Spiritual capital, slow boat end-point and UNESCO heritage city, Luang Prabang is a completely unique destination in Laos. It has a rare combination of French colonial history, traditional Lao village life, and a potent Buddhist influence through every street, and is a place you could easily spend two weeks or more. Even if you can’t stay quite that long, here are just a few reasons why you should hop off and explore its charms.
Monks in saffron robes, gold-gilded stupas, temple mosaics in rainbow colours and avenues of French colonial buildings – Luang Prabang is definitely one of the prettiest cities in Southeast Asia.
There’s a certain charm in walking through the alleys of the old town, covered in flowering frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillaea, or catching glimpses of fishermen plying the Mekong in blue painted boats under a summertime sky. You can even get a latte and panini at a wicker-furnished French cafe while gazing across the street at a bright red-and-gold temple. Hop off here, and make sure your camera’s charged. There are photo opportunities on every street.
In Luang Prabang, you can be walking down city streets lined with ornate colonial buildings one moment, then unpaved country roads with two-room wooden houses the next. Village life is still very much a part of Luang Prabang, though it is one of the larger cities in Laos. Rent a bicycle and explore the heritage villages around the city, where you can see paper making in Ban Xang Khong, weaving in Ban Phanom, pottery making in Ban Chan, and even blacksmithing in Ban Had Hien, just as it has been for centuries. In the dry season, sit on the banks of the river and watchmen go net fishing for crabs, then hop into low wooden canoes to head home.
For a really off-the-beaten-track adventure, cross the Mekong to the villages in Chomphet district, just opposite the old city. This part of Luang Prabang sees almost no tourists, and here’s a secret tip from us: while most travellers will go to the top of Phousi Mountain to watch the sunset, Vat Chompet just across the river has a stunning view without the crowds.
Luang Prabang is a small, laid-back town, and lends itself perfectly to relaxation. Thankfully for us, this chilled vibe has translated into a number of affordable spas, pools, and little luxuries for all budgets. The main street along the Mekong has quite a few places offering hour-long massages for as low as 50,000 kip (about 5€), but we recommend spending the extra bit to go to L’Hibiscus, where you can have a sublime hour massage for just 60,000 kip. They also offer a few package deals with aromatherapy and hot stonework.
If you want to try something really different, check out a Lao traditional sauna, where the steam is scented with local herbs, and you can pop out periodically for as much herbal tea you can drink. It’s only 10,000k at the Lao Red Cross, and that admission fee goes into helping their community projects. But if you want to get out of the heat? Dive into the deep end and then make your way to the swim-up bar at La Pistoche, a social pool just outside of the old city. Happy hour’s from noon to 7!
Luang Prabang sits in a hilly plain between two rivers, which make for some great chances to see stunning nature. The most popular excursion for visitors is to Kuang Si Waterfalls, where you can go swimming in a sequence of pale turquoise, tiered waterfalls flowing down from the jungle – and even play Tarzan on a rope swing. Tad Sae Waterfalls are a good place to go if you want to combine swimming with ziplining or elephant riding, and if you really want to get off-the-beaten-track, hike out to Tad Thong Waterfall in the rainy season – you’ll most likely be the only foreigner there.
If you’re looking to flex those muscles after your lazy days on the slow boat, consider signing up for trekking, mountain cycling, and even kayaking trips in the terrain around Luang Prabang. The views alone over this river valley are worth it!
Did you know that Laos actually produces its own coffee? Both from the Bolaven Plateau in the south, and the mountainous regions in the north, you’ve got quite a few options in Laos to try a really local brew. Combine this with Luang Prabang’s own French heritage, and it makes an environment ripe for cafe culture.
In Luang Prabang, there are three main choices for cafes. First, the local, Lao-style breakfast joints, where you can get kafe dam (black coffee) or kafe Lao (coffee with condensed milk) served alongside dough fritters and rice porridge for a very traditional breakfast. The best spot for this is Pasaneyom, just north of the post office, on the Mekong, and one of the most popular spots with locals.
Next, we have the French-inspired sidewalk cafes, such as Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene and Le Banneton, both on the main street. The former has better sandwiches (pear and blue cheese, we’ve missed you!), though the latter has the best croissants in town. Both have a très chic vibe.
Lastly, we have the in-betweeners, such as Delilah’s, with its Western atmosphere plus great Lao dishes using local organic produce; Big Tree Cafe, and its Korean-inspired slant; and Joma, a popular Lao chain with the best mango crumble cake. Take a seat at one of their tables, get your espresso and just soak up the vibe. You’ll love it here.