Whether you’re flying over stunning valleys or entering via a humble boat along the vast Mekong River, the view of Luang Prabang is equally magnificent. Home to 34 temples and more than 1,000 monks, it is no wonder that the Laotian city has been under UNESCO conservation since 1995. From going off the beaten track to discover secret waterfalls, visiting black bear sanctuaries, to sharing a cold beer with the locals by the Mekong, Laos is a time capsule where all that is expected of you is to stay and bask in the moment.
Many enjoy catching Luang Prabang during the Lao New Year in April. For a less crowded experience with better weather, we recommend the equally stunning Boat Festival in September or October, or the Light Festival in October or November.
01. Tour the town with(out) a guide
Trooping through the town, it is irresistible to be kept from the stories behind the rich Indochinese architecture you see. Getting a guide was one of our best decisions. Our tour guide was a former monk, seeing it as an opportunity for education. One day, while he was offering his food to some street dogs, two American tourists approached him with a card, telling him to contact them. They later financed up to his university studies in Thailand, and even trips for them to meet.
TIP: If you prefer discovering all the town’s secrets by yourself, simply take a turn into the charming alleys of Luang Prabang and catch a glimpse of locals going about their daily life. Another option is to be armed with Francis Engelmann’s book, named after the town itself, as you admire the heritage of the town with the knowledge from the long-time resident and the UNESCO consultant who played a huge part in its conservation.
02. Drift through the Mekong
Situated between the Nam Kan river and the great Mekong, getting up close with the much-revered Mekong River is not to be missed. Rent a boat from tour groups or simply from locals by the pier, and drift off into a Laotian dream filled with relaxing sights of villages, farms and buffalos.
03. Gaze at the sunset by the river
Arriving back to town in the evening, we were greeted with a festival of colours – yellow, orange and pinks, layered with views of the mountains. A good lookout point to catch it would be from Mount Phousi, but try sitting by the edge of the Mekong River, at any of the local restaurants, on a boat, or at the temple, for the best view.
04. Discover secret waterfalls
You would probably have heard of the Kuang Si Falls, but less crowded alternatives like Tad Sae Waterfall are also worth checking out. For the adventurous, we highly recommend trekking around; discovering secret waterfalls was a highlight of our journey. There’s a lot of agents you can contact for these trekking tours, but I’d recommend Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures.
05. Visit the Asiatic black bear sanctuary
In the same national park as Kuang Si Falls, there is also a butterfly park and a rescue sanctuary for Asiatic Black Bears. It takes care of black bears who have been rescued by Lao authorities from the illegal wildlife trade.
TIP: Rent a motorbike and travel the outskirts with a guide for an unforgettable experience. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery as your bike whizzes past rivers, jungles, and mountains, while being surprised by serendipitous meal invitations from the locals. Trying to cross rivers on with boats was also an exciting experience; they could barely fit our motorbikes!
06. Embracing the country’s culture: Wat Xien Thong
When visiting a country with a strong Theravada Buddhist influence, it is a must to visit the wats (as temples are called in Lao). We visited Wat Xien Thong, the only temple remaining from the latest sacking of the town in 1887. Having been under the patronage of the royal family till 1975, the regal history of this wat makes it a popular attraction.
07. Admire handcrafted textiles
It would be a shame to leave Laos without a piece of handmade textile. Rooted in a strong weaving culture, each tribe has their own distinct colours, techniques and designs for textiles – supplementary weft, supplementary warp and mat mi (similar to ikat) just to name a few. You may even purchase pieces directly from families in neighbouring villages.
On the streets, the locals wear sinh skirts as a part of their daily wear; the sarongs of Laotian culture.
08. Observe the making of mulberry paper
We heard that there was a village close by making and selling mulberry paper, and were eager to travel there to experience it for ourselves. Take the time to walk there, the distance is only fifteen minutes away from the bamboo bridge, passing above the Nam Kan river.
09. Enjoy a homecooked food experience: Rosella Fusion
Try out Rosella Fusion for a wholly homecooked experience. Prepared by the owners and a local chef, the humble place prepares fusion Lao cuisine for a small number of guests at a time. The food might take a while to arrive, but it is definitely worth the wait.
10. Fusion meals with an ethical edge: Khaipean
While there are many restaurants along Sisavang Vatana Road, the busiest street in town, do make a stop by Khaipean. Run by Peuan Mit (Friends International Laos), an organisation that addresses the needs of street children and young people, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, it serves creative Lao cuisine. Think Mekong river’s rendition of fish and chips.
TIP: It is not an uncommon sight to see Laotians end their day with a nice glass of Lao Beer by the river, surrounded by good company. Being friendly people who love to live in the present, the locals would certainly welcome you to share a few glasses of beer with them. Just don’t be surprised if they add some ice cubes!
11. Stay in a guesthouse
Being a quaint town, Luang Prabang is not short of small, charming boutique hotels and guesthouses. Our pick was Maison Souvannaphoum, a guesthouse restored from the residence of Panya Souvannaphoum, the last Prime Minister and Príncipe of Laos. Conveniently situated ten minutes away from the night market and five from the Mekong River, the guesthouse also holds a garden and a pool convenient for a well-received soak after a whole day of travels.
Warm clothes during December and January is a must. Although Luang Prabang has a tropical climate, the temperatures during early mornings and sundown can fall to 10 degrees.