Luang Prabang, Laos

Set within a narrow valley at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang was until 1975 the royal capital of Laos, and today it remains the one unmissable destination on any holiday to the country. Ranked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which describes it as ‘the best preserved city in Southeast Asia’, Luang Prabang is the cradle of Laotian culture, with over 30 temples, fading yet still handsome French Colonial architecture, and, despite its immense popularity with tourists, a sometimes quite sleepy feel.

Always the highlight of any Laos itinerary, Luang Prabang is often reached by a cruise on the Mekong, with Chiang Rai in Thailand a popular departure point, or a particularly striking route over mountain roads from the famous Plain of Jars. Bounded on one side by the river, Luang Prabang is wrapped in mountains while the surrounding area has deep limestone caves and fabulous waterfalls to explore. In the evenings, the night bazaars showcase the cuisine of a multiethnic population, while if you’re looking for a sit-down meal, the riverside restaurants see a lot of competition for tables with the best views.

Most visitors agree that the one essential activity when in Luang Prabang is getting up early to watch as hundreds of Buddhist monks, draped in their saffron robes, leave the temples with their wooden bowls to collect alms. The monks are not allowed to eat anything after midday, so local people line up outside their homes to give them food every morning, something that will hopefully give them a little extra credit when it comes to the afterlife.

Things to do in Luang Prabang

Just north of the city, and easily reached by boat up the Mekong, the Pak Ou Caves have long been a site of pilgrimage for locals, who over the years have placed innumerable statues of Buddha – most of them charmingly dog-eared now – into a fascinating albeit crowded shrine. Wat Wisunalat is Luang Prabang’s oldest temple, dating to the early 16th century. On the other side of the river, Wat Xieng Thong has a rare statue of a reclining Buddha, while nearby is the ancient royal temple of Wat Long Khoung, where kings would retreat to meditate before their coronations. The temple has a beautiful sweeping roof, and an ornate structure, most notably the gold and black columns at the entrance.
Phu Si Hill lies just outside Luang Prabang. It’s a climb of almost 330 steps to the summit, which rewards you with stunning panoramas of the city and the Mekong below. The path zigzags up past a number of temples, ‘til you reach a glittering golden stupa at the top. Another of the most popular excursions from Luang Prabang is the Kuang Si Falls a short drive away. You can swim in the blue pools formed by the beautifully cascading waterfalls. Leave early to beat the crowds, and you may encounter local children having their picnic breakfasts there before school.

You can learn about Luang Prabang’s long and proud history at the Royal Palace Museum, also the site of Wat Wisunalat with its watermelon-shaped dome. The city has a Fine Arts School showcasing traditional handicrafts, while if you hire a bike to look visit the Hmong communities in the area, then a short ride brings you to Ban Chan, a village known for its pottery.

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Specialist holidays in Luang Prabang

Most people spend a day or two in Luang Prabang before heading on to Vang Vieng, the Plain of Jars or Vientiane. If you’re interested in staying longer though, to get to know this beguiling city a little deeper, then consider a themed itinerary. Photography tours brilliantly capture the morning procession of the monks, the night markets, and the magnificent river sunsets, while volunteering holidays are also available. You could spend a month with a women’s empowerment project here, or help out at a wildlife sanctuary.

A note on elephants riding in Luang Prabang

Laos was once known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. Today there are thought to be only 800 elephants here, and half of them are in captivity. Many were once employed in the logging industry and have now been rescued to live in sanctuaries. However, sadly not all sanctuaries really live up to the name, and you will find camps around Luang Prabang where tourists can ride on elephants. This is painful for the animals, and they will often be poorly treated to keep them docile. For that reason, Responsible Travel opposes virtually all elephant riding experiences. Our guide to elephants in tourism goes into greater detail.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Benh LIEU SONG] [Intro: bluebird666] [Things to do: Ekrem Canli] [Specialist holidays in Luang Prabang: JJ Harrison]
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