Luang Prabang is one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful historical and cultural cities. Its uniqueness is its location on a peninsula surrounded by the Mekong River, which helped preserving totally its heritage. The city has been listed since 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage and is in the present a popular destination thanks to improved road and air connections, while it retains its old world charm and tranquillity.
Best places to visit in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is the historical capital of the ancient Laotian kingdom of Lane Xang or “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants”, located along the old Silk Road. The name Luang Prabang comes from a celebrated Buddha image (Pha Bang), a present from the powerful Khmer monarchy. Luang means “Great” or “Royal”. The city has been many times a capital of the Kingdom of Laos in its history, starting as far the late 14th century. It is during French protectorate time that Vientiane was confirmed as the Laotian capital but Luang Prabang maintained its title of royal residence. Luang Prabang retained its appeal as a spiritual and education centre with its numerous temples.
From 1893, the city urban image changed with new administrative buildings and villas being built, mostly in the historical centre. Today Luang Prabang is a legacy from the early 20th century with the city centre being an outstanding example of the fusion between traditional Laotian and European colonial architecture.
Royal Palace and National Museum
The Royal Palace (today National Museum) is a typical example of the blend between Lao and European architecture. The Palace was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family. It remained the official residence of the Royal Family until 1975, when the country became officially Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the palace being then converted into a museum. It shows the daily life of the Royal Family and has a fine collection of antiques including statues as well as royal jewels.
Not to be missed are temples inside the National Museum. A must-see is Wat Ho Pha Bang which houses the Pha Bang famed Buddha. Be aware that no photography is permitted inside the museum.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
The magnificent structure is one of the biggest and most beautiful temples in Luang Prabang. It is also popular with tourists as it is located in front of the night market and beside the Royal Palace.
The Wat was built by King Anourout at the end of the 18th century and was enlarged in the 19th century as it became the official temple of the royal family as well as the residence to the highest Lao Buddhist dignitary, Pra Sangkharat. The temple is very important for the Laotians of Luang Prabang as it used to contain the statue of Phra Bang, who is considered the spiritual figure for the city. Once a year during the Lao New Year, the golden Phra Bang statue is taken out from the National Museum where it is now on display to be brought back to the temple. The monastery’s sim is spectacular for its five-tiered roof and gilded bas-relief of the front façade.
The hill is facing the Royal Palace at 100 m height. Visitors have to climb some 300 stairs to reach its peak where a temple tells about a powerful Naga living there. Shrines and chedis remind of the spiritual meaning of the hill. Above all, the temple is the right place to have a wonderful panorama over Luang Prabang peninsula with the view stretching up to the airport and the city’s surrounding jungle-clad mountains.
Particularly attractive at sunset. Ceremonies to appease the nagas and other evil spirits, and Buddhist religious practices (Prabang procession, the monks’ morning quest) perpetuate the sanctity of the place.
Luang Prabang peninsula is exceptional for both its rich architectural and artistic heritage. The peninsula is covered by the UNESCO heritage preservation zone which stretches over a surface of 1.4 hectare. The traditional urban fabric of the old villages, each with its own temple, was preserved by surrounding houses. There are over 30 temples in the city centre and over 100 houses from the colonial time with sculpted facades, columns and balconies. The most typical street in the centre is Sisavangvong road, which welcomes each night the traditional night market where local handicraft and souvenirs are on sale. Do not miss some of the beautiful colonial buildings such as Luang Prabang Library or the 3 Nagas M-Gallery hotel.
In the early hours of the day, around 5 AM, monks are going around town to collect alms. Although turning increasingly more touristic, the alms’ collection is a good photo subject. However, visitors should respect rules to avoid disturbing the monks during their collect.
Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang’s most iconic monastery and temple dates from the 16th century. It comprises an ensemble of the most complex structures of all the pagodas of the town. The Wat Xieng Thong or “Monastery of the Golden City” is considered the religious emblem of Luang Prabang and one of the highest symbols of Buddhism in Laos. The temple is considered a museum with strict opening hours and a fee to be paid by tourists.
It is considered as the architectural reference of Luang Prabang with a very pointed vihan which comes down very low is well known for its sweeping double-tiered roofs sweep low and its sophisticated frescoes inside and outside which show the traditional Luang Prabang style. Not to be missed is the stunning ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on its west exterior wall. Close-by are several stupas and three compact little chapel halls. The Red Chapel contains a rare statue of a reclining Buddha.
Wat Pak Kham and Maison du Patrimoine
Wat Pakham is situated on the point of the peninsula opposite Heritage House, is one of the only temples in town that has not (as yet) been renovated, which gives it a certain fascination, an authenticity that other temples in town might not have anymore. Its pristine white façade is in sharp contrast with the other temples which generally show more vivid colours.
Across the road is the Maison du Patrimoine (Luang Prabang Heritage house) which is home to the mission in charge of Luang Prabang restoration and preservation. Exhibition are sometimes organized there. The house used to be the former customs office during the French Protectorate.
Learning about folktales and legends of Luang Prabang
Garavek is a small company promoting and preserving the local traditional stories – myths, legends, and folktales. Every evening, from 6.30-7.30pm, they present a selection of traditional Lao stories in an intimate thirty seat theatre. The stories are told in English, by a Lao storyteller, with the live musical accompaniment of the khene, a handmade bamboo kind of flute. Stories speak about the origin of Luang Prabang and legendary figures such as Xieng Mieng, the archetypal trickster, and Fa Ngum, the first king of Lan Xang Kingdom. Tickets are on sale at the theatre from 6 PM onwards.
Activities along the Mekong River
The mighty Mekong River is a good opportunity to enjoy water-linked activities. The easiest to enjoy is of course a small cruise of an hour or two hours with a dinner on a traditional boat at sunset. Boats are located on one side of the river behind the National Museum. Many hotels or travel agencies organize such activity as well. The banks of the river in town have also seen over the years the installation of restaurants and hotels offering terraces. A perfect location to also relax in the early hours of the evening.
How to get to Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ) serves the city of Luang Prabang with domestic and international flights from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. There are also bus routes connecting Luang Prabang with the major tourist destinations in Laos.
– From Vietnam, Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate international flights connecting Hanoi to Luang Prabang.
– From Cambodia, Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate international flights connecting Siem Reap to Luang Prabang.
For more information, check our guide of international and domestic flights in Laos.
– King of Bus operates regular bus services from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
– Malany Transport operates regular minivan services from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang.
For more information, check our guide of bus routes in Laos.
Updated on May 12, 2019.