My Magical Trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. Top Ten Things to Do.
When I began planning my honeymoon last year, Laos was not originally part of the itinerary. It was only after hearing rave reviews from friends and family that I decided to look into it. I hated nothing more than the thought of going all the way over to Southeast Asia and missing what my travel agent described as a “magical experience.” I mean, would you want to miss that?
Luang Prabang is a small, dream-like town on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, in a beautiful mountain setting. It is well known for its plethora of Buddhist temples and monasteries. It’s also a UNESCO world-heritage site full of enchanting things to do. After spending five days here, these are are some of my favorite.
Almsgiving aka Feeding the Monks
Every morning hundreds, if not thousands of monks meander through the streets and partake in “Almsgiving” or collecting of alms. Visitors and locals alike participate in this tradition by awaking at sunrise and offering the monks sticky rice with their bare hands.
The experience was described to us as “magical” by several friends. While I did immensely enjoy participating in this and witnessing all the orange-robe-clad monks peacefully wandering the streets at dawn, it wasn’t as spiritual as I was told. For one thing, monks are a bit grumpy as it turns out, at dawn. At one point, I, the virgin alms-giver, apparently wasn’t moving quickly enough, giving out their rice and I got an eye roll. Yep, a good, old-fashioned, sarcastic, New York eye roll. I was floored. I had to keep from laughing during this silent ritual. All the way in Laos and I felt right at home for a moment. Not to pull an “US Weekly” but I guess Monks really are just like ‘US’.
Despite my sarcasm, I did find this to be really interesting and definitely worth the early morning wakeup call. It was an enlightening and moving experience for the most part. I didn’t let my one experience taint the rest.
Luang Prabang Night Market
The Luang Prabang night market in particular was one of my favorites and I didn’t see it coming. Everyone raves about the markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand and in Bangkok but this turned out to be my favorite. Unlike other markets, there seemed to be unique goods here. Believe it or not, many of the markets throughout Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia somehow seemed to sell very similar goods. My favorite purchase here were my surprisingly high-quality t-shirts and tank tops. If you’re looking for my professional fashion opinion, they had the best selection and they are in shockingly GREAT condition almost a year later. Great souvenirs!
Get to Know Your Guide
One of the most enriching parts of Laos for me was spending time with our guide, Khamla, or as he told us to call him, “La.” The best part of being all the way in Laos was learning about the culture from him as opposed to a guidebook. La was truly such an inspirational man. He went above and beyond his tourism duties, taking us to meet his sister and children, telling us about his life and values. We really got along well with him and our tip definitely reflected that. He was trying to start a business and we wanted to be the first investors (I’m not trying to sound like a baller, trust me, you wouldn’t have flinched if I gave it to you). The next night La showed up at our hotel bearing gifts for us from his sister’s shop to commemorate our time we had together. This was one of the most memorable experiences for us. It even brings tears to my eyes remembering it now. If you’re in Laos, you should absolutely look him up to be your tour guide. His name is Khamla and his email is: [email protected]
Definitely take a boat trip one day along the Mekong River en route to Pak Ou. Along the way you will have a chance to observe rugged limestone formations along the banks of the river, as well as the lush forest and the fishing villages on the way. We even stopped off and met a couple who was mining for gold. This was a particularly interesting experience. Even though they didn’t speak English, our guide translated for us as they showed us what to do. When it was time to go we tipped them five dollars for taking time out of their day to speak with us. The woman nearly cried and our guide explained that it’s because he said it’s possible they wouldn’t make that in a month. This made my heart heavy.
Tham Ting, Tham Teung & Pak Ou Caves
Your boat ride will take you to these caves, which house nearly 4,000 Buddha statues. Locals have assembled the Buddha statues here for centuries because it is considered disrespectful to ever destroy a Buddha image. These caves have now become sacred.
Whiskey Village (Ban Xang Hai)
This village is also on the way to the caves. Stop here for a bit and see how local Laos Whiskey is made. Sample some if you’re brave enough. Stay away though from the whiskey that has snakes, bears, bugs and more, fermenting inside the bottles. Many of these animals are endangered and by sampling this stuff you’re supporting the wrong message. It’s disgusting really, they forced my husband to sniff the bear-foot whiskey and it nearly laid my husband out. I ran out of the shop when they nudged the bottle in my direction. Gross! On so many levels. There are various other arts-and-crafts shops but none that are that unique.
Wat and Temple Central
There are so many temples in this town you must spend at least a bit of your stay exploring them. Our personal favorites were Wat Visoun, a 16th century temple which serves as
a small museum for religious artifacts; and Wat Aham, built in the early 19th century temple and Wat Xiengthong, a 16th century temple which epitomizes all the elegance and grace of Luang Prabang architecture.
One of my favorite experiences here was having La tell my fortune. There are bunch of sticks that he had me choose from, after that he read me my fortune. I know it sounds juvenile but the fortunes that they read are very interesting. I kept mine (since it was that I would receive good fortune). I have the piece of paper framed in my living room.
This is a National Museum. Here you can view precious exhibits that used to be owned by the former Laos Royal family. The treasures held here are definitely worth seeing. I must say that all I could think of for much of my stay here was the appalling lack of security.
Climb a mere 328 steps to reach the top of this hill where you can witness a romantic sunset over the town of Luang Prabang and the two rivers and hills that border it. Definitely a must-see experience.
Beer Lao & Lao Cuisine
I must admit that the food in Laos was not my favorite. Especially the riverweed (made locally from the weeds growing in the (ahem, brown) rivers. My husband loved this stuff though. He really couldn’t get enough of it. Yuck! He also found the food to be VERY tasty at Tamarind, down by the river. Laos is known for its coffee too so be sure to get a couple cups. I stuck with Beer Lao, which I happen to adore.
Things to skip if you’re Short on Time:
Paper Village, which is pretty much just a paper shop, though I did get some nice stationary for souvenirs for my family. Ban Pak Ou, which is a restaurant our guides all raved about. Ick, the bathroom is in the owner’s house. I literally had to step over someone who was sleeping on the floor in their living room to get to the restroom, which was covered in an inch of water on the ground. Oh did I mention they make you remove your shoes before entering? Disaster. Also skip the carnival if it’s in town.
very ignorant taking pictures with your backs to Buddha. That does not look very expert to me.- February 11, 2014
I apologize sincerely for not knowing this custom. I try to do my best to be aware of local customs and traditions but it can be a challenge. Thanks for alerting me bout this one.- February 11, 2014
Extremely rude and arrogant comment V. Stop being a jerk and get off your high horse.- June 3, 2015
It is fine to highlight this, but do so in a different manner!
As much as one tries which I am sure Katie does, you cant expect to know everything.
Nice response K, very professional.
Just found you and it is really helpful. Thanking you 🙂
Thanks so much James, I appreciate your kind words.- July 29, 2015
Love your blog… About to go to Laos for the first time and have written all your tips including your guide.. Thanks- February 18, 2014
So happy the blog helped! Have an amazing trip!- February 23, 2014
Lao Keyboard for iPhone and iPad. nOw type in laos language through this app.- March 19, 2014
Thanks so much for the info, very helpful. I’ve been to Vietnam and Cambodia before and heading back again in July, adding on Laos this time and you’ve assured me I’ve certainly made the right decision. Can you tell me how much the guide costs per day? Thank you!- March 26, 2014
I can’t remember exactly but if you email him he will get back to you. I want to say it wasn’t more than $100 for the guide and a driver for the entire day.- March 29, 2014
I would not do the elephant thing as I have read about the cruel way they train them.- April 26, 2014
Blog is quite interesting- will be travelling from China to Laos via North THailand .. not sure about the yucky weed thing but my son told me the food in Laos was awesome.
Keep on travelling!
Yes, there are certainly some elephant camps that are cruel, but others are actually a sanctuary and place they can be safe and recover. Thanks for stopping by! I certainly hope you’ll be back!- April 29, 2014
Sorry the Lao Elephant link is this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uP3x1UpNNMw- April 26, 2014
Thanks for the tips! Where is the weaving photo from though? I’m heading to Luang Prabang and very interested in crafts/textiles? Loved that photo – especially the vibrancy of the colors.
Best,- May 9, 2014
It was somewhere on our tour with Trails of Indochina. They weren’t part of anything though, they were just doing the crafts on their own.- May 30, 2014
Your photography is amazing in this post!
We also did a trip to Laos and found it incredible, looks like you had a fantastic time as well. We did see some elephants walking along the Nam Khan River, however we had already ridden some back in Thailand so we gave it a miss.
We wrote a bit of story on our trip as well, if you return to Laos again we would highly recommend the blue lagoon and zip lining.
Thanks for sharing this amazing post!- September 28, 2014
Thanks so much for your kind words! Photography is my passion so I appreciate your compliments. I’ll definitely check out your post as well on Laos! Happy travels!- October 10, 2014
If you had done more research you would have learnt that they do not like tourists giving alms – the rice is meant to be prepared by your own hand, often in the early hours of the morning. Hence the ladies every morning sitting there with freshly prepared CLEAN rice. The monks actually eat this later. Many hotels want to give you the rice to give etc, unless you are a Buddhist … just say no. Tourists standing there giving rice sold to them along with crackers or other items they seem to want to throw in the ‘pot’ is offensive. Stand back quietly and observe and enjoy the ritual, out of respect do not participate in the giving.- November 11, 2014
Thanks for the input, I did do alot of research and spoke to many locals and they felt that this was a nice thing to do. It’s always good to hear many perspectives though. THanks for stopping by and sharing.- November 12, 2014
The email address for Khamla is not correct. Not sure if it has been tampered with? Do you have and contact details for him if not where did you find him? Thank you- December 4, 2014
I’m sad to say we don’t have a forwarding address, he must have changed it…- December 10, 2014
As a Buddhist and with compassion being at the heart of Buddhism I was a little surprised at the tone of a couple of posts. Therecare msny ways to say the same things.- January 8, 2015
As a Buddhist and with compassion being at the heart of Buddhism I was a little surprised at the tone of a couple of posts. There are many ways to say the same things.- January 8, 2015
Sorry you feel that way. It’s all in good fun! Just trying to get people excited about visiting these great places!- January 23, 2015
I am thinking she meant the other peoples tones, eg…V and Leith.- June 3, 2015
Keep up the good work 🙂
Merci!- July 29, 2015
I really think you should stick to your day job. Having read your tips, it appears you didn’t take into account any Laos customs. You should be respectful of the locals wherever you are. You have missed out I. So many beautiful things whilst in Luang Prabang, everything you mentioned scan be seen on any website.- June 15, 2015
I’m sorry that you feel that way, I truly think that I am very respectful of every custom in every country I visit. Thanks for stopping by, hope you’ll reconsider after you read some other articles.- July 29, 2015
Great pictures of this great county!- July 29, 2015
Happy you agree! I certainly think so!- July 29, 2015
So great that you were able to experience the wonders of this amazing place and share it with others! I live here and it does truly have a lot to offer! I am glad to see others see the ‘magic’ here too 😉 As a conservation worker however, I would ask that you think twice about supporting markets etc. in your travels (all around the world) that support the illegal wildlife trade or exploitation of wildlife. S.E. Asia in particular has many places, like the whisky place you noted above, that features bush meat and parts of critters that are highly endangered. You may feel like you don’t have a voice and it doesn’t matter but it absolutely does! Everyone can make a difference with the choices they make and these animals are important to keeping the ecosystems healthy here. Highlighting and supporting markets like this drives the trade and we would all like places like this amazing area to retain the wildlife that makes them that much more magical. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Hope this information was helpful! Travel on!- August 14, 2015
Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea about the endangered animals in the post. I will certainly be mindful of that and remove those photos.- August 25, 2015
I know this is an old blog and I thank you for your efforts but I do hope that you now realise that riding elephants is NOT a good thing. They belong in the wild. .- May 21, 2016
Hi this is a good blog- May 29, 2016
We also offer Laos Tours Packages as we explore the richness of the untouched landscape of Laos. Our trips are expertly guided and offer unique experiences, as we travel to top destinations. Traveling from Huay Xai, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, we will show tourists the distinctive culture of Laos.
More info on: http://www.laostourssmile.com/
Good to know. Thanks for stopping by.- June 5, 2016
Going to Laos this new year, thanks for this infoemation- December 1, 2016
I can not believe you are telling people to ride elephants. Elephant riding is not okay in any case. Please do your research. Trustworthy elephants sanctuaries do not allow riding in ANY CASE. Please edit your post, you are influencing people to cruelty and mistreatment of these beautiful animals.- August 14, 2017
You are right, I have since edited this post.- August 19, 2017