Is Luang Prabang Still Worth a Visit?
The small town of Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos and has one of the most beautiful settings in south-east Asia. Sandwiched between the Mekong and the Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang is oh so pretty and ever so romantic!
This old French colonial town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and nowadays it’s very popular with visitors to Laos. Many of them make Luang Prabang either their first or last stop in Laos, before or after touring Thailand. People make their way to Luang Prabang by bus, minivan, slow boat and even by aeroplane.
To get to Luang Prabang from Chiang Rai, Thailand we took a minivan to the Laos border and then a slow boat from the town of Huay Xai, just across the border. The boat cruised down the Mekong River for two days, dropping us off just outside of Luang Prabang. You can read more about our slow boat adventure here.
After Luang Prabang’s airport was modernised and extended in 2011, Luang Prabang was no longer just a haven for backpackers. Now, all sorts of travellers are rushing to visit this enchanting town. Not unexpectedly, it has now become quite touristy. We are normally not super keen on touristy places, but we think that Luang Prabang is still worth a visit; here’s why:
It’s a delightful and laid back town!
This charming old town is certainly enjoyable to explore. With its well-preserved French colonial buildings, its streets lined with Banyan trees and its riverside cafes and bars, what’s not to love about it?
You can spend your days relaxing by the river with a coffee or Beer Lao in your hand, enjoying the stunning mountain views in the background. Alternatively, you can hop on a boat and enjoy it from the middle of the Mekong River! It’s laid-back, relaxing and totally delightful!
You can visit some beautiful temples and talk with the novice monks
Like a lot of places we’ve visited recently (such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai), Luang Prabang is home to many beautiful temples. If you are not yet templed out, Luang Prabang is a nice place to do a bit of temple hopping on foot. Some temples to visit are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mahathat and the Royal Temple next to the Royal Palace.
One of the highlights of our time in Luang Prabang was the evening we spent chatting with some novice monks. If you wander into the temples in the evening, you can sometimes find young novice monks who are keen to chat. They like to practise their English and we ended up chatting to a couple of them for over an hour. We found out about their day to day routines and their family life. It’s a great way to spend part of your evening while giving something back to the community.
Luang Prabang has a great night market
We’ve visited a fair number of night markets during our trip through south-east Asia but Luang Prabang remains our favourite. Even though it’s touristy, we didn’t find it overly crowded. There was plenty of space to walk around and there are hundreds of colourful stalls selling souvenirs and handmade goods from Laos.
We don’t often find much that interests us in night markets but some of the craft goods for sale in Luang Prabang were very nice. There were plenty of cool things we were tempted to buy but being full-time travellers, we, unfortunately, couldn’t! We may have to swing back past Luang Prabang again when we eventually return to Australia!
The night market opens daily from 5.00 to 10.00 P.M.
You can find alternatives to most of the crowded attractions
Because Luang Prabang is so pretty and attracts so many tourists, many places worth seeing are often overrun with tourists, making those experiences less than enjoyable. But the good thing about Luang Prabang is that most of the attractions have an alternative. You just need to know about them! Fortunately, our guesthouse owner told us about them and I’ll share them with you if you promise to keep the secret!
Forget about Mt Phousi for sunset, head to Wat Chompet instead
They say that Mt Phousi is the top spot for sunset. It’s heavily featured on Instagram and everyone wants the same shot. Go there for sunset and it’s an awful experience. The area at the top is actually quite small and with hundreds of people all trying to get the same photo, well you can guess what it’s like! We went during the day instead to avoid the crowds and still enjoy the beautiful views from the top.
Instead of Mt Phousi, a couple of hours before sunset take the local car ferry across the Mekong River to Chompet. As you exit, walk up the hill and turn right, you’ll end up in a small village. Keep walking, take your time and enjoy watching the locals going about their life.
As you near the end of the village, you’ll see the start of the path up to Wat Chompet. There are about 100 steps to reach the temple, compared to about 300 to reach Mt Phousi. From Wat Chompet you have a wonderful view of the Mekong River and Luang Prabang. You can watch the sunset up there and you won’t have to fight for the photo!
If you’d like to tackle some of the hiking trails in the area, head across a couple of hours earlier. Make sure you bring a map though as they aren’t signposted. Still, getting a little lost is part of the fun!
Note: At the base of Mt Phousi, street sellers sell small birds in tiny little cages. They sell them so that people release them at the top of the mountain for good luck. This practice is cruel and if everyone stopped participating in it they wouldn’t sell them anymore. While we all want those birds to be released when we see them, the reason they’re kept like that is because people will buy them to set them free! The less we contribute to this, the less likely they will keep up this stupid practice.
Avoid the craziness of Tak Bat
Tak Bat, the local monks’ morning alms collection, is a must see in Luang Prabang. But of course, it attracts large crowds. In fact, there are way too many people on the main street and many of them are just rude and disrespectful. Shame on them!
I only lasted about two minutes there because I got so angry when I saw a group of tourists walk right up to the novice monks and shove their camera in their faces for a selfie. That is NOT acceptable.
The owner of our guesthouse told us that the next street down parallel to the main street was a much quieter place to observe the monks. There it was mainly locals who gave alms. We were so glad to leave the zoo on the main street. This street was much more peaceful, with barely any idiots to ruin it for everyone.
Note: I don’t have any good photos because I tried to be respectful to the monks, as we all should be. I stayed across the road from them and I did not use the flash or a selfie stick. It was very early morning, still rather dark and the monks don’t stop for long while collecting alms. I tried a few times and failed, so I decided to just enjoy the ceremony instead. Sometimes in life, it’s not just about having a photo for Instagram!
Visit Kuang Si waterfalls but swim at Tad Sae waterfall
Luang Prabang has some pretty amazing waterfalls nearby. And there’s no denying it, the Kuang Si waterfalls are just picture-perfect. In fact, they’re one of the best things to visit in Luang Prabang. That blue water, oh my, it’s so beautiful! Of course, when something is as stunning as this, it’s bound to be popular.
Although I totally recommend seeing the Kuang Si waterfalls (try and go before 9 am and do stop at the Free the Bears sanctuary on your walk up there), there is an alternative, the Tad Sae waterfall.
Tad Sae waterfall is a lot quieter than Kuang Si. It’s mainly locals there and it’s so much better for swimming. To get there you have to cross a river on a local boat which is quite fun and the river views are stunning. If you want to hike to the top of the waterfall it’s a bit tougher than the hike at Kuang Si but it’s also great exercise!
However, I wasn’t keen on the elephant riding at Tad Sae waterfall (how sad) and absolutely loved the Free the Bears sanctuary at the base of Kuang Si waterfalls. This alone makes me prefer Kuang Si waterfalls, despite the crowds.
You can help the locals practise their English
If you have a bit of free time in Luang Prabang, you can help the locals practise their English. At Big Brother Mouse, you can meet some young adults from Luang Prabang and surrounding villages and talk with them for a while. There are two separate sessions at Big Brother Mouse, one at 9:00 a.m. and one at 5:00 p.m.
The students turn up and you talk with them about everything and anything. They improve their conversational English and increase their vocabulary and you learn a lot about their culture. It’s a win-win experience! We really enjoyed it, not only because we learnt a lot about Laos and village life but because we met some really lovely people.
You can still find some quiet areas in Luang Prabang
If you want to escape from other tourists, it’s easy enough to find quieter areas in Luang Prabang. We stayed north of the peninsula by the river (on Khem Khong Road) in a little guesthouse called View Khem Khong Guesthouse. This area is very quiet with barely any other tourists. We were also just across the road from the Mekong River which was a big plus just for those views!
Another lovely part of Luang Prabang that we discovered as we explored the town was the tip of the peninsula, close to Wat Xieng Thong. This area was great to walk around; it was very quiet there, especially in the evenings and once again the views of the Nam Khan River were amazing!
If you cross the bamboo bridge you’ll also find a peaceful part of town. There are some guesthouses there but it’s mainly locals. If you don’t mind having to cross the river to get to town, you can’t find a quieter area to stay in than this! The bamboo bridge is also pretty cool, so you should check it out anyway. Note that the bamboo bridge is rebuilt every year at the start of the dry season so if you visit in the wet season it won’t be there.
I’d avoid staying at any places near or on the main street (Sisavangvong Road).
You can indulge in some great traditional Lao food
Whether you enjoy street food or prefer a fancier option, you won’t go hungry in Luang Prabang. Street food is extremely popular there (just be careful where you decide to eat!) and like everywhere else in Asia, it’s exceptionally cheap!
If you can afford to splurge a little more, we’d recommend trying the traditional Laotian set menu at Tamarind restaurant (be sure to book ahead); it’s delicious! The Bamboo Tree Restaurant is also a great place to taste some traditional Lao food. If you’d like to learn to cook Lao food, both restaurants offer cooking classes.
Yes, Luang Prabang is Still Worth a Visit
Luang Prabang is definitely still worth a visit. In fact, for us, it was one of our highlights of Laos. Even though it’s touristy, it never felt too busy. The old town was a perfect place to walk around, relax and enjoy the stunning river views.
We stayed in Luang Prabang for a week and could have easily stayed there a few days longer. But with Vang Vieng awaiting, we had to move on for some more adventure. We’ll definitely be back in Luang Prabang though, that’s for sure.
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