What to Do in Luang Prabang to Make the Most of Your Visit

Heather at the Peak of Mount Phousi

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the prettiest cities in the small landlocked country of Laos (Lao People’s Democratic Republic), Luang Prabang makes it the perfect place for backpackers, tourists, and travelers to visit. One of the last remaining communist countries in the world has opened its arms to share all of its history and natural wonders with you. If you are planning on discovering what to do in Luang Prabang, here is everything you will need to know.

Heather at the Peak of Mount Phousi
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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang View from peak of Mount Phousi

Luang Prabang is surrounded by the Mekong and Khan rivers and the Luang Prabang Mountain Range, with Mount Phou Si at the city’s heart. Founded in the 8th century, Luang Prabang contains French colonial, Thai, and Laotian architecture and more than 30 Buddhist temples. And in 1995, UNESCO declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved temples, traditional wooden dwellings, 19th-century colonial houses, and natural environment.

Luang Prabang was the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom during the fourteenth century. The city received its name from a famous gold Buddha statue of the same name. The Silk Road passed through the city, bringing great wealth and Buddhist monks who often established monasteries along the Silk Road. And today, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms every morning. It is a beautiful, solemn ceremony to see and even more to participate in, which is an experience that I had in Thailand.

Luang Prabang View of Mekong River from peak of Mount Phousi

Getting to Luang Prabang

Slow Boat Arrival at Luang Prabang

Getting to Luang Prabang is fairly easy if you are already in Asia. You can fly into the Luang Prabang International Airport, 2.5 miles from the city center. Or you can do what most travelers do and take the slow ride on the Mekong River from Thailand. If you arrive on water, hike up the steep stairs to find a Tuk-Tuk waiting for you.

TUk-Tuks are the easiest way to get around in Asian cities besides using your feet. They are fairly inexpensive compared to taxis; however, you need to negotiate a reasonable rate before jumping in to ensure you do not get ripped off. If the driver is not willing to barter with you, then head off to another one until you find a driver that will. It is quite fun zipping around the city streets with the wind blowing through your hair.

Heather on the back of a Tuk-Tuk in Luang Prabang

Where to Stay in Luang Prabang

Manichan Guesthouse

Finding good accommodations throughout Asia is relatively simple if you have the Agoda app. All you need to do is open the app and click on Homes & Apts, then add your destination, dates, and what you are looking for. Easy Peasy! I picked the Manichan Guesthouse for the proximity to the city center, cost, and included breakfast. For the two nights we stayed in Luang Prabang, the room cost $45.

Our host was very kind by offering us a shuttle to take us to the Kuang Si Falls in the morning, which we took advantage of. He also told us that Manichan Guesthouse was one of the original guesthouses before Luang Prabang became popular with tourists. I found it quite charming with its gazebo-like setting for dining outside and would stay here again.

Dining area for Manichan Guesthouse

Manichan Guesthouse was quite a comfortable place to rest my head, and no water issues at this place. On the other hand, bugs are completely different, which is one thing you have to get used to in Asia. Bugs are everywhere. One even came home with my traveling partner from the waterfalls without knowing. Well, at least until he took a shower and started screaming like a little girl. Now, I would have probably done the same thing once I saw what had been hiding in my hair. But, what I didn’t appreciate was that he finished his shower and left the bug there, knowing I wanted to take a shower after him. As he sat on the bed pouting because I laughed, I had to go out and get the property manager to come and help remove the giant centipede from the shower. Of course, after a little research, we found out that these guys like water and have venomous bites. Good thing nothing happened except for someone’s wounded pride.

Giant centipede in Luang Prabang

Where to Eat in Luang Prabang

Coconut Garden

Coconut Garden in Luang Prabang

There are many restaurants in Luang Prabang if you are looking for something more than street food. Most restaurants can be found on Sakkaline and Kingkitsarath roads near the Night Market and City center. We tried a couple of places. One had great burgers and beer, and the other had wonderful traditional Laotian dishes. Lao cuisine relies heavily on herbs and vegetables and is accompanied by sticky rice, which we had when we stopped into the Coconut Garden for lunch. I had the pork sausage with purple sticky rice. We sat and enjoyed our meal on the balcony overlooking the other diners on the patio.

Pork Sausage and Steamed Sticky Rice

Most people who know me as a picky eater would be surprised that I managed to live and survive in Asia for months without starving. Surprisingly, even to myself, I have managed to expand my palate while traveling and have tried many new dishes and types of food. Some I couldn’t even recognize what I was eating, but I did try them. I found a way to be comfortable in my eating choices by selecting sausage, which is a safe bet for me to get protein and energy while walking my butt off exploring new places.

Street Food at the Night Market

Selling Sausage at the Luang Prabang Night Market

Eating street food in Asia is something that you have to do when traveling here. The food is always fresh (there is no refrigeration in most places) and inexpensive. You can go from stall to stall trying a sausage sandwich, a fruit smoothie, mini pancakes, or even ice cream. It was amazing how unbelievably good the street food was, and most days, it was my food of choice while in Asia.

In the Luang Prabang Night Market, there is also the choice to eat on Buffet Street, a narrow aisle off the Night Market. You purchase a bowl and then scoop all kinds of delicious food for 20,000 kip, then the staff will heat it for you. This is a great way to try traditional Laotian dishes and Asian food. Pile it up high and dig in!

Buying Groceries at the Morning Market

Lady selling food at the Luang Prabang Night Market

For those looking to create their own meals, pick up munchies for the road or the day, you have to check out the market in the morning. You can find every type of fruit, vegetable, meat, and fish in the market. I love walking around the market, taking photos of how colorful and vibrant each vendor’s area is. But, what I find even more special is that the market has the unbelievable feel of women’s power. Everywhere you look, women are running the market. They are cutting up the food, setting up the stalls, and selling the food. For me, this shows that we can do anything we put our minds to!

Things to do in Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Falls is the must-see highlight for what to do in Luang Prabang. The main waterfall is 200 feet high, with a bridge to walk across at the bottom for you to get that perfect selfie with the three-tiered waterfall in the background. To get to this fall, you have to pass the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center and the lower cascading tiers with their natural swimming pools showcasing the Kuang Si Falls signature vibrant turquoise waters.

The entrance fee for the waterfalls is 20,000 Kip ($2.30). Make sure to arrive early because you will want to spend the entire day swimming and exploring this natural wonder of Luang Prabang. To say that swimming in these pools is an adventure is an understatement. And one that I’ll go into more detail soon.

Chasing Waterfalls at Kuang Si Falls

Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center

Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre

Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre is run by Free the Bears and is the first thing you will see when you enter the Kuang Si Falls. Free the Bears is a charity working to protect the Asian black bears in several Asian countries and save them from the bear bile farms where they are milked for bear bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. It might be a little depressing to see these bears, but they are in a much better place. The bears have been rescued from poachers and now can live their life enjoying a large enclosure with lots of trees, hammocks, and swinging tires. You can learn more on the Free the Bears website.

Mount Phousi

Views of Luang Prabang from the peak of Mount Phousi

At the center of Luang Prabang, there is a mountain you have to climb to get the most amazing 360° view of the entire city. Okay, you don’t have to actually climb the mountain, but you do have to hike up over 300 steps to reach the top. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip ($2.50), which you pay about halfway up. It only takes about 15 minutes to hike to the top where the golden pagoda sits. However, if you want to meander your way up, there are several areas to rest and take a break. This is a great spot to watch the sunset, but make sure to come early as the crowds gather about an hour earlier.

There is another set of stairs to hike down the mountain that will take you past Wat Chom Si and several Buddha statues. Each of these Buddha statues has different meanings to the monks and the people that pray to them.

Praying in front of the Buddha statue on Mount Phousi

As I spend more time in and around Asia, I am more fascinated by this religion every day. Buddhists believe that human life is one of suffering and that meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior are the ways to achieve enlightenment. There is a special area where you can see Buddha’s footprint left in stone. There are a few of these footprints around Asia. I saw another one in Thailand. This particular footprint on Mount Phousi is believed to be Buddha’s when he traveled along the Silk Road after he reached enlightenment.

Buddha's Footprint on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

Phou Si translates to ‘sacred mountain’ or ‘sacred hill.’ When visiting, please remember Mount Phousi is sacred to the Lao people, and Wat Chom Si at its summit is an important part of active Buddhist life in Luang Prabang. You will need to make sure to dress appropriately when visiting Asian temples. I make sure to have a skirt and large shall on hand to wrap around me if I’m wearing shorts or a sleeveless top that day. As you head up to the summit, you will find people selling blessings (flowers and incense) to be left at the temples and buddha statues on Mount Phousi.

Reclining Buddha Represents Nirvana on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

I have always had a hard time slowing down. My mind works at a warp speed, and I always seem to be two steps ahead of everybody else. Which is why I found a lot of peace spending time contemplating Buddhism while I was in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam exploring over 70+ temples, participating in the Alms Giving Ceremony, and spending an afternoon talking with a Buddhist monk.

UXO LAO Visitor Center

Entrance to the UXO Lao Visitors Center

Laos is horribly known as the most heavily bombed country globally, and it wasn’t even an active participant in the Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, US forces dropped an estimated 2 million tons of ordnance (over 260 million bombies) on Laos, more than the entire tonnage used during World War II. The problem is that bombies have a 30% failure rate. Unfortunately, 78 million bombies dropped on Laos failed to explode, which has given this country the distinction of having the most post-conflict munitions casualties in the world.

Map Displaying where the US dropped Bombs in Laos during the Vietnam War

The UXO LAO Visitors Center is about a mile away from the center of town, and there is no fee to enter. Walking up to the building is intimidating with the towering inert bombshells. Still, nothing compares to seeing what is inside, seeing and hearing the devastation that has happened when one of the unexploded bombies goes off. The UXO LAO Visitors Center is a somber and impactful museum. They educate every visitor on how the bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War have devastated the people who live here, especially the children, and what the UXO LAO is doing to help with the unexploded ordnance problem.

Empty Bomb Shells at the UXO Lao Visitor Center

While wandering through the one-room museum, I learned that one person is killed almost every day by UXO in the Lao PDR; most accidents are likely to involve bombies. The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO LAO) is working tirelessly to clear land for agriculture and community purposes, train and employ people to defuse and clear UXO around the country, and educate people about UXO safety. Part of visiting the museum is to watch a couple of videos. The first video shows what happens when a bomb is released from aircraft with personal stories from airmen. The second is more emotional, with personal stories from three victims of UXO explosions. It is used as a training video for young students to educate them on the dangers of UXO. After watching this, you are left seriously thinking how fortunate you are that you don’t have to fear digging in the fields, picking up old scrap metal, or making fires directly on the ground. No child should have to worry that playing outside their home could lead to their death or disfigurement!

LAO National Unexploded Ordnance Program (UXO LAO) Tools

Between 1999 and 2006, at least 40% of UXO casualties in the Lao PDR were caused by cluster bombs. A cluster bomb is a canister filled with many smaller bombs (submunitions) called bombies. The canister is dropped from an aircraft and breaks open in mid-air, releasing the bombies carpeting the area the size of three soccer fields. Anybody within that area is likely to be killed or injured. Even decades later, when they are disturbed, they can explode. UXO LAO teams visit every village to explain what to do if children and adults come across a UXO while out playing or working in the fields. You can find out more about it on the UXO LAO website.

SUU 30 B Cluster Bomb Unit

In a typical year, UXO LAO removes and destroys around 65,500 items of UXO. And from 1996 to 2007, UXO Lao cleared approximately 395,000 bombies or 0.47 percent of all bombies in the country, which has made around 12 thousand hectares of land safe from UXO. They have also conducted UXO risk awareness activities with over 1,700,000 people. But, this is only a small amount of land safely cleared; there is so much more to do. If you are traveling through Luang Prabang, make sure to stop in and understand what is happening within this beautiful country.

Buying Souvenirs in the Luang Prabang Night Market

Aisles in the Luang Prabang Night Market

Strolling through the Night Market is another highlight for what to do in Luang Prabang. Weaving through the crowds, you will enjoy the beauty and artistry of every colorful souvenir waiting for you to take home. You can find the night market on the main street next to the Royal Palace. Vendors start rolling out their mats and tents around 4:30 p.m, and within a short time, they are ready to start selling.

Shopping in the Luang Prabang Night Market

You can find everything from Elephant pants, delicate textiles, Chinese lanterns, fridge magnets, and wooden bamboo straws. However, the strange and weird might catch you off guard like cobras in bottles. Most of the items are locally made, so I love buying something to support their artistry. Sometimes it is difficult to decide on what to choose when you are constrained with your backpack size. But, I try to pick up smaller trinkets as Christmas gifts when I travel and one special one as a reminder of my destination.

Lantern at the Luang Prabang Night Market

Besides the strange and weird, walking around the Night Market is different from what I’m used to with the farmer’s markets in the States. For one thing, I would not see live chickens walking around the market like they own it and not be worried that they might be someone’s dinner.

You will see one thing at the Luang Prabang night market that you won’t see elsewhere. Vendors selling aluminum jewelry and key chains made from the bombs dropped on their country. As the sign by the jewelry says-These bracelets were bombs. We make bracelets, not war. Our bracelets are made from the aluminum dropped on our country during the secret war from 1964 to 1975. After the war, someone taught us what to do with the bombs that destroyed our lives. From bombs, we made souvenirs such as chopsticks, spoons, rings, bottle opener, bracelets, and others…, Recently we began to form bombs into beautiful bracelets. We bring the new meaning of bombs and help ourselves and escape poverty. “Now buy back the bombs” Thank you very much for your support. I did purchase a dove keychain for my nephew to do my small part of buying back the bombs the US dropped on Laos.

Aluminum key chains made from bombs

Royal Palace – National Museum

National Museum Formerly Royal Residence in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, also known as the Golden Palace or Haw Kaum, built-in 1904, was the royal residence of King Sisavang Vong during the French colonial era. After the Lao Revolution in 1975, where communists overthrew the royal family, the royal palace was converted to the National Museum. Within the museum, you will find the remnants of the monarchy, including the throne room, the King and Queen’s sleeping quarters, and the crown jewels of Laos. The museum’s highlight is the 2,000-year-old golden statue of Buddha known as Phra Bang, which Luang Prabang is named after. The entrance fee is 30,000 kip ($5), and it’s open Wednesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Monument of President Souphanouvong

Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam

Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam

Wat Siphoutthabath is a richly decorated albeit battered temple located on Mount Phousi. Besides the temple, there is a monk school next to it, so you might very well see monks walking around the complex. Inside the temple, you can see several pieces of artwork that enlighten you about Buddhism and the life of the believers. If you are visiting during sunset, you can also experience a magical scene with the evening prayers of the monks and their spiritual singing. Find a step outside and sit for a spell to listen to the soothing melody.

Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam Ornate Door
Colorful Dragon statue by Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam

What to do in Luang Prabang Summary

Heather at Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos

As you can see, there is plenty to find when you are looking for what to do in Luang Prabang. Not surprisingly, though, there are even more than these activities that could have you staying a full week in Luang Prabang. Although my visit was only for a couple of days, I jam-packed my schedule to make the most of my visit to this beautiful country. Stay tuned for a more detailed review of my day at Kuang Si Falls and the next installment of my adventure through Laos to Vang Vieng.

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Further Reading

If you are planning to explore Laos, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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