Things to do in Luang Prabang, Laos

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Plus sizzling night markets, preserved hill tribe art, and beautiful buildings surrounded by mountains.

On the banks of the mighty Mekong, saffron-colored monks line the streets, skewers of meat roast over charcoal, and pointed temples or French-style buildings line towering palm trees. This is Luang Prabang, the cultural heart of Laos.

A lesser-visited and grossly underrated Southeast Asian destination, Laos is the only landlocked country in the region. France’s brutal late 19th-century colonization of Laos ended in 1954, but its influence is evident in the colonial buildings, cuisine, and large French immigrant community.

That’s not to say that Luang Prabang isn’t exclusively Lao. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, the gilded spiers of dozens of temples lining its narrow streets, street markets galore and hill tribe textile shops around every corner all add to its intoxicating beauty.

While three days is typical here, I spent a month gorging myself on street food, riding my bike down the winding roads, admiring the hazy sunsets with a cane juice in hand, and embracing the slow life that this sleepy, beautiful Riverside city embodied. From a double magic hour to local crafts that support women’s education, here’s all there is to experience in Luang Prabang.

Get your street food filling

Lao natives are said to consume more glutinous rice per capita than any other country on earth. And while a dollop of rice lands on most dishes, there’s plenty on offer here, from Luang Prabang sausage (typically made from buffalo or pork mixed with local herbs) to just about every meat imaginable on a skewer.

The city’s night market is the quintessential focal point, but skip the crowds and stroll down the narrow alleyway to enjoy more traditional Lao foods. Order a bowl of khao soy (a fragrant rice noodle soup) or a whole river fish grilled whole, or grab a plate for less than $1 and stack it with various vegetarian dishes marinated in aluminum bowls.

On the outskirts of town is Unio Foods Garden (as marked on Google Maps). There are no English menus here, so you may need to pull out Google Translate or point to a picture of the dish you want. Hopefully at least one of your orders will include papaya salad doused in fish sauce, fresh or fried spring rolls, and Lao stew.

Where to stay in Luang Prabang

No hotel in the city has a better location than the Avani+ Luang Prabang Hotel. The European-style building, once a French garrison, is right on the city’s main street, opposite the night market. Decorated with local art and textiles, each room offers a balcony overlooking the massive banyan tree and the picturesque pool that adorns the courtyard.

The extravagant Rosewood Luang Prabang is just outside of town, nestled between the surrounding villages. Designed by award-winning hotel creator Bill Bensley, it is a treat for the senses consisting of 23 OTT rooms, suites and mountain tents surrounding a private waterfall. Rooms have bright Lao patterns painted on the walls, black-and-white tiling, claw-foot tubs, and elephant figurines carried throughout the property.

Perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of town, La Résidence Phou Vao, A Belmond Hotel makes for a picturesque stay. Its infinity pool offers expansive views of a coconut palm jungle and famous Mount Phu Si, the city’s highest point (and worth climbing its 300+ steps). The rooms are shockingly spacious, but the real gem here is the food. Traditional smoking, drying and fermentation techniques are used to create the finest fine dining in Luang Prabang, sourced exclusively from local farmers and producers. Even if you’re not staying here, book a reservation.

And a few doors down is the new Souphatra Hotel. This Lao-owned 4-star boutique hotel elegantly blends Luang Prabang’s peaked roofs and patterns with French design. After a long day of sightseeing, happy hour by the pool is a welcome change.

Find out what the US history books don’t say

Between 1964 and 1973, the US military dropped around two million tons of bombs on Laos in a secret mission, making it the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. It is estimated that 80 million unexploded ordnance (UXO) are still littering the countryside, affecting 25% of villages in Laos. The UXO Lao Visitor Center teaches about the decades-long impact of this UXO, including the hundreds of Lao children and adults who still die each year, as well as how this non-profit organization removes or detonates approximately 77,000 ordinances annually. This is an essential stop, especially for Americans.

It’s hard to miss the National Museum of Luang Prabang in the center of town. Its ornate temple houses the country’s most important statue of Buddha, and the former royal palace is a treasure trove of historical artifacts, including fully intact royal living quarters.

Nearby is the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC). Celebrating the traditions, music and incredible craftsmanship of the country’s 50 officially recognized ethnic groups, TAEC offers a fascinating crash course in Lao culture. The gift shop is also a prime place to shop for locally made souvenirs.

Shop responsibly for hill tribe textiles

Textile stores in Luang Prabang are like Starbucks in the US; There’s one on every corner. But not all sell ethical or authentic handmade goods. Ock Pop Tok has a shop in town and a Living Crafts Center on the Mekong that sells natural and organic blankets, clothing, bags and jewelry made by Lao women committed to preserving their culture while earning a fair wage earn.

At Passa Paa, each item adorned with hill tribe designs is handcrafted by a local Hmong artisan using sustainable hemp and hand screen printing. LaLa Laos is a Laotian shop selling Luang Prabang-inspired t-shirts, jewelry and handmade textiles. Here, a percentage of the profits go towards funding education for Lao girls.

Ma Té Sai is another social enterprise that sells handmade household goods, clothing and jewelry from surrounding villages. They also sell one-of-a-kind necklaces, bracelets, and homeware made from recycled bombs scattered around nearby provinces.

Experience the two magical hours of the city

Loatians estimate that there are more than 100 temples scattered across the streets of Luang Prabang, giving it a uniquely spiritual vibe. Every morning, when the roosters start crowing around 6am, young monks line the street for the Sai Bat (or Tak Bat) tradition, collecting sticky rice from devout locals and, increasingly, tourists.

This ancient almsgiving ceremony is performed barefoot and in silence by hundreds of monks in crayola-orange robes. Most tourists will line up along Sisavangvong and Sakkaline streets to witness the ceremony, or sit on tiny plastic stools to give alms to the monks. But in this area you might witness a crowd of people thronging and taking photos of the monks’ faces in what could easily become an episode of Tourists Behaving Badly. Instead, head to the empty Kounxoau Road and stand quietly at a distance to watch the procession go by.

At dusk, as the sunset begins to match the color of the monks’ robes, dozens of wooden longtail boats head out on the Mekong for sunset cruises. Even if it’s touristy, taking one of the boats is a nice way to spend two hours. Many hotels, like Avani+ Luang Prabang, partner with companies like Mekong Kingdoms for a more luxurious experience. If you prefer to keep it low-key, head down to the shore and hop on a local’s boat for under $10. Just remember to bring your own Beerlao.

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Katie Lockhart is a contributor to Thrillist.

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