the Kings Palace contrasted with the very hard life of the Lao people. The Palace looks quite dated now but, in the 1950’s, it was no doubt the latest in modernity, especially in an a very traditional country like Laos.

Especially; surreal is the Kings car collection, a collection of four old cars, in a poor state of repair together with what must have been the only petrol pump in Laos!

It is not surprising to hear that when the pampered King and his family were captured and put to work in the fields by the communist Pathet Lao forces, that they didn’t last very long.

The Wats

There are 33 Beautiful Gilded Wats dotted around the peninsula of Luang Prabang.  The biggest and our favourite is the Royal Monastery of Wat Xieng Thong, it is situated right at the tip of the peninsula, at the sacred confluence of the mighty Mekong River with the Nam Khan.  It was the royal monastery, and still has a grand staircase leading down to the Mekong River for the king to enter on ceremonial occasions.

Wat Xieng Thong dates around 1560 and is best known for the magnificent Tree of Life mosaic on the back wall of the main prayer hall, when we were there the monks were banging their large drums and playing horns in a small side building which gave the Wat a very spiritual atmosphere.

The Bamboo Bridges

We crossed the rickety bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan, just for fun and to see what was on the other side. It was a bit hairy, especially when it started sloping to the side by around 30 degrees, we thought we might just slide into the muddy river! This bridge is built during the dry season but gets washed away in the wet season, as the wet season starts in May and we crossed in July I think we were probably one of the last people to cross!  In fact we returned a week later to Luang Prabang having been up country to find that all that remained of the bridge was a few bamboo poles.  It had all been washed away by the heavy rains.

It is worth crossing, not just for the experience, but on the other side it is quite rural.  If you fancy a walk you can cross by the less rickety bamboo bridge a little further upstream on the Nam Khan, then walk along the road on the other side visiting a couple of Wats and then carry onto Ban Xan Kong, the craft village, where you can see artisans at work making textiles and hand made paper.

The Hotels

However it is not the sites that keep you in Luang Prabang for longer than you planned, it is the ambience, the peninsula is on a very human scale. You can walk from one end to the other in 30 minutes or far better hire a bike and cycle around.  Stop at one of the many cafes along the Mekong and enjoy a delicious ice coffee whilst watching the small boats bobbing on the wide , muddy Mekong River.

One of the best reasons for visiting Luang Prabang is the superb choice of boutique hotels, housed in old French colonial villas or traditional Lao teak houses all at very affordable prices.  Click the hotels tab above to see our choice of places to stay or click here to check room rates, availability and to book on Agoda.

 

We do get paid a small commission by booking you onto our specially selected trips, we only promote trips that we feel are of a high standard and represent good value for money.  Our commission is used to fund our independent travel journalism, I hope that you find our site a valuable resource.

Where to stay in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is justly famous for it’s amazing Boutique Hotels, housed in faded French Colonial Buildings or traditional Lao Teak Villas.  It is really worth splashing out for that affordable luxury and pampering which just isn’t available in the rest of the country.

When we look for a hotel we always find that the best prices are on Agoda or Booking.com, we have provided a search box for both, but we thought we’d let you know of a couple of our favourite places to stay when we’re in town.

 

The Lotus Villa Hotel

One of our favourite hotels in Luang Prabang is the Lotus Villa, it is a lovely oasis of pampering.  It is an old Lao Teak villa, on a lovely leafy backstreet, which has lovingly been restored and upgraded into a wonderful boutique hotel.
We visited after spending a week in the jungle and, boy, did we appreciate the lovely shaded garden full of architectural plants, the walk in shower room, the spacious traditional styled rooms and especially the comfy beds.  When we arrived we were greeted with a welcome drink, there were bicycles outside which were free to borrow and we had great fun cycling around the quiet back streets of the Peninsula.

We went out to eat in the evening and, on our return, we were amazed to find that room service had been round to light an essential oil burner in our room and had turned back the sheets.   The next morning we awoke at dawn to see the Tak Bat, the monks passed right outside the hotel, in fact as we had a room that faced the street, we could just sit in the comfy bamboo chairs and watch them silently walk pass in a long line, collecting sticky rice from the pious townsfolk. A couple of hours later it was time for breakfast, and the hearty a la carte breakfast that was included with our room was probably the best we had in Laos!
Although the Lotus Villa can be quite pricey at peak times, during the low season it is a bargain!  Click here to check availability, room rates and book on Agoda.

 

Luang Prabang Residence ( The Boutique Villa)

Luang Prabang Residence is a beautiful old teak villa set in it’s own garden.  It has 8 very luxurious rooms, decorated in Lao Traditional style with lovely walk in showers.  The rooms are very quiet and have shutters on the windows to block out the light, noise and heat.  It is very well situated for most of the attractions in Luang Prabang.
It is next to Wat May Souvannapoumaram, a large Buddhist Monastery and very close to the Kings Palace.  In the morning as you walk out of the wooden gates you are straight into the morning  market where local women bring their produce to sell.  It starts at dawn and is all over by around 10 as it starts to get hot.  At the top of the morning market road is the night market where craft traders from across Northern Laos come to sell their handmade wares.  The market is quite extensive and is a lovely way to pass a pleasant evening.  There is also a Night Food Market selling very cheap local food as is a big hit with backpackers, we ate down there a couple of times but be careful to eat from the busy stalls as food hygiene can be a bit of an issue.
Click here to check prices, availability and to book on Agoda.

Luang Prabang is full of lovely hotels of all different standards and prices.  Click here to see what is available when you want to visit and to book with Agoda

Trips and Tours from Luang Prabang 

There are two great day trips from Luang Prabang, namely Pak Ou Buddhist Caves, a couple of caves above the Mekong River full of Buddhas of all colours and sizes and the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls, a series of waterfalls straight out of the Garden of Eden. 

Pak Ou Buddhist Caves

The Pak Ou Caves are situated a 90 minute longboat trip upriver from Luang Prabang.  Boats leave from the Mekong riverside at around 8.30 am, otherwise you can combine the Pak Ou caves and the beautiful Tat Kuang Is Waterfalls in one full day trip.  The 90 minute boat trip up river, watching life on the river and the clouds swirling around the stunning tree covered mountains is as much part of the trip as the caves themselves.  On the way our boat even had to stop to fill up at a floating petrol station.  In Laos, as it is very mountainous,  rivers have traditionally been the life blood of the country and the main way of getting around.

The caves are situated in towering a limestone cliff at the sacred confluence of the Nam Ou and the Mekong Rivers.  Traditionally the King would visit every New Year on pilgrimage and leave a Buddha image, this became the tradition, and every well-heeled pilgrim would leave a Buddha image.to earn merit.

The boats docked at the bottom of the cliff and we climbed a steep white staircase to the lower cave, the cave was quite small but it has a stunning array of Buddhas of all colours and sizes, many are Standing Teaching Buddhas while others are seated Buddhas in a variety of poses.  Each pose has a different meaning, each highlights a different aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.

There is also an upper cave, this is reached by a 15 minute walk up another steep staircase, To be honest the upper cave is a bit of a disappointment, there was no electricity when we visited and as it is  a lot deeper than the lower cave it was dark.  We used the torches from our phones to look around, which made it quite atmospheric, but compared to the lower cave there was very little to see.

When we were there, there were a few children and their mother selling trinkets, which we didn’t want but we gave then some of our sweets and they were very happy and chatty.  I always like to talk to the locals, rather than just turn up take a photo and leave, it makes the whole experience more authentic and memorable.

We can offer you the following trips;

Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls

The Tat Kuang Is Waterfalls are a 30 km, one hour, drive from Luang Prabang, click here to book a half day excisions to Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls and don’t forget your swimming kit!

Once you get out of Luang Prabang the ride along the small roads through wooded hillsides is glorious.  The waterfalls are located in their own park, when you arrive it costs 20,000 kip to get in ( around £2).  When you enter the park the first thing you come to is the Kuang Si Rescue Centre which houses rescued Sun Bears or Asian Black Bears.  These small cute bears have been rescued from horrendous conditions, they were kept in small cages and their bile is harvested for use in traditional Chinese medicine.  It is lovely seeing the bears in their large new enclosures enjoying playing in the sunlight.

The falls themselves are a series of beautiful waterfalls, with shallow pools.  I felt as if I had just walked into the Garden of Eden.

Take your swimming things and you you can strip off and swim in the pools, a delightful thing to do on a hot sticky day, and swimming in the cool water makes it feel even more Edenic.

Just a word of caution, there are fish in the water who do like to nip your feet if you stay still for too long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it is a bit a shock when it first happens! Mind you a few years ago people used to pay good money for a fish pedicure !

Do keep walking right up to the top pool where there is an impressive long drop, which makes an excellent photo, but alas is not safe to swim in.  In fact it’s probably a good idea to walk all the way up first as there are a series of pools, which get better and better. When we were there most visitors were swimming in the first pool, whereas some of the higher pools were even more beautiful and less crowded.

If you only have time for one trip I would recommend going to the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall.

We do get paid a small commission by booking you onto our specially selected trips, we only promote trips that we feel are of a high standard and represent good value for money.  Our commission is used to fund our independent travel journalism, I hope that you find our site a valuable resource.

Travellers Tips from Luang Prabang

The Night Market

Every night in front of the Kings Palace the tented night market springs up. You can find Artisans from all over the North of Laos selling hand embroidered purses, beautiful paintings, hill tribe ladies selling traditional clothes, artisans selling jewellery and kitchen impliments made out of discarded shells left over from the Vietnam War, as well as Lao souvenirs to remind tourists of this atmospheric place.  It stretches for several blocks and can take a good hour to see all the stalls.

Food Night Market

Down a small alleyway off the night market is the Food Night Market.  It is full of stalls selling delicious local food.  Most stalls have plates piled high with vegetarian food, you pay for a plate then help yourself to whatever you want.  There is also meat available, you choose what you like and it is cooked infront of you.  It is very busy and bustling and is a great experience.

Just a word of warning, choose a busy stall as on the quiet stalls you are never sure how long the food has been sitting there.  Also on our favourite stall if you asked the lady she would warm up the vegetarian dishes as eating them cold is slightly weird!

Get a Bike!

Luang Prabang is a great place to cycle around.  You can see so much more than you do when you are walking and there is virtually no traffic on the peninsula.

If you are thinking of getting a motorbike or scooter then make sure that you firstly wear a helmet and appropriate footwear and secondly you make sure that your travel insurance will cover it.

Getting to & from Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is well connected to the rest of the country by a network of bus routes.  It also has it’s own international airport.  You can read about our arrival in Luang Prabang here. 

You can check and book bus tickets and plane tickets by using the search box below.

Visas cost $35 dollars on arrival from most countries plus $2 if you don’t have a passport size photo.  The only way to travel from the airport to town is by shared Songthaw  ( basically a truck with seats on the back) which costs a fixed 50,000 kip per person ( about £5 /$7)

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Luang Prabang is a lovely place, but there is a whole country to see!

We headed upcountry from Luang Prabang into the beautiful mountainous north of the country.  A few years ago you could go everywhere by river, but in the last few years Laos has been exploiting the energy generating potential of the Mekong River by partnering with China Power who has been building mega dams every 100 km or so up the Mekong.  Whilst we are all in favour of clean power, this means that river boat travel has become more difficult and therefore we had to head North on Laos notorious roads.

The roads have got much worse in recent years due to the construction of new dams across the Nam Ou which have resulted in lots of temporary roads around the construction sites.  These temporary roads are truly awful, full of potholes that rock the buses and mean that they can go through at no more than 10 miles per hour.  The day we went the road was also flooded so our minibus had to go through the floods on the back of a recovery truck.  It was certainly an adventure!

We were heading up to Nong Khiaw, famous for it’s amazing landscape then onto Muang Ngoi, a small village on the banks of the Nam Ou river, surrounded by jungle and only accessible by boat.

 To get to the Nong Khiaw you need to catch a bus from the Northern Bus Station or a minibus from the minibus station.   A few years ago you would have to go up to the bus station and find a bus and hope there were some seats on it, however now you can book your bus tickets online by using the search box below.

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A few years ago you would have to go up to the bus station to try and find a bus then hope there were some seats available, however now you can book your bus tickets online by using the search box below. 

 Just fill in where you want to go and our clever search box will tell you what time the buses run, how much they cost and even let you book a ticket.  It also works for ferries, trains and planes!

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We do get paid a small commission by booking you onto our specially selected trips, we only promote trips that we feel are of a high standard and represent good value for money.  Our commission is used to fund our independent travel journalism, I hope that you find our site a valuable resource.