Asia is a fascinating but at times chaotic continent to visit. Often it feels necessary to take a step back from the noise and crowds and find somewhere peaceful to reflect on the travel experience and rejuvenate your soul – a place where you can sit by a mighty slow river, sip a long drink and contemplate how good life is. Luang Prabang in northern Laos is that place. This post covers the when, why and how of visiting this ancient royal capital and lists our favourite things to do in Luang Prabang.
- When is the best time to visit Luang Prabang?
- Why Visit – Or things to do in Luang Prabang?
- How long should I stay?
- How do I to get to Luang Prabang?
- How to Pronounce Luang Prabang?
- Tourist Visas
- Luang Prabang Accommodation
When is the best time to visit Luang Prabang?
It is generally considered that October to April is the best time to visit Lao as the entire country should be dry then.
Luang Prabang’s climate is divided between Wet and Dry Seasons also and we recommend the Wet. Of course we are from North Queensland Australia and were raised in a hot humid climate.
Read on to come to the decision that is right for you.
Dry season (Nov-Apr) The town sits in a valley some 300 km north of the Laos Capital of Vientiane. It hides beneath a slash and burn smoke haze during March/April. We totally underestimated the extent and severity of the smoke and how it would affect photography. When rumbles of thunder give way to the first downpour of the wet season, the haze magically clears from the valley.
Wet season (May-Oct). It will be rain every day, but rain cools everything down and adds fun to the experience. Arrange your day so you are resting in your room during the daily afternoon downpour of about one hour.
If rain is not for you, November through February is your season, remembering that this is also Peak Tourist time. Prices will be higher (but not extreme) and accommodation will be more difficult to find so book in advance.
I was smitten with Luang-Prabang long before we arrived and as April was our only window of opportunity, we had no choice.
You can read more about the weather HERE.
Just look at that smoky haze.
This photo shows a different Luang Prabang minus the smoke. Hover over photo for attribution.
Why Visit – Or things to do in Luang Prabang?
The Temples or Wats as they are known in Laos.
Luang Prabang is a Unesco World Heritage City whose name translates to Royal Buddha Image. Where there are Buddhas there are the temples – the reason for the town’s Unesco listing. Low swooping roofs distinguish Lao Wats from those in other countries. There are thirty-two temples under Unesco protection, the most famous of which is Wat Xieng Thong, but there are more than sixty altogether.
Wat Xieng Thong is a show piece, but definitely hunt down some smaller lesser known compounds for comparison. Ask your guesthouse to direct you to their LOCAL FAVOURITE. Buddhist Monks are approachable and easy to talk with, but women should remember that touch is not appropriate.
Literally thousands of bag-wearing umbrella-toting monks and novices roam the town – a sight that describes Luang Prabang more than any other. Their day starts before sunrise, when they hit the streets collecting rice and other food from locals and tourists in the Tak Bat almsgiving ceremony Be sensitive when photographing this sacred ritual. There is an etiquette involved – read about it HERE.
In the late afternoons the sound of beating drums flows into the streets announcing evening prayers.
A fair percentage of novice monks are young boys from poor families. They come in search of food and a free education and are often accepted into a temple. Although some might progress to monkhood, a fair percentage will move on to higher education or gain a job with their monk funded education. The life of a monk, especially a novice monk, who could be as young as seven, is not glamorous. They are up well before dawn chanting and meditating, they have jobs and study to do during the day and they share basic dormitory accommodation without heating in winter or cooling in summer. Adding to these hardships is their families are often too far distant to visit.
Monks at Tak Bat Ceremony.
On the banks of the mighty Mekong River where it meets the Nam Kahn (river). The town fills the raised peninsula between the two rivers and water is never far away, although it is far below. Rivers mean boats and boat trips. I can’t think of a more interesting place to be.
The Laos people are quiet, gentle and unhurried. Even the markets have a relaxed vibe.
Food, Beer and Fruit Shakes
The night markets have ridiculously cheap buffet dinner offerings.
Local Restaurants offer a variety of Western and Laos food. There are so many good places to eat in the town centre including the main street. Restaurants line the bank of the Mekong River where you can dine by candlelight and beneath fairy lights. It is a magical way to spend an evening. The Nam Khan also has it’s share of riverside restaurants.
Cross the Nam Khan, on a thatch bridge near Wat Phan Luang, on Phousi Road and dine on the deck of Dyen Sabai, amidst floor cushions, candles and free wifi. Try the Lao Starter plate and Lao Hot Pot. A little pricey but in a good position with nice atmosphere. Arrive early or book if your party is large. Could be asked to share table.
Thank the French for their legacy of baguettes, good coffee, pastries which persist even though their protectorate finished prior to WWII.
Crepes are a speciality. You must taste them at the Night Market on Sisavangvong Street or in the nearby streets. Marty’s favourite was banana and chocolate. I liked sugar and lemon.
Indulge in the local brew Beer Lao at Sunset in one of the open air river view restaurants. I drank this beer the whole time we were in town and loved it.
Tropical Fruit breakfasts and refreshing Fruit Shakes are superb. The fruit salad below was part of my breakfast at Manichan Guesthouse. A cold fruit shake never failed to refresh us in the heat of the day. We had a favourite place in the main street (shown above) but I’m sure they are wonderful all over town. The markets had covered plastic cups, full of pre-chopped fruit just waiting to be whizzed up on the spot.
Luang Prabang Markets
Spread at ground level and on table top, the morning markets are an exciting mix of live frogs and fish, piles of fresh eggs, insects destined for the dinner plate, dried fish and asian greens. With a sprinkling of motorbikes and a crush of people, the food market is a photographer’s dream. Best visited early, try combining the markets with the dawn Tak Bat ceremony to minimise early mornings.
The night markets offer one of the most relaxed market experiences I’ve ever had. The no pressure sales tactics meant I visited every night and subsequently bought plenty! Expect hand embroidered bedspreads from the Hmong Villagers and various other handicrafts aimed at tourists. When walking away from the city centre through the markets look out on the right for food street.
If you are visiting Bangkok next, use Thailand’s cheap and reliable postal service to send your purchases home.
Views from Mt. Phousi
The golden stupa on the top of Phousi can be seen from all over town.
Climb the white staircase to Mount Phousi in the centre of the historic area for views over the town and river, choosing sunrise over sunset to escape the crowds. There are two entrance/exits. Ascend by one and descend by the other to take in all the sights. Check out the many impressive BUDDHA STATUES ON MT PHOUSI, the Russian machine gun mounting, Buddhas footprint, and buy offerings at the base and place them at the Stupa at the summit.
Laos New Year.
In the days leading up to Pii Mai held on 14-16th April, toddlers encouraged by parents, aim hoses and water pistols, while teenagers mount 44 gallon drums of water on the back of a jeep and go looking for fun. There are more organised celebrations, so ask your Guesthouse prior to arrival if you want to join in. This is the hottest time of the year so the sprays of water are welcome.
Explore the surrounding countryside.
Mekong River Boats at Pak Ou Caves, a day trip from Luang Prabang, Laos.
Dusty Buddha Statues in Pak Ou Caves, Mekong River.
Mekong River Water Buffalo.
Luang Prabang’s main street Th Sisavangvong is full of places selling day and half day tours.
Things to do Around Luang Prabang
Elephant Rescue Centre (a must if you have not met elephants before),
Boat trip up the Mekong River to Pak Ou caves (the boat trip is the draw-card although I found the caves interesting too).
Hiking, climbing and canoeing trips are also available.
Hire a boat and driver at the riverside to explore more Wats across the Mekong from Luang Prabang.
Kouang Si waterfall – Cool Off in a Luang Prabang waterfall, the best being KOUANG SI, a half or full day trip from town. If the weather is hot arrange a full day excursion so you can stay and keep cool. Free the Bears run a bear rescue centre at the entrance to the waterfall which houses mainly the Asiatic Black Bear (Moon Bear) – Donations welcome.
How long should I stay?
Five days is the minimum amount of days to spend in Luang Prabang. It’s likely that you will not want to leave after this time is up though.
How do I to get to Luang Prabang?
How to get to Luang Prabang from Bangkok? Bangkok Air and Laos Airlines.
From Siem Reap and Hanoi? Vietnam Airlines.
The boat trip to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai, is a slow boat stopping overnight in Pak Beng. Fast Boats are available but are noisy and dangerous – crash helmets compulsory!
Luang Prabang to Vientiane? 340 km on Route 13. Overland bus – 10 hours – check for travel warnings.
How to Pronounce Luang Prabang?
Loo-ahng Pra-bahng or try Loo-ung Pra-bung.
Available on arrival for most passport holders ($30US for Australians), but there are exemptions. Please check! You will need the money in US Dollars (Best Option) or Thai Baht (1400), and bring 2 passport photos with you.
Luang Prabang Accommodation
There are many friendly local accommodation options varying everywhere on the scale from budget to luxury. These two options are a good starting point.
Budget Accommodation –
MANICHAN GUESTHOUSE Ban Pakham Unit 4/143, Luang Prabang 00000, Laos. Right next to the morning food market. I can personally recommend this guesthouse. It has changed hands since we stayed there but it still gets great reviews and is still very affordable. We had a double A/c room upstairs with a beautiful shared bathroom (which we never had to wait to use). The building has beautiful timber floors and staircase. There is a courtyard with flowering vines at the back where breakfast is eaten.
Luxury Accommodation –
– Sofitel Luang Prabang Hotel. Ban Mano, Luang Prabang 00600, Laos. Former French Governor’s Residence 20 minutes walk from Old Town. I have not stayed in this luxurious hotel, but my friend has and she loved it.