Are you planning a two or three days trip to Luang Prabang? In this travel guide, you can find some ideas about what you can do and see in this beautiful city in Laos.
Once the royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang has a rich history that is reflected in its architecture and cultural traditions. The city’s many temples are some of the most impressive in Southeast Asia, with intricate carvings, gold-leafed Buddha statues, and serene gardens.
The city is the perfect destination for both backpackers and families. Backpackers will love the affordable accommodation options and the delicious street food and there are plenty of cultural sites and natural attractions to explore by foot or bike too.
Families will feel safe and welcome here as well as in all of Laos. There are many different activities for everyone, like visiting temples and museums, taking a boat trip down the Mekong River, or exploring an Elephant rescue center.
With the construction of the new railway connecting Kunming to Vientiane is now even easier to get to Luang Prabang and maybe continue your trip to or from Yunnan (here my guide).
When is the best time to visit Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has something to offer all year round but the best time to visit is from November to March, during the dry season. The weather is nice and dry, which is perfect for activities such as hiking, cycling, and river cruises. Keep in mind that this is peak tourist season, so prices may be high and there will be more tourists. The sky in the month of March can be hazy due to the farmers burning their fields.
If you’re looking to save some money and avoid the crowds, consider visiting in the month between April and June or September to October. The weather is still warm and sunny, but you’ll have a better chance of finding lower prices, fewer people, and also some rain.
During the rainy season, the rainforest and waterfalls come to life, and there are fewer tourists, making it easier to find accommodations and activities but some tours may be limited due to weather conditions.
How to get to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is one of the two cities in Laos with an airport (the other is Vientiane, the capital). If you are entering Laos on foot from Thailand or China then you can take the new train which connects Vientiane to Boten passing through Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang (don’t forget to check my travel guide to Vang Vieng).
I don’t recommend getting to Luang Prabang via minibus unless there is no other option available: the roads are quite bad and the journey can take several (very uncomfortable) hours.
How to get around Luang Prabang
Besides the new train, public transportation is not really a thing in Laos, especially inside cities. Taxis are also nonexistent but to be honest, the historic center of Luang Prabang is quite small and if your accommodation is located nearby, you can basically walk everywhere.
If you want to explore the surrounding area then your best option would be to rent a scooter. If for whatever reason you can’t do that, then you can hire a tuk-tuk driver but it will be quite expensive.
If you do rent a scooter my advice is to NEVER leave your passport as a deposit and take several pictures of the scooter when the shop hands you the keys. Scams in Southeast Asia are quite common and scamming tourists by making them pay for non-existent damages on the scooter seems to be the most common.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is a great destination for people with a limited budget. You can find hostels or guest houses right in the old town. You can check both on Booking.com and also on Trip.com. Just keep in mind that due to the lack of public transportation, it is important that you don’t stay too far from the old town.
Personally, I wanted to try something unique and I stayed at the Luang Say Residence. Let me put it this way: it’s not a cheap hotel BUT this property is quite amazing. The Luang Say Residence is an iconic 5-star French colonial resort featuring 32 luxury suites and includes a swimming pool, a library, an 1861 bar, and a fine dining restaurant.
The resort is a bit further away from the old town but they offer a free shuttle service to and from the city center that runs every hour.
Luang Prabang 2 days itinerary
Two days should be enough to explore most of the city but you can actually stay longer just to relax a bit. Luang Prabang it’s a great city to immerse yourself in southeast Asia without the crazy traffic of Bangkok or Hanoi.
You can start the first day by waking up very early in the morning to see the alms-giving ceremony. Keep in mind that the time might slightly change depending on the season but it should be around 5:30 in the morning.
I have mixed feelings about this ceremony. On one side is actually a very old and nice tradition that involves monks who walk along the streets of the city, collecting alms (usually food) from the local people. The truth is that it has become very touristy with backpackers taking the place of local people and Chinese tourists doing everything that they are not supposed to do to take a few pictures (like getting close to the monks, getting in their way, talking loudly, and so on). But it is what it is. If you are in Luang Prabang you shouldn’t miss this experience.
Right after the alms-giving ceremony, you can head to the market located in a small alley next to the Royal Palace.
The market attracts a lot of tourists but also local people. I like visiting local markets because I can find something I’ve never seen before, even if I’ve spent many years in Asia.
Don’t forget to try the coconut mini-pancakes. They are cheap and delicious.
Discover the temples in Luang Prabang
With over 30 temples scattered all around the old town, you’ll have plenty to explore on your first day in Luang Prabang. To access some of these temples you’ll have to pay a small fee.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, also called Wat Mai or Wat May, is a Buddhist temple built at the turn of the 18th century, it is the largest temple in Luang Prabang.
In a style inspired by another Wat in Vientiane, the temple has one of the most beautiful colored roofs, in the Thai style, the same sort as that of Wat Sene.
It was built in 1718 by King Kitsarath with (allegedly) 100.000 stones from the Mekong River.
This is another small temple located in the old town and is quite nice. Worth stopping by to take a few pictures.
Renovated in 2006 after having been partially destroyed by a fire, it’s one of the newest temples. It’s mainly made up of a large colonial building.
Built in 1763 during the reign of Chao Jotika, Wat Syrimoungkoun Xaiyaram is located near the more famous Wat Xieng Thong.
It won’t take much time to visit this tiny temple, but it’s quite photogenic thanks to the lush vegetation behind it.
Another lovely temple, Wat Sibounheuang covers a mysterious ‘hole’ traditionally associated with ghosts.
Couldn’t find much info about this temple. It looked half abandoned when I visited it.
Built between 1559 to 1560 by King Setthathirath, Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important ones in Laos.
After visiting so many temples you might probably want to rest a bit in your hotel or in one of the many coffee shops along the Mekong River. It’s also a good idea to avoid the hottest time of the day.
When the temperatures start to cool down a bit you might want to keep exploring some of the back alleys of Luang Prabang and then slowly head to Phousi Hill
Hike Phousi Hill or Mount Phu Si
You’ll see Mount Phu Si standing tall and overlooking the old town as you as you arrive in Luang Prabang. It rises 100m from the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers converge. Considered the heart of the city both spiritually and geographically, this UNESCO-protected site is steeped in ancient legend. It is said that a powerful aga, a deity in Buddhist and Hindu belief with a part-human, part-serpent form, once called the mountain home.
At the peak of Mount Phousi, you can enjoy a panoramic 360-degree view of Luang Prabang and the tranquil valley below. Also, in this case, you’ll have to pay a small fee.
Luang Prabang Night Market
As soon as the sun starts settings, you’ll see local people heading to Sisavangvong Road with their carts. The night market attracts a lot of tourists: you’ll find local food and products. Don’t forget to bargain!
On the first section of the road is where you’ll find all the stalls selling street food.
If you feel tired you can then head to one of the many massage centers along the main road. They are very cheap, especially if you have never been to Asia. You can expect to pay 5$ for a 1-hour massage.
Kuang Si Waterfall
You can start the second day by visiting the Kuang Si Waterfall. The best way to do it is by renting a scooter the day before so that you can start driving around 7:00 am and arrive at the waterfall around 8:00 am, right when the park opens and there are no people.
Right inside the waterfall park, you can visit the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a rescue center dedicated to saving moon bears. More than 100 bears have been rescued in Laos. Currently, there are six bear houses at the new sanctuary, and are planning (and fundraising) for more in preparation for additional rescues, growing cubs, and bile farm closures.
It’s great to see that people all over the world are raising awareness towards saving endangered wildlife, even in poorer countries where this is usually more difficult to do.
On the way back to Luang Prabang you can visit the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden.
Explore the countryside and join one of the many day or half-day tours
You can spend part of the second day driving around the countryside and exploring some of the villages to get some interesting pictures and a glimpse of how local people actually live. For example, I came across this beautiful temple on my way to the waterfall.
One of the most common day or half-day tours you can join is to one of the elephant rescue centers. These tours are easy to book because you’ll see the agencies advertising them along the main road in Luang Prabang.
Usually riding elephants is not allowed and they are supposed to be very respectful of these beautiful animals. I didn’t have time to join a tour so I don’t have any personal feedback, but they should be an interesting experience.
Finally don’t forget to book a cruise along the Mekong River at sunset.
Luang Prabang is also the starting point to reach a small village that is becoming increasingly popular: Nong Khiaw. Check out my travel guide to see if it’s worth it to go there.
Luang Prabang has quickly become one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, thanks to its laidback vibe and beautiful architecture. You will not see highrise buildings, and the traffic is not bad, because there aren’t really that many cars. The view of the Mekong River at sunset is amazing and I’m sure you’ll want to spend a few more days just chilling out in one of the many coffee shops scattered along the roads of the historic district.