Luang Prabang

Introducing Luang Prabang

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Nestling in a slim valley shaped by lofty, green mountains and cut by the swift Mekong and Khan rivers, LUANG PRABANG exudes tranquillity and casual grandeur. A tiny mountain kingdom for more than a thousand years and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of ancient red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, not to mention some of the country’s most refined cuisine, its richest culture and its most sacred Buddha image, the Pha Bang. For those familiar with Southeast Asia, the very name Luang Prabang conjures up the classic image of Laos – streets of ochre colonial houses and swaying palms, lines of saffron-robed monks gliding through the morning mist, the sonorous thump of the temple drums before dawn, and, of course, longtail boats racing down the Mekong before the river slips out of view through a seam in the mountains.

It is this heritage of Theravada Buddhist temples, French–Indochinese shophouses and royal mystique that lends Luang Prabang a pull unmatched by any other city in Laos. This is not only where the first proto-Lao nation took root, it’s also the birthplace of countless Lao rituals and the origin of a line of rulers, including the rulers of Vientiane, Champasak and Lane Xang. Luang Prabang people are tremendously proud of their pivotal role in Lao history. Indeed, they’re somewhat known for their cultured ways in the rest of the country; in Lao soap operas, the doctor or the intellectual invariably speaks with a Luang Prabang accent.

Luang Prabang’s strict building code, drawn up by UNESCO, keeps it from becoming another modern architectural nightmare without turning it into a museum. Inevitably, the city has lost some of its sleepy charm and dreamy serenity as a result of the growing influx of tourists, but exploring the side streets and dusty lanes, its not hard to feel as though you’ve stepped into the city of yesteryear. Parts of the city do already feel over touristy – indeed, on stretches of Sisavangvong Road, were it not for the unmistakable architecture, you could be anywhere else on the well-trodden Southeast Asian tourist trail – especially when you’ve come from other parts of the country where tourism is still a novelty. Though the city remains surprisingly laidback, with none of the hassle associated with other parts of Asia, an airport expansion is due in 2013, which will allow larger planes to fly in and out of Luang Prabang, meaning the small-town charms of this beautiful city could be encroached on further.

Most travellers spend only a few days here on a whistle-stop tour of Laos, part of a wider Mekong trip, though the city really demands longer – this is a destination best savoured at a leisurely pace. If time is limited, top priority should go to the old city, dubbed by the UNESCO World Heritage team as a “historic preservation zone”. In a day, you can easily tour the sights, beginning with the sunrise view from Mount Phousi and a wander around the lively morning market, before heading to the elegant Royal Palace Museum in the former Royal Palace, en route to Luang Prabang’s most impressive temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you’re here for a second day, enjoy some of the sights around Luang Prabang by taking a boat up the Mekong River and contemplating the hundreds of Buddhas within the holy Pak Ou Caves, or travelling south through the surrounding hills to one of the area’s two major waterfalls, Kouang Si and Tad Se. But whatever you do, be sure to soak up Luang Prabang’s languid atmosphere by wandering the streets at dawn, when the town’s legion of monks receives alms and life and the city seems to have little changed from a century ago, or at dusk, when the air fills with otherworldly chants wafting from the temples.

Luang Prabang’s air of serenity is disturbed only at festival time. The most famous festivals last for days and inspire a carnival atmosphere that makes it easy to forget that these complex rituals held the very structure of the kingdom in place for centuries. Lao New Year in April is perhaps the town’s biggest festival, but near the end of the monsoon, two holidays – the boat races and the Festival of Lights – also bring Luang Prabang to a festive standstill. A visit coinciding with one of these festivals would certainly enhance your stay, though the most popular time to visit remains the cooler months of December and January, when the weather is clear and dry.

Top things to do and see

Kuang Si Waterfalls

The Kuang si Waterfalls are approx. 30km out of town. These falls are beautiful all year round and have great swimming pools and picnic areas, plus a rescue centre for local Asiatic moon bears! Hike up to the top of the falls for a great view.

Rice Experience - Living Land Farm 

The Living Land Farm is a working organic farm run by local farmers where you can learn how rice is traditionally harvested. This is rated Luang Prabang's #1 activity on Trip Advisor.

Attend an Alms Giving Ceremony 

A major spiritual attraction is the morning alms ceremony, or Tak Bat, where long lines of monks stream through town collecting their daily food from locals. It's a beautiful sight, but unfortunately often disrespected by tourists who invade the monks privacy for a 'good photo' - if you go, please dress respectfully and take photographs from a discreet distance. 

Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC)

For the museum buffs, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is a fantastic place to learn about the different tribal groups of Laos. The centre aims to preserve ethnic Lao culture and diversity.  

Climb up Phousi Mountain

Phousi Mountain looms in the middle of town and is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the Mekong. There are a lot of stairs but view is worth the climb! 

Tad Sae Waterfalls

During wet season, Tad Sae Waterfalls are a great place to go if you want to combine ziplining with your waterfall experience and there are a number of biking, rafting, and trekking tours around the area too.

Learn to cooking like a Laotian

Learn to cook delicious Laos cuisine at a picturesque lakeside cooking school. 

Silk Dyeing and Weaving Class

Learn about how silk is produced and turned into the beautiful clothing and handicrafts you find in the Night Markets on the main street and make your own souvenir. 

Go Trekking, Cycling or Kayaking

Get out and explore Luang Prabang's stunning landscape, dense forests, picturesque river systems, and colorful ethnic diversity. 

Royal Palace Museum

See how Lao royalty lived and don't miss the vibrantly mosaiced temple on the grounds.

Pak Ou Caves

If you're travelling on a Stray pass you'll travel by private boat to Luang Prabang and stop at the famous limestone Pak Ou Caves en route. Pak Ou is an important pilgrimage site for Lao people, and here you will see thousands of Buddhist images that have been placed throughout the caves over hundreds of years. If you're not travelling with Stray you can take a short boat ride to the Pak Ou Caves from Luang Prabang.

Eating & drink

For those (eternally) summer nights in Luang Prabang, take a walk through the vibrant night market, get a cheap feed at any of the 15,000 kip ($2 USD) vegetarian buffets, or visit the BBQ stands for delicious meaty skewers and sausages.  Grab a seat at the benches where ever you can fit and chat with backpackers and locals enjoying a cheap delicious dinner. 

After dinner head to the bars along the Nam Khan side of town. Icon Klub is your destination for art nouveau style and impromptu slam poetry nights, while Lao Lao Garden, Utopia, and Hive Bar are big with the backpacker scene. Curfew for these bars is at midnight, but the party doesn’t stop then! The two nightclubs Dao Fa and Muang Sua are the spots for a real Lao party, and there’s always a tuk tuk driver waiting to take you out to the infamous the Bowling Alley - the one place in town that stays open until 3, and a big magnet for the backpacking crowd. Bowl a strike, cheers your neighbours with a cold Beer Lao, and see if you can still manage to get up at 5 for the morning alms giving ceremony!

You can see more Luang Prabang travel guide at here.

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