This destination trip report will cover the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang in Laos.
The main destination of this trip was without doubt Luang Prabang. I heard some great stories before about the city nicknamed as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ or the ‘Pearl of Indochina’. The city has therefore always wanted been high on my list of places to visit and this time I was finally lucky enough to travel to Laos.
Even though the city is small at 55,000 inhabitants, there is plenty to see. Even more important, the city is said to have an excellent vibe and has the reputation as the kind of town where people love to linger for a while longer just soaking up the atmosphere and eating and drinking around. I therefore allocated three days to Luang Prabang on my Laos itinerary.
After an adventurous bus ride from Vang Vieng and having checked into my hotel for the next three nights, it was around lunchtime when I finally was ready to explore town, curious if the city would live up to my high expectations.
One of the most appealing aspects of Luang Prabang is the sheer amount of cafes, bars and restaurants in town, ranging from cheap local eateries to hip design places serving Lao-French fusion food and imported wines.
Despite its small size, Luang Prabang has by far the most cosmopolitan vibe in the entire of Laos. Yet the tourist stream and foreign influences do not drown out the local Lao culture and history.
The town genuinely feels like a well-balanced, laid-back place which has everything tourists might want but which does not suffer from overtourism which plagues other parts of south-east Asia.
I got my first touch of this sophisticated scene when I stopped by Dyen Sabai for lunch. This Laotian restaurant has cute seating corners with cushions, pillows and low dining tables overlooking the Nam Khan River.
For lunch I ordered some fish steamed in banana leaves and a cold Beer Lao or two, which made for an excellent meal.
From Dyen Sabai it was a short walk over the bamboo pedestrian bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan River where the old town of Luang Prabang is located.
The rickety bamboo bridge is seasonal only (the dry season from October to April) as the structure does not withstand the extra water flow during the rainy season.
Each year the local population has to deconstruct the entire bridge when the rains arrive and build it up again at the start of the dry season. Because of this, a small toll of 5,000 kip (0.50 EUR) is charged for a return ticket which is good for two crossings.
The peninsula, which is bordered on one side by the Nam Khan River and on the other side by the mighty Mekong River (the confluence of the both rivers is at the far end of the peninsula) is home to the old town of Luang Prabang.
Due to the strategic location, this is where all the city’s main buildings were constructed and where you can find most of the cultural and historical legacy. Whether it is Buddhist temples built by Khmer or local Lao rulers or mansions built by the French colonial overlords, you can find it all on the peninsula.
Many of the gorgeous mansions in the old town have been converted to boutique hotels, shops, cafes and restaurants, making the peninsula a great place to wander around aimlessly and just soak up the local sights and sounds.
One of the nicest parts of the peninsula is the riverside street high along the Mekong River. There are some good coffee shops and restaurants here, some with terraces under the palm trees looking over the river.
Big Tree Cafe and Saffron Coffee Brew Bar and Roastery were two of my favourites in this area. During my stay in Luang Prabang I paid multiple visits to both as they had good quality drinks and food, as well as lovely riverside seating areas with a nice vibe.
There are a couple of good spots in Luang Prabang to catch some great sunset views. As on my first day in town I spent a little too much town at the riverside cafes, it was only natural to stay in place and to walk down to the actual riverfront to admire the views.
Armed with a cold beer from one of the many small shops in town, I sat down on some pontoons normally used by some local boatmen to watch the sunset. The views were magnificent and it easily ranks among my top five or so sunset spots in the world.
Besides the gorgeous views there was also really something to the peaceful riverside view and general quietness. There was absolutely no sound save for the occasional boat passing by.
When the sun has finally set the bustling night market of Luang Prabang opens its doors. It was a pleasant walk through the old town to the street on which the night market is located.
The night market, which consists out of one street full of market stalls selling mostly souvenirs and an adjacent alley where all the hawker stalls and other food vendors are located, is arguably one of the highlights of Luang Prabang. It certainly makes for a great place to eat some delicious local food and to stock up on some gifts for home.
For more information and pictures about the Luang Prabang night market, check out our special guide on Luang Prabang food, morning and night markets.
As during my first day in Luang Prabang I did not do much else than sitting down at some cafes and restaurants and didn’t actually manage to see any real sight, I planned to dedicate my second day in town to some proper sightseeing.
First on the list was the Luang Prabang morning market, which is held daily in a long but narrow alley in the backstreets of the old town. Although the market lasts until mid-afternoon, it is at its best in the (early) morning hours.
Where the night market is arguably more meant for tourists, the morning market is a mostly local affair. This is the place where most Lao go for grocery shopping. It is great for photography, people watching and perhaps stocking up on some food yourself if you happen to have a self-catering apartment.
There are a couple of hawker stalls for those who want to eat some food or have a drink at the market grounds.
Temples of Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is famous for its Buddhist temples spread throughout town. The city name literally means ‘Royal Buddha image’ so its not much of a surprise there are so many temples in town.
As Luang Prabang’s old town is small enough, I decided it was best to randomly stroll around town as I felt like instead of focusing too much on a map to which temple to go to now. Chances are big that after a full day exploring the city you will have come across most of the main temples anyway.
Vat Phonxay, which is located right on the morning market, was the first of the Luang Prabang temples which I visited. It houses a covered pagoda with beautiful frescoes depicting teachings of the great Buddha.
Next up was Wat Mai Souvannapoumaram (better known simply as Wat Mai), which is the largest temple in Luang Prabang. For this temple tourists need to pay a small entrance fee.
Built in the 18th Century, it consists of a large pagoda in the middle of the complex, as well as some smaller shrines around it. The pagoda has a beautiful golden relief on its facade. If you walk around the grounds, you will spot more modern signs with all kinds of inspiring quotes.
Whether they indeed come out of Buddhism or out of a modern booklet “the best cliché sayings about life” I have no idea!
Next to Wat Mai is the old Royal Palace complex, which can also be accessed for a small entrance fee. Note that you must cover your knees and shoulders when visiting. In case you wear shorts (like I did) you can borrow a long skirt to cover your knees for free.
The Royal Palace complex consists out of several buildings. The Haw Kham (Golden Hall), constructed in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavangvong and his family, combines modern European beaux arts and Lao styles.
It used to be the living quarter and reception hall of the king and his family, but is nowadays a museum which tells the story how life used to be in the royal courts. Several religious objects and artworks are on display too, with the folk tales behind them explained in English. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden inside the Haw Kham.
Haw Pha Bang
The most beautiful building on the Royal Palace grounds is however the Haw Phra Bang temple. It houses the Phra Bang Buddha, a golden statue of Buddha after which the city is named.
According to legend it was cast during the first millennium AD in Sri Lanka, although others suggest it is more likely that the Buddha is of Khmer origin and made much later in the 2nd millennium.
On the grounds of the Royal Palace you can also find the Royal Ballet Theatre, which is being used for occasional folk dance show.
Wat Xieng Thong
After visiting the Royal Palace I headed again to one of my favourite riverside cafes for lunch. Even when you are getting tired of visiting the temples and sights, Luang Prabang makes it so easy to escape it all as there are literally hundreds of cute cafes, bars and restaurants all over town.
My next destination after lunch was Wat Xieng Thong, which is located near the northern tip of the peninsula. Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps Luang Prabang’s most elaborate and magnificent temple.
The complex, which was built in the 16th Century, features variety of ornately detailed prayer halls, mosaics, shrines and gardens. It is also the location of the old royal funeral chapel.
The tip of the peninsula is also well worth a look around. Scenery-wise it is certainly the most beautiful part of Luang Prabang. The river views through the palm trees are just gorgeous.
At the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan is a small beach. Although I wouldn’t really recommend it for swimming, it is a nice spot to sit down for a while to absorb the river views and boats passing by.
If you follow the Nam Khan River a few feet upstream you will pass by the Riverview Park, which is also a picturesque spot with its gorgeous tropical flowers and grand river views.
Walking back from Riverview Park down the peninsula you will again see countless of temples. Especially Sakkaline Road is literally dotted with dozens of temple complexes, such as Wat Pak Khan Khammungkhun, Wat Kili, Wat Sibounheuang and Wat Sop Sickharam to name a few.
While Luang Prabang is already pretty laid-back and serene in general and devoid of traffic and masses of people like other south-eastern Asian cities, this neighbourhood in particular is especially serene.
I just loved sitting for a while at a roadside table of a French bakery/patisserie (Le Banneton), drinking and iced coffee and eating an eclair while just taking in the surroundings. Apart from some temple bells and an occasional tuk-tuk or bicycle passing by, there weren’t any human-made sounds at all. It’s hard to describe – but the entire vibe feels just somewhat magical.
There aren’t many city destinations in the world in which I can actually totally relax and get away from it all, but Luang Prabang is certainly one of them.
Another prime temple spot in Luang Prabang is Phousi Hill (also spelled as Phu Si). The hill, which is about 100 metres (328ft) high, has several temples and shrines dotted along its spine.
It is a fun climb up from Wat Siphoutthabath all the way to Wat Chom Si on the summit. Wat Chom Si is also a prime sunset spot as there are commanding views of the wider area.
Unfortunately, literally hundreds of fellow travellers will have similar sunset plans as it is recommended by every guidebook and guesthouse in town. While walking on Phousi Hill I did barely see another tourist, so I was hugely surprised to see the sea of people at the top. It was the only moment during my three days in Luang Prabang that I actually felt that the city is actually quite touristy – at any other time it felt like an oasis of quietness.
Although the views from Phousi Hill are still good, you have to stand shoulder to shoulder in a great mass of people and might even have to elbow yourself to the front in order to actually be able to see the sun set and to take a picture.
I very much preferred to watch the sunset on the banks of the Mekong River, where you not do not only have superior views but also a much better experience with nobody else around.
Luang Prabang day trips
One my third and last day in Luang Prabang, I opted for a (half) day trip out of town. There are several popular day trips, which can easily be arranged in your guesthouse or hotel, or in one of the many travel agencies in town.
There is really no need to book any of these in advance before you set off to Laos, as arranging any of these trips through the internet will likely mean paying outrageous prices.
For example, I made a half day trip to the gorgeous Kuang Si falls which I arranged through a local booking agency. I paid less than 5 EUR for the trip to the waterfalls, which included a ride by minibus and entrance to the park. Similar tours like these (albeit private) are advertised for well over 100 EUR (!) on many tour and day trip websites, which is a total rip-off.
Even if you plant to take a private guided tour you are much better off arranging it locally as you will only pay a fraction of the price you might see online.
Besides the Kuang Si falls, to which I dedicated an entire article on its own, there are a number of other day trips possible. There are a plethora of river cruises, from short sunset cruises in a private boat to full day trips on the Mekong on board a larger ship with sunbeds and bar. A popular river cruise destination are the Pak Ou Caves, some 15 miles upstream from Luang Prabang.
Other half day trips which sounded appealing (but for which I unfortunately did not have the time) were a visit to some local villages (including one in which they produce homemade whiskey) and an elephant sanctuary where you can bath in the river with the animals.
What these day trips have in common is that they do all involve the local community and take ecotourism in high regard. Most Luang Prabang tour agencies hold ethics in high regard, which is why for example you can bath with elephants and see how the local conservation programmes work, but cannot ride them.
After I finished my half day trip to the Kuang Si Falls, I just spent my last moments in Luang Prabang relaxing at some of the riverside cafes while drinking a beer and reading a good book.
I also returned to the shores of the Mekong to watch the sunset a final time, before having another great meal at the night market. The three days in Luang Prabang went by extremely fast. Although I was definitely rejuvenated due to the town’s relaxed atmosphere, I felt like I could easily spend a week more lazing around town.
I fell in love with Luang Prabang during my three-day visit and wish I could have stayed longer in town. There is just something magical to the city. The Mekong river life, all the magnificent temples, the bustling markets, the great food, the French influence visible in both architecture and patisseries and restaurants..
There is a lot to see in and around Luang Prabang and it is fully justified that UNESCO has put the city on its World Heritage List. What surprises me most however, is how calm the city is.
Sure, Luang Prabang is touristy, and if you visit some of the main sights at peak times (like Phousi Hill at sunset) you will not be alone. Yet throughout the rest of the day it feels at times you have the entire city all by yourself. The atmosphere is quiet and calm, almost sedated. Yet at the same time there is a lot of local life if you seek it out, whether it is day markets in which locals shop for produce or happening bars and pubs in the night.
Luang Prabang is really a city to get away from it all. To slow down for a while, to wind down. The city has easily made it to my list of top three or five cities in the world. I would honestly be surprised if someone would not end up liking it. I for one, would return to Luang Prabang in a heartbeat whenever I have the opportunity.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Lazing in Laos and Gallivanting a Wee Bit Around Asia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Aegean Airlines Business Class Bucharest to Athens (Airbus A320)
2. Review: Goldair Handling Lounge (Non-Schengen) Athens Airport
3. Review: Saudia Business Class Athens to Jeddah (Airbus A320)
4. Review: Saudia Alfursan Lounge Jeddah Airport South Terminal
5. Review: Review: Saudia Business Class Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur (Boeing 787)
6. Review: CitizenM Hotel Kuala Lumpur Bukit Bintang
7. Kuala Lumpur in One Day: What to See and Do in 24 Hours
8. A Batu Caves Half Day Trip From Kuala Lumpur By Public Transport
9. Review: Plaza Premium Lounge Private Resting Suite Gateway KLIA2
10. Review: Air Asia Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane (Airbus A320)
11. Review: Hotel Khamvongsa, Vientiane, Laos
12. Destination Trip Report: A Day in Vientiane, Laos
13. Guide: Domestic Bus Travel in Laos and How to Book a Ticket
14. Review: Simon Riverside Hotel, Vang Vieng, Laos
15. Trip Report: Vang Vieng – Worth a Stop on Your Laos Itinerary?
16. Review: Villa Ban Phanluang, Luang Prabang, Laos
17. Luang Prabang: The Stunning Pearl of Indochina (current chapter)
18. Guide: Luang Prabang Morning, Food and Night Markets
19. Kuang Si Falls: A Gorgeous Luang Prabang Day Trip
20. Review: Thai Smile Economy Class Luang Prabang to Bangkok (Airbus A320)
21. Review: Ibis Styles Bangkok Sukhumvit 4
22. Review: Air France/KLM Business Lounge Bangkok Airport
23. Review: Garuda Indonesia Business Class Bangkok to Jakarta (Boeing 737-800)
24. Review: Sapphire Plaza Premium Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
25. Review: Garuda Business Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
26. Review: Review: Japan Airlines Business Class Jakarta to Tokyo Narita (Boeing 787-8)
27. Review: Capsule Hotel Transit Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
28. Tokyo Stopover: What to See and Do in the Capital of Japan for a Day
29. Review: ANA Business Lounge Tokyo Narita Airport
30. Review: United Club Tokyo Narita Airport
31. Review: Turkish Airlines Economy Class Tokyo Narita to Istanbul (Boeing 777)
32. Review: Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles Lounge Istanbul Airport
33. Review: Turkish Airlines Economy Class Istanbul to Bucharest (Airbus A330)