By Lora Chow
Luang Prabang is a magical city that served as the royal capital of Laos until 1975. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this ancient town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tom and I travel extensively throughout SE Asia and we both believe Luang Prabang is a gem. In fact, it is now our favorite city in the region! We hope others discover this remarkable location before tourist development dilutes cultural authenticity.
Luang Prabang’s innocence is a double-edge sword. On one hand, it remains innocent to and holds on to its’ identity. On the other hand, travel to and around the city can be more challenging. We hope our experience and tips will enable you to have a memorable trip to this Laotian ancient capital. Here is our recommendation for an amazing 3 day visit to Luang Prabang.
Air Travel to Luang Prabang:
Flights to Luang Prabang are increasing. However, it remains a bit challenging to find excellent flights to the city. Air Asia offers the least expensive route via Bangkok. However, beware of haphazard cancellation of flights. We recommend the more reliable (and more pricy) carriers of Bangkok Airways and Vietnam Airlines. Lao Airlines is a great local carrier for domestic connections. The airport is less than 3 miles away from the city center. This makes for easy transfer!
Upon arrival to Luang Prabang, travel a quick 10 minutes to the city and check into your hotel. Luxury accommodations are challenging in a location that is still quite rustic. Keeping this in mind, we recommend Belmond La Residence Phou Vao. The property is charming and boasts an Instagram worthy picturesque view of Mount Phousi.
After settling in and freshening up, utilize the property’s complimentary shuttle service to explore the ancient city and night market. Luang Prabang boasts a fantastic combination of French colonial and Laotian architecture. Cradled by glorious mountains, forests, and rivers and studded with shimmering temples, the ancient capital is a remarkable place to explore.
The night market operates daily from 5pm to 11 pm. Closed to motor vehicles, it is located along a one kilometer stretch along Sivsavangvong Road. Four rows of vendors congregate along the street selling typical night market fare such as souvenir t-shirts, handbags, trinkets, scarves, and jewelry.
Be sure to arrive prior to sunset. Climb the stairs up Mount Phousi for a spectacular sunset view of the city and countryside. One of my favorite sights is Wat Xieng Thong temple lit up at dusk with the colorful market at its’ borders.
And naturally, you have to try the local food! Veer off the main road into the alleyways and you will find an amazing array of tasty bites. Tom is an amazing home cook and excels at earthy Northern Thai cuisine (and everything he decides to make, for that matter!) He gains inspiration from our travels and Luang Prabang is no different. Although it sounds rather mundane, we love the papaya salad here. The fermented pork sausage is pretty spectacular as well. However, we both feel the buffalo blood sausage is much too gamey for our taste.
After a good night’s sleep, rise early and head out of town to explore Laos’ gorgeous countryside. Tom and I set up an excursion to Kuang Si Falls where we planned to hike in the surrounding jungles to forage ingredients and fish from the streams to prepare an authentic Lao meal.
The 45 minute car ride meanders through villages and rice paddy fields. The scenery is gorgeous and everything is green and greener. Why is everything so vibrantly green? We happen to be in Luang Prabang at the end of the rainy season. Unfortunately, this affects our tour.
We arrive at the base of a mountain. And it’s raining. However, we still set off to hike up the mountain to the source of Kuang Si Falls. The hour-long hike turned into four because of the ubiquitous mudslides and multiple stops to reapply bug repellant. However, we do witness breathtaking beauty of the forest and the powerful flow of the river. Unfortunately, the raging river means fishing is too dangerous. Fortunately, along the way, our guide does show us some edibles and collects them for our meal.
Since the muddy hike set us incredibly behind schedule, the cooking class was cancelled. Instead, we dined on a prepared lunch set next to a raging river. The meal was delicious. But, we are highly disappointed we missed fishing and preparing our meal.
Finally, we hike out to explore the wondrous Kuang Si Falls. It is a spectacular, 3-tiered system that deserves all the hype it receives. Listen to the roaring water and let the earlier disappointment of the day wash away.
Always keep in mind local holidays and special celebrations when traveling. We happen to be in Luang Prabang during Boun Khao Padabdin . This occurs in late Summer, on the full moon of the ninth Buddhist lunar month. It is the rice growing festival but it is also a day to visit the temple, give alms, and honor ancestors. The day is highly important and spiritual; something we are so honored to have witnessed.
Everyone rises before dawn to line the streets of Luang Prabang in anticipation of giving alms. Monks leave their temple and walk the capital’s streets to collect alms. The monks in turn give a portion of what they receive back to those in need. Tom and I were moved to witness such an amazing community come together.
As dawn turns into daylight, the streets bustle with activity. Streets turn into markets with vendors from around the country coming together to sell their handicrafts and food. In the city center, the afternoon and evening festivities feature boat racing on the Nam Khan River. Teams from all over SE Asia travel to Luang Prabang to compete in this prestigious event.
- THIS IS OUR FAVORITE DESTINATION IN SE ASIA! Visit Luang Prabang before it becomes an overdeveloped tourist destination (i.e. Siem Reap, Cambodia).
- Find out if there are any local holidays or festivals taking place during your visit.
- Learn about seasonal weather and determine if excursions should be canceled or altered.
- Bring bug repellant. We’ve traveled to many mosquito ridden areas, and Luang Prabang features the most tenacious bugs!