If you’re looking for charming and authentic experience in Southeast Asia, look no further than the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. This little town is packed with hidden gems that could have you exploring the town for days longer than you expected! From extraordinary cascading waterfalls, to ancient temples and traditional Buddhist ceremonies that have stood the test of time, it’s a beautiful step back in history giving you the opportunity to learn more about the traditions of Laos and Southeast Asia.
Here’s just a glimpse of some of the things you can’t miss in Luang Prabang that you might never even have heard of before.
1. Experience an Alms Giving Ceremony
One of the most sacred traditions in Laos is the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Occurring every morning as the sun is rising, the local Buddhist pad barefoot and in single file around the main and side streets of Luang Prabang – whilst locals kneel in the street and offer gifts of rice, fresh fruit and sweets to the monks. It’s a very special ceremony to witness, especially away from the main streets and the crowds of tourists. If you can find a peaceful moment to watch from a distance I would highly recommend this over the main streets of Luang Prabang.
2. Swim in some of the clearest water at Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si might just be the most popular and well-known attraction in Luang Prabang. This epic waterfall has levels upon levels of azure blue water, twisting and turning down the mountain side. There are beautiful calm pools of water to cool down in, sweaty hikes to experience epic views over the whole area and even the Sun Bear Rescue centre at the entrance, where you can make friends with some cute little sun bears who have been rescued from poachers. Definitely a can’t miss in Luang Prabang.
3. Hike to the top of Mount Phousi for epic views over the city
Standing tall at 150 metres above the town centre, you would never guess that a tall mountain top looking out over the city could be so close to town. The climb to the top is steep and extremely sweaty (and painful), with literally hundreds of steps, but definitely worth the effort when you get there.
Along the climb you can find many temples that you can have a look around while you have a rest and catch your breath. The top of the mountain offers you epic 360 degree views over the city and out to the mountain ranges in the distance. Next to Wat Chomsi at the top of the hill you can buy flowers and caged birds to make offerings at the temples. The Lao people believe that if you set a bird free you will enjoy good luck and happiness in the future.
The best time to visit Mount Phousi is in the later afternoon so you can watch the sunset over the city. There are two separate staircases to get to the top of the mountain, each winding around different paths to get to the top. For the complete experience, climb up the mountain one way and make sure you climb back down the other way.
4. Shop up a storm at Luang Prabang Night Market
The top place to shop in Luang Prabang, the Night Market is open every night from 5pm to 11pm, running from Wat Mai all the way along Sisavangvong Road to the town centre at Settathilat Road. The street is completely closed to all vehicles, with pedestrian access only, and hill-traders line the street selling everything from ceramics, bamboo and lamps, to handicrafts, clothing, tea, art and gifts.
The vendors are open to and expect you to haggle with them, however we found that the prices for most things were extremely low and fair before we even started haggling. The quality of everything that we bought was so good that we weren’t fussed about trying to knock of 50c and we were happy to pay their price.
5. Splurge on a delicious meal from Azerai Bistro
So, from my research when writing this post it looks like Azerai Bistro was renamed to Avani Bistro just a couple of weeks after we visited. The bistro is part of the Avani Hotel, and has slightly more expensive prices then you’re probably hoping to spend (think prices from a Western style restaurant in USA or Australia) but OMG if you’re going to splurge this is the place to do it.
The food was absolutely phenomenal, and had us talking about it for days! After a few weeks of only Asian food and very little good meat, it was SO good to have a big Western meal. Without a doubt we can definitely recommend the Chickpea Hommus with Garlic Bread, Dry Aged Lao Beef Rib Eye Steak and the Grilled Buffalo Burger. If our budget had of allowed we would have absolutely eaten there every single day, literally mouthwatering.
Address: 42 Setthathirath Road, Hua Xieng Village
6. Visit a traditional ethnic tribe in the mountains
There are three ethnic tribes living in villages the the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang, who welcome visitors to experience their traditional daily lives. You can visit them via kayaking to their homes that live on stilts in the water, or you can take a trek to their mountain-top villages and sleep over with them for the night before trekking back down the next day.
It’s the ultimate way to learn more about the history and cultural traditions of the rural people living in these unique hill tribe villages. The Khmu Tribe is found in lower parts of the mountains, through tropical jungles, while the Hmong Tribe, who are descendants of the Mongolians, live in cooler conditions higher in the hills.
A great way to visit and learn more about these tribes is by going on a trek into the mountains. One of the most popular companies to book treks through are called Green Discovery. They offer all kinds of treks, from one to several days, taking you past paddy fields, Hmong family tribes, caves which previously served as bomb shelters, and beautiful waterfalls.
7. Relax and pamper yourself at a day spa
There’s no shortage of day spas and places to pamper yourself in Luang Prabang, with options to suit all budget types. Some of the most popular spa options include:
Lao Red Cross – where you can get a full body massage for just $5USD.
Mekong Spa – a more high-end option, this spa can be found at La Residence Phu Vao and uses traditional Lao herbs and organic botanicals for their body treatments.
Spa Garden – a popular spot for a general spa treatments.
Kamu Spa – only for the brave, a Kamu massage uses oil and strong pressure to help you really loosen up.
8. Learn how to cook traditional Lao cuisine
Laos has an interesting and unique cuisine, which feels like something a little bit Thai or a little bit Vietnamese, but also something else all of it’s own. There’s such a traditional feel in Luang Prabang, away from the usual tourist trails of Thailand and Vietnam, and taking a cooking class here gets you up close with the locals, shopping in their usual markets and making dishes that have been passed down from generations.
9. Feed the elephants at Tad Sea Waterfall
While Kuang Si is the most popular and famous waterfall in Luang Prabang, it’s lesser known Tad Sea which will surprise you. The water is just as bright and saturated, also cascading down the mountain and offering beautiful hikes up the levels. The difference however, is that Tad Sea is much quieter and also the home to many elephants!
It’s always important to acknowledge and be aware of the issues around animal tourism when you’re travelling, especially when you’re in Southeast Asia – but I did love feeding these gentle giants snacks of bananas, coconuts and bamboo shoots. The bamboo shoots were definitely my favourite, with this greedy guts grabbing for the next shoot before he’d even eaten the last one!
10. Explore the temples of Luang Prabang
With such a large population of monks in Luang Prabang, it’s not surprising that this small city is home to over 30 temples. A great way to learn more about the culture and traditions in Luang Prabang is to visit some of the temples. The most significant temple in the town is Wat Xieng Thong, which is beautiful decorated in gold stenciling.
Another important temple is Haw Pha Bang found in the middle of town, on the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum. It was built to act as a shrine for the most highly valued Buddha images from all around Laos. Wat Tham Phousi, at the top of Mount Phousi, is also a highlight due to it’s golden pagoda. The temple itself is quite small and plain, but the views over Luang Prabang and out to the Mekong River can’t be beaten.