Perched on the banks of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is Laos’ favorite provincial outpost, riddled with temples and French colonial architecture. Though tourism is picking up, this rustic town is hanging on to its backwater charm.
The beauty of this city lies in its laid-back approach to life. Visitors base themselves in the town center, touring temples by day and lounging afternoons and evenings away in French cafés and Mekong-facing bars. The biggest day-to-day concern is where to catch the evening’s sunset.
The secret to Luang Prabang’s success is its unique history. Centuries ago it launched to prominence as capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom, only to lose its position to the city that eventually became Vientiane. The result is a staggering number of temples per capita and UNESCO-caliber sightseeing without the crowds.
International hotel chains have yet to get their foot in the door so accommodation ranges from budget guest houses to charming, refurbished heritage homes. Beyond deciding which of the 29 local temples to visit, daily activities include Mekong cruises, climbing Mount Phu Si and watching the monks collecting alms early in the morning.
This is the sort of place a traveler plans to visit as part of a broad tour, only to fall in love with the laid-back lifestyle. Return trips are inevitable, while others rearrange their schedules and stay much longer than intended.
Travel to Luang Prabang - Getting there
Luang Prabang International Airport is gateway to the city, with regular flights connecting to Vientiane (45 minutes). Bangkok, Thailand is the usual gateway for international tourists, and a connecting flight to Vientiane takes 2 hours. Buses from Vientiane take the better part of a day and are subject to breakdowns and other surprises along the way.
- Worth it? Luang Prabang is the showpiece of Laos and is a must-see for anyone touring Southeast Asia.
- What to do: temple-hopping, eating French baguettes from the local market, giving alms to monks, touring the museums, cruising the Mekong River, drinking Lao coffee.
- Best time to go: the weather is ideal from November to February.
- How Long? Three or four days is a good start.
- Trivia: Luang Prabang faded from capital to backwater when administration of the kingdom fell to Vientiane in the 16th century, but the monarchy continued to reside here until 1975.
Luang Prabang Attractions
- Royal Palace: now the National Museum, the palace is home to fascinating artifacts and memorabilia related to the country’s religion and royal family.
- Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham: this is one of the city’s outstanding temples, boasting an ornate, five-tiered roof and veranda with a great view.
- Wat Xieng Thong: the most beautiful of Luang Prabang’s temples, this one stands at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers and holds artwork dating as far back as the 12th century.
- Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center: home to a collection of everyday implements reflecting the life, culture and religion of Laos.
- Mount Phu Si: home to numerous temples, this hillside is the backdrop of the city and is topped by an early 19th century stupa.
- Kuang Si Waterfall: twenty miles outside of the city is an impressive 650-feet high waterfall best visited during the rainy season.
- Wat Mai: this temple is a perfect example of local architecture and draws visitors and worshippers in the early morning when the voices of chanting monks carry over the courtyard.
- Savannakuha Cave: this fascinating network of caverns houses Tham Xieng Maen Temple, scattered with spirit houses and stone carvings.
- Pak Ou Caverns: another network of caves, this one houses decrepit Buddha images, all of which were relocated here because they were damaged.
- Bear Rescue Center: near Kuang Si Waterfall, this unique facility rescues Asiatic black bears from the poaching trade and rehabilitates them.
- Elephant trekking: elephant treks taking in pristine tracts of jungle and hill tribe villages are a favorite daytrip activity for those based in the city.