Nonstop traffic. Pollution. Scams. Aggressive Touts. Intoxicated backpackers. As much as Southeast Asia has to offer, there’s also a lot to get stressed out about, too. And that’s likely why more and more travelers are including Luang Prabang in their itineraries. Both an ancient and former colonial capital, this riverside town is the perfect place to unwind and take things slow in between more hectic destinations. But that doesn’t mean Luang Prabang is boring. The town offers plenty to see and do, providing the perfect balance between exploration and relaxation.
I spent five days in Luang Prabang, which felt like the perfect amount of time. Some travelers stay for weeks, while others just rush through the UNESCO World Heritage Site in a couple of days. Sure, the main sites can all be visited in just a day or two, but that’s not what Luang Prabang is all about. In addition to breathtaking temples and stunning scenery, the laid-back pace of life could be considered as one of the city’s main features. If you’re planning on taking things slow, here’s a guide to spending your time in Laos’s second city.
The Airport Experience
I got my first taste of how things are done in Luang Prabang as soon as I arrived at the airport. I knew I’d have to pay $35 USD for a visa, but since I read that there would be ATM machines around, I wasn’t too concerned about being short on cash. But upon arrival, there were no ATM’s near the immigration line. When it was finally my turn, I asked the immigration officer where I could withdraw some money for the visa. He replied that I should go use the ATM’s outside.
“How can I go outside without my passport and visa?” I asked him, confused. “No problem. Just go and come back. I’ll keep your passport.” It turns out that there were several others in the same boat, all of us equally bewildered that they would just let us roam freely outside before we’d ‘officially’ entered the country. Sure, they had our passports, but what if one of us was a fugitive on the run who’d just given them a fake? (Don’t get any ideas)
In the end, everything worked out fine – I got the cash before going back to get the visa stamped in my passport. But I still couldn’t picture a similar scenario happening anywhere else in the world. The experience served as an introduction to the carefree, laid-back attitude of the locals.
Luang Prabang: A Brief History
The city now known as Luang Prabang dates back to around the year 700 AD. It was ruled by a number of groups up until it eventually became the capital of the Lan Chang (or Lan Xang) Kingdom from the 1300’s. Formerly known as Muang Sua, everything changed for the city when the Khmer gifted a special statue to Lan Chang’s king, who happened to be the son-in-law of the Khmer ruler.
The statue, known as the Phra Bang, was so highly revered by Lan Chang that they even named their capital after it. One of the main goals of the gift was for Theravada Buddhism to spread in the region, and it’s still the dominant religion of Laos to this day.
Luang Prabang would lose its capital status in the 1500’s after the king moved to Vientiane. But later on, Lan Chang would dissolve and a new Kingdom of Luang Prabang would form as a rival state to Vientiane. The town is also what the French recognized as the Laotian capital after they dominated the region. Eventually, though, the capital would be again switched to Vientiane after the Communist revolution of 1975. There’s no doubt, however, that Luang Prabang remains Laos’s most important city for both cultural heritage and modern-day tourism.
Exploring the Peninsula
The main part of Luang Prabang is a small peninsula, surrounded by rivers (the Mekong and the Nam Khan) on three sides. This is where you’ll want to base yourself, as you can reach any other part of the peninsula within 20 minutes or less on foot. Many people also rent bicycles or motorbikes, but Luang Prabang is one of the best destinations in Asia for those who enjoy leisurely walking from place to place. Below is a rundown of some of the main sites you’ll want to check out in the daytime on the peninsula. Then we’ll go over evening activities, followed by some more attractions beyond the peninsula.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is located at the northeastern part of the peninsula, close to where the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers intersect. It’s one of the city’s most ornate temples and is perhaps best known for its glistening ‘tree of life’ mosaic. Not many visitors realize, though, that despite the old age of the temple, the mosaic was only put up in the 1960’s.
The temple was originally founded by King Setthathirath around the year 1560, just before the Laotian capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. One of Wat Xieng Thong’s most significant relics is a reclining Buddha image (pictured above) that dates all the way back to the temple’s establishment. Throughout the 20th century, the statue spent time in Paris and Vientiane before eventually returning to its original home.
Wat Xieng Thong was one of the few temples to survive the 1887 sacking of Luang Prabang by Chinese Black Flag rebels. The reason being that the rebel leader had spent time here as a monk when he was a young boy. Rather than destroy Xieng Thong, the invading militants instead used it as a base from which they pillaged the rest of the city.
While exploring the complex, the Chapel of The Standing Buddha is also well worth popping your head into. Inside you’ll find a shiny golden Buddha image reminiscent of Laos’ palladium, the Phra Bang statue. The stance of the Buddha is meant to symbolize fearlessness. The complex also contains another structure which houses dozens of standing Buddha images, many of them replicas of the Phra Bang. The Phra Bang was never housed in this temple, but you can find its former homes, along with the original statue itself, nearby on the peninsula.
From the mosaics displaying the story of the temple’s founding, to the gold-painted pillars, to the numerous Buddha statues, there’s plenty to look at as you slowly stroll through the complex. You could easily spend an hour or more here. In any case, this temple is best experienced when you don’t have to worry about the time.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, or just Wat Mai for short, is another significant temple in Luang Prabang that survived the Black Flag attack of 1887. It’s mainly known for hosting the Phra Bang Buddha image throughout most of the 1900’s.
There’s not a whole lot to see throughout the complex, and Wat Mai generally doesn’t get very crowded. Sitting and relaxing inside the sim is a great way to escape the heat or rest your legs. In addition to a replica of the Phra Bang, the temple also features a replica of the Emerald Buddha which is now kept in the Grand Palace of Bangkok.
The temple is located on Sisavangvong Road, just a short distance from the Royal Palace Museum and Haw Pha Bang, the current home of the real Phra Bang statue.
The Royal Palace Museum
What’s now known as the Royal Palace Musem was once home to the royal family which ruled Luang Prabang and at times, all of Laos. The royal family was kicked out, though, after the Communists seized control of the country in 1975.
The current palace was constructed in the early 20th century, shortly after the original was destroyed by the Black Flag invasion of the late 1800’s. Considering how it was built during France’s occupation of Laos, the palace is a blend of French and Laotian architectural styles.
What you’ll find inside are the old royal family’s living quarters in addition to plenty of Buddhist relics and artworks. Many of these relics were discovered in various temples throughout the city. Overall, the Palace Museum is not incredibly exciting and disappointingly, there’s not even any photography allowed inside. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad way to occupy an hour or so of your time during a slow-paced week in the city.
More interesting than the museum is the Haw Pha Bang temple just next to it. It’s hard to believe that it was completed in 2006, as the ornate golden temple matches the look and feel of older surrounding temples perfectly.
Located inside the temple is the original Phra Bang statue, after which the city was named. As mentioned, the statue was originally gifted to Laos by the Khmer Empire in the 1300’s. Ever since, it’s been considered as a symbol of the government’s right to rule.
Though the Phra Bang has moved around quite a few times over the centuries, including stints in Vientiane and Bangkok, it was finally brought to the Haw Phra Bang just a few years ago. The temple, in fact, was built specifically to house it. (The statue was kept for awhile in the Royal Palace Museum while construction was ongoing.)
Just across the road, you can find a little temple called Wat Pahouak near the entrance to Mt. Phousi. While not much more than a small room, it features some beautiful murals of the typical 19th century Laotian style.
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center
Laos is home to a large number of indigenous tribes. To learn more about the customs, rituals and agricultural practices of Laos’s ethnic minorities, a stop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center is a great way to spend an afternoon.
The museum is not very large but it’s well-laid out and modern-looking. Inside you’ll learn about groups such as the Akha, Hmong and Khmu. As the museum points out, the so-called “ethnic minorities” actually make up the majority of the country’s population, as most Laotians can trace their roots back to at least one of the ethnic clans.
At 25,000 kip, I found the ticket cost a little pricey considering the museum’s small size, although some of the entrance fee supposedly goes to charity. In any case, it’s an informative and well-laid out museum that can help break up the monotony of repeated temple visits.
Evenings in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang lacks much of any nightlife to speak of, but that’s one of the aspects that many people like about it. In contrast to many other touristy towns in Asia, there’s no need to worry about getting woken up in the middle of the night by your neighbors stumbling home drunk. If you really want to drink late at night, though, rumor has it that the bowling alley is the place to be. Otherwise, the town’s evening activities mainly consist of watching sunsets, eating delicious food and seeing a theatre performance.
View the Sunset from Mt. Phousi
One of the most popular gathering spots for the evening sunset in Luang Prabang is Mt. Phousi. The entrance is just across from the Royal Palace Museum, and before your ascent up the steps, you’ll encounter a ticket gate where they’ll ask you for a payment of 20,000 kip. (Annoyingly, it’s almost as if every little thing costs money in Luang Prabang. While cheap, it all starts to add up!)
The climb to the top only takes about ten minutes. Once there, you’ll come across a little temple called Wat Chomsi and panoramic views of the entire city, including the areas well beyond the peninsula.
If you’re coming for sunset, be aware that you won’t be alone, as dozens of other tourists are going to have the same idea. One of the great things about Luang Prabang is that you rarely experience overcrowding, but Mt. Phousi is one exception.
While at the top, you’ll likely be approached by local students who want to practice their English. Conversing with them won’t lead to any type of scam – they really do simply want to practice and will not ask you for any other favors. They may even give you some tips on where to go in the city, which is how I learned about a couple of the place mentioned below!
Climbing down, you can try an alternate route which will take you to the opposite side of the mountain. At various levels, you’ll encounter different Buddhist temples, shrines and statues, which make for an eerie sight in the darkness.
When I climbed down the final flight of stairs I found myself in the courtyard of a random temple I’d never seen before. But as soon as I walked out I could immediately tell where I was. Luang Prabang is so small that even getting lost at night comes with little risk.
TOP LEFT: The temple at the top of the mountain
TOP RIGHT: A large crowd at the top
BOTTOM LEFT: A cloudy sunset over Luang Prabang
BOTTOM RIGHT: A mountain shrine in the darkness
Watch a 'Phra Lak Phra Ram' Performance
Like its neighbor Thailand, which uses the Ramayana as the basis for its Ramakien story, the Laotian version of the Indian epic is called Phra Lak Phra Ram. Everyone in Laos grows up with the classic story, and like in many other countries, its scenes of battles and betrayal are repeated again and again on stage. In Luang Prabang, you can witness a performance at the Royal Palace Theatre, just across from the Haw Phra Bang. There’s no way of course, that such a long story could be performed in a single evening, so only certain scenes are chosen for particular nights.
Tickets are relatively pricey, which explains why so few tourists actually go. Depending on how close to the stage you want to sit, ticket prices range from 100,000 to 150,000 kip. While I enjoyed the performance overall, I still think that’s a lot to ask for a couple hour show in Laos.
While the performers tried their best, certain aspects of the production were very unprofessional, such as theatre staff talking loudly right behind the seating area throughout the performance. The theatre itself is also in a poor state. But if the production crew could just try a little harder in addition to promoting their shows better, the production has some potential for the future.
If you are completely new to the Ramayana story, feel free to skip this performance. But if you’re a fan of the epic and also enjoy listening to traditional Laotian music, it can be a nice way to spend one of your evenings in town.
Explore the Night Market
The local night market takes place every evening, and it contains plenty of options for dinner, dessert and shopping. Enjoy some local Laotian or Thai food and try not to become addicted to those round coconut pancake balls.
There are all sorts of trinkets and t-shirts for sale here, but it’s obvious after just a minute that most vendors are all selling pretty much exactly the same goods.
Dinner and Sunset Over the Mekong
For a quieter sunset experience, simply sit down for dinner at one of the many riverside restaurants on the Mekong side of the peninsula. The sky can sometimes turn purple and pink with streaks of yellow, made even more impressive by the way it all reflects on the river.
Before choosing a restaurant, try walking up and down the riverside to compare prices. Despite the restaurants mostly appearing the same, prices can vary greatly. If you’re patient, you can even find some places that only cost half as much as most of the others.
Off the Beaten Path
Cross the Bamboo Bridge
During your explorations around Luang Prabang, you might come across a bamboo bridge connecting the peninsula with the other side of the river. There are actually two of these bridges, but you’ll only find them in dry season when the tide is low.
One of these is near where the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers meet, while the other is in the southwestern part of the peninsula. The second bridge is the more popular of the two, as many people cross it to get to a restaurant called Dyen Sabai.
The bridges, it turns out, are constructed again and again every year by local families. They then collect passive income by charging 5,000 kip to get across. The two bridges are separately managed, though, so you’ll need to pay twice if you use both of them. But is there anything to see on the other side?
Crossing over the bridge by the Dyen Sabai, I skipped the restaurant and decided to explore the new area. This part of the city is quiet and green, but looks and feels a lot different than the peninsula region. To put it simply, it’s Luang Prabang without the charm. It’s still fun to walk around, though, as it broadens your perspective of the local region. Best of all, you’ll get some great views of the peninsula from the other side of the river.
The bridges are rickety but secure. If worst came to worst, though, it wouldn’t be all that big of a drop! Very few tourists seem to dare walking across them, which makes the trek to the ‘other side’ feel all that more adventurous.
Wat Phon Phao
Wat Phon Phao was recommended to me by one of the English students I met on Mt. Phousi, and very few visitors to Luang Prabang realize it exists. The unique temple was built sometime in the 1990’s in an original style that you won’t find elsewhere in town. It’s too bad, though, that the temple is now permanently closed.
Being around a 30 minute walk from the peninsula area, is there any reason to visit this temple at all? Yes and no. The temple is still interesting to walk around and look at from the outside. Furthermore, the area provides excellent views of the city and mountains in the distance. So much so that the area remains a popular gathering spot for local youth to gather and sit with friends.
While not essential, a visit to Phon Phao is something to consider if you’re considering an activity in Luang Prabang that’s truly unique and off-the-beaten path.
When chronicling the journeys of the Emerald Buddha statue, I went over the history of Wat Visounnarath, the oldest surviving temple in Luang Prabang. Just next to that temple is Wat Aham, which has a fascinating backstory of its own. The site was originally used for spirit worship of the city’s guardian deities. King Phothisarath (Setthathirath’s father), however, felt that the shrine went against the teachings of Buddhism, and had it destroyed.
After all sorts of natural disasters and diseases struck Luang Prabang, the locals blamed it on the destruction of the shrines, which were eventually rebuilt. Today, though, the spirit shrines are gone again and only a Buddhist temple stands at the spot. But the guardian spirits are now believed to reside in the two large Banyan trees out front. Just a 15 minute walk south from the peninsula area, don’t miss the chance to greet the town guardians during your time in the city.
There are a number of convenient ways to get to Luang Prabang.
People traveling in northern Thailand prior to their visit to Laos often take a Mekong river cruise to get there. This is an option best suited for those with plenty of time on their hands. The journey takes at least a couple of days, and most cruises stop in a town somewhere at night. There are a number of river cruise options out there, so it’s best to do extensive research if you’re interested.
Luang Prabang also has an international airport with direct flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Riep and Kuala Lumpur.
At the airport, you can get a visa on arrival for $35 USD. To save yourself some hassle, it’s best to have the cash on hand in advance, as the ATM’s are actually outside the airport.
Traveling from within Laos, you can take a domestic flight, but bear in mind the domestic flights in Laos tend to be considerably pricier than in neighboring countries.
The bus is another option, but many complain of the poor roads and overall uncomfortable ride. Coming straight from Vientiane by bus is too much for many people, solots of travelers break up the journey by stopping at the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng in between.
Luang Prabang is small and easily traversable on foot. Simply staying anywhere on the main peninsula would be ideal, as this gives you easy access to most of the town’s main landmarks. There are also some hotels and guest houses a little bit south of the peninsula, right by Wat Visounnarath.
There are a couple of excellent and easy day trips you can take from Luang Prabang city center. The most popular is a visit to the Kuang Si Falls where you can swim in gorgeous turquoise pools. Another common excursion is a boat trip down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves, home to literally thousands of Buddha statues.