Here are my top five things to do in Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of northern Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I have a confession to make: Luang Prabang was never on my travel list. Like many travelers, I simply overlooked Laos in favor of its more popular neighbors like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. But that all changed when I befriended Tara of Silly Little Kiwi, a former Luang Prabang transplant and one of its biggest tourism advocates. Tara made a compelling case for Luang Prabang, sharing stories of misty morning tuk-tuk rides across the sleepy town, saffron-robed monks traveling between the 33 temples, wading in sapphire-blue waterfalls. It didn’t take me long for me to realize I was missing out on something special.
Laos, Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, is lush and languid. In its northern region lies the city of Luang Prabang, known for short as “LPB.” Nestled in an idyllic valley between the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, the UNESCO World Heritage site offers an irresistible blend of culture and serenity. Get ready to immerse yourself in a world where time seems to slow down and mesmerizing temples and mystical mountains are all part of its small-town charms. Now onto the top five things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos to get the most of this visit even if it’s a whistle stop in a whirlwind Southeast Asia tour.
✱ October is the best but also busiest time to visit Luang Prabang because of the Light Festival.
✱ Bring crispy USD bills. They are very particular with the bills they take since the bank needs USD bills to be in mint condition. Many Lao locals value USD since they can buy things like petrol with USD. I found I could pay in USD or local KIP.
✱ If you fly into Vientiane, you can easily take the high-speed China Rail to Luang Prabang. The journey takes two hours and you can book tickets in advance online through Discover Laos Today. They will even drop off your train tickets at your hotel for free.
✱ There are many drivers at the ready but we had two local English-speaking drivers who we communicated with through Whatsapp:
☎️ Mar: Open air tuk-tuk for rides around town but can also take you to areas outside the city. (+856 20 59 695 670)
☎️ Tay: Air-conditioned luxury van and great English. He drove us to the Kuang Si Falls and spent all day with us. (+856 20 78 898 009)
1. Explore the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre
Out of all the things I’ve done on my travels, visiting Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre is on my top ten list. Ock Pop Tok, meaning “East Meets West,” is an all-in-one shopping, crafting, and dining experience with textile artistry at the heart. This social enterprise was started by two women with a passion for ethical fashion. But this more than a destination for textile lovers: here you’ll find an oasis of colors complete with an on-site restaurant, shop, boutique hotel, and even treehouse! You can take cultural exchange classes to learn new art forms such as natural dyeing, Hmong embroidery, or even bamboo weaving taught by master weavers. I tried out a special escape room-inspired game that brings the ethos of Ock Pop Tok to life while you scour the property for clues and solve puzzles. During the interactive experience, there’s a weaving challenge and also dye your very own silk scarves!
Dining at the Silk Road Cafe’s gorgeous riverside veranda is a must. While they serve both Western and Lao cuisine, the butterfly pea flower mango sticky rice and Kao Soi noodles were standouts. Did I also mention you can stay at the Ock Pop Tok Textile Centre too? Read more about their boutique hotel, Mekong Villa, in the “Where To Stay” section of this top five guide.
How to get there: Ock Pop Tok has a main street location where you can take a free bright pink tuk-tuk (the only tuk-tuk of its kind in the city) to and from the shop to the Living Crafts Centre.
Pro-Tip: During October, they host a krathong making workshop (floating decorated baskets) that are placed on the water during the Festival of Lights. This allows you to meaningfully participate in the biggest festival in Luang Prabang.
2. Whip up classic Lao dishes at Lao Cooking Class
One of the many surprises of this Luang Prabang visit was discovering Lao food. I wanted to get a crash course on Lao cuisine since it’s not as mainstream as other Asian cuisines and Tamarind Cooking School came highly recommended! Operating out of the Aspara Restaurant on the peninsula, the daytime class starts out with a local market visit to source the essentials of Lao recipes and then onto a very hands-on cooking class in outside of the city. This class accommodates vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free guests.
The multi-course menu includes appetizers of Jeow Mak Keua (eggplant dip) and Jeow Mak Len (tomato dip), Mok Pa (fish steamed in banana leaves), Larb Khai (ground buffalo salad), Ua Si Khai (chicken stuffed lemon grass) and Mango Sticky Rice for dessert. The 6-hour class covers the essentials of traditional Laos cooking and you learn some great techniques such as carving lemongrass stalks and learning how to fold a banana leaf parcel for steaming. The classes are less than six people and they gift you with a recipe book to take home. Learn more about the classes here.
Where? Baan Watsene, Kingkitsarath Rd, Luang Prabang 06000, Laos
Cost: $35 for the daytime class
Other classes: Evening, Groups, and Private Market Tours
3. Admire the gem-studded Wat Xieng Thong temple
Wat Xieng Thong is the crown jewel of Lao temples. Built in the 16th century, the ‘Golden Tree Monastery’ is a stunning example of traditional Lao art, history, and spirituality. A former site of royal coronations, it continues to be a gathering place for local festivities. Wat Xieng Thong’s grounds are large enough for casually wandering but not massive enough to overwhelm. Here are things you shouldn’t miss while visiting:
📍The Red Chapel: A small chapel covered in reddish stucco and embedded with iridescent glass mosaics showcasing everday Lao life. Inside, you’ll find a reclining bronze Buddha, a sculpture that dates back to the temples’ origins. The Red Chapel is where I shot the photos below from the cutout windows.
📍The Ordination Hall: Also known as the Sim, an impressive Tree of Life mosaic can be found on the back exterior wall of the central shrine. I also love the stencil work at the main entrance which pops against the black painting.
📍The Funerary Carriage House: The 12-meter high building features teakwood carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana saga gilded in gold.
Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM
Cost: 20,000 KIP for foreigners (but well-worth it and it goes to temple maintenance)
Want to learn more about Buddhism in Laos? I highly recommend taking a tour with Orange Robe Tours. Orange Robe Tours is a profit-for-purpose social enterprise that hires former monks and novices to tour you around temples and teach you about Theravada Buddhism. You’ll visit Wat Paphai, another one of Luang Prabang’s many temples, and you also have an option to practice meditation through the temple. Book a tour here.
4. Trek with Elephants Through the Jungle with Mandalao Conservation
MandaLao Conservation is an ethical, no-riding elephant sanctuary dedicated to the rehabilitation of Laos elephant population. Once known as the land of a million elephants, less than 1,000 wild elephants remain with a few hundred still in captivity. If you’re looking for a truly non-intrusive interaction with these gentle giants, this is an unforgettable ethical wildlife experience. There are three tours operating daily at MandaLao:
📍 Therapeutic Tour: a half day morning tour, where you get to walk with elephants (2.5 km) before returning for a lunch cooked on the property ($100 USD)
📍 “Inside the Hearts of Elephants” Tour: a full day walk deep inside the jungle which includes a picnic inside the forest (5 km) and a waterfall visit ($150 USD)
📍“Communicating with Elephants” Tour: spend the afternoon making treats and take a brief walk to feed the elephants ($80 USD)
Guests receive an educational primer on the history of elephant conservation in Laos before setting off on their jungle tours. After traveling around Southeast Asia, it’s refreshing to see a zero-shackles environment. And best of all, your time with the elephants is genuinely on the animals’ timelines. There are no forced performances for human amusement. While on the more expensive end of all the activities in Luang Prabang, a majority of the tour costs towards conservation efforts and buying imprisoned elephants.
Where? The office in town is located at Sisavangvong Road Building 82 Unit B ຫຼວງພະບາງ, 06000, Laos
Pro-tip: Wear long pants that you won’t mind getting dirty and bring a hat. They provide sunblock and bug spray.
5. Take a Dip in the Kuang Si Waterfall swimming holes
Luang Prabang’s most famous attraction is Kuang Si Waterfalls. The three-tier waterfall cascades into a series of shallow milky-turquoise pools that are natural swimming holes. Surrounded by dense tropical jungle, the waterfall of alleged magical origins has become somewhat of a tourist circus but it’s a “cannot-miss” on your Luang Prabang itinerary. For those visiting just to take photos, make a beeline to the top of the waterfalls to the Main Falls area. If you’re looking for the swimming spots, make a right at the fork in the road to the lower level pools. The main swimming pool has a popular rope swing. It’s the perfect all-day outing with several changing facilities and a number of eateries on-site. Like most tourist attractions, the earlier you visit, the fewer crowds you’ll encounter.
When you arrive at the main parking lot, you can buy your ticket at the welcome complex. Take the e-tuk-tuk which is included in your park entrance to a larger parking lot with a number of shops and eateries. You’ll see the main entrance to the waterfalls there. Your ticket also includes access to the Bear Rescue Center past the main entrance.
Cost: 25,000 KIP for foreigner ticket park entrance
Pro-tip: Stop by at Laos Buffalo Dairy farm to get a taste of Buffalo Ice Cream on your way to or from the waterfalls featuring local and seasonal flavors.
Look out for: Strong rainfalls can make the water murky and the path slippery. December to May is typically the best time to go but you might get a reduced flow during the drier months. Also some of the pools have nibbling fish so just a head’s up if your skittish and/or ticklish.
📍Mekong Sunset Cruise: Take a ride up the Mekong River to watch the sunset bathe the sleepy mountains of Luang Prabang in epic Golden Hour light. There are a wide range of cruise types (party boats, romantic ships, budget barges) but Mekong Kingdoms and River Sun Laos came highly recommended. This activity should-have/could-have made my top five list, but because we visited during the rainy season, a sunset was never guaranteed and I can’t personally speak to this.
📍Mount Phusi Stupa: Legend has it that the mountain was moved from Sri Lanka to Luang Prabang by the monkey king, Hanuman. Get there1.5 hours before sunset for a front-row seat at a Mekong River sunset. Entrance is 20,000 KIP. There are 300 steps to the top but it’s an easy climb. After sunset, head to the Night Market for some shopping.📍Ban Xang Khong: Outside of the city, visit an artisan village that specializes in silk and mulberry paper making, also known as Saa paper.
📍UXO Visitor Center: Shedding light on a tragic part of Lao history, this free entry education center reveals how the “Secret War” bombings in the 1960s and 70s still have a devastating impact on the Laos today with all the unexploded devices in the country and the work that NGOs are doing to support affected communities.
📍Pak Ou Caves: The sacred Buddha Caves that host thousands of effigies of timeworn Buddhas are hidden 25km north of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River and are a popular day trip especially since there’s a detour at the famous “Whiskey Village.”
📍Morning Alms: Sai Bat or Tak Bat, the tradition of monks and novices collecting offerings from practitioners, happens at 05:30 am, and while participating is offered to tourists, I’d recommend that you should respectfully take photos from a distance rather than participate.
📍River Cafe: Don’t go for the food but rather for the view. Out on their balcony, you can see the spot where the Nam Khan and the Mekong River meet at sunset.
📍Living Land Farm: Spend a morning at a rice paddy at the Living Land Farm where you’ll plant seedlings, cultivate rice, or even work the plow with buffaloes depending on the time of year.
📍LaLa Laos: A graphic design shop with cool Laos-themed t-shirts and a portion of proceeds go back to rural children.
📍TOL and Gaebi Studio: TOL, short for “Textiles of Laos,” is the latest clothing venture of the Korean designer Nammi who is also behind Gaebi studio and is known for creating structured, neutral pieces from organic Lao material.
📍Ma Te Sai: Another gift shop slash social enterprise stocking craft goods from artisans across villages all over Laos.
📍Q Massage & Spa: You’ll see a lot of Lao massage shops but I really loved this one. Clean, affordable, and their menu of services is extensive.
📍Bouang: Brightly-lit eatery selling French-Lao fusions. They pride themselves on healthy options like Green Thai Gnocchi and re-inventing classics like the British dessert, Eton Mess, trading strawberries for mangoes. This is also where I became addicted to the Luang Prabang speciality, Khai paen, aka fried riverweed topped with sesame seeds.
📍Pasaneyom (ປະຊານິຍົມ): Beloved by Lao locals, this breakfast stall known for its coffee sells heartwarmings bowls of noodles by the river. Get there early if you want a seat. They open around 5 am and close by noon.
📍Atsalin: My friend Tara called it “the best local food at local prices.” The portion sizes are a steal and Lao locals call it their favorite place in to eat in the city.
📍Lulalao Coffee: Easy to miss coffee spot that celebrates minimalism. Order a pour over coffee freshly brewed from their artisanal roasts that they bag and sell in shop with notecards that describe the tasting note. The iced coffee is first class!
📍Saffron Coffee: A riverside cafe with a passion for high quality beans, their Arabica is locally grown and sourced in Northern Laos. In addition to ethically-sourced espresso, order the tamarind tart and unique cascara kombucha made from the shells of coffee cherries.
📍JOMA Bakery: Founded in Vientiane and now has locations opened across Southeast Asia. This chain brings a taste of North American baked goods to Laos.
Where To Stay
A popular misconception, Luang Prabang isn’t swamped with backpackers, and you’ll easily stumble upon loads of cool places to stay that are stylish and spotlight local Lao aesthetics. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to decide where to stay because the selection is too good. The biggest tip: if you want to be nearer to town, stay in the city center or on the peninsula. If you don’t mind being farther away, a number of larger properties tend to be more outside of the city.
📍Le Bel Air Resort: A 4-star hotel located on the banks of the sleepy Nam Khan River that celebrates the romance of French Indochina with Explorer-themed rooms and villas. With a full service restaurant, an oasis-style infinity pool, and free bicycles to rent, you have a lot of amenities on the property. The staff is extremely attentive too! While the resort is a bit outside of the center, it’s right next to the Old French wooden bridge so you can walk into the city center in less than 15 minutes or take a 50,000 KIP tuk-tuk. Rooms begin at $90.
📍 Baan Pila: A newcomer to the Luang Prabang lodging scene, the six fruit-themed rooms boast contemporary design and punchy colors. They serve an epic breakfast and have a pool onsite. The with fruit-themed bedrooms and a pool at the property. Rooms begin at $90 per night.
📍Mekong Villa: The five-room boutique hotel is unlike any other place you’ll ever stay out. Each of the five rooms takes its name from a Laotian ethnic tribe and is adorned with the weaving styles and colors that reflect its namesake. They offer in-room massages, complimentary breakfast at the Silk Road Cafe, free shuttles to the city, and discounts on their workshops. You can also receive promotional deals if you book multiple nights. Rooms begin at $50 per night.
📍Nam Khan Ecolodge: A green sanctuary focused on sustainability and wellness, this retreat caters to all ages and is vegan friendly. A freshwater outdoor pool, organic meals from their gardens, an upcycled playground, and outdoor cinema are just some of the many on-site offerings. You can also go glamping but fair warning that the canvas tents don’t have air conditioning. Rooms begin at $70 per night.
📍 Barn Laos Luangprabang Hostel: A hidden gem hostel with quieter vibes and higher-end offerings located 4 minutes away from Wat Xieng Thong. You’ll have comfy beds and Continental breakfast at your disposal. Dorm beds begin at $18 per night.
📍 Mad Monkey Luang Prabang: If you’re looking to socialize and have organized activities at the ready while partying on a budget, this is the place for you. But unlike a lot of budget properties around Southeast Asia, you can expect cleaner facilities. There’s a pool and food and beverage service. Dorm beds begin at $9 per night.