While Luang Prabang is technically a city, it doesn’t resemble one as you might imagine. There is no skyline of high-rises, only low villa rooftops hidden among lush riverside vegetation. And while it has become a popular backpacker hangout, it does not feel overtouristed; it has retained its relaxed ambiance immaculately. Here we compile the top things to do in Luang Prabang for an invigorating stay.
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I spent my 35th birthday in Luang Prabang, and what a special way to mark the occasion it was. We explored the city for three days at the beginning of a journey through Laos. Drawing on our own experiences, these are some of the best Luang Prabang activities for a mixture of nature, culture, cuisine and relaxation. You can also read our suggested three-day itinerary here.
1. Take a boat trip on the Mekong
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, flowing over four thousand kilometres through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This beast of nature provided our means for getting to Luang Prabang; we arrived in the sleepy city via the slow boat from northern Thailand.
The Mekong river scenery has a calming effect on the mind. The sensation of drifting down the river on a wooden-hulled Laotian boat while absorbing the countryside views is the ultimate relaxation.
You can book a boat trip at one of the tour operators in Luang Prabang, or haggle for a ride with a local boat captain at one of the landings along the Mekong riverfront.
To combine the experience with some sightseeing, you can take a boat upstream to see the Pak Ou Caves some 25 kilometres north of the city. Alternatively, you can book a Mekong Sunset Cruise through GetYourGuide.
2. Try the Chomphet riverside hike
The Mekong valley around Luang Prabang provides some excellent opportunities for hiking. One really good option close to the city is the Chomphet hike, which follows the waterfront on the far side of the Mekong.
This peaceful trail incorporates a number of historic temples along the route and features some fabulous views of Luang Prabang back across the river. To reach the beginning, you need to take a boat across to the village of Ban Xieng Mane.
The hike takes about 2–3 hours through charming rural forest scenes tracing the bank of the Mekong. See this article by So Many Miles for a detailed guide to the Chomphet hike.
3. Visit the beautiful Kuang Si Falls
The indisputable highlight of our time in Luang Prabang was a visit to Kuang Si Waterfalls. We had seen the pictures of its cascading falls and tiered turquoise pools long before we arrived in town. When we saw it for real, we understood why it’s rated as one of the most stunning natural sights in Southeast Asia.
The falls are located around 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang. One option to reach it is to hire a tuk-tuk. We booked into a shared van, which worked out a bit cheaper at 35,000 kip each. On top of that there’s an entry fee of 20,000 kip.
You will arrive at a small village, and then it’s a short hike of around 20 minutes to reach the falls. On the way you will pass through the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a sanctuary operated by Free The Bears, where you will see Asiatic black bears frolicking.
The waterfalls tumble over three tiers of clear azure waters surrounded by dense jungle. It’s not just great to look at; you can go swimming in the pools. Once you get over the initial cold shock, the water temperature is perfect for a revitalising break from the Laotian heat.
4. Walk up Mount Phou Si, the sacred hill
As Luang Prabang is relatively flat, occupying the river plains of the Mekong and Nam Khan, there aren’t many places to catch a great view of the surroundings from above. By far the best option is Mount Phou Si, the ‘sacred hill’.
The summit of Phou Si, just 100 metres above the river level, is the highest point in Luang Prabang. You need to climb over 300 steps to reach it, but there are plenty of intriguing sculptures and sights to keep you occupied on the way up.
You can ascend Mount Phou Si via two main entrances. One is opposite the gates of the Royal Palace Museum, and the second is around the other side on the Nam Khan river road. There is an entrance fee of 20,000 kip per person, which you pay towards the top.
Part-way up the hill you will pass Wat Chom Si, a Buddhist temple built in the early 19th century, and a small cave with golden Buddha statues and ornaments inside. We stopped here to chat with a group of monks who were very friendly and more than happy to answer our questions.
After climbing the last few steps to the top you will be greeted by a 360-degree view of the city below and the mountains of Phou Thao and Phou Nang in the distance.
5. Visit Haw Pha Bang and the Royal Palace Museum
Haw Pha Bang, the ‘royal temple’, is one of the countless temples around Luang Prabang, and among the most striking. It’s a relatively new structure, completed in 2006, and stands inside the complex of the Royal Palace Museum.
The museum focuses on the history and lineage of royalty in Laos. The visiting hours are a little restrictive, opening at 8:30am to 4pm with a two-hour closure from 11:30am to 1:30pm. We didn’t get our timings quite right when we first visited, so maybe you can learn from our mistake! If you want a good amount of time to peruse, it’s best to arrive in either early morning or early afternoon.
A 30,000 kip entrance fee includes all sections of the museum as well as Haw Pha Bang. The dress code for the museum is the same as for temples, so make sure you are appropriately clad.
6. Cycle around the temples
Luang Prabang is comprised of 58 neighbouring villages, each with its own temple, and 33 of which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These protected temples of Luang Prabang are among the most ornate and well-preserved in Southeast Asia.
The temples of Luang Prabang are located within a fairly compact area. While it’s possible to explore on foot, we much preferred getting around on bicycle. The wind in your face takes the bite out of the heat and, well, it’s just easier.
There are various options for bicycle hire around Luang Prabang; you can expect to pay 20,000–30,000 kip for the day.
This article by Culture Trip gives some insights into the most sophisticated temples in the area. Make sure you don’t miss Wat Xieng Thong, a structure dating over 450 years and one of the most important temples in Laos. Use this map of Luang Prabang’s temples for reference:
7. Learn about rice farming at the Living Land Company
Travel anywhere in the Southeast Asian countryside and before long you’ll see rice paddies. For such a staple crop eaten throughout so much of the world, rice farming is incredibly labour-intensive and difficult work. You have the opportunity to learn all about it and to experience the process first-hand at the Living Land Company in Luang Prabang.
Visit this organic community farm located a short way from the historic centre to learn all about rice farming from seed to table. You get to participate in every step of the process from planting the seeds, working with a water buffalo to clear the paddy, harvesting the rice, and preparing it to eat. Then you get to enjoy the results of your labour with a tasty tray of sweet rice treats.
Living Land Company supports the local community by providing rice, vegetables, and herbs to the restaurants, donating rice to the poor, and raising funds to teach English classes. You will never look at a bowl of rice in the same way again. Read more about the Rice Experience tour and the surprising 14-step process of rice farming in Laos.
8. See the sunset over the Mekong
The arc of the Mekong to the west of Luang Prabang makes for some pretty spectacular sunsets over the river.
The most popular place to witness the sunset view is at the top of Mount Phousi, but it’s getting more and more busy up there. It’s the most rewarding visually, but you need to weigh that up against whether you’re happy to join the crowds and jostle for a spot.
A lovely alternative is to take a stroll along Khem Khong road by the Mekong riverbank. Restaurants and cafés are spaced out along the river with wooden-decked seating areas overlooking the water.
8. Shop at the famous night market
Every evening between 5pm and 11pm, the roads in Luang Prabang city centre are closed off, making way for hundreds of market stalls under blue and red tarpaulin. This is the legendary Luang Prabang night market, a hectic counterpoint to the usual serenity of the city.
The main stretch of the night market runs along Sisavangvong Road, but stalls spill out into the surrounding streets. You can find pretty much anything if you look hard enough, with vendors selling clothes, art, crafts and souvenirs. There are also plenty of options for food.
We found it to be the friendliest market we visited anywhere in Southeast Asia, with the vendors full of smiles and positive energy. It’s a great place to have fun haggling without feeling like you’re being ripped off.
9. Eat street food
Your Luang Prabang experience isn’t quite complete until you’ve eaten some local street food. We had our fair share of meat-on-a-stick during our stay. How can you say no when it’s 10,000 kip for a succulent barbecued chicken breast?
The night market is the best option for street food for both atmosphere and variety. You can find barbecued meat and fish, baguettes, crepes, soups, fruits, spring rolls, dumplings, and all sorts of other treats.
You won’t have to walk far to find street food during the daytime either. The city’s back streets are frequented by vendors happy to sort your street food fix.
10. Eat in a restaurant with a great cause
On my birthday night in Luang Prabang we had one of the memorable dining experiences of our travels. We chanced upon a place called Lao Friend Bar, a restaurant run by two local guys raising money to rebuild a flood-damaged village in northern Laos.
The owner of the place, Akeo, hung out with our group and told us the story behind it all. I wrote about it in more detail here.
We didn’t just like Lao Friend Bar because of the good cause and the awesome staff. The traditional Laotian food was superb as well. At the end of the night, Akeo brought out a special beer as a gift for my birthday. We’ll definitely be going back to this place on our next visit to Luang Prabang.
11. Hang out at Utopia
Utopia is the most popular backpacker bar in Luang Prabang. If you’re the kind of traveller who likes a drink, it’s inevitable you’ll end up here at some point. It almost became a second home to us.
The bar occupies a large space overlooking the Nam Khan river. It’s the perfect spot to chill out through the daytime in a scenic setting, reclined on a sunbed with a drink. The food is very good (if a little expensive) and there are daily drinks offers.
The place starts to liven up around 8pm, and closes promptly at 11pm enforcing the country’s strict curfew laws. The night doesn’t have to end there, though. Because…
12. Go late-night bowling
The only place in Luang Prabang where you can have a drink after hours is at a bowling alley located four kilometres outside the city centre. This place has become a bit of an institution among the backpacking community.
When the bars close at the end of the night, rows of tuk-tuk drivers are ready outside. “Bowling? Bowling?” If you share with a group, it’s typically 10,000 kip per person each way.
The bowling alley stays open with alcohol flowing at the bar until 2am. There’s also an archery range outside, and you can even win prizes if you achieve a high enough score. I somehow managed to win a pack of cigarettes for Lisa.
A night at the Luang Prabang bowling alley is an experience you need to try at least once while you’re in town. You’ll probably find yourself still telling stories about it long afterwards.
Places to stay in Luang Prabang
You can browse a wide range of accommodation options in Luang Prabang on booking.com.
Top things to do in Luang Prabang: map
The map below shows the locations of the Luang Prabang attractions and activities covered in this article:
Further reading on Laos
Are you heading to Vang Vieng after Luang Prabang? Check out our article on things to do in Vang Vieng and the Pha Ngeun hike. If you’re stopping by at Savannakhet, here are five great places to eat in the city.
For insights into transport in the country, read our guide to getting around Laos.
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