Luang Prabang Top 10 Highlights
Cradled in the dramatic Northern Mountains of Laos, is one of the most charming towns in Southeast Asia – Luang Prabang. Tourists find this town to be the gem of Laos, and UNESCO has recognized it as a cultural center in 1995.
“According to legend the Buddha smiled when he rested in Luang Prabang for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city,” shared Mr. Onechan Souvannalith, Director of Luang Prabang Tourism.
You can see why the Buddha smiled here – the natural beauty surrounds the area. This country is lush with palm trees, dense tropical foliage throughout a mountainous landscape. One can easily bike or walk the quiet lanes in this small town to the former Royal Palace, the 34 golden-spired temples, boutiques, bakeries and restaurants along the main street, and around the banks of the Mekong River.
Here are some of the top 10 highlights that kept us smiling during our visit to Luang Prabang.
1. Observe the Sai Bat – Parade of Monks:
First up on our list of top vacation recommendations in Luang Prabang. The Sai Bat is a living religious tradition, considered one of the top experiences in Luang Prabang. This daily ceremony starts before dawn when 1,000 saffron-robed monks awake to prepare for the single-file sacred parade through town.
Before Sai Bat begins, you can hear monks chanting ancient sutras as you pass the Wat (Buddhist temples). Or the banging of a drum, as the monks prepare to walk the streets for their morning meditation. Monks will walk barefoot for miles through town to collect alms, food offerings from local people and tourists. Check with your hotel, guest house, or guide to follow the ceremony rules of respect and be in your viewing place early between 5.30am – 6.00am.
2. Ride a Bike around the Old Town:
This was a highlight and a great way to feel the gentle spirit of Luang Prabang, its people, and daily rhythm of activities.
3. Visit Wats (Buddhist Temples) & Monasteries:
- Mt. Phou Si: Climb the 328 zigzag steps to the top of town – Mt Phousi, and get a 360 panoramic view. Mount Phousi is Luang Prabang’s Holy Mountain where you will find the 60 foot Wat Chomsi gilded stupa. If you want to see some lovely sunsets in Luang Prabang, go to the top of this 300 ft. hill for the best views.
- Wat Xieng Thong: Many royal ceremonies have taken place at this 16th century temple, and is on the top of the list of temples to visit in Luang Prabang. The roofs sweep low to the ground and the ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on the west exterior wall. The dharma wheels on the ceiling and gold stencil work on the interior are great examples of Buddhist art and architecture.
- Wat Sene was built in 1781, and houses the bird of the Buddha, as well as two longboats used in the annual Boat Racing Festival.
- Wat Mai was built in 1796, this monastery has a 4-tiered roof, as well as the scenes from daily life and the legend of Prince Vessantara (a previous incarnation of Buddha) on the bas-relief walls.
- Wat Visounalath is the most ancient temple of Luang Prabang built in 1515. Look for That Mak Mo known as the “watermelon stupa” because of its similarities to the fruit.
4. Shopping – Markets & Boutiques:
Be sure to visit the morning and the night markets in Luang Prabang.
- Morning Market (Talat Pakham): We were amazed at the variety of fresh produce, meat, goods at this market – exotic fruit, live eels, chickens, rabbits, fish, green vegetables & hot peppers! It’s worth a visit to see the locals hustling through the market, and vendors selling their produce.
- Night Handicraft Market: For several blocks along the main road, vendors set up stalls nightly to sell a variety of ethnic handicrafts, local textiles, silk scarves, wall hangings, t-shirts, teas, exotic spices, and food stalls. Open from 5pm – 10 pm
Boutiques & Galleries: You can also find galleries with wood carvings and silverwork. Check with your hotel on their recommendations on where to find authentic handicrafts. Here are a few recommendations Amantaka provided us.
- Thit Pheng Silversmith: Atelier owned by Thit Pheng Maniphone, a master silversmith who used to craft objects for the royal court.
- Caruso Lao: Beautiful home ware in wood and silver, and high-end accessories in silk.
- Anakha: Home linens, unique clothing & Indochina scents.
- Pathana Boupha Shop: Old French mansion with an impressive array of collectibles and quality textiles.
5. Royal Palace Museum:
Tall palms line the avenue to the former Royal Palace and main residence of King Sisavang Vong (r 1905 – 59). Built in 1904, this structure blends traditional Lao and French architectural styles. Today it’s the Royal Palace Museum and houses royal artifacts and the sacred Phabang statue.
6. Relax at a Café:
There are several colonial shops and cafes lining Sisavang Vong Road. Take some time to relax and enjoy a drink & bite at Ban Vat Sene Café in a chic restored colonial building. Also try Le Banneton Café, where you’ll find the best butter croissants in town.
7. Take a Boat Ride down the Mekong:
8. Get a Massage/Spa Treatment:
Rejuvenate your mind and body with a Laotian massage! Check with your guide or concierge on reputable spas and services. One of the best spa treatments we experienced was at Amantaka and Belmond La Residence Phou Vao. The traditional Lao massage combines gentle yoga stretches and pressure point massage to relieve tension and relax the muscles.
9. Take a Cooking Class:
Love Lao food? Join a cooking class and learn all about Lao culinary methods and traditional foods. There are a number of popular restaurants offering classes that start with a fascinating tour of the local markets and end with a great lunch you have helped to cook.
10. Go Outside of Luang Prabang–
This is a must on our list of top vacation recommendations in Luang Prabang!
- Half to Full Day Trip to Pak Ou Caves: The famous Pak Ou Caves are carved into limestone rock along the Mekong River in Northern Laos. You can hire a car, or take a tuk tuk, or go by boat to reach the caves. The journey will take anywhere from 1-2+ hrs to get there, depending on mode of transport. Pilgrims have flocked to these caves for hundreds of years, where there are ~5,000 Buddha statues.
- Ban Xang Hai: On your way to the Pak Ou Caves, it’s a triple dare to stop for a tasting at The “Whisky Village” famous for its “Lao Lao”, the local brewed whisky that’s been fermented with snakes, scorpions, and insects. Or you can visit the Lao silk weavers across the road, where you can buy the textiles and other crafts.
Day Trip to the Waterfalls & Hilltribe Villages:
- Kuang Si Waterfall: About an hour drive, or 15 miles south of Luang Prabang, and you can visit the 650 ft. Kuang Si Waterfall, where you can hike on trails, visit the bear sanctuary, or swim in the water pools below the falls.
- Ban Long Lao/Ban Nong Heo Hilltribe Villages: Visit a Hmong and Khmu village where you can walk through and see huts, watch the children play, other villagers weaving textiles, making handicrafts, and observe what life is like for the hill tribe people.
- Visit Ban Chan or Ban Phanom Villages: Ban Phanom is a former royal weaving village, located a couple miles north of Luang Prabang. You can watch the women working on their looms, buy their products and stroll through the village. Or visit Ban Chan Village where you can watch villagers making posa paper made from mulberry bark, and weaving other traditional textiles. Ban Chan is a traditional pottery-making village where you can watch pots being hand-thrown and fired in earthen ovens. The village’s lamps and pots decorate the small streets of Luang Prabang’s old town and are known all over northern Laos.