I loved my time in Luang Prabang, Laos, pretty much from the moment I arrived. I stayed there for five days and left reluctantly because time was running out to get to Vietnam before my visa arrival date. The longer I stayed and the more travelers I met, the more I realized just how much there is to do in this tiny gem of a city.
While there are many more things to do in Luang Prabang, here are the nine experiences that I would personally recommend.
One: observing the alms giving ceremony
My friend and I woke up at 5:30 am to go see the Buddhist alms giving ceremony (or Tak Bat). Every morning, local people give food they’ve made to the monks. The monks themselves, I learned, are not allowed to buy any food, so they are dependent on the generosity of the locals for their meals. I had read a lot of blog posts about the “bad behavior” of tourists and didn’t want to be one of them; I made sure to dress very modestly in long pants and a shawl, and planned to stay a respectful distance away from the monks while taking photos.
What struck me about the experience was how normal this ceremony is for the monks and the local people. It’s just a part of their everyday life.
There were a fair share of annoying tourists who got up close to snap photos of the monks, but it wasn't overwhelming or as bad as I felt it could have been.
I didn’t plan to participate in the ceremony, but my friend had met a few people from China who'd brought apples all the way from their home town for the monks. They insisted that I helped pass out the apples, so I joined the line and gave out a few. It felt nice to contribute to the monks' rations for the day.
Two: visiting the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center
The TEAC is a cute little place and worth spending an hour or so. It has a permanent exhibit showing clothing worn by different Lao ethnic minority groups and temporary exhibits. While I was there, I watched some short documentary movies made by teen Lao girls about women in Laos, including a story with one girl’s mother making paper lanterns by hand. The gift shop has a wonderful selection of handmade home objects and, despite my bulging pack, I couldn’t help myself and ended up buying a couple of beautiful Ikat pillowcases.
Three: taking a Lao cooking class
I think the best way to learn about local cuisine is through a cooking class, so I signed up for one right away in Laos. I chose Tamarind due to its positive reviews, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the class I had in Koh Lanta, Thailand, it was still a good experience. I only wish our instructor’s English had been a little bit better and that he had made each dish for us to try them, so we knew what our food was supposed to taste like!
Our class started with a trip to the local market, where we saw an incredible variety of herbs, fruits, vegetables, and dried goods, as well as more raw animal parts than I ever cared to see (or smell). Not for the faint of heart.
After this, we were driven to the cooking school, a beautiful garden oasis outside of town.
We practiced making six different dishes, including jeow (roasted vegetable mashed with herbs and spices), sticky rice, stuffed lemongrass, laap (ground meat with many herbs—ours was made from buffalo), steamed fish in banana leaf, and for dessert, coconut rice. This was the second time I ate laap and much as I wanted to like it, I didn't (it took three tries for me to find laap that I enjoyed, at Laos Kitchen in Vientiane).
All of the food was prepared over hot coals and many were made using bamboo steam baskets, which was quite different from Thailand and made me think the food would be difficult to replicate at home.
Four: indulging in restaurants and cafes
While I didn’t have any amazing street food in Luang Prabang, the city has great restaurants and cafés that I could have explored for days. The best Lao food I had in town was at Dyen Sabai, which has a charming atmosphere and which you reach by walking across a bamboo bridge high above the Mekong (tip: if you want to cross the bamboo bridge but don’t want to pay the fee, you can go later in the evening as there won’t be anyone there to collect). I also enjoyed The Belle Rive Hotel restaurant overlooking the river; the service was amazingly friendly and the food was solid.
For pastries, I loved Le Banneton (amazing croissants!), and Indigo House, which I went to three times due to their lovely terrace upstairs with wifi, AC, and workstations. Joma (a local chain) had amazing bagels, although I wouldn’t recommend their breakfast burrito.
Five: speaking English with novice monks at Big Brother Mouse
I’d read about Big Brother Mouse, a foundation that aims to increase literacy among Lao children, and knew I wanted to help out in some small way. They have done an incredible job of getting Lao books for various ages written, illustrated, and published. I bought a book to donate and also dropped by in the morning one day to help Lao kids practice their English.
My friend and I showed up around 9 am, wondering if there would be anyone there to talk with. In fact, we were overwhelmed with the amount of kids who wanted to speak with us. For each English speaker who showed up there were probably five or six Lao kids. We stayed for the full 2 hours, which was exhausting but fun. The English-speaking times are daily, at 9-11 am and 5-7 pm.
Most interesting to me was speaking to the young monks-in-training (called “novices”). I learned that most of the boys who study to be a monk don’t necessarily want to do that for the rest of their life; it is quite normal to study with the monks for a few years and then choose to reenter the secular world at the age of 18. One novice I spoke with was very excited to turn 18 and be able to drink and date girls. So, basically like any other teenage boy, I guess. I learned that life as a novice is quite ascetic in many ways; the boys are not allowed to eat after noon, and they spend an hour or so every day in meditation. However, most boys have a cell phone and are very connected to the outside world; one boy I spoke with watches Game of Thrones regularly.
Six: visiting the Kuang Si waterfall
I had heard about the Kuang Si waterfall throughout my time in Luang Prabang and finally made it there in the nick of time on my last day. My friend and I joined a tuktuk with other people in it to save on the cost, but were definitely second-guessing this decision when we realized that we had to go pick up and wait for three other girls to join us. It took us a good 45 minutes to actually leave for the waterfall, and I started getting nervous since I had to be back in time to catch my bus to Vang Vieng.
When we finally got on the road, it was a bit of a harrowing ride over bumpy roads, passing tour vans at a breakneck speed (except when we had to slow down for cows crossing!).
Finally in the park, my friend and I stopped for a few minutes to watch the adorable Asiatic Black Bears just inside the entrance. They were rescued from being poached and are kept there permanently to escape a life of being used as living bile donors. We were lucky that the bears were very active while we were there, playing, eating, and wrestling with each other.
The waterfall itself is lovely, with brilliant teal water and many little pools.
It would have been nice to eat lunch there—you could make a whole day out of if you swim in the pools and climb to the top (neither of which I had time for unfortunately). Despite having to rush back, it was worth the journey.
Seven: shopping at the night market
Luang Prabang has one of the most chill night markets I’ve been to. You’ll see many of the same things over and over, but they are actually handmade (from what I could tell from my visit to the TEAC), and the money is used by the women selling them to support their families. There were beautiful paintings, purses, table runners, and so many other things I wanted to buy but had no room for… I settled for a lovely (and practical) scarf. What I liked most was how non-aggressive the sellers are; they will call out to you if you look at something but are accepting if you decide not to buy.
Eight: listening to Lao fables at Garavek
I went to a storytelling performance at Garavek, given daily at 6:30. The show lasts for an hour, which is good given that the wooden chairs are quite uncomfortable. The setup is simple—there is an old man playing a traditional instrument called a khene, and a young man who tells Lao folktales in very good English. The storyteller is charismatic and gave an energy to the tales that drew me in despite often meandering and ambiguous stories.
Nine: visiting Wat Xieng Thong temple
I didn’t go to many temples in Luang Prabang but I did enjoy seeing Wat Xieng Thong, which has the gorgeous pink exterior walls and tree of life mosaic that you see in many photos of Luang Prabang. It’s worth the entrance fee.
If you go…
Getting a visa on entry in Laos is super easy. If you have an extra passport-sized photo lying around and remember to bring it with you, you’ll save a few bucks on the fee as they charge you to make a photocopy from your passport. Remember to keep your departure slip—they’ll ask for it when you leave the country again!
To get from the airport to my hostel I ended up sharing a tuktuk with four other travelers who were going to the same destination—I met them while we were in line to get our visa upon entry. I would highly recommend doing this so you can split the cost.
I couldn’t get any Lao Kip before arriving, but I was able to take out cash at the airport and was then pleasantly surprised to find that one can exchange money (in my case: Thai Bhat) with no exchange fee in Laos. I used up all of my cash before leaving.
You can spend a lot of money on hotels in Luang Prabang, but since I’m on a budget, I first booked a dorm bed at Kounsavan Guest House for a night, which was bare-bones but decent. While there, I met a new friend and we decided to share a twin room down the street so we could have our own space with AC and a bathroom; we negotiated to about $14 per night total. I would definitely recommend shopping around if you go during slow season like I did—it seems every other building in the old city is a guest house.
If you choose to observe the alms giving ceremony, please give us tourists a good name and be respectful: wear appropriate clothing, stand on the opposite side of the road, and don’t use a flash.
I got a minivan from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, which was not too pricey and a fairly comfortable air-conditioned ride. I just booked a day ahead of time at one of the many tourist shops.
Wifi is notoriously bad in Laos and it was true of Luang Prabang—it only worked in the common area of the hostel I stayed in and was iffy in the guest house. For blogging, I ended up at Indigo House a couple times. For those staying in Laos for a longer period of time, I would recommend buying a SIM card.
Don't want to wait for the slow wifi in Laos, but want to visit all of the sights I've mentioned? Before you go, you can visit GPSmyCity to download a map to this article. It's available offline—perfect for if you won't have data while you're traveling! If you decide to purchase the map, I'll make a few cents, which goes toward the cost of maintaining this blog. Click here to download the article app or see the other guides to Luang Prabang.