Mention to friends and family that you are travelling to Luang Prabang and you will probably get one of two responses — a blank stare or a rapturous review of what is quite possibly Southeast Asia’s best kept secret.
As those who have walked the picturesque streets of this elegant enclave of French colonial architecture will tell you, you are absolutely in for something special here. The tiny laneways of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town hide innumerable treasures that would take weeks to work your way through completely.
Explore bustling markets and glittering wats, stroll beneath fragrant Frangipanis past stunning gardens festooned with orchids, and admire restored villas housing boutique guesthouses, restaurants and cafes. It all creates an atmosphere akin to a very pleasant dream.
Pick your time to visit Luang Prabang and elsewhere in northern Laos carefully. In the off season (May and June) the weather can get very hot, with high humidity. The upside is that there are less tourists around, however you may find that some activities don’t operate at this time. August brings lots of rain, while November, December and January are the coolest months to visit — with average temperatures of around 20 degrees.
Enjoy this Luang Prabang travel guide.
Luang Prabang for history lovers
Sandwiched between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, Laotian history is complex to say the least.
It’s worth getting some of the backstory under your belt prior to your visit. The French exercised control from roughly the late 1800s through until post WWII. Full independence was granted in 1953 and a constitutional monarchy survived 20 years of civil war until 1975, when King Savang Vatthana surrendered to the communist Pathet Lao. Laos has officially been the Lao People’s Democratic Republic ever since.
One of the most interesting ways to step back in time is by paying a visit to the French Beaux-Arts-inspired Royal Palace, which has remained largely undisturbed since the King’s departure in the 1970s. It’s a surprisingly modest and fairly austere monarchical pad, although the richly decorated reception rooms are suitably opulent. Of special interest will be the display of state gifts, including a boomerang from the Queensland Government in the 1960s.
Don’t forget to check out the Royal Palace Car Collection. The enormous Lincoln Continental (a gift of the US Government) was apparently used by the Royal Family for casual trips around town.
Top cultural experiences in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang’s old town sits on a small peninsula formed by the mighty Mekong River on one side and the smaller Nam Khan river on the other.
The peninsula is easily walkable, with three or four main streets running parallel along the peninsula, crisscrossed by numerous laneways and side streets. The old town is roughly bordered at the city end by the Royal Palace and the mini mountain known as Phu Si, and at the pointy water end by Wat Xieng Thong — the city’s best known Buddhist monastery.
Get some cultural context at the excellent Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC). You’ll find the museum on the city side of Phu Si, just up from the Dara Market. The museum is dedicated to showcasing northern Laos hill tribe cultural heritage. There’s also a shop and a café that does a fabulous iced coffee. There was a basket weaving class in full swing during our visit, so check the website for what’s on during your stay.
Exit the museum through the café entrance on the small side street, then turn left and make your way through the residential area — using the golden stupa on the top of Phu Si as your guide (keep heading in that direction). A stroll through this neighbourhood will give you a glimpse of the local way of life — more so than what you’ll get in the old town itself. As you start to climb the lower reaches of Phu Si, look back and you’ll be amazed by the sea of roofs and the density of homes crammed into this small area.
A short walk through the forest around the base of Phu Si will bring you to one of the ticket gates to begin the climb to That Chomsi at the top. It’s a steep climb but the garden is stunning and there are plenty of spots for a shady stop along the way. In the shadow of the glittering stupa, the views from the top, across the city and the mountainous surroundings, are sensational. Head down the opposite side of the mountain which will bring you out at the Royal Palace.
There are 30+ wats (Buddhist temples) in Luang Prabang and one of the cultural traditions many visitors want to see is Tak Bat — the morning call to alms — where hundreds of silent, barefoot monks take to the streets to collect donations of food from the townsfolk. Head out around 5.30am and wait for your first glimpse of the procession of vivid orange coming up the road. It’s truly stunning. That said, tourist interest in the custom is creating some issues, so maintain a respectful distance and remember that these most unlikely celebrities are not in it for the attention or a spot in your Instagram feed.
Once Tak Bat has come to an end, use the opportunity of being up early to see the morning market in full swing. It’s one of the easiest ways to connect with local culture and there are plenty of delicious freshly cooked snacks to pick up for breakfast along the way.
Great places to eat in Luang Prabang
Laotian cuisine will be one of the absolute highlights of your visit to Luang Prabang.
While not cheap by Laos standards, it’s still reasonably easy on the average Aussie holiday budget. Wash your meal down with a large chilled Beerlao, which generally comes in at around $3AUD.
There’s no end of great places to eat, but here are a few of our favourites. For a light lunch try the Mango Garden Restaurant near the Royal Palace. The garden setting is shady and comfortable and the menu offers a good variety of traditional and western-style dishes.
The riverfront is a great draw for dinner, although the touristy restaurants that line the Mekong side of the peninsula don’t tend to get a great wrap (although they do offer sunset views). Some of the best dining options in town can be found on the Nam Khan riverfront. Rosella Fusion’s simple interior belies the complex flavours on offer. Everything on the menu of traditional Laotian fare is cooked from scratch in a very small kitchen so expect dinner to take a little longer to arrive than usual. At the time of writing there were no credit card facilities, so don’t get caught out (like we did). It’s quite a walk to the nearest ATM.
Located just next door, Tamarind gets great reviews for its modern take on Laotian cuisine. It offers a contemporary setting and is moderately priced. Next door to that, the Bamboo Tree is always pumping.
Watch our guide for Sky News Business Class to top places to stay and eat in Luang Prabang:
Adam Ford, editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and host of Tour the World, regularly joins the team at Sky News Business Class to discuss top travel destinations around the world. In this interview Adam provides tips on visiting stunning Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
To really push the boat out, jump in a tuk tuk and head for the ultra-swish Hotel Sofitel Luang Prabang and their superb in-house eatery — Governor’s Grill. There’s an extensive menu of Western and quintessential Asian favourites on offer, but take the plunge and order the renowned Buffalo tasting platter, which includes a range of dishes like crisp deep-fried riverweed with buffalo jam. The wine and cocktail lists, along with the service, are top-notch.
The Sofitel also offers one of the city’s most popular cooking classes.
Café culture abounds in Luang Prabang. The old town is awash with cafes and bakeries, offering fabulous French-style pastries and pretty decent coffee. Le Banneton is renowned for its croissants (get there early), while new-kid-on-the-block Zurich Bread Factory and Café is raising the bar for bakehouses across town. Joma Bakery Café (two locations) and whimsical Novelty Café are both top options for coffee and free Wi-Fi.
Where to shop in Luang Prabang
In general, Laos is a not a destination for label shoppers, but for those in the market for traditional handicrafts — in particular textiles — Luang Prabang is your retail nirvana.
The Handicraft Night Market — which happens every night on the main street of the old town in front of the Royal Palace — is a good starting point, but the term ‘handicraft’ is applied pretty loosely. If you’re serious about acquiring an authentic piece, spend a bit more in one of the more reputable boutiques around town.
TAEC’s shop is a good choice. There’s an outlet on the main street in the old town as well as at the museum itself. Both locations carry handicrafts and textiles, and purchases benefit rural ethnic minorities.
Ma Te Sai is another good option. It’s run by Australian expat Emi Weir and stocks a range of beautiful textiles, homewares and gifts. The aim is to provide a sustainable and fair income stream for artisans from some of the country’s poorest areas. The shop is located on the far side of Phu Si — opposite The Sports Bar.
Another happy hunting ground for handicrafts is the fascinating Ock Pop Tok (meaning east meets west) Living Crafts Centre. It’s located a short distance east of the old town. Here you’ll gain a valuable insight into traditional textile production in Laos, and have the opportunity to purchase handmade pieces.
Ways to relax in Luang Prabang
A visit to Luang Prabang is inherently relaxing and a lot of your time will be spent just drifting about the old town on foot.
If you decide you want to get a bit more active, there are plenty of tour agencies offering day tours and guided activities around the region. Note that many of the tours are private options and the advertised price per person often applies to a group of four or more. Options include zip-lining, kayaking, and elephant bathing. Day trips to the Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Waterfall are super popular.
One of the top things to do in Luang Prabang that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised is a Mekong River cruise. As you walk the waterfront you’ll get numerous sales pitches, but it’s best to book through your hotel or a reputable travel agent to ensure you get what you pay for. Sunset dinner cruises are a great option and depending on the time of year you might find you have the whole boat to yourself!
For a relaxed evening aperitif in the heart of the old town, Chez Matt is a stylish cocktail bar with a contemporary feel, while across the road intimate Icon Klub has a cool vibe and gets great reviews. Utopia is a riverfront bar hidden away up a residential street behind Phu Si. It’s legendary amongst backpackers and has a laid back, slightly spaced out feel.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
Hotel Sofitel Luang Prabang
The Hotel Sofitel Luang Prabang is housed in what was once the home of the colonial French Governor, and today it’s the city’s premier hotel address. From the moment you step through the hotel’s discrete entrance you know you are in for something special. There are just 25 suites (making this the most intimate Sofitel on the planet), all of which are housed in the colonial heritage buildings.
From the garden suites to pool villas, each room type is impeccably presented and generously sized, with high ceilings and lots of heritage touches. Enjoy the privacy of your own private garden with high walls and an outdoor bath.
Once you’ve settled in, take a stroll through the gardens, spend some quality me-time by the pool (one of just a handful of hotel pools in the entire city) or enjoy the range of soothing treatments on offer at the spa. In the evening, make your way to the stylish Governor’s Grill marquee for dinner or take advantage of the shuttle service into the old town.
Hotel 3 Nagas Luang Prabang — MGallery by Sofitel
Located right in the heart of the old town, the boutique Hotel 3 Nagas — MGallery by Sofitel offers a personalised hotel experience across three restored heritage buildings. There’s also a stunning garden retreat for the enjoyment of guests. There are just 15 rooms, all of which blend traditional style with modern conveniences.
With its classic Citroen parked out the front, the 3 Nagas restaurant serves traditional Laotian cuisine in an alfresco courtyard or indoor bistro. The courtyard bar does a handy 2-for-1 happy hour every evening.
The hotel is an easy walk to everything the old town has to offer, including its best cafes and restaurants. This is also an ideal spot to base yourself to see Tak Bat, as the morning procession of monks passes right by the front door.
Adam travelled as a guest of Hotel Sofitel Luang Prabang and Hôtel 3 Nagas.
Do you have any tips to add to our Luang Prabang travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.