Southeast Asia is full of incredible towns and cities.
But of all the places we visited on our three months sabbatical, Luang Prabang came in top.
The relaxed atmosphere, astonishing sunsets, jungle-like surroundings and mighty Mekong added up to our dream destination.
If you’re planning a visit, you’re in for a treat…
….And I’m more than a little bit jealous of you right now!
I thought I’d sum up in one post the best things to see whilst you’re there.
Some of these I’m sure you’ve heard of before, but be sure to stick around until the end for some alternative things to do too!
Map of Things To Do in Luang Prabang
Some of these are a bit out of town, so zoom out to get the full map.
Things To Do in Luang Prabang
1) Get Sweeping Views from the top of Mount Phousi
Legend has it that Princess Sita, the wife of Hindu deity Rama, had an appetite for delicious mushrooms, and asked the monkey god Hanuman, to get her some. Hanuman flew back and forth to Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, each time to be told that they weren’t the correct ones. After much frustration, Hanuman eventually decided to bring the entire mountain of mushrooms from Sri Lanka, and he placed it right in the middle of Luang Prabang, so Princess Sita could enjoy all the mushrooms she wanted.
Whether you believe the legend or not, Mount Phousi does look out of place in the centre of the flat Luang Prabang, and because of this it gives incredible views across the surrounding countryside. The climb is a bit of a challenge, but well worth it, with various temples and caves dotted along the hillside to see on the way up.
2) Visit the Royal Palace Museum
The Royal Palace museum is full of interesting objects from the history of the royal family in Laos. There is everything from cars to items gifted by other countries, some of which are just a tad stereotypical (boomerang anyone!?).
3) Sunset over the Mekong
I could have chosen any one from dozens of photos of sunset over the Mekong in Luang Prabang. There are so many little restaurants, boat trips and viewing points it’s almost hard to find a bad spot, but our favourite was Chennai Indian Restaurant and their fantastic Taali set menu.
4) An Evening of Traditional Storytelling
An unusual and intriguing evening, the Garavek Theatre is a simple affair, two men, a small stage and an hour of traditional folk tales. Accompanied by a khene (a bamboo mouth organ), we were told stories of gods, animals and princesses, all linking in to the history of Luang Prabang. An eccentric but throughly enjoyable experience, a ticket is 50,000 kip, but beware they only go ahead if there are five people interested.
5) Wat Xieng Thong
There are numerous colourful, ancient temple in Luang Prabang, but Wat Xieng Thong is the daddy! Built in 1560, time has started to take its toll on this place, with glass affixed over holes in the roof, and dusty Buddhas stored away in outbuildings as if waiting to be put back on display. Despite this, the complex is stunning, with dark, intimidating teak buildings and colourful tile murals showcasing the incredible craftsmanship of the Lao artisans.
6) Get up Early to Watch the Alms-Giving Ceremony
There is nothing more synonymous with Luang Prabang that the daily alms-giving ceremony. Whilst it’s got a little out of hand in recent years, with floods of tourists taking away from this ancient tradition, it’s still an incredible sight if you do so respectfully. If you want more information, then click ‘read more’ for my comprehensive article on our experience.
7) Visit the Pho Tad Ke Botanical Gardens
Pho Tad Ke is the first botanical gardens in Laos, and was built on old royal hunting grounds as a research centre to catalogue and preserve the fauna of Laos. It’s a fascinating and relaxing afternoon out, though at 200,000 Kip per person, a bit more expensive than other attractions in the area. For the price, you get taken on a 20 minute boat trip up the river to the gardens, which if you time it right is almost like a sunset cruise! If this doesn’t convince you, just take a read of their site to see the great things your money is going on to fund. Make sure you take bug spray and sun cream as it can be quite exposed, and if you can book in to see the orchid tour, a very informative talk.
8) Kuang Si Falls and Bear Sanctuary
Located about 30km from Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Falls is one of the area’s highlights. We paid about 80,000 kip for a tuk-tuk driver to take us to and from the falls. I would advise getting there early, the tourist buses arrive around 0945-1000 so the earlier you leave Luang Prabang, the more time you will get in peace! The waters are turned an almost unnatural blue on their journey through the limestone hills, and in the early morning light it feels like being dragged into a fairy-story. There are lots of falls to visit, some of which you can swim in, and also a bear sanctuary, where rescued moon and sun bears are given a retirement home!
Alternative Things to do in Luang Prabang
1) UXO Visitors Centre
Laos has a very secret and unfortunate history. During the Vietnam War, over 500,000 bombing runs were completed on the country by the American air force who were desperate to shut down North Vietnamese supply lines. Over a third of these bombs didn’t detonate, meaning large parts of Laos are still off limits, and over 50,000 people have been killed or maimed in the last 45 years. The UXO Visitor Centre (UXO is short for unexploded ordnance) in Luang Prabang starkly lays out the human cost, and celebrates the incredible work of the UXOLao program.
2) Give Blood
In Laos, 60,000 blood donations a year are needed, but currently they are only receiving around 30,000. As we passed the Friends Visitor Centre on our way to the UXO museum, it was clear they were having a big drive for donations. Having seen some of the consequences of the ‘secret war’ in Laos, at the museum, we decided on the way back to head in and donate. Becca has done this many times, but for me it was my first! It was surprisingly painless and easy, and the t-shirt they gave us to say thank you became an important part of my wardrobe for the rest of our trip! They need all the help they can get, so if you are reading this in Luang Prabang, pop down to the location on the map at the top of this post, and do your bit.
3) Check Out Luang Prabang’s Unusual Bridges
There are two quite unusual bridges in Luang Prabang. One is made of bamboo, and only exists in the dry season. It gets rebuilt every year by a local family, and they charge a small toll (around 45p) to walk across it. On the other side is a restaurant and bar named Dyen Sabai which has a relaxed feel, where entire afternoons can pass by laid out on a cushion with a cocktail.
The second is bridge is named rather inventively, as, um Old Bridge! Worryingly the bamboo lacing of the first actually felt more solid than the steel girders and scaffolding planks that make up Old Bridge. This seems to only be used by fearless scooter pilots and the occasional cow. There that hangs off either side, and looks like it’s meant for pedestrians. I say ‘looks like’ as most of the locals seemed to favour braving oncoming traffic rather than using the narrow, creaking walkway! Maybe they knew something we didn’t!
4) Donate Books to Local Schools
If giving blood was just too much, you can still top up your karma at Luang Prabang library. They run a book donation service, where you can buy from a selection of kid’s books, and then put them into book bags to be taken out to local schools.