In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this primer to Laos’ scenic wonder, we discover the best and most unique things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos.
The bygone charm and romantic exoticism of Indochine has lingered in Luang Prabang with such endurance that it is now easily the most enchanting old town in the former French colonial territories. Sit on the pavement terrace of a pâtisserie and munch on a beautifully baked croissant, while your eyes catch a trio of orange robed novice monks strolling past a glistening temple. Here you can literally taste what it may have been like to be a visiting French aristocrat in the early 20th Century.
But unnerving remnants of colonialism aside, there is simply no denying that this small city – which many consider to be the most beautiful in all of Southeast Asia – is just breathtaking.
The immaculate temples are some of the most spectacular that you will see anywhere in Asia, the lovingly restored French colonial mansions grandly exhibit architectural trends from Renaissance Revival to Art Deco. The Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers that surround the peninsula in an elegant horseshoe shape are almost too perfect. After just five minutes in Luang Prabang, it is easy to see why this UNESCO World Heritage old town features on an increasing number of ‘top 10’ travel lists.
The Luang Prabang old town is small but still packed with highlights… and with highlights come tourists. And so in order to see something a little different, one needs to escape the peninsula, even it’s just for a few hours. For something a bit different, these are the most unique things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Traverse the Mekong
Taking the local ferry across the Mekong is the most accessible ‘beyond the highlights’ experience to take back with you from a trip to Luang Prabang. Step off the ferry, which you can take from behind the Palace Museum, and it will seem as if you have passed into another dimension. You haven’t – you’ve just passed into Xieng Mene Village, which exemplifies Laotian life better than the dreamy peninsula you temporarily left behind.
Unless you are prepared to get up before sunrise, the best time to head across the water is at around 4 or 5pm, giving you enough time to leisurely stroll through the lanes when they are at their coolest and liveliest. Head northeast with the Mekong on your right but don’t be afraid to deviate from the main drag if something catches your eye.
Technically the temples on this side of the river come with an admission fee for maintenance, but it is common to find no one there to take your kip. Instead, you can choose to leave a few thousand in the donation boxes if you want.
The first temple you come across is Wat Xieng Mene, which serves as the most important place of worship for the local villagers. It may not be as striking as the temples back on the other side of the river, but it’s still worth taking a few minutes to absorb the authenticity of this neat little religious compound. A little further on, passing a few volleyball nets, boat carving workshops and idyllic scenes of resourceful children snagging fruit from the trees, and you’ll meet the stairs that lead up to Wat Chomphet. If you’ve timed it right, this temple makes a wonderful place for the sunset.
You won’t see the sun reflected in the river as you can from the more popular and crowded Mt. Phousi, but instead you’ll be rewarded with tranquil solitude and equally as fabulous views back over the old town. If you have time and a torch, you can also follow the dirt road a little further past Wat Chomphet to Wat Long Khun, an atmospheric monastery that overlooks the point at which the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet.
Check with your tour guide for an up to date schedule, but for the journey back to your hotel, the local ferry usually runs until about 9pm.
Away from the Peninsula
As a general rule of thumb, the further you go from the historic peninsula, the more local Luang Prabang becomes, until eventually you reach the dusty city outskirts and the urban landscape gives way to beautifully lush countryside. It’s also worth exploring this side of town for its more authentic personality, ideally by bicycle as the city stretches for further than you might think.
Both Wat Manorom and Wat Tat Luang are worth visiting, as is the very local Phousi Market. Packed full of colourful cheap clothing, counterfeit shoe mountains and piles of fruit, vegetables and spices, there may not be much of a reason for you to get out your wallet, but it’s worth heading inside and stealing some exchanges with the playful market ladies.
Another reason to come out this far is to visit the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre, just around the corner from the Phousi Market. A superb workshop that showcases the gorgeous weaving of the different ethnic groups surrounding Luang Prabang, the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre is a real highlight, and with good reason.
So the trick here is timing – the centre officially closes as at 5pm but most tour groups have disappeared by 4. Go for the last opening hour and then see if you can stay for a drink in their café for another spectacular sunset experience overlooking the river.
Highlights and a Little Extra
At the end of the day, Luang Prabang is small and easily explored by foot or bicycle, so it seems pretty easy to get a sense of it independently. Luang Prabang is home to a spectacular collection of ethnic minority communities just beyond the old town, though, and the best way to explore these is the meet the locals themselves.
Local guides make for a great introduction to these communities with your own translator and facilitator. With a guide at your side, getting to know the locals without overstepping any cultural boundaries is much easier. Only then will you can an up-close and personal look at what makes this magical little Indochina gem tick.
Explore Luang Prabang (and some of Laos’ other cultural highlights) on an in-depth and illuminating customised tour with us. For first-timers, a Laos highlights journey connects the dots between the country’s best destinations. Have a bit more time? Go a little further with our Laos In-Depth 12-day journey.