Luang Prabang in Laos is one of my favourite places in the world. It is a peaceful, relaxed city with lots to see and do. You could spend the whole week there just soaking up the atmosphere but here are some activities to make the most of your visit.
- Alms giving ceremony
Get up early and creep along the streets of Luang Prabang as the sun is rising to watch the daily alms giving ceremony.
Every morning monks walk around the town in silence collecting alms offered by the local people. The monks are bare footed and carry wooden bowls to gather the alms. Some of the monks are very young – maybe 11 or 12 years old – but some are much older.
The ceremony is conducted in silence and the local people kneel on the pavement or crouch on little plastic stools to make their offerings. The monks don’t smile or interact as they collect the alms which are usually parcels of sticky rice.
The alms giving ceremony is one of the highlights of a trip to Luang Prabang but unfortunately the volume and behaviour of tourists is spoiling what should be a wonderful sight. I witnessed people thrusting their cameras in the monks’ faces, taking selfies and even standing in their path during the ceremony despite the many signs asking you to keep your distance. You can take part in the ceremony but signs ask you to only do so if it is meaningful to you.
Afterwards, head to one of the many cafes for coffee and pastries, or the morning market where you will find coconut pancakes and lots of fresh fruit.
2. Royal Palace (National) Museum
In the grounds of the Royal Palace (National) Museum, immediately to your right as you enter the complex, you will find Wat Ho Pha Bang. Inside this small temple you will find the most sacred Buddha image in Laos, the Pha Bang. The Pha Bang is believed to possess miraculous powers that safeguard the country in which it is enshrined and gives the town its name.
It is free to wander around the palace grounds and to see the Pha Bang, but to enter the Royal Palace Museum there is a 30,000 kip (£2.73) admission charge. You have to place your bag in a locker and take off your shoes before entering the palace, and you are not allowed to take photographs inside. There are some grand reception rooms and interesting collections of costumes, swords and ceramics but the highlight is the throne room with its impressive murals.
In the grounds there is a collection of royal cars but again you are not allowed to take photographs.
3. Night market
This has to be one of the nicest, and most chilled out, night markets in South East Asia. From about 4pm onwards, Sisavangvong Road is turned into a huge market with stalls selling everything from clothes to jewellery, coffee and tea, soaps, notebooks, cards, t-shirts, art and lots of food.
It’s great for souvenirs and a lot of the goods on offer are much higher quality than you will see elsewhere. I bought a key ring made from bomb casing and I liked the idea of creating something beautiful out of something horrific. Check out the coconut pancake sellers at the far end of the market – their Khao Nom Kok are delicious.
4. Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre
This tiny museum packs in lots of information about the various hill tribes in Laos and their traditional way of life. Learn about clothing, music, handicrafts and household objects. Entrance is 25,000 kip (£2.28).
5. Climb Mount Phousi
You can enjoy panoramic views of Luang Prabang from Mount Phuosi at any time of the day but it is particularly beautiful as the sun sets. It’s not a long climb and easily managed in about 10-15 minutes. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip (£1.82).
There are three routes to the summit – the easiest and most obvious one is by a stairway opposite the Royal Palace Museum. Climbing Phousi via Wat Siphoutthabat allows you to visit a shrine housing a Buddha’s footprint and a series of gilded Buddhas named after the days of the week.
At the top you can enjoy 360-degree vistas of the city and watch the sunset over the river. You will have to share the view with plenty of other tourists though so get there early to get a good spot.
6. Kuang Si waterfall and the sun bear sanctuary
A short distance away from the town is the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls and the sun bear sanctuary.
The waterfalls are like something out of a fairy tale with their mysterious blue waters and tranquil pools which are suitable for swimming.
You can read my blogpost about this area here.
7. Take a walk or cruise along the river
The pace of life in Laos is very relaxed and it is is fun just to stroll along the river and watch the world go by. Stretching across the river are pedestrian bridges made from bamboo. Each year they are made from scratch as the monsoons wash them away.
On our first visit to Luang Prabang we took a sunset cruise along the river. You can find boats along the banks of the river touting for business. Our trip came with a free Mojito but the alcohol was a bit rough!
8. Wat Xieng Thong
There are many wats to choose from in Luang Prabang but this big temple at the tip of the peninsular is one of the most popular for tourists and it’s easy to see why.
The Golden City Monastry was built in 1560 and much of its original features have been preserved and restored, including the intricate gold stencilling and mosaics.
Admission is 20,000 kip (£1.82). Modest dress is required.
9. Volunteer at the Big Brother Mouse project
Make new friends and help local students practise their English at the Big Brother Mouse project.
There are two sessions daily – at 9am and 5pm – and you don’t have to book ahead. Just turn up, take a chair and you will quickly be surrounded by young people asking you questions. What is your name? How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have?
One of my students was a 16-year-old monk who had been a novice for the past three years and was very intelligent. It was good to chat to him as I had never spoken to a monk before. Another student was a chess champion who was entering a competition that he had won the year before. The prize was three million kip.
It was a great insight into the life and aspirations of young people in Laos and I really enjoyed the session. You can also volunteer for the day at a local school or buy a set of books for the students.
10. Traditional Storytelling theatre
Tucked away in one of the side streets near the river is a tiny theatre with around 30 seats. Tickets to the storytelling theatre cost 50,000 kip (£4.56) and you can buy drinks at the door. The performance lasts about an hour.
The storyteller was a young man accompanied by an older man with a musical instrument called a khene. This was made from bamboo pipes and it made a very beautiful sound. The old man had such a lovely, friendly face and the storyteller was quite evocative, putting on different voices for the different characters. He told us 10 Lao folktales about the creation of Luang Prabang, the mountain and the river.
You could buy books and CDs afterwards as a souvenir or gift.