Luang Prabang is a magical little town in northern Laos that has been designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site for its unique fusion of European and Lao cultural traditions and architecture. Its charming town centre is the perfect place to explore on foot, drink delicious coffee and feast on Lao cuisine.
Though Luang Prabang is a small town, I would strongly recommend that you spend a few days soaking in the unique, warm and rich Lao culture and hospitality. Read on for some essential Laos travel tips, the best places to visit in Luang Prabang, where to stay and what you’re probably better off skipping!
Things to know before you visit Luang Prabang
- Luang Prabang’s international airport is primarily served by Lao Airlines. They have flights into LPQ airport from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Chengdu or you can take a domestic flight from Vientiane. It is possible to apply for a visa on arrival in Laos at the airports in Luang Prabang or Vientiane for most nationalities – bring 1 passport photo and US dollars for the application fee, though they might also accept Thai Baht. The Laos visa-on-arrival fee varies between about 30 USD to 40 USD depending on your nationality (+1 USD for the visa service fee), and in general the Laos tourist visa is good for 30 days.
- You can get a local Laos SIM card at the airport for cheap, and internet connectivity is surprisingly strong.
- The currency is the Lao Kip, and the exchange rate varies from approximately 8000-8600 LAK: 1 USD. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Luang Prabang and the rates are fairly standard across the board, and there are also ATMs where you can withdraw money. The rates will be higher if you exchange >100 USD.
- Luang Prabang is a fairly small town but has plenty of incredible restaurant options and minimarts where you can find most of what you need. Download this Luang Prabang map ahead of your trip so you can get around and visit the attractions in Luang Prabang easily – Hobomaps often include smaller guesthouses, shops and temples that might not show up on Google Maps.
- The best time to visit Luang Prabang is from around October to March during the dry season, but the benefit of visiting during the shoulder or off-peak seasons is that there are less people. Regardless, Laos is still fairly off-the-beaten-path in Southeast Asia, and even during the peak season the crowds are nothing compared to places in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia.
- How many days to spend in Luang Prabang in Laos: I recommend spending no less than 3 full days in Luang Prabang and setting aside at least half a day to visit the Kuang Si Waterfall. Luang Prabang (and Laos in general) is extremely laid-back, and it’s the perfect place to slow down and take your time exploring.
- How to get around Luang Prabang in Laos: The best way to get around Luang Prabang is either on foot or by bicycle (most hotels offer bicycle rental) – traffic is minimal and slow, just make sure you ride carefully. You can also take tuk tuks, but make sure you agree on a price before you hop in. A 5-10 minute ride will cost you anywhere from 20,000 – 40,000 Kip ($2-5 USD).
Where to stay in Luang Prabang in Laos
Here are my picks for the best hotels in Luang Prabang – they are all close to the Old Town, have beautiful rooms and common areas and excellent service.
Maison Dalabua is situated a short 5-10 minute walk away from the historical center of town and is the perfect place to find serenity in a popular tourism destination. Click here for my full review of the property. It also shares a home with Manda de Laos, one of the best retaurants in Luang Prabang. If you are looking for a boutique luxury property, click here to book your stay at Maison Dalabua!
I also highly recommend Moonlight Champa Riverview, a stunning boutique property just outside the old town in Luang Prabang. The rooms are spacious and the area is extremely quiet and peaceful. We loved the breakfast options and the terrace overlooking the river. The property is a 10-15 minute stroll from the night market/Mount Phousi, or you can also rent a bicycle for no additional cost. If you are looking for a small eco-luxury hotel, click here to check current rates at Moonlight Champa.
Though My Dream Boutique Resort is located slightly further away from the old town, the two pools are fantastic and the rooms are spacious. There are free shuttles to/from town, though not extremely frequently so you might want to take a tuk tuk. Alternatively, you can walk across the bamboo bridge for 10,000 Kip per person during the peak season – the ticket price goes towards the family that diligently builds the bridge each year. If you are looking for a quiet property away with spacious rooms, click here to check current rates at My Dream Boutique Resort.
For even more options, click here to see other highly rated hotels in Luang Prabang!
The best things to do in Luang Prabang
Wondering what to do in Luang Prabang? Read on for some of the best Luang Prabang attractions you can’t miss if you only have a few days in town.
1. Visit Kuang Si Waterfall
Kuang Si Waterfall is one of the most popular attractions in Luang Prabang, and for good reason. The three-tiered turquoise waterfall is absolutely mindblowing, and you can swim in several sections of the waterfall. You can walk up to the top pool on either side, but the right side can be very muddy, whereas the left side has steps and some marked trails. Bring walking shoes, your GoPro for in-water photos, swimsuit and towel. You should spend 3-4 hours here if you plan on swimming in the pools.
The best time to visit the Kuang Si falls is a few months after the monsoon season when the pools settle and the turquoise colour returns, around November/December to April/May. The waterfall gets busy during the weekend as it is one of the most popular things to do in Luang Prabang, so if you want to avoid the crowds then head here early on a weekday. Don’t make the same mistake as me when I visited the Kuang Si Waterfall when it was absolutely roaring during the rainy season!
Entrance to the Kuang Si Waterfall costs 20,000 Kip (approximately $2.5 USD) and includes a visit through a bear rescue centre that houses about two dozen moon bears that were saved from poachers. The waterfall is approximately 1 hour away from Luang Prabang’s Old Town, and you can get there via private car (approximately $40 USD, your hotel can book it for you), tuk tuk or shared minivan. Book your shared minivan at just $6 USD per person here.
Photography tips: try your hand at long exposure photography here. Read on for some of my favorite photo editing programs or here for tips and tricks to improve your smartphone photography.
2. Visit the Luang Prabang temples
Temples are scattered all around Luang Prabang, and feature gilded halls, Naga (snake) statues and Buddhist Stupas. Some of the major temples that you shouldn’t skip include Wat Xieng Thong, the Buddha’s Footprint Temple on the backside of Mount Phousi, Wat Mahathat and Wat Hua Xiang.
With the exception of Wat Xieng Thong, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang and has an entrance fee of 20,000 Kip, the rest of the temples are free to visit. As these are living temples, many with monks living on-site, it is important to dress appropriate and cover your shoulders and knees.
3. Shop and eat at the night market
The famous Luang Prabang market is open every night along Sisavangvong Road. Stalls line either side of the road selling all sorts of products from bags and paintings to jewelry and clothing. Prices are reasonable and you can negotiate with the sellers if you are buying multiple items. You can also feast on Lao street food here – make sure you try the coconut pancakes, AKA khanom kok!
In general, you’ll notice that Lao people are extremely polite and could be seen as more timid or less pushy – I would therefore recommend that you be mindful of this and consider whether it is worth your time (and theirs) when you’re bargaining a purchase down from $3 to $2.
4. Drink coffee & cocktails in the old town at Opera Bar or Dexter
Coffee and cocktails in Luang Prabang are fantastic. Hole up at one of the bars along Sisavangvong Road (my favorites are Opera Bar or Dexter) and watch the world go by. Some bars like Opera even have a buy-1-get-1 happy hour!
5. Eat dinner surrounded by lily ponds
Manda de Laos is one of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang and the food never disappoints. But the most unique aspect of dining at Manda de Laos is being surrounded by UNESCO-classified lily ponds. Bookings are essential, so get in touch ahead to secure a table!
6. Walk across the bamboo bridge
The bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang is one of the most unique Luang Prabang attractions…because it’s only around for a few months of the year! The bridge is painstakingly constructed during the dry season from mid-November to around March, and is washed away once the rainy season begins and the river washes the bridge away.
It costs 10,000 Kip to use the bridge and the proceeds go to the family that diligently build the bridge year after year.
7. Trek with elephants through the jungle
Interacting with elephants in an ethical manner is one of the top things to do in Luang Prabang. MandaLao opened its doors in November 2016 and is currently home to 8 adult female elephants and 1 3-year old male elephant. It works with the WWF and World Animal Protection and is a sanctuary for elephants rescued from the logging industry and riding camps.
The 500-acre property is located about 30 minutes away from Luang Prabang’s Old Town, and is an ideal home for its elephants to roam free – unchained. No bull hooks, no riding, no chaining.
MandaLao offers half-day and full-day tours for tourists to interact responsibly with the resident elephants, and while the elephants may not be able to roam the wild again they are given every opportunity to perform their natural behaviors. If you love elephants, I highly recommend adding a visit to MandaLao to your list of things to do in Luang Prabang. Read more about my time at MandaLao here.
8. Drink sunset cocktails at Ock Pop Tock
The Ock Pop Tok Silk Road Café outside of the Old Town is a hidden gem that few tourists know about. The café is one of the best sunset spots in Luang Prabang – you can also catch their free tuk tuk back into town afterwards. Sunsets in Luang Prabang are fiery, you won’t want to miss it with a glass of wine in hand!
Make sure you check out the Living Crafts Centre overlooking the Mekong where you can learn about Lao textiles, crafts and culture or even take one of their bamboo weaving, batik or dyeing classes.
9. Practice Yoga
The town is also home to Luang Prabang Yoga, a Yoga community that supports teachers and hosts classes, workshops and retreats around town. You can check out their class schedule here and attend one of their classes in town or at Utopia, a small riverside café.
What you might want to skip in Luang Prabang
Though there are a plethora of activities in Luang Prabang to keep you busy, there are some things to do in Luang Prabang that I would urge you to skip entirely, or at the very least reconsider. Here are a few things you should skip in Luang Prabang:
1. Avoid visiting an elephant riding camp
Laos was once known as Lan Xang, or the “Land of a Million Elephants”. Sadly, due to poaching, logging and war, the current population stands at a mere 400-or so wild elephants and another 400-450 domesticated (owned) elephants.
As tourism to Laos continues to grow, as has the number of elephant entertainment venues that provide elephant rides for tourists. In fact, take a stroll down the main street in Luang Prabang and you will see exactly what I mean – tour company after tour company offering elephant ride experiences and “Mahout for a Day” tours. While I’m at it, you should also avoid the elephant rides that are offered at Tad Sae Waterfall.
2. Reconsider participating in the morning alms giving ceremony
The alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, or Tak Bat, is a longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture and a sacred ceremony for the locals and the monks, who depend on these offerings (often homemade sticky rice) for sustenance during the day. The ritual is conducted in silence and has become a “must-see” attraction for tourists in Luang Prabang – a spectacle. Every morning, hordes of tourists noisily chatter and snap photos of silent monks dressed in saffron-coloured robes line up and collect offerings from devout Buddhists, sometimes even sticking cameras in their faces or partaking in the ceremony for the “money shot”.
The government has gotten involved in an attempt to improve the almsgiving practice, and I wrestled with the decision to observe alms giving in Luang Prabang and eventually decided it wasn’t right for me. You might decide to attend and observe the ritual, but before you make that decision, here are 5 things you should think about as well as alms giving do’s and don’ts. Whatever you decide on doing, make sure you read up on the issue before observing or joining in.
3. Skip the sunset from Mount Phousi
Mount Phousi is located in the heart of Old Town and is one of the most popular places in Luang Prabang to watch the sunset. For this very reason, it is overwhelmingly crowded and you’re unlikely to get a good spot of the sunset unless you arrive an hour (or more) before the sunset time in Luang Prabang. And did I mention the hordes of mosquitos?
Instead, head to Ock Pop Tock, go on a sunset river cruise or simply sit on the river bank.
4. Don’t drink alcohol on Mount Phousi
While I am a big fan of having a drink with a view, do not BYOB up to Mount Phousi. It is the site of the sacred That Chom Si Temple and is perceived as offensive to the religious sensibilities of local people in Luang Prabang. (Source)
5. Don’t purchase birds to release for “good luck”
I honestly don’t understand how this is still a thing, because it’s ridiculous. Please don’t do it. Many of these birds are simply recaptured only to be sold again.
Looking for more Southeast Asia travel tips? Click here for 10 things you should know before you visit Southeast Asia.
Where to go after Luang Prabang
After you’ve spent a few days exploring Luang Prabang, venture onwards to Vang Vieng or Nong Khiaw to explore the countryside and all the lagoons, caves and waterfalls that Laos has to offer!
I hope you’ve found this Luang Prabang travel guide helpful – pin it for later or share it with your friends and family who are planning a trip to Laos. Ready to book your trip to Luang Prabang? Check rates and availability at Maison Dalabua, Moonlight Champa Riverview or My Dream Boutique Resort. Alternatively, check out some other highly rated Luang Prabang hotel options here.
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