Luang Prabang is one of those places that will keep you captive for a long time. It was love at first sight. After just having one glance at this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site, we instantly knew we wanted to stay here longer than just a couple of days.
And so we did, for a week. And if not for the high cost of living in this luxurious town, we would have surely stayed longer. As a safe westernised place it is packed with package holiday makers which no doubt pushes the prices up around town.
Situated on the the peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan River, French influenced Luang Prabang is one of a kind. If you are planning to spend some time here, you definitely need to do and see as much as you can, but the very first thing you should do is absorb the beauty of the peninsula, admire the palm tree fringed banks of the both rivers, relax and stop rushing.
Once you’ve rested and stopped awing at the clean pavements and at the fact that the town has pavements at all, you can start exploring.
In no particular order, here’s our top 10 things to do in Luang Prabang…
1. Explore the streets and passageways of Luang Prabang
The first thing I noticed when we arrived to our accommodation in Luang Prabang, Oui’s Guesthouse, at the end of the peninsula, was the beautiful and clean streets (with pavements!). Walking up and down the narrow passage ways was one my favourite things to do in the town.
The narrow red brick streets leading to the high street will make you forget you are in Laos, it feels very Mediterranean. The picturesque streets of Luang Prabang, not to mention the beautiful colonial architecture, really deserves the UNESCO accolade.
2. Eat your way through the UNESCO World Heritage Site
Luang Prabang prides itself with the amazing cuisine of all sorts, from freshly baked French pastries to Thai and Laotian fusion and vegetarian options to amazing Italian stone baked pizzas. The choice is yours. Even us, budget travellers, couldn’t stay away from many of the temptations that were slightly over our budget. Below are just a few places we would confidently recommend to even foodie travellers.
We especially loved the Pizza Phan Luang across the bamboo bridge, best pizza place in town, to be exact. The restaurant is located at the back of a residential house which also houses Emerson English Center. It’s easy to find it as it has a big sing post next to the house which says ‘PIZZA.’ It’s open Tuesday-Sunday 5.30pm – 10.00pm.
The pizzas here are amazing, we nearly ate our way through the menu while staying in Luang Prabang. Some ingredients like anchovies are shipped straight from Italy so you get only the top quality meals here. No surprise the place has earned it’s way to the top pizza restaurant on Trip Advisor.
Charlie especially enjoyed his Pizza Carbonara which came in a form of a massive Cornish pasty. Intensely creamy, filled with ham and mushrooms it was pretty amazing.
Pizzas start at 60,000 LAK ($7.39 USD) and our usual trick was to share a pizza to keep costs down. However we found they are just too good to share, so our incredibly enjoyable dinner together with one big BeerLao to share set us back around 120,000 LAK ($15.40 USD).
Just a few meters away from the pizza place, near Wat Phan Luang you will find Dyen Sabai, a great spot for dinner. They serve great food and the atmosphere here is totally relaxed too.
We celebrated Charlie’s birthday with dinner there and loved it. To start with we had the Vegetarian Platter which included the Mekong Seaweed, Steamed vegetable, Egg plant dip, Garlic mushroom, and Tomato dip served with black sticky rice.
My main course of Fish steamed in a banana leaf was wonderful and so delicate. Paired with a tub of sticky rice it was a perfect duo. Charlie opted for the Thai fusion of Chicken Coconut Soup and it felt like we were back in Thailand…
The dinner, including a couple of beers and our favourite spirit Rum (which is very rare in SE Asia) to kick start the evening came to a staggering 270,000 LAK ($33.26 USD). Since this was a birthday present from our lovely friend, we didn’t record it under our travel expenses, thank you Simon!
You can’t go to Luang Prabang and not pop in to the bakeries that are scattered across the town. The French bakery La Banneton makes good coffee and bakes scrumptious pastries, do try them! Their lunch options are on the pricier side though – 75,000 ($9.24 USD) for a sandwich. We didn’t bother with lunch here, but sure kept coming back for more pastries.
A pot of black Lipton tea, single espresso and 2 pastries will set you back around 49,000 LAK ($6.16 USD)
For a cheaper lunch option try Scandinavian Bakery. It’s not as fancy as La Banneton, but their sandwiches are delicious and the large sandwich is very large and generously filled, especially the chicken curry one! At 29,000 LAK ($3.57 USD) per sandwich, we shared one and it was more than enough to fill our rumbling stomachs.
We enjoyed our takeaway sandwich lunches back at our guesthouse terrace with a beautiful view.
3. Enjoy crossing the bamboo bridges of Luang Prabang
Not only one of the fun ways to cross the Nam Khan river, but also a great attraction are the two bamboo bridges constructed by the locals. If you are lucky enough to visit Luang Prabang during the dry season, you will see one bridges just at the tip of the peninsula. Enter the beautifully maintained park and take the steps down towards the delicate bamboo construction.
A small fee of 6,000 LAK ($0.74 USD) applies to cross the bridge. Once you are on the bridge, have a look at the delicate yet strong enough construction up close.
The second bamboo bridge is located further upstream right at the bottom of Chomsy Hill. This bridge will cost you 5,000 LAK ($0.62 USD) to cross and will take you right to the Dyen Sabai Restaurant and Pizza Phan Luang a few steps further.
As you walk across the bridge, don’t forget to absorb the beautiful landscape of Luang Prabang.
Both bridges are open only during the dry season and, fascinatingly, rebuilt by the locals every year after the monsoon season. During the rainy season there are complimentary boats provided for visitors wishing to dine at Dyen Sabai Restaurant. You can also reach the other side of Luang Prabang by crossing the permanent Old Bridge, especially if you travelling around by bike.
Both bridges are free after 6pm. Once the sun goes down, they are lined with fairy lights to lead the way in the darkness.
4. Explore the ‘other side’ of Luang Prabang
Once you crossed one of the bamboo bridge, don’t rush to come back to the busy centre of Luang Prabang. It’s nice and chilled on ‘the other side.’ The area is more local than the sleek central Luang Prabang and very interesting to explore, so take your time.
After crossing the bridge at the end of the peninsula of Luang Prabang, walk to the right and up onto the main road where you will see the peaceful Wat Pha Mahathat. Your efforts will be rewarded with beautiful panoramic views back across the river.
5. Catch a sunset in Luang Prabang
One of the joys of travelling is catching soulful sunsets in different locations. Don’t you just love climbing up hundreds of steps just to be rewarded (or disappointed) with the pink sky?
Luang Prabang definitely has that high view point where many gather to catch the sun sinking phenomenon. If you want to follow the mass, head to the Phu Si Hill in the centre just opposite the Royal Palace. But beware it gets very busy.
There are few steps to climb and the climbing is rather steep. There is also an entrance fee of 20,000 LAK ($2.46 USD) per person. However, once we got to the top, it was somewhat disappointing, not to mention how crowded the little viewing platform was. When someone started deliberately elbowing me out of my space, we knew it was time to leave. We didn’t wait for the sunset, the place just didn’t seem very welcoming.
The views of the city were pretty nice though, so if not for the sunset, make your way up the hill in a day time to enjoy panoramic views of Luang Prabang.
But do climb to the first base (free of charge) of the hill to have a good view of the golden Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham. It’s a beautiful view.
To have a better sunset experience, in our opinion, head to the bank of the Mekong river at the tip of the peninsula. It seems that it’s a more local spot to enjoy cold beer on the river bank and it’s free of charge. We really enjoyed the sunset there.
6. Visit temples and the Royal Palace Museum
As place with many temples that Luang Prabang is, the one that draws the visitors is definitely the magnificent Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham. Located next to the Royal palace it is the largest, most elaborately decorated, and probably most photographed temple in Luang Prabang.
The temple is located in the gated area of the Royal Palace and, I am sure it confused many people whether they have to pay for the privilege of looking at the Buddhist sacred place.
When you walk through the gate of the Royal Palace Museum, on your left hand side you will see a ticket box which sells tickets for the Palace. This confused us into thinking that we needed a ticket to walk around the grounds of the Royal Palace when in fact you only need a ticket if you want to visit the Royal Palace itself. The entrance fee is 30,000 LAK ($3.70 USD) per person, but no one checks your ticket until you are actually entering the residence.
Also, make sure you wear trousers or a long skirt at your visit. I didn’t think museums applied the same dress code as temples and was denied the entrance, whoops.
Charlie however had a peek into the house and thought it was very basic but found some interesting artefacts including a bit of moon rock given to Laos after the first US moon landing.
For a royal palace it’s quite sparse and not really worth the entrance fee unless you are into Laos royalty.
7. Pop into Luang Prabang Night Market
If you are on a hunt for souvenirs, clothing or food, pop into the night market located near Wat Mai stretching along Sisavangvong Road to the town centre.
The food market along with hot food also offers fruit shakes (quite weak, not the greatest shakes) a variety of cold salad and buffet style local food which is much cheaper compared to the expensive restaurants. Also a good option for vegetarians on a budget.
On our first evening Charlie sniffed out some not so cheap, but amazingly tasting duck for around 25,000 LAK ($3 USD).
The market opens from 5pm until midnight.
8. Explore Luang Prabang by night
Luang Prabang is fairly safe to walk around in the dark (at a reasonable hour). Roaming the streets of this World Heritage Site by night gives you a different perspective of this lovely place. Beautifully lit guesthouses, buzzing restaurants and streets filled with glowing lanterns create a magical atmosphere.
However, no matter how safe the place is, you should be cautious when walking around in the darkness, especially if you are enjoying the sights on your own. Common sense applies.
9. Rent a bike and socialise like a local
We noticed a pattern in Luang Prabang when enjoying evenings on our guesthouse terrace. Once the sun goes down, young locals ride motorbikes side by side and slowly make a loop around Luang Prabang while chatting away.
This is quite a nice activity and so we decided to follow the local example. After our day out at the beautiful Kuang Si Waterfall, instead of coming back to our accommodation, we carried on slowly circling around the town to see what it’s all about.
We think most of the kids are from outside of the town and come to socialise and enjoy their evenings in the beautiful surroundings. Fair enough, I’d do the same. Definitely a fun way to mix with the locals.
10. Visit Kuang Si Waterfall
This is a must thing to do when visiting Luang Prabang. It’s a little way out of town, but easily accessible and one of best places to escape the heat. We made our way there on a motorbike, but you can get a Tuk tuk or sign up to one of the tours widely available all over Luang Prabang.
The place is absolutely magnificent with the blue waterfall pools in the jungle, perfect for a cooling swim. So don’t forget your swimsuit and GoPro (or similar), you’ll love it there!
We spent there all day cooling down in the natural pools, hiking to the top of the waterfall and just relaxing in the beautiful nature. Food options there are minimal plus expensive so put together a little picnic.
To find out more about the beautiful waterfall, check out our blog post How to visit Kuang Si Waterfall.
Have you done any of the above in Luang Prabang? Let us know in the comments below.