Luang Prabang, Laos | Urban Exploration

19°53′N 102°08′E

Temples of Luang Prabang

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


Streets of Luang Prabang at Sunset

Temples

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.


Royal Palace

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.


Mekong River

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.


To reach the mountain - which is incredibly hard to miss as it is the highest point in the entire town - you can either go up the stairs right across from the Royal Palace (the most popular route) or go up the stairs next to the Nam Khan River on Thanon Phousi (slightly longer, but with better views).


There is an entrance fee of 20,000 Kip ($2.11 USD).



Luang Prabang somehow slows your pulse and awakens your imagination with its combination of insane natural beauty and spiritual nourishment. With its prime location on the sacred confluence of the mighty Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), this UNESCO World Heritage site might just be the jewel in all of Laos - if not all of Southeast Asia. Below is more information on when to visit and how to actually reach the town.


| Best Time to Visit

You can visit this beautiful town pretty much year-round, though depending on what you want to do and the type of weather you want to experience, you can choose either the rainy or dry season.


\\ Rainy (May to September): luckily, even in the rainy season you are only likely to experience rain showers for a couple of hours a day (it won’t be downpouring or anything). If you choose to travel during the months of May-September you will likely find the town to be a bit quieter and cheaper.


\\ Dry (October to April): this is considered the prime time to visit Luang Prabang, but because of that, expect higher prices and more people at the popular spots. But the weather will be nice and warm. This is also a better time to travel along the Mekong River (the water is highest between November and January).


| Getting to Luang Prabang

You can reach the town in a number of ways and from a number of different cities. The most common way is to either fly straight into the city (see more below) or take a bus, either from the capital of Vientiane or from various other nearby cities (including cities in Vietnam and Thailand). Now, if you are looking for an amazing adventure, consider getting to Luang Prabang by boat (again see more below).


\\ Air: you can fly both domestically and internationally into Luang Prabang - though most of the time you will stop in the capital before taking a smaller plane to the actual town. For example, if flying from Los Angeles in November (busy season) it will cost $854 and have layovers in Singapore, Hanoi, Vientiane and then finally land in Luang Prabang. If flying from New York City, it will cost $803 and have three layovers as well (Moscow, Hanoi, Vientiane).


A flight from the capital directly to Luang Prabang is less than an hour long and costs around $53. So if you are considering flying into Luang Prabang, maybe get a flight to Vientiene first and then either add the second flight or consider taking a bus.


\\ Bus: one of the most common ways to reach the town is by bus. Because of its central location in Southeast Asia, you can pretty much take a bus from almost any major city and eventually reach Luang Prabang.


Some of the most common routes are from Vientiane, which takes about 12-13 hours and costs between $21-$31 USD. The cheaper rates are for standard buses while the higher-priced fare usually means it is a sleeper bus - meaning you can stretch out and try to get some sleep. Note: when traveling we like to take a sleeper bus because it saves us from having to spend one of our travel days on a bus, and it also means we don’t have to pay for a hotel room at night. A win-win.


Other common routes are from Bangkok, which takes around 19 hours and costs between $22-$45 USD (you make a transfer in the town of Loei) or from Chiang Mai (16.5 hours, $40-$44 USD). You can also take a bus from Hanoi in Vietnam, though it will take 25 hours and cost about $43. At that point, while the scenery will be absolutely amazing, a quick flight might be easier…


\\ Boat: there is also the option to reach Luang Prabang by boat, which might just be the most adventurous option. Most people choose to do this with a tour agency, which while we often don’t always promote, might actually be a good idea in this instance - just in order to save yourself some serious organization-induced headaches.


If you do want to do it on your own (you go!), the best route to take is to get across to the town of Huay Xai in Laos (most people head out from Chiang Rai in Thailand) and then hop on a boat from the port there. The slow boat costs roughly 21,000 Kip or $22 USD. The boat ride takes around 2 days, though you often have the opportunity to stop off at various sites along the way.


Learn more about the experience here.


Boat on the Mekong

Another exciting option, and one that is even more adventurous, is to do the whole route from Huay Xai in a kayak. The route can take between 2-4 days depending on how fast you want to go. This is a great option for adventurers wanting to dive deeper into the area’s landscape and culture. Explore more about it here.


\\ Train: starting around the end of 2021 and early 2022 (if all goes to plan) there will also be the option to take a train to Luang Prabang. The project, known as The Boten–Vientiane Railway (often referred to as the China–Laos railway) is a 414 kilometer long (or 257 miles) standard gauge electrified railway that will eventually connect the city of Vientiane with the small town of Boten on the border with China. It is the most expensive, and largest project ever to be constructed in Laos. The end goal, though, is to have a high-speed, standard gauge extension to Bangkok, Thailand (though now you can already reach Bangkok, just on a slower train).


While the new train will greatly help Laos in terms of transporting goods (it is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia) it will also (more than likely) boost tourism. Many officials believe tourism, in the end, will account for most of the use.


Note: as of April 2021, the northernmost section in Laos was 97% complete. Track laying of the last section should be completed in May, leaving the project well on track for a 2021 opening.

Luang Prabang is the perfect town to escape to if you are wanting a more laid-back, relaxed and culturally rich Southeast Asian experience. With its designated UNESCO World Heritage old quarter, numerous well-preserved temples, and incredible natural landscape, this spot in Laos is just waiting to be explored.