Graceful gilded teak rooflines and fading colonial architecture against a lush natural backdrop gives the former royal capital of Luang Prabang a timeless charm alongside its centuries-old reputation as a stronghold of Lao culture.
Set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, with limestone karst cliffs and luxuriant forest on every side, Luang Prabang was once the sparkling crown jewel of the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. Now a Unesco World Heritage city, time spent wandering its leafy streets is a memory of Laos you’ll carry with you forever.
Luang Prabang was the historical royal capital of the 14-15th century kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Kaho, which rejoiced in the extended nickname of the ‘land of a million elephants and one white parasol’. It was once home to a line of kings who ruled Laos for six centuries. Built around a wooded hill it is full of temples and hundreds of saffron-robed monks and novices.
Tour the stupas and monasteries and chat to novice monks to further absorb the dreamlike atmosphere of this beautiful place.
It is a charming town of faded glories. The French influence in Luang Phabang, Laos, is superficial but still noticeable. The older people speak the French language; the (sometimes) right hand (maniacal) driving; the fresh baguettes in the morning; and seemingly every French-speaking tourist outside the west.
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Things to do in Luang Prabang
Visit a few of Luang Prabang’s many beautiful temples, especially the exquisite Wat Xieng Thong.
Get up early one morning to see saffron-robed monks and local people take part in the Tak Bat alms giving ceremony.
Visit the Kuang Si waterfalls, in the forest a few miles from Luang Prabang, for a deliciously cold swim in the foaming water.
Take a sunset cruise on the mighty Mekong River as it flows past Luang Prabang, Laos.
Head up to the high point of Mount Phousi for sunset.
Eating out in Luang Prabang
The town is renowned for its food culture with many highly refined restaurants set in colonial-era villas with shady courtyards. Hit the night market for street food specialities like the Luang Prabang spicy fermented sausage, served with banana-leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice.
There are some high class eating (and accommodation) options in Luang Prabang. You can get a melt-in-the-mouth apple and cinnamon croissant at the bakery. Some good food tasted wonderful after two days of peanut butter sandwiches on the slow boat to Luang Prabang from the Thai border!
My most enjoyable evening meal was at the highly recommended Indochina Spirit restaurant, modest in appearance with a tree-shaded courtyard lit by paper lanterns. The food was delicious and we were entertained by live music, the modal, rhythmic, endlessly developing lines of south-east Asian melody.
Another recommendation is Paste at the Apsara Hotel, where the historically layered flavours of Lao cuisine from the recipes of the great Phia Sing are given a creative twist by Chef Bee Satongun.
Shopping in Luang Prabang
As well as being full of cafes and restaurants Luang Prabang is known for its gorgeous crafts. Spend some time in the markets shopping for authentic Lao handicrafts. I treated myself to a couple of silk scarves and a long, traditional Lao silk skirt. Get some hands-on experience on a textile weaving course or discover bamboo weaving, paper-making and pottery.
Luang Prabang Boat Racing Festival
Traditional hand-carved boats with up to 50 paddlers race down the Nam Khan River. As these sacred boats pass they are cheered on by the crowds on the bank enjoying the markets and music that accompanies the event.
From Luang Prabang travel south to the bijoux capital of Vientiane or further down the river to see the ruins of Champasek and the peaceful Four Thousand Islands. Combine your Laos travel with some time in Vietnam, where beautiful beaches and fascinating history await.
By Natasha von Geldern
Hi I'm the Wandering Kiwi, a travel writer and blogger passionate about making the pages of the atlas real. I have travelled in over 50 countries and hope my tales inspire you to live your travel dreams!