If Laos and its gilded temples and colorful tuk-tuks aren’t already on your radar, this itinerary will surely skyrocket the small country to the top of your bucket list.
LUANG PRABANG, Laos – Laos was somewhere on my list. It wasn’t at the top, perhaps, but it was there, mixed among the countries with alluring names and limited press. I’ve been coming to Southeast Asia since 2012, when I landed in Bangkok with Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring under my arm. Laos moves at a slower pace, the book told me. The WiFi is bad; the countryside is extraordinary. Give yourself time to do it justice.
On every trip, however, I was seduced by shinier fruits. Trekking through the Borneo rainforest. Temple-hopping in Siem Reap. Diving in the Philippines. This February, I was leaving Southeast Asia and realized I had skipped Laos again. So I booked a week in Luang Prabang, thinking it was better than nothing. As it turned out, a week was plenty of time to see Luang Prabang and a slice of Laotian countryside, too. And I should have done it a whole lot sooner.
Luang Prabang is a temple town on the banks of the Mekong River in central Laos. Once a royal capital, the town is graced with 33 gilded temples. When the French took Laos as a protectorate, they began building homes in Luang Prabang. Colonial villas line the sleepy streets, many of which have been converted into guest houses, shops, and restaurants.
UNESCO named Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site in 1995, so the blend of Laotian and French architecture remains intact. While you could spend days exploring temples, there’s no pressure to see every single one. Instead, Luang Prabang is best enjoyed gently, with a coffee and a book in hand.
For those interested in exploring the Laotian countryside, however, Luang Prabang makes a perfect base. You’ll only see a sliver – Laos is about the same size as the U.K., after all – but you don’t need to travel far to feel very far away. Outdoorsy types can set out into the wilderness and be back in town for dinner.
Lay of the Land
The old town of Luang Prabang is compact and walkable, or bikeable. Many hotels and guest houses provide bicycles free of charge. To get out of town, you can negotiate the price of a tuk-tuk on the street, or skip the haggling and book through your hotel.
If You Only Do One Thing
The essential Luang Prabang experience is to wake up early for Sat Bai, the morning alms ceremony. Every morning, hundreds of monks walk along the street to collect sticky rice and other donations from locals (nowadays, tourists, too). You should absolutely see this. Seek out a back street rather than the main drag, and only give if it’s meaningful for you.
As that’s an obvious one, I’ll give you another. I loved taking a boat ride around the old town at sunset. Just head to the riverfront and negotiate a price with a captain. (Bring a couple of Beer Lao for the ride.)
What You Should Know on the First Day (That You Might Not Learn Till Your Last)
You can visit the temples during the day, of course, but I found them even more magical at night. At 5:30 p.m., many of the temples have chanting sessions with the monks. You’re welcome to slip in the back and listen as the low growl fills the hall. If you go on your first evening, you’ll have time to visit a few. It really is that special.
What to Do
Cross the Mekong
The other side of the Mekong is so close but a world away. Hire a boat to the other side to visit Wat Chompet, a temple that dates back to 1888. The temple isn’t as well-kept as the others in Luang Prabang, but it’s well worth the trip to see the local town. This side of the river is lined with monasteries that you can walk to, with or without a guide.
Swim in Waterfalls
Luang Prabang is surrounded by waterfalls. The most popular is Kuang Si Waterfalls, and for good reason. The water is milky blue and the pools are perfect for swimming (and photographing). If there’s a crowd – and there probably will be – I recommend taking a look at the Kuang Si Waterfalls and heading for a swim in the lesser-visited Khoun Moung Keo Waterfall.
Shop Ethically at TAEC
TAEC is a fabulous non-profit that helps artisans bring their goods to market. Tour the museum to learn more about the ethnic groups throughout Laos, then visit the shop to browse beautiful handicrafts. This is a perfect place to buy authentic embroidery, as many of the products at the night market are mass-produced.
Bath Elephants at MandaLao
Laos was once called the “The Land of a Million Elephants.” Today, the best way to see them is to book an experience with an ethical organization. MandaLao offers half-day trips to feed, bathe, and walk with the elephants. It’s a popular tour, so book in advance. Note that the center does not offer elephant rides. (Elephant rides are not good for elephants.)
Meditate with the Monks
Luang Prabang is a perfect place to pick up (or dust off) a meditation practice. Many hotels have a resident monk who can offer meditation sessions. Or attend an evening chanting at 5:30 p.m. at a temple. You’re welcome to stay after and ask questions.
Where to Stay
Originally built as a royal residence, Satri House is now a totally charming boutique hotel. The property is a short bike ride or walk to the center of old town, so it’s easy to retreat to the garden or lay by the pool (there are two) in the afternoons. The hotel’s bones have a colonial feel, but the design is fresh.
Rosewood Luang Prabang
The most buzzed-about hotel is the Rosewood Luang Prabang. Designed by Bill Bensley – the man behind many of Southeast Asia’s most stylish properties – the Rosewood blends colonial-style architecture with eclectic bursts of color. It’s a short drive from the center of town, but feels like you’re out in the wilderness. Literally: a river runs through it. Conveniently, right underneath the excellent bar.
Where to Eat
Khem Khong Rd.; +856-71-212-915
With views of the Khem Khong river and excellent lattes, Saffron is an ideal local cafe. The shop sources beans from family-owned plots, so it’s all for a good cause.
Ban Vat Sene; +856-20-77-779-497
For a break from Lao cuisine, I like this little wine bar with an expat vibe. Stop by in the late afternoon for a glass of French wine and a cheese plate.
100 Sisavang Vatana Rd., Ban Wat Nong; +856-30-515-5221
Khaiphaen serves some of my favorite local food in a breezy, colorful space. The non-profit restaurant trains teenagers to work in hospitality, so your server will likely be a kid from a nearby village.
The Great House
Rosewood Luang Prabang, Nauea Village; +856-7121-1155
My most unforgettable meal in Luang Prabang was dinner at The Great House. Headed up by Sebastian Rubis, the United Nations culinary ambassador for Laos, the restaurant uses farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients in recipes from royal Laotian cuisine.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Luang Prabang has its own airport, just fifteen minutes from the old city. Direct flights are available from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Siem Reap, and Hanoi. There are slow boats and buses too, but the emphasis is definitely on “slow.”
The old town of Luang Prabang is compact and walkable, or bikeable. Many hotels and guest houses provide bikes free of charge. To get out of town, you can negotiate the price of a tuk-tuk on the street, or skip the haggling and book through your hotel.
When to Go
Dry season is high season in Luang Prabang (November to February). Travelers are often told to avoid the rainy season (May to September), but I think it’s a good time to beat the crowds. You can expect rain a couple times a day, but it’s the type that pours and then stops rather than an all-day deluge. Think of it as an excuse to duck into a cafe for an hour.
You’ll need to slip off your shoes and cover your shoulders to enter the temples, so keep a shawl in your bag to cover up quickly. When you go to the morning alms, it’s important to respect local customs. There are signs detailing the etiquette, but just be sure not to get too close, dress conservatively, and keep your flash off.