Top 5 things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos

In between Vietnam and Thailand, Laos is lesser-known and lesser-discovered, but no less interesting than its pair of famous neighbours. As a long thin country that also touches China to the north and Cambodia to the south, the landscape varies wildly; from thickly-forested areas to more tropical surrounds with plunging waterfalls and thousands of islands.

No trip to this country would be complete without a couple of days in former royal capital, Luang Prabang, so beautifully preserved that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Make sure you’re camera-ready as you take it all in; there’s a photo opportunity around every magical corner. Gilded temples with sloping roofs gleam in the sunshine, faded French colonial villas line the streets, and the rolling mountains and the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers lay just beyond the town. Everything ticks over at a leisurely pace, substituting the frenetic energy of nearby countries for a laid-back calm.

Most visitors only spare two or three days here, so it’s important to have a plan. There are more than a few ways to make the best of it.

1. Take an architecture tour

With a combination of traditional Buddhist temples (bathed in gold leaf), traditional stilted houses, and French colonial architecture around every corner, a trip to Luang Prabang is an architecture tour in itself. But team up with an expert to get the stories behind these fascinating streets, and track the evolution of the town; from its ancient conception, through the colonial and royal eras, and right up to the present day.

2. Take a cycling tour

Why not see the sights atop two wheels? A bike gives you the freedom (and time) to see the best of the town, venture into the countryside and feel the wind in your hair – often a welcome treat in the humid months.

Wheel from place to place; the Wat Visoun, National Museum (previously the Royal Palace), the Wat Mai Temple and Wat Xieng Thong are all worth a visit. Then leave the town behind to see the landscape just outside. Hop down to potter around the Phosy Market and see great pails with mountains of rice, a rainbow of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer, and bottles of fresh fruit juice to fuel your onward journey. Visit non-profit organisations, chat to local villagers and peer over the waters of the Mekong. Certainly more than you could manage on foot.

3. Celebrate Songkran

To see an especially authentic side to Luang Prabang, visit in April during Songkran (Pi Mai Lao), Lao New Year. Celebrations take place across the country, with a lot of water-based events. It’s a special time when the community, along with swathes of orange-robed monks, come together. The most important Buddha statues are carried through the streets, and Buddha images, temples and houses are washed down. As are people! Find yourself doused in an enthusiastic water fight, or even the recipient of a bucket of water over your head – a good-humoured way of saying Happy New Year.

4. Take a cookery class

Lao cuisine is an unknown entity to many outsiders. It’s actually quite similar to some dishes in northeastern Thailand, and incorporates lots of fresh produce. Any cookery class in Luang Prabang is likely to begin with a trip to the market to personally pick out your ingredients, and learn about a few of the area’s more unusual herbs, fruits and vegetables. Work with skilled local chefs, discover the authentic methods that go into this delicious cuisine, and take your new found cookery skills home with you.

5. Walk to the top of Mount Phousi at sunrise or sunset

For panoramic views of the town and the lush areas in the distance, pay an nominal fee and take a gentle climb up the steps to Mount Phousi. Spot the meandering Nam Kham and Mekong rivers, as well as the undulating horizon. You can rest your feet at one of the interesting temples or outside a Buddha statue along the way, but at only 100km high, it’s not a strenuous ascent. Plan your trip at sunrise or sunset when the views are at their most beautiful.

Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Monique I says:

    I would go for an architecture tour! Look at those buildings! And the view from the top! And as always I would love some street food!

  2. Julietta says:

    I would love to visit Luang Prabang during Songkran. New Years celebrations are so different around the world, and always so vibrant and authentic. What a way to soak up the real culture and get to know the genuine country. Not sure I fancy a bucket of water on my head but I suppose if that’s tradition, you have to be willing to try local customs!

  3. Sam says:

    It’s great learning about these new and amazing places – thickly-forested areas sounds beautiful. It’s definitely a destination perfect for me if there’s a photo opportunity aroudn every corner – I’d probably be in one spot for half a day! The photos are stunning, it looks like such a friendly lovely place

  4. Gustavo Alvarez says:

    Great destination. Love Thailand and Cambodia. Laos is like the forgotten brother. Very good and insightful article.

  5. Gerald Brown says:

    Enjoyed your advice very much. But can we add just a dose of reality. For instance when hiring a bike or even walking on non-urban paths, visitors need to know that the area is rich in wildlife, especially snakes. In my home location I live amongst them too. But for visitors not aware, they should be alerted at least.

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