What’s not to love about the charming and historic Town of Luang Prabang? The entire city square is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and things to do in Luang Prabang are easy to find, especially if you know where to look. A well-rounded trip to Laos’ former capital city includes a climb up Phousi Hill and a cruise on the Mekong River. In between, visitors can relish the vibe of the Luang Prabang Night Market, tour the Royal Palace and stuff their faces with buffalo noodles and baguette sandwiches.
1. Phousi Hill (Mount Phousi)
To get a proper view of the historic Town of Luang Prabang, as well as its lush surroundings, a climb up Phousi Hill is a must. The hike requires a bit of stamina, and morning hours offer cooler weather, shady stopping points and fewer tourists. Sightseers who wait until evening, however, can capture magnificent sunset views over both the Mekong and Khan rivers.
The magical summit stands over the city at 100 meters tall, and photographers should start heading up the hill about 4 or 5 p.m. This allows enough time to view Wat Tham Phou Si at the halfway point and Wat Chom Si at the summit before the sun starts setting. It also gives visitors a breather after walking up the more than 300 steps the journey requires.
The trek is a bit taxing, yes, but the view from the top is worth every sore muscle. Plus, there are lots of historic Buddhist statues and landmarks – like the footprint of Buddha – to see along the way.
Phousi Hill is easy to find, as it stands in the middle of the town. Trekking to the midway point is free, but visitors must pay a small fee of 20,000 kip to climb to the summit and view the famous golden spires of Wat Chom Si.
There are several entry points to Phousi Hill, and each path features different attractions and view points. The most popular entry point is located on the northeast side of Sisavangvong Road, past the street market area. This trek starts at Wat Siphoutthabath, a small Buddhist temple complex, and takes tourists past Wat Pa Huak, famous for its golden doors, well-preserved murals (you have to ask the guard to open the doors to see them) and intricately-detailed wooden architecture.
Things to remember while trekking Phousi Hill
- While Phousi Hill is a major tourist site, it also is a major religious site. Phou Si literally means “sacred hill,” so visitors should wear shirts with sleeves and jeans or pants (or skirts) that cover the ankles. Yes, it’s hot, but sleeves and pants won’t make you die, not even in Laos heat. Wearing a cap and sunscreen is a good idea, too.
- Don’t take alcohol or conduct parties at the summit . It might seem like the best rooftop in the world to throw a bash, but locals don’t do it, so visitors shouldn’t either.
- Phousi Hill opens at 5:30 a.m. and “closes” at 6 p.m. However, guests taking sunset photos at the summit are welcome to stay past closing time.
- Take water. There are a few places to grab drinks and snacks along the way, but visitors should start the trek with a bottle in hand.
Check In to Muangthong Boutique Hotel, Step Out to Phousi Hill
2. Royal Palace (Haw Kham)
Built along the banks of the Mekong River so that the royal family could receive honored guests there, the Royal Palace, known to locals as Haw Kham, is one of Luang Prabang’s most treasured landmarks. The palace was built in 1904 and served as the residence of King Sisavang Vong and his family. The only other royal official to occupy the grounds was Crown Prince Savang Vatthana. The palace was converted into a national museum following the 1975 communist victory of the Laotian Civil War, sometimes called the Secret War, due to it being overshadowed by nearby conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Bedrooms inside the palace have been preserved as they were left in 1975, when the king and his family were forced from the palace. A dining hall exhibit features royal seals and medals, and visitors can tour the Throne Room to admire the coveted Crown Jewels of Laos.
Visitors to the Royal Palace can photograph golden-adorned and marble architecture, particularly at the entrance to the palace, and view mural-covered walls that once surrounded royal officials. An art collection on the grounds features the Phra Bang, an 83-centimeter-tall Buddha cast in gold, silver and bronze. Visitors also can see treasured gifts given to diplomats through the years. One exhibit features a moon rock donated by the United States following a mission to space.
Things to know when visiting the Royal Palace
- Dress appropriately. Visitors should wear long trousers, or skirts that cover the ankles, and shirts with sleeves.
- Once inside the museum, guests are asked to remove their shoes (socks can stay on – thank goodness, right?) and to leave their backpacks in a storage area at the entrance.
- No photographs are allowed inside the museum.
- The Royal Palace is open from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 to 4 p.m. daily. Strolling through garden areas and around the perimeter of the palace is free. Admission into the museum, where guests can view Pha Bang, is 30,000 kip.
Check In to Chitchareune Mouang Luang Hotel, Step Out to Royal Palace
3. Wat Xiengthong
The historic Town of Luang Prabang is unique in many ways, and one of its most interesting geographic features is that the city contains a peninsula. The small landmark is formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and at the peninsula’s end stands Wat Xiengthong.
The Buddhist temple and still-working monastery was built between 1559 and 1560 and once served as the temple where royal family members were crowned. Wat Xiengthong now is a place where young monks and sightseers can study traditional Laos artwork and architecture.
One of the most admired murals on the temple grounds is a glass mosaic depicting the tree of life. Other notable treasures include the temple’s golden outer wall, a small funeral chapel and a reclining Buddha sculpture.
Wat Xiengthong is in the Khili district, about a 10-minute walk from the Royal Palace. The most scenic and shady route to take is on Khem Khong street, which runs northeast, right alongside the Mekong River.
Check In to Mekong Riverview Hotel, Step Out to Wat Xiengthong
4. Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden
Visitors should plan to spend most of the day touring Laos’ first botanical garden, which not only features more than 2000 species of plants but also offers boat rides, bamboo handicraft sessions and adventurous hikes to a secret cave.
The entire experience at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is meant to be as educational as entertaining, and hosts at one of Luang Prabang’s best attractions have taken steps to ensure guests always have something to explore.
Things to do in Luang Prabang at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden
- Garden excursion: this general tour is for visitors interested in exploring the vast garden grounds only. Guests are invited to stroll the grounds at their leisure, sign up for workshops, hike to an on-site cave – or just chill by the Mekong River. Tea houses can be found scattered throughout the gardens, and gift shops offer souvenirs and a place to cool off for a few minutes.
- See Kuang Si Waterfall or hike Pak Ou Caves: another option for visitors is a half-day tour of the gardens and a boat cruise to Kuang Si Waterfall or Pak Ou Caves. This tour must by booked by at least two people and can accommodate groups of up to 20.
- Trek Pha Tad Ke Mountain: with this adventure tour, trekkers can enjoy stunning mountain views before lunchtime and a garden tour in the afternoon. Booking this trek requires at least two people, and groups can be no larger than 10.
Getting to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is half the fun. Tourists can board a boat at the Boat Tour – Pha Tad Ke/Botanical Garden reception office near Ban Wat That in Luang Prabang. The boat ride down the Mekong River to the garden takes 15 minutes.
Hours for Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Boat excursions are offered every day and leave hourly from Slow Boat (Satri) Pier. The garden and reception office, however, are closed on Wednesdays. The entire facility closes for one week every year during Lao New Year (Pi Mai) and the Boat Racing Festival.
Check In to Luang Prabang Legend Hotel, Step Out to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden
5. Kuang Si Waterfall
One of the best things to do outside Luang Prabang is to take a dip in Kuang Si Waterfall. The three-tiered falls near the village of Ban Long are a great place to spend the day, as visitors can swim in several pools, and shady areas make great picnic spots.
Travelers wanting to spend more time in the area can visit nearby attractions like Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center and Kuang Si Butterfly Park.
On the way to Kuang Si Waterfall from Luang Prabang, tourists can make a fun stop at Laos Buffalo Dairy to feed baby buffalo, sample homemade ice cream and buy freshly-made cheese. The farm is accessible on the Mekong River by boat and on Highway 1 by car.
Kuang Si Waterfall is about 25 kilometers from Luang Prabang and can be reached by boat, car, tuk tuk or motorbike. Travelers wanting to float down the Mekong River to the falls can buy tickets and board at Slow Boat (Satri) Pier. The pier also is a good place to hire a driver. Most tuk tuk drivers charge 30,000 to 50,000 kip to go to the falls. Adventurists can rent a motorbike in Luang Prabang and make the drive on their own.
Check In to Vanvisa at the falls, Step Out to Kuang Si Waterfall
6. Luang Prabang Night Market & Morning Market
One of the highlights of touring the Town of Luang Prabang is hitting the Night Market after the sun goes down. The open-air market is set up along Sisavangvong Road and features everything from traditional clothing to Laotian snacks.
Visitors can walk the corridor’s two main aisles in about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how lost they get in the sea of wares. Prices at the market tend to be lower than in shops or boutiques, but bargaining with local vendors still is welcome – and expected!
The Morning Market is technically open “24 hours,” but the best time to go is just after the sun comes up. The market serves as the main shopping center for local restaurants and street vendors, and all the freshest meats, fish and produce are available in the early morning hours. Visitors can pick up fresh mangoes, oranges and produce unique to Southeast Asia. They also can munch on snacks like sweet pancakes, grilled sausages and sliced fruits while browsing the booths in the alleyway.
The morning market is located across from Phousi Hill, at the end of Street Food Alley.
Check In to Maison Dalabua Luangprabang Hotel, Step Out to Luang Prabang Morning Market
7. Morning alms (sai bat)
Travelers who are up and wandering through the Morning Market will most likely catch the morning alms parade as well. Known by locals as sai bat, the alms march happens each morning between 5 and 7 a.m. when local monks set out to collect their food rations for the day.
The monks are easy to spot in their long, saffron-colored robes as they walk barefoot in single file down the sidewalks. Locals rush out and line up to offer the monks sticky rice, and the monks give those who donate a blessing in return. The colorful parade is a special moment each morning for locals, and it can be particularly surreal for foreigners seeing the event for the first time.
Check In to Burasari Heritage Luang Prabang, Step Out to Luang Prabang Old Town
8. Mekong cruise
Arriving in Luang Prabang from Huay Xai via longboat is one of the most scenic adventures a person can take, but backpackers just looking for bragging rights of cruising down the Mekong River can sign up for shorter tours also.
The boat ride to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is an easy way to check this attraction off your bucket list, but if your heart is screaming, “Go big, or go home!” then book a cruise on one of the big daddy cruise vessels that leaves from Mekong Sun Pier. Luxury vessels offer longer cruise times and accommodations for travelers who want to spend a night or two on the water.
Longboat cruises, however, are the cheaper and more popular choice for cruising down the Mekong in Luang Prabang. Cruises range from one hour to all day and can be booked at any of the dozens of tour agencies scattered throughout town.
Check In to The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel, Step Out to the Mekong River
9. Local cuisine
It’s probably true that foodies don’t rush to Laos to taste any certain famous dish, but that’s not saying Laotians don’t cook up their fair share of mouthwatering grub. Many Laos dishes resemble similar culinary delights of neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and China, but Laotians like to add twists of their own which make the taste of comforting dishes unique to Laos only.
The Night Market is a great place to find most local specialties, like Laos khao soi and buffalo noodles, but the streets in Old Town are lined with sit-down restaurants and open-air pubs that offer favorite dishes as well.
One of the best ways to discover the local flavors of Luang Prabang is to sign up for a cooking class. Popular spots include Bamboo Tree Restaurant and Cooking School and Tamarind restaurant. Both are located on Kingkitsarath Road (next door to each other, in fact) on the way to Wat Xiengthong at the end of the peninsula.
Laos khao soi
Must-try Laotian dishes
- Larb (laab or laap): often considered the national dish of Laos, this salad is made with minced or thinly-sliced meat (take your pick of pork, buffalo, seafood or chicken) flavored with a tangy combination of lime juice and fish sauce mixed with local herbs like cilantro, mint and green onion. The whole dish is topped with toasted, ground sticky rice which gives the dish a unique flavor and grainy texture.
- Laos khao soi: unlike its creamy counterpart in Northern Thailand, Laos khao soi is made with clear broth and thin noodles topped with minced pork mixed with tomatoes and local spices.
- French baguette: one way to locate fellow backpackers and travelers is to go to the “sandwich and smoothie corner” near the entrance to the Night Market. This popular lunch spot fills up to capacity at noon, but lines move quickly as most shop vendors sell the same things – sandwiches and smoothies. Ordering is easy, but the trick is deciding the combinations you want before stepping to the front of the line. Baguettes can be filled with everything from Laughing Cow cheese and cucumbers to pate, shredded carrots and tomatoes. Smoothies are a whole other struggle. Would you like a smoothie with dragonfruit, orange and pineapple or mango, lime and mint? The choices are endless. (But the mango, lime and mint is the bomb. Just saying.)
- Jaew bong: dips, called jaew, are common side dishes in Laos and often contain fish pastes blended with local herbs, chilis and spices. One of the most popular dips in Luang Prabang is jaew bong, made with dried chilies, garlic, shallots, ginger … and dried buffalo fat. It’s not for everyone, but visitors should give it a try just to say they had a taste.
Kaipen (kai paen)
Sai oua kwai (buffalo sausage)
- Kaipen (kai paen): difficult to explain but tasty to eat, kaipen is a snack made from fresh water green algae. The Laos delicacy is loved throughout the country but is particularly popular in Luang Prabang where the algae can be harvested easily from local river bottoms. The process for getting it to the crispy snack that is sold in shops involves pounding, boiling, flattening and drying, but the most important detail is the flavorful sheets that come out. Kaipen is eaten like potato chips (but is way healthier) and goes best with a cold Beerlao.
- Sai oua kwai (buffalo sausage): this local sausage carries the same name as the famous spicy sausage made in Northern Thailand, but rather than pork, sai oua in Laos generally is made with water buffalo. The locally-raised meat is ground and combined with lemongrass, ginger and loads of local herbs. Travelers can find sai oua at the Night Market and some specialty restaurants in the historic Town of Luang Prabang.
- Laos BBQ: nothing screamed MEAT louder than a Laotian barbecue. Foodies can choose from skewered half chickens, grilled whole fish, a variety of homemade sausages and even roasted frogs and organ meats.
Getting around Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is one of the few cities in the world where walking is best. Most hotels and hostels are in the heart of downtown, and those that aren’t are within walking distance of all things to do in Luang Prabang.
If you’re more of a sightseer than a walker, tuk tuks are the most popular means of public transportation. And, it’s not uncommon for friendly locals to offer rides to tourists, especially when it’s raining!