Monks with their heads bowed, hands outstretched to receive alms. The sun setting behind the river as you sit atop a temple on a hill. Late night bowling, drinking Beerlao with newfound friends. And the perfectly poured Pimm’s cocktail, served on a French colonial bar jutting out across the water. These are all scenes from one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia: Luang Prabang. With an almost endless list of activities on offer, we count down the eight best things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos.
1. Give alms to the monks at sunrise
It’s the quintessential shot of Luang Prabang: Saffron-robed monks receiving gifts of sticky rice each morning, as the sun starts to rise.
Dating back as far as the 14th century, the tradition of alms (Tak Bat) is where locals wake early to prepare food for the Buddhist monks, usually their only meal of the day. Taking place at sunrise, people gather on the sidewalks in silence, as around 200 monks from all the surrounding temples walk single file down the road.
It’s a sacred, almost surreal experience, and top of the list of things to do in Luang Prabang. A word of caution though: The ceremony really is important to locals and shouldn’t be seen as a ‘tourist trap’. If you do partake, be respectful, keep your distance and dress appropriately.
2. Eat croissants at Le Banneton
Most tourists don’t realize the sheer scale of the French influence on Luang Prabang but, wandering around the old city, it’s hard to ignore. The French first built a consulate here in 1885 and have had a marked influence on the city, as Laos was a French protectorate between 1893 and 1953.
With red-roofed temples rubbing shoulders with French-style bistros, the city has many European influences and today you’ll still find hordes of French expats living in the town, and running everything from tours to the many cute cafes flanking the main street.
While you definitely should book dinner at places like L’Elephant, it’s almost tradition to stop at one of the French cafes at midday to beat the heat, and indulge in the delicious pastries on offer. Le Banneton is the most popular bakery in town, and any self-respecting visitor must spend at least an hour tucking into one of their mouth-watering, flaky croissants while sipping on an iced coffee and watching the crowds go by.
3. Tour the temples
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and that’s largely due to the incredible temples dotted across the city. While they aren’t original – nearly all were rebuilt in the late 1800’s after they were destroyed by mercenaries – these Laotian temples are unique in that they have a distinctive shape, boasting massive multi-tiered roofs with sharp tips, almost akin to serpents.
The most famous (and arguably the most attractive) is Wat Xieng Thong which means ‘Temple of the Golden City’, although nearby Wat Sensoukaram gives it a run for its money. Characterized by more modern details, this ‘temple of 100,000 treasures has ruby-red tiles and bright orange-tinted accents, and was built with 100,000 stones from the nearby Mekong river, hence the name.
Other key temples to see are the twinned Wat Aham and Visoun, as well as the more remote Wat Phon Phao, a small, peaceful temple which is home to female-only monks, all dressed head to toe in white.
4. Catch sunset at Mount Phousi
Another one of those ‘must-do’ things to do in Luang Prabang is to head up the hill to catch the sun’s last rays. Offering an unparalleled vantage point over the city, seeing sunset from atop Phousi Hill is like a rite of passage in the town.
It’s a bit of a trek up the mountainside to reach the top, but well worth the effort. If you head there early, you’ll not only be able to secure a coveted spot, but you can stop to check out another gorgeous temple, Wat Chom Si, making this excursion a bit of a combo deal.
5. Drink cocktails at Utopia
Like sunset atop Mount Phousi, you haven’t really explored Luang Prabang if you haven’t visited the town’s most popular watering hole: Utopia.
A favourite for backpackers and upmarket travellers alike, this restaurant (and yoga retreat) is where everyone winds down after a day of temple and waterfall watching, sipping cocktails and swapping stories.
A relaxed retreat, Utopia has an expansive bamboo balcony, perfectly perched to also see the sunset where you’ll find the trendy crowd draped over beanbags and snacking on their delicious menu.
Pro tip: Luang Prabang has a curfew of 22:30 for bars and restaurants but if you hang around Utopia you’ll definitely find a few die-hards keen to party the night away. Once the lights go off, just hop into a waiting tuk tuk with your new-found friends and head to the city’s weird and wonderful bowling alley, which is open after hours!
6. Check out the night market
Like most cities in Southeast Asia, of course Luang Prabang has a night market. However, there’s just something a little extra special about this one, which offers some quality wares.
You’ll find bespoke wood carvings and handwoven handicrafts jostling for space with the usual glut of souvenirs, plus spectacular silver jewellery, an array of unique greeting cards and many a knick-knack available for sale.
Just remember that, like most places in Asia, you’ll need to barter hard. Haggle a little and you’ll get your trinket at a terrific rate.
7. Head out to Kuang Si Waterfalls
Chances are you’ve seen the cobalt blue waters of Kuang Si waterfalls on many an Instagram feed, the breath-taking sight of a 50-metre cascading drop into three tiers of azure and icy white froth.
This incredible attraction is about 30 km out of Luang Prabang, best done on a songthaew and done early to beat the crowds, but is worth the effort of traipsing out of town. Hike up to the top in about 15 minutes and then slowly make your way down, stopping at every turn for a ‘grammable snap, a quick swing over a pond (or two), and wading out in the milky waters.
This experience is another two-for-one deal as the entrance to Kuang Si is home to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre!
Operated by non-profit organization, Free the Bears, this is a sanctuary for rescued Asiatic Black bears, who loll about in the enclosures, turning a blind eye to the passers-by.
Pro tip: Do make sure you take a wander around the park at the beginning of your trip, else the bears might be asleep by the time you leave.
8. Ramble down the river on a cruise
Like the gorgeous Nam Song in nearby Vang Vieng, mighty Mekong River winds its way through Luang Prabang and is an attraction in itself.
If you haven’t already spent time on it by taking the slow boat, then you absolutely need to take a river cruise. Just take a stroll down the water’s edge to find many an eager cruise operator, ready to book you in at a bargain rate.
The cruise, which often includes a cocktail and a few snacks, is a great way to see lovely Luang Prabang from another angle, best enjoyed at sunset for a more romantic night out.
There’s a saying that, ‘If Paris is your wife, Luang Prabang is your mistress.’ A city crammed with colonial architecture plucked straight out of Europe but offering a dash of its own distinctive style, it’s a place you’ll struggle to leave, and will forever remember.
From early mornings offering alms to sunset vistas, you’ll find a wealth of things to do in this riverside gem, an enchanting ancient city bustling with modern appeal.