Charmant in the City – Luang Prabang, Laos

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We’re city people. We love the buzz, the food, the art, the people-watching that can be done in big cities…

So after touring the more remote areas of northern Laos, the French colonial city of Luang Prabang almost had a big city vibe. Within the course of an afternoon of exploring, Luang Prabang began showing its colors as a charming little gem. Home to 100,000 people, Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos (Vientiane, the sleepy capital, has a population of roughly 1.3 million). Decades after French rule, Luang Prabang has long since been rightfully ‘re-conquered’ by international tourists, making it both a comfortable, entertaining place to visit but equally requires some good planning to avoid the masses. Read on for our recommendations of what to see and do in Luang Prabang.

luang prabang367 steps to the top of Phou Si

It might seem like quite a haul to slog up 367 steps, but for the best views of the city, this is something all visitors to the city must do.  On our first full day in town we scaled the hill, arriving at the That Chomsi temple for breathtaking views of wider Luang Prabang and the peninsula where Old Town is located, right where the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet.

view over luang prabangFor those of you who, like Dani, are addicted to scouting out amazing sunset photo opportunities, the sunset must be shot from up here: two rivers, mountains, a Buddhist temple and miles of palm trees jutting up into layers of striking colors. However, hundreds of people will be joining you, which means getting up to the top at least an hour early to secure a good spot (bring mosquito spray, they’re aggressive up there).

For those of you who, like me, get annoyed by masses of camera toting tourists, go up here in the morning and at dusk have a stroll through the night market at that time – the stalls are still just being set up, so not many people are there yet and you have the place to much more to yourself.

luang prabang sunsetHit the markets

We have each been living out of a 60-70 liter backpack for the last two years – so we tend not to buy much at markets, but even we ended up buying quite a few little things at the night market in Luang Prabang. Lining Sisavangvong Road, a main thoroughfare, the market is unavoidable. We spent hours here looking at the paintings, silk scarves, blankets, wooden masks and gawking at the bottles of Lao rice whiskey, which usually come with snakes or large insects in the bottom of bottle that put that tiny worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle to shame.

night market luang prabangThere is also a morning market just off this road and it is an entirely local experience. Rather than tourist trinkets, we found fresh produce, piles of seaweed and fresh fish plucked from the Mekong and some more bizarre items such as fried rats, grilled insects, fresh frogs, or ox heads.

Cruise on two wheels

It was plain to see from atop Phou Si that Luang Prabang stretches far beyond the old town, so we did what we always do to see more of a city, and hopped on bikes. Bicycle rentals are abundant and inexpensive, and touring around on two wheels was a relaxing way to really get out and explore. We rented a stylish city cruiser for a day for 20,000 kip ($2.50) and sliced through the interesting dichotomy of crumbling French-style colonial architecture and intricately designed Buddhist temples (called wats). Wat Xieng Thong on the north end of the peninsula is the grandest temple in Luang Prabang, built in 1560.

dani cycling in luang prabangLearn to cook, Lao style

Most of us are familiar with Thai cuisine, but neighboring Lao doesn’t have quite the international culinary presence despite some interesting dishes. To learn more about Lao food in Luang Prabang, we decided between three cooking schools (Tamarind, Tam Nak and Tum Tum Cheng) opting in the end for Tum Tum Cheng. We ended up with a private class, just the two of us, which meant we were able to create an all-vegetarian menu of five items.

cooking class luang prabangWe learned to cook:
Fried noodles with vegetables
Fresh spring rolls
Papaya Salad
Red Curry with Tofu
Sticky Rice and Banana for desert

Included in that was a lesson in preparing sticky rice, the absolute staple of Lao cuisine. We started the morning on a trip to the morning market with Noi, the sister of the chef. She explained many of the curious items we normally just photograph and wonder about. In our absence, the staff prepped the ingredients, so when we returned from the market all we had to do was learn to make the dishes. Unlike our cooking course on Koh Lanta, this took most the hard work out of the experience and cut the time down to about an hour of actual class time. We ended up cooking a feast for six, but ate it all ourselves at the end and washed it down with a glass of local orange fruit wine. You can find Tum Tum Cheng on Facebook. dani & jess eating at tum tum chengGlobetrotterGirls say Relax!

After all the markets and cycling and slaving over a hot stove (not really – more like eating enough for six people), it was time for some pampering. We discovered the Herbal Steam bath in Nong Khiew, and hunted down an equally inexpensive and utterly relaxing herbal steam spa experience in Luang Prabang, just off Sisavangvong Road (the night market) for 10,000 kip ($1.25). There are others, but they charge ‘foreigner’ prices up to $8.25 an hour which won’t break the bank, but we prefer paying local prices for local experiences. The steam rooms are usually simple wooden rooms like saunas. Mist laced with fresh local herbs like lemongrass sprays through a pipe into the room from a barrel, or drum, underneath. The room gets very warm, so the experience involves alternating between ten minutes of steam and ten minutes out of the room drinking warm herbal tea. The combination of steam, heat and the herbs opens the pores and is completely relaxing. The saunas provide a sarong to wear in the steam room, a towel and free warm herbal tea.

Alternatively, Luang Prabang has dozens of top massage studios in town. Indulge in oil massages, Lao massage, Thai massages, head and shoulder massages, foot massages as well as manis, pedis and facials. We found the cheapest massage places on  Khem Khong (the road right by the Mekong River) where one-hour massages cost 38,000 kip ($4.75).

luang prabang lazy dogWitness Tak Bat, but please tread lightly

Every morning just after sunrise, hundreds of monks dressed in their flowing saffron robes make their way through the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms. Local Buddhists line the streets, sometimes kneeling, and fills the monks’ alms with rice, bananas and other cooked food to show respect for the monks and a dedication to Buddhism (a ritual often misunderstood by Westerners as charity). It is a photographer’s dream to witness this, but unfortunately the spiritual ritual has become a tourist spectacle over the last few years here in Luang Prabang. Busloads of tourists are brought to Sisavangvong Road in the morning and despite being told the rules (stay on the other side of the road, no flash, keep distance) a large percentage of onlookers literally shove their photo gear in the monks faces. It is at best bizarre, and at worst heart-breaking to witness what is essentially citizen paparazzi snapping shots of what should be a very spiritual, somber experience.

Dani found a spot off Sisavangvong on a side street where monks received alms undisturbed and asks you to please read the Do’s and Don’ts beforehand. For a more detailed account of the popular experience, you can read fellow travel blogger Barbara’s account of taking part in the alms giving ceremony here.

monks luang prabangVisit the waterfalls

Around Luang Prabang there are several waterfalls to cool off and go for a swim, the most popular being the Kuang Si waterfalls 30 kilometers out of town. Negotiate a price with a private tuktuk who will take you there and back, or for a cheaper price (40,000 kip/$5) join up with one of the tours offered by one of Luang Prabang’s many tourist agencies. For those who are very comfortable on a motorbike,  there are also moped/motorcycle rentals for the day but the roads are steep, rough and at times unpaved, so confidence is necessary.

The other waterfalls, a little bit closer to town, are the Tad Sae waterfalls, which are not as high as the Kuang Si waterfalls but spectacular, as the water cascades over dozens of levels and swimming is possible in the pools created by them. The tourist agencies also sell plenty of other tourist packages to explore more of the countryside, so have a look around town and see what you might prefer once you arrive in the city. We wouldn’t advise pre-booking any tours more than a day in advance, as there is no need.

tad sae waterfalls laosWe found Hobomaps to be the most useful for Luang Prabang. The map includes guesthouses, restaurants and all the major sights, visit



Tags : laosluang prabang


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderfully complete article about what to do and see in Luang Prabang, and for pointing your readers to my article about the proper behavior during the alms-giving ceremony. It is truly sad what is happening, but the more we spread the word the better chance that we can preserve this lovely ceremony, as there has been talk of stopping the practice due to the tourist circus it has become.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: Colonial Architecture and Ornate Street Lamps in Historic Center of Lima, Peru

    1. Barbara – it really would be a shame if this traditional ceremony would be stopped because of the tourists. We were surprised when we witnessed the exact same ceremony in Cambodia with no tourists around at all – how did it become such a circus in Luang Prabang?? I couldn’t believe it when I saw tourists holding their cameras straight into the monks’ faces, flash photography everywhere and people were pushing each other to get the best spots – it must be horrible for the monks to experience this every single morning.

  2. The cooking course looks excellent. There is nothing better than having locals explaining the local ingredients to you and showing you how to prepare them. How much did you pay for the course? I did one in Cambodia for $26, which I found a bit expensive, but then it was the only cooking school in Phnom Penh, so I didn’t have much choice. It was a very good class though, and in the afternoon I had the teacher all to myself as well. Anyway your photos made me very hungry, so I will go in hunt for some street food now. 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s twenty-five fifty-six

    1. Tammy – the cooking class was pretty expensive at $30, but we ‘shopped around’ and found that all three cooking classes in Luang Prabang cost the same (25,000 Kip). With all the food we got, the recipe book and the tour of the market we thought it was worth it though. Isn’t it the best to have a teacher all to yourself? 😉

        1. Oh we had no idea you were German! Wish we would’ve had the chance to meet up with you – you are still in Cambodia, right? And I agree – not sure how many people would like to take a German cooking class 😉

  3. It looks like there are many things to see and do in Luang Prabang, but that cooking class really seems not to be missed! I love to cook, and I think that when my husband and I leave on our RTW trip in a few months, I will miss it at times, even with all the delicious street food throughout Asia. I definitely think I will need to make some time (and room in the budget) to learn how to make some of these delicious dishes along the way!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..What’s in a name?

    1. Steph – We highly recommend taking a cooking class – Thailand has some fantastic & inexpensive cooking classes and we saw one in Battambang, Cambodia for $10! We cooked a few times when we had a kitchen in Thailand because we love to cook as well, but it turned out more expensive than eating in a restaurant!

    1. Thanks Andi – I think you’d really enjoy Luang Prabang… there are tons of cute boutique hotels, adorable wine bars and the laid-back atmosphere was just wonderful.

  4. Luang Prabang was one of my favorite cities in SE Asia,it’s very relaxing and not too big, but still offers plenty of stuff to do and see. I liked the night market a lot, much more relaxed market experience than visiting the Thai markets where people are really keen on selling you things. I didn’t go see the Tak Bat, but that was more to do with the fact that I really am not a morning person.
    Jarmo recently posted..London Marathon – it’s Total Mayhem out There!

    1. Jarmo – you are so right, the night market was a completely different experience from the markets in Thailand. Nobody hassles you to buy something and it was never as crowded as a Thai night market.

  5. The place looks very intriguing to me. I would love to visit the place and experience what you’ve shared for myself.

  6. Jarmo, my fellow Finn – ditto! Also missed Tak Bat and was told waterfalls were low on the supplies so gave that a miss. I just loved the general vibe in LP and could’ve stayed for much longer than three days!

    Did you girls go to Utopia? Amazing chilled out oasis that not that many people seemed to have found! I also loved Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, a little gem of a museum right in town

    1. Anni – yes, it is true, Utopia seemed to be not on many people’s radar! We did not come across the TAEC though – sad that we missed it! I have a feeling we will return to Luang Prabang sooner or later though 😉

  7. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences. I would love to visit Luang Prabang someday to have some of the same experiences.Thanks for sharing this incredible journey .

    1. Which cooking school did you go with? That cooking class was definitely one of our highlights in Asia – loved that we were the only two students!

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