The town of Luang Prabang, which translates to "Royal Buddha Image" is a mid-size city in north-central Laos. The town actually consists of 58 adjacent villages, of which 33 make up the UNESCO Town Of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site. Luang Prabang was added to the list in 1995 for its "unique and remarkably well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage" - something still very evident today.
Luang Prabang should be on every Southeast Asian travel list due to its incredible location, rich culture and extraordinary amount of adventure possibilities. Just to set the scene for you a bit, imagine this: a historic town sitting on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and mighty Mekong River, surrounded on all sides by lush mountain ranges and full of numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, lively markets and vibrant architecturally rich buildings. That is what Luang Prabang is. Stunning. Exciting. Inviting.
| Important Things to Know About Luang Prabang
| Wat (or vat), means temple - and you will see A LOT of them in and around Luang Prabang, especially in the old quarter of the city. Also, the main hall of a wat is known as a sim in Lao.
| The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. It was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos from the 1700s when France annexed Laos and recognized Luang Prabang as the royal residence of Laos. And eventually the ruler of Luang Prabang became synonymous with the figurehead of Laos and when Laos achieved independence the king of Luang Prabang became the head of state of the new Kingdom of Laos. That was until the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975.
| The currency of Laos is known as the Kip. The exchange rate is 1 USD = 9460.00 Kip (LAK). So for example, an entrance fee to a temple in Luang Prabang is 20,000 Kip, or $2.11.
| A good thing to know when considering visiting temples or wats (vats) in Luang Prabang - and other countries where temples are located, like Thailand - is to always dress appropriately. So wear shirts that cover your shoulders and pants or a skirt that goes past your knees.
| One of the best things about Luang Prabang is its walkability. Because everything is so tightly packed (not in a bad way) you can pretty much walk anywhere in town. Or if you want to head further afield, consider renting a bicycle.
Okay without further ado, here is what we believe are the four best things to do and explore in and around the beautiful city of Luang Prabang.
Top 4 Places Explore in Luang Prabang
There are more than 34 temples just within the city of Luang Prabang. And each of those temples has its own unique draw and history. Below are some of the best:
\\ Vat Xieng Thong: also known as the Temple of the Golden City, this wat is a beautiful introduction to temples in Luang Prabang. This historic vat was built between 1559 and 1560 by King Setthathirath, and today is one of the most important monasteries in the country. It is also a significant monument to Laotian-style arts and crafts. You can reach the temple by heading towards the spot where the Mekong River and Nham Khan Rivers meet in the old city (right on the edge of the peninsula).
Note: it costs 20,000 Kip ($2.11) to enter.
\\ Vat May Souvannapoumaram (Vat Mai): also known as the New Monastery, this large temple complex (one of the biggest in all of Luang Prabang) is famous for two things. First, the head of the Lao Buddhist faith (the Phra Sangharat) lived at Vat Mai towards the end of the 19th century. Therefore, the temple is very important for Lao Buddhism as a whole. Secondly, this was the temple that the Laos Royal Family would visit until they were forced out of power. You can reach the temple off of Sisavangvong Road near where they have the night market.
Note: it costs 10,000 Kip ($1.06) to enter.
\\ Vat Pak Khan Khammungkhun: or more fittingly known as the Temple at the Mouth of the Khan River, this temple is also located in the old city (right next to Xieng Thong). While many other temples have been renovated or updated over the years, this small vat has not. So if you are looking for a more traditional temple, with shabby walls, cracked wood and all, then definitely seek out this site. Similarly, if you are wanting to learn more about monk life in general this is a great spot to speak to the resident monks (they are quite friendly and always looking to practice their English).
Note: it is free to enter the temple.
\\ Vat Pa Phai: now this temple might just have the most beautiful and inviting name - Monastery of the Bamboo Forest. Located a bit further away from the main hub of the city, this small temple is slightly quieter than others. It is also thought to be one of the oldest temples in Luang Prabang, possibly being built in 1645 (although some believe it was built in 1815). The walls of Wat Pa Phai are painted to show the daily Lao life in the late 19th century.
Note: it is free to enter the temple.
Another activity you should definitely try to see is the daily ritual of tak bat, which is when Buddhist Lao monks go out early in the morning to collect food. This practice of offering food to monks is most visible in Theravada Buddhist countries like Laos and Thailand, where the practice sustains large monastic communities.
In Luang Prabang, this tradition manifests as a morning ritual (often around 5:30 AM) where monks silently line the streets while locals (and curious tourists) put gifts of food, usually sticky rice or bananas, into the bowls carried by the monks. Learn more about the practice here.
As you would have read previously, Luang Prabang was the seat of the royal family until the monarchy was abolished by communists in 1975. After the death of King Sisavang Vong, Crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his family were the last to occupy the royal palace grounds (after being overthrown, the royal family was sent to re-education camps where most of them perished).
The Royal Palace sits right along the bank of the Mekong River, which was entirely intentional: the king wanted any visiting dignitaries to be able to go straight from their boat to the palace grounds. The royal grounds themselves contain various buildings, including the royal barge shelter, and two lotus ponds. Inside the palace, you will see a mix of traditional Lao motifs and French Beaux Arts styles (something you will also see throughout Luang Prabang itself). Similarly, one thing to look out for is the three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol, the symbol of the Lao monarchy, which sits above the entrance.
The most famous piece of art in the palace though is the Phra Bang, a statue of Buddha that stands 83 centimeters tall and weighs around 50 kilograms. Legend has it that the statue was made around the 1st century in Sri Lanka and was later presented to the Khemer King Phaya Sirichantha, who then gave it to King Fa Ngum in 1359 when he was the Lao Buddhist leader. While it is said that this is the original statue, there is some belief that it is instead a copy and the original is either in Vientiane (the capital of Laos) or in Moscow.
Note: you can visit the palace grounds for free, but if you are wanting to go inside it costs 30,000 Kip ($3.50). We suggest going early in the morning to have better lighting (for photos) and the opportunity to walk around without tons of people.
By far one of the biggest draws of Luang Prabang is its prime location along the banks of the mighty Mekong River. If you are hoping to get out on the water your best bet is to head to one of the local travel agencies and find the route that is best for you.
A good option, if you are hoping to really explore the river, is this 6-day trip that also includes visits to waterfalls (see more below) and caves. Or if you are wanting something a little less expensive, then consider doing a sunset cruise, which often consists of a 1-2 hour boat ride costs as little as 50,000 Kip ($5.28).
Waterfalls and Hiking
Probably one of the biggest travel destinations in Luang Prabang is the famous Kuang Si Falls, a milky turquoise waterfall that cascades from the thick green jungle into various pools below. While it is likely that if you have spent any time in Southeast Asia you have probably seen your fair share of waterfalls, but, this one is definitely still worth heading out to and exploring. Promise.
Kuang Si Falls is located roughly 29 kilometers from town and can easily be reached by flagging down a tuk tuk (or songtaew as they are known in Laos), riding a bicycle (be aware that the road is not paved and is mostly uphill) or by boat (see below). To enter the waterfall costs around 20,000 Kip ($2.11).
Other adventures you definitely should consider tacking on is hiking to the top of the falls themselves (there is a path by the wooden footbridge that takes about 15 minutes) and then heading out on a wooden raft to explore the jungle even more (costs 5,000 Kip or $0.50 USD), spending a bit of time at Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a rescue for Asiatic black bears located right next to the falls (they only ask for donations), and of course, spending plenty of time swimming in the vibrant blue pools themselves.
Another adventure you should definitely add to your list, especially if you are looking to head out and stretch your legs, is hiking up to the top of Mount Phousi. This 100-meter tall mountain is considered sacred: one legend states that a powerful Naga (part human, part serpent deity in Buddhist and Hindu belief) used to call the mountain home - hence why you will find beautiful little temples and shrines dotted throughout the hill on the hike. Including, Wat Chom Si located at the peak.
From the top of Mount Phousi, you will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the town as well as the surrounding mountains and rivers. Because of this, it is a very popular sunset spot. Note: if you want a more peaceful, but no less beautiful experience, then consider heading out for sunrise instead.