Luang Prabang is our favourite place in Laos – a sparkling jewel in the heart of the north. It’s a must-see. Lazing at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, its French colonial flavour blends seamlessly with its distinctive Lao history and culture. I’ve already written a couple of posts about our adventures in Luang Prabang – visiting Phu Si and Kuang Si Falls – but this is the definitive one. It was going to be a top ten, but it turned into a top twelve. So, here are our favourite things to do in Luang Prabang.
1. Get on two wheels
Luang Prabang is perfect for exploring by bicycle. When UNESCO conferred World Heritage status on the city in 1995, buses and trucks were banned in the old town centre, so the traffic there is very light. The town is almost flat, so bike is the perfect way to get around.
Our hotel organised kids’ bikes for us, but even though there is not a lot of traffic, there is still traffic, and no helmets, so we opted to take the kids on the back of the bikes with us – they were happy about that, too.
Meander along the riverfront boulevards.
Head into the backstreets.
And get down into the alleyways of the old town – there’s much to explore.
The mighty Mekong flows quietly by in the heat, down below the shady promenades.
The busy main street is full of bikes.
And if you head out of the centre and across the Nam Khan, you can make the hairy ride across the bike bridge (the Old Bridge) and run the gauntlet of motor scooters. We did it a few times. The kids loved it. (Of course, they weren’t the ones trying not to slip down the cracks!)
Out of town, find yourself on a dirt road in an artisans’ village.
It’s a rolling good time!
2. The Royal Palace Museum
The former Royal Palace, built in 1904, is now an interesting museum, charting the 20th Century history of the Luang Prabang royal family until their demise in 1975, when, following the communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the communist Pathet Lao assumed power and ‘peacefully liberated’ the people of Laos from royal rule. The last Lao King, Sisavang Vatthana, abdicated in December 1975. Royalist forces had been supported by the American government, but here, as in Vietnam, America failed to prevent the communist revolution.
While the Pathet Lao avoided the revolutionary bloodshed of their neighbouring countries, there were still large numbers of former military officers and civil servants sent off to re-education camps. The former king, queen and crown prince were forced to labour in the fields of Vieng Xai, and they all eventually died there, although no official statement has ever been made. Of course, none of this information is available in the museum – the palace is frozen in time, a reminder of a more decadent past with no explanation of the political machinations that brought about the demise of the dynasty.
Today, the building looks more like a decaying administration centre than a palace.
Cameras are not allowed in the palace, but inside is an ornate reception room with floor to ceiling murals of Lao life, the throne room, with walls and pillars decorated in gold leaf and shining tiled mosaics, and the residential quarters, which are sparsely furnished and quite austere for a king and queen.
In the garage, a collection of American and French cars languishes, gifts from former allies to the royal family, now dusty mementos of the former kingdom.
Despite its limited representation of the past, the Royal Palace Museum is an interesting relic, as much for what it doesn’t tell us about Laos’ recent history as for what it does. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic remains a one-party state, despite its ‘democratic’ title. Its officials are known for their corruption, reaping the benefits of foreign investment while denying citizens access to basic health and education. The museums in Laos are a reminder of Orwell’s old gem, ‘who controls the past controls the future.’
3. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC)
Up a little laneway behind the Dara Market (Luang Prabang’s biggest local food market) you’ll find TAEC, a little museum presenting information about Laos’ people and cultures. It’s staffed by people from villages from throughout Laos, who will tell you about their culture and traditional artisanry in their region. The shop sells wares from throughout Laos, the proceeds of which go back to the villages in which they were made. I bought this little pencil case, made by my guide’s sister in central Laos.
Blake tried out a traditional baby carrier.
4. Wat Xieng Thong
The largest monastery area in Luang Prabang, the sim (ordination hall) was built in 1560 and its exterior is covered with the ‘tree of life’ mosaic. It was one of just two temples to be spared from the destruction of the 1887 Chinese Black Flag invasion of the city.
Little chapel halls throughout the complex are covered with mirror mosaics beautifully depicting Lao village life.
The decoration inside is also ornate.
5. Bamboo bridges and the Nam Khan
In the dry season, a couple of bamboo bridges span the Nam Khan river. They are washed away each wet season (around June to November) and built again when the flooding has subsided. Although there has been talk about building permanent bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage listing prevents it – and the town retains its old world charm. It costs 5000 kip (about AU80c) per person per day to cross the bamboo bridges. The toll funds the rebuild each year.
Across the main bamboo bridge from town are a bunch of guest houses and hotels. We stayed over here for most of our time in Luang Prabang. It’s a five or ten minute walk across the bridge into town, and the kids loved playing by the river. (That includes the grown-up kid.)
The bridge is pretty cool at night, too.
6. Luang Prabang Night Markets
It amazes me that they set the markets up every night! Strictly speaking, the Luang Prabang markets are for the tourists, but the beauty of this night market is that you can grab yourself locally made products, often direct from the artisan, as well as the usual t-shirts and knock-knacks. It’s quite a set-up in a beautiful spot at the base of Phu Si, beside the Royal Palace.
Starting around 5pm, it’s prettier in the dark. Haggling is welcome, but the prices are low by western standards. There’s not a lot to haggle over!
While you’re there, hit the nearby food alley, or grab a crepe at a street stall.
7. Donate books at Luang Prabang Library
The library runs a ‘book boat’, which motors to remote Lao villages, leaving donations of books. A US$2 donation buys a book for the boat, which you can choose, and add to the pouch. It’s quick and easy, and very much appreciated by the kids they reach!
Big Brother Mouse is a little enterprise that similarly donates books to Lao children. The centre also runs an English class from 9-11am and 5-7pm Monday to Saturday, which volunteers are welcome to join.
8. Visit Ban Xang Kong artisans’ village
Ride across the bike bridge (Old Bridge) over the Nam Khan, turn left, and head about 2km down the road, which becomes dirt on the way, and you’ll find yourself in Ban Xang Kong, a little collection of traditional weavers’ workshops.
Not many tourists find their way over here, so you might find yourself at the complicated loom learning the trade.
This lady was lovely. She also sells at the night market, but we bought a scarf direct from the craftswoman in her workshop.
Luang Prabang is the perfect place to sample Lao food (with a modern twist). The taster plates at Tamarind Restaurant give you a nice feel for Lao cuisine – thanks to Alex for the recommendation! I probably should have taken a picture before we ate it all (clearly I’m no food blogger). The Lao whiskey cocktail was good, too.
As for the kids, they would have eaten plain sticky rice for every meal in Laos. Sit across the road under the lanterns overlooking the river for extra ambience. (Bring the mosquito repellant.)
Dyen Sabai, across the bamboo bridge, was another cool place to eat, on cushions amid the bamboo, and the sticky rice was purple – bonus!
As for me, as long as there was Beer Lao, I was happy to eat in an alley.
We loved the fresh fruit in Laos – there’s so much available. Definitely a big plus when travelling with kids!
10. Tak Bat – the monks’ alms procession
The dawn alms collection in Luang Prabang has become something of a tourist attraction in itself, to the concern of the residents of Luang Prabang and the monks themselves, given the intensely spiritual importance of the daily event. The barefoot monks pass silently, and pious locals (mostly older women) place sticky rice into their bowls as part of this daily Buddhist ritual. Tourists are asked not to try to participate, not to stick cameras in the monks’ faces, and to generally stay quiet and out of the way Despite this, large numbers gather and click away each day.
On our last night in Luang Prabang, we organised a hotel room in the old town so we could watch the procession quietly from our balcony. We watched the elderly ladies gather below, kneeling or sitting on low bamboo stools, talking in whispers to each other.
Then, the monks came, moving noiselessly, like saffron mist through the streets.
One old monk spotted the kids on our balcony and smiled, waving a packet of noodles he had collected. Another younger monk smiled up at the kids, too. It was pretty special!
All advice in Luang Prabang is just to stay out of the way of Tak Bat. Respect the beautiful ritual by observing from a distance.
11. Phu Si
I’ve written a whole post about climbing Phu Si, the hill in the centre of town from which you can see the surrounding area on a clear day. Read it here.
12. Kuang Si Falls
This is not to be missed. Turquoise pools, cool flowing water, a bear sanctuary, and a butterfly park nearby – all you need for a full day out! Read my full post on Kuang Si here.
There you have it – our list of things to do in Luang Prabang. If you’re considering it, go! (And let me know if I missed anything!)