Laos was not at all on my radar when we began planning our second trip to Southeast Asia last year. Like many communist countries in Southeast Asia, Laos began opening its door to tourism in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the country remains largely undeveloped. Lao’s population of 7 million is scattered throughout rural villages and relies heavily on agriculture and foreign aid to sustain its economy. The estimated population of Vientiane, Laos’ capital and largest city, is only 760,000! That would be similar to Seattle, Washington or Charlotte, North Carolina in the USA.
As we researched and compared cities throughout Southeast Asia, we were drawn back to Luang Prabang time and time again. Luang Prabang is a small town located in the Northern region that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It’s been described as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” It’s a popular stop for tourists but so far has retained its slow pace and appealing charm.
Guide to 4 Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
Day 1 – Night Market & Shopping
After 22 hours on 3 different planes, we finally arrived in Luang Prabang from Chicago to start our trip! We landed mid-afternoon and checked into our guesthouse, Lakangthong 2 friendly House. The central part of Luang Prabang, shown on the map below from Luang Prabang’s tourism department, is where you’ll find most of the attractions, restaurants and hotels. Ours was a little outside of this area, but we didn’t mind the walk for more affordable accommodations. Check out Victoria XiengThong Palace or Le Bougainvillier if you’d like something more central.
We spent the first evening wandering around the night market. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than many markets in Southeast Asia with little pressure to purchase goods. Luang Prabang also has a ton of boutique shops – Ock Pop Tok was one of my favorites! They produce fair trade, high quality textile products.
Oftentimes, it’s difficult to know if the product you’re buying in a market is truly handmade locally. To support local, ethically made goods in Laos, check out Fair Trade Laos. The organization offers shops the opportunity to get certified based on their ethical and environmental standards and provides a logo to be displayed.
We capped off our evening with dinner at Coconut Garden. They have a beautiful outdoor patio and delicious food!
Day 2 – Alms Giving Ceremony, The Chomphet Hike, Dinner and Drinks
Alms Giving Ceremony
We woke before sunrise the next morning (thank you jet lag) to view the Alms Giving Ceremony. The procession is a living Buddhist tradition for Loations and has become a major tourist attraction. I was hesitant to go, because we’d read so much on the appalling behavior of tourists during this religious ceremony. It pretty much lived up to expectations, but I was glad to have been able to experience it.
If you’d like to go to the procession, here are few tips we were given on how to watch or participate respectfully:
- Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so respectfully (which means no selfies while you’re giving your offering to the monks!).
- Buy sticky rice at the market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the route.
- If you do not wish to make an offering, keep an appropriate distance (we stood on the opposite side of the street) and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings.
- Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs and turn off your camera flash.
- Dress appropriately – shoulders, chests and legs should be covered.
- Do not make physical contact with the monks.
The Chomphet Hike
After the ceremony, we grabbed breakfast at our hostel and decided to cross the Mekong River for a hike following the guide put together by So Many Miles and the Chomphet Hike Map by Hobo Maps. A couple of tips for the hike:
- It’s better to start early as some parts of the trail are not shaded, and it will get hot.
- Bring plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
- Wear long pants – one section of the trail is single track through the forest, and we had no idea what we were walking through! Thankfully, no one came home with any rashes.
To get started, find the ferry down a set of stairs along the river (Google Maps led us straight there), and cross the Mekong. The ride over was only $1.22 for both of us!
When you get off the boat, you’ll walk up a steep hill and start to enter a village. Take the first right that you see and you’ll be on your way to the first temple, Wat Chomphet. We paid 10,000 kip ($1.22) each to climb the stairs to the top (it’s worth it!). You’ll have stunning views of Luang Prabang across the river, and there are several picnic tables if you want to bring along lunch or a snack.
As you make your way along the path, you can choose whether or not you want to pay to see each temple. As you arrive at the third temple, you’ll cross a bridge and it will seem like the path disappears. If you don’t want to stop and look, just tell them that you’re walking through and continue around the property on the right where the trail picks up again.
One of the most confusing spots to catch the trail is at Wat Had Siaw. Look for the long building that is mentioned in the guide. You’ll see a dirt road to the left, and between that road and the long building, there is a path through the woods over a bamboo fence. It felt like we were trespassing, but keep going!
The section through the woods is one of the most unique parts of the trail. Follow the yellow and white markers, and you’ll find lots of cool sculptures and art. If you don’t want to walk through the forest on your way back, you’ll eventually meet up with the dirt road you saw on your left.
We skipped the fifth temple in the guide, Wat Nong Sakeo on the pond. We could hear construction equipment, and there was a no trespassing sign so we continued on to the last one, Wat Khok Pab. There were no barking dogs to greet us, but the gardens here are beautifully maintained. There were boats here as the guide mentions, but we couldn’t find anyone around to take us back. We decided to hike back to the ferry, but you could consider taking a boat to Wat Khok Pab for around 50,000 kip ($6) and hike the trail in reverse for a one way trip.
Dinner and Drinks
After a few hours of hiking, we headed back to Luang Prabang for an afternoon meal at Tamarind. This was easily one of our favorite meals on the entire trip! They have both a popular restaurant and cooking school, so advance reservations are recommended. We ordered the set dinner which included some of their most popular dishes highlighting local flavors.
We ended the day with foot massages (recommendation – save the massages for Thailand), and drinks at 525. 525 has a great outdoor patio and is located around the corner from where we stayed. It’s worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a cocktail!
Day 3 – Coffee, Kuang Si Falls and Secret Pizza
Luang Prabang has several cafes open for breakfast and coffee in the morning, so we decided to check out Saffron Coffee. We were able to grab a table right along the river to enjoy our delicious iced coffees and cake.
Kuang Si Falls
Visiting the waterfalls is one of the most popular things to do near Luang Prabang, so we booked a trip through our hostel for $7.40 each. You could rent a motorbike and drive there yourself, but the busy, winding roads felt a little dangerous. The trip there is about 45 minutes. Our driver dropped us off and we climbed out to begin exploring the breathtaking falls!
If you start at the main waterfall, you’ll find a steep path to to the top with wading pools and incredible views of the countryside. I loved watching these kids play on a wooden swing above the wading pool!
At some point you’ll see signs pointing down a path to a cave. We wouldn’t recommend taking the time to get there. It’s a long, uneventful walk, and the cave was underwhelming. Your time will be much better spent exploring the falls and wading pools.
As you walk back down the hill, you’ll pass several wading pools. The water was cold, but lots of people were swimming! Don’t miss the bear rescue before you leave as well.
Sunset Drinks and Secret Pizza
As the sun set over the Mekong River back in Luang Prabang, we shared a large Beerlao on the patio at Riverside Sunset Bar before heading to dinner. Normally, we try to eat as much of the local cuisine as we can when we travel, but we couldn’t pass up a chance at authentic Italian pizza.
Secret Pizza is a restaurant in the backyard of an Italian who moved to Luang Prabang to marry a local woman he met in Loas on vacation! If their romantic story isn’t enough to warrant a visit, the pizza definitely is. He built an authentic brick oven in the backyard and serves pizzas made with both local and imported European ingredients. They also have a rotating menu of homeade Italian desserts that change each week!
The restaurant is open on Tuesdays and Fridays at 6pm, and they do take advance reservations. We walked to the restaurant, but I would recommend hiring a tuktuk to drop you off. We encountered a lot of barking dogs on our way!
Day 4 – Wat Xieng Thong
On our last day in Laos, we visited the main temple, Wat Xieng Thong, considered one of the finest temples in Laos. We paid 20,000 kip ($2.44) each to enter and wandered among the many structures. The temple is peaceful with beautiful mosaic tiles on many of the buildings. My favorite was the ‘tree of life’. You won’t need too much time here, but go early to avoid the crowds.
We didn’t have much additional time before catching our flight to Chiang Mai, but here are a few ideas if you have more time to spend in Luang Prabang:
- Visit the Royal Palace Museum. The royal residence turned museum is a great example of the French influence on Laos’ architecture. The museum houses interesting artifacts, portraits and jewels. It’s free to enter the grounds, but you’ll have to pay to enter the museum.
- Across from the Royal Palace Museum, climb to the top of Mount Phousi to watch the sunset. You’ll find a couple of temples along the way and stunning views of the hills surrounding Luang Prabang and the rivers. Admission is 20,000 kip ($2.44).
- Help young people in Laos learn English at Big Brother Mouse Project. English-speaking visitors can stop by at 9am or 5pm every day to converse with Laotians learning English. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the local culture while helping others.
Luang Prabang was the perfect relaxing start to our 2.5 weeks in Southeast Asia. Check back in the coming weeks for our guides to Chiang Mai, Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia! And if you missed it, make sure to read our full itinerary.
Have you been to Laos or Luang Prabang? What recommendations would you add to our list?