A 3-Day Itinerary Of Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is a picturesque town along the banks of the Mekong River known for its eclectic mix of French and Lao influences, stunning natural scenery and an endearing laid-back vibe.
We actually never thought about traveling to Luang Prabang considering there were many more attractive Southeast Asian destinations to discover but when we found out AirAsia started to fly direct from Kuala Lumpur (which they had sadly discontinued), we quickly took up on that deal.
It was one of our best snap travel decisions we made as we truly enjoyed every single moment at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is our three-day itinerary of Luang Prabang suitable for both solo and family travelers.
1) Sample Fresh Flavors of Lao Cuisine
We arrived at Luang Prabang International Airport around three in the afternoon and we were already famished. After checking-in at Villa Chitdara, we walked around the block to Tamnak Lao, a restaurant housed in a resplendent French-Lao villa with arched verandas giving an open airy atmosphere.
Tamnak Lao specializes in local cuisine so we ordered the typical Asian trio of rice, fish and vegetables. Our early dinner consisted of brown purple khao niao, or sticky rice, served in a little bamboo basket with mok pa lao, steamed catfish wrapped in banana leaf and a bowl of orlam, a beef stew cooked with locally-sourced greens like ear mushroom, pea eggplant and the very uniquely strong bitter taste of pepperwood.
Throughout our four days in Luang Prabang, we tasted all kinds of Laotian cuisine. Tamarind Restaurant’s three-way salad of tofu laap, tam mak hoong and soop pak is a cavalcade of flavor – crispy, crunchy, minty, spicy – while Joy’s Restaurant’s fried tilapia with garlic is a lesson in bringing out the sweet and succulent taste of a fish using the simplest of ingredients.
2) Capture A Dramatic Sunset On Mount Phou Si
Tummies now filled, we grabbed a tuk-tuk to the foot of Mount Phou Si to catch one of Luang Prabang’s most iconic panorama – sunset over the Mekong River.
Contrary to its name, Mount Phou Si is actually a hill with a height of about 100 meters right in the middle of Luang Prabang. Two Buddhist temples sit on it – Wat Tham Phou Si facing the Nam Khan River and Wat Chom Si at the peak. The hike takes about 30-45 minutes for pleasant strollers and the trail consists of 355 concrete steps. All visitors have to pay an entrance fee while ascending halfway to the top.
We began our trek at around 5:00 p.m. and an unfit me had to make a few stops to catch a breather (while carrying the little one, mind you) but we managed to reach the viewpoint just as soon as the sun sets on the horizon. We could see the town of Luang Prabang separated from unending hillocks by the Mekong River and sparse villages slowly lighting up when darkness begins to engulf the sky.
As soon as the golden shimmer of Wat Chom Si fades away, everyone began scuttling down for dinner time. The landscape was timeless – I felt there would not be much difference between a photo of that scenery taken in the year 1968 and 2018.
Mount Phou Si
Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip
5:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., Daily
3) Wander Around The Striking Wat Xieng Thong
We woke up to a cold and misty Luang Prabang morning – the temperature was about 15 °C and the whole town was shrouded in a thick fog while we had our buffet breakfast at the courtyard. Everyone was wrapped in sweater when we embarked on a 10-minute walk (yes, everywhere in Luang Prabang is walkable!) to Wat Xieng Thong, one of Laos’ most historically important temples.
“The Monastery of the Golden City,” built by King Setthathirath in 1560, lies at the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet and the whole complex is splendorous as it is humble.
The main temple is noticeable with its gilded doors and walls, Naga finials at the roofs end and gleaming dok so fa spires at the top. We spent quite some time just admiring this building from up close, running our fingers at the intricate carvings of gold leaf and black lacquer showing the many facets of Buddha’s life. My favorite part of the temple is the towering “Tree of Life” portrait specially crafted using colored glass.
A small chapel right behind Wat Xieng Thong was also adorned with colorful mosaic depicting daily life in Luang Prabang like a huge children’s story book. We also popped in the funerary chapel which kept the urns of past Lao kings and golden cremation barges guarded by nagas. The morning mist finally gave way around 9:00 a.m. and once the crowd started to pick up, we decided to stop by a patisserie for pastries!
Wat Xieng Thong
Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip
8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Daily
4) Savor The Scrumptious French Pastries
I know it is unfair for me to compare how good a certain food tastes like if I have never tried the original version or eaten at its place origin but I firmly believe the pastries in Luang Prabang are as good as you can get like the ones in France.
We had brunch at Le Banneton, a rustic open-air wooden cafe and bakery serving the most delectable pastries and breads.
The glass cabinet was filled with a pile of croissants and pain au chocolat followed by an assortment of buns, puffs and tarts. I ordered each of their two bestsellers and the croissant had the perfectly weighted balance of being both firm and fluffy while the pain au chocolat has the purest of dark chocolate generously filled in.
I swear that all pastries dished out by the bakeries of Luang Prabang are of the highest quality because we kept wanting more even after a full meal! Other equally good cafes around town for a quick bite (but you wouldn’t want to rush, would you?) or a cup of coffee are Joma Bakery Cafe, Saffron Coffee and Zurich Bread Factory and Cafe.
5) Wander Around The Pleasant Royal Palace
Afternoon a short afternoon nap, we hopped on a tuk-tuk that zipped its way to the gates of the Royal Palace. Haw Kham was built in 1904 during the reign of King Sisavang Vong and lasted only 71 years when the monarchy was overthrown by communists and the palace turned into a museum.
Two cannons greeted us at the entrance followed by a long palm-tree lined boulevard that led straight to the palace doors. I could definitely sense a European touch to the sprawling garden’s design – there was a lotus pond with a statue of King Sisavang Vong on one side and Haw Pha Bang, the green and gold royal temple enshrining the Phra Bang Buddha – one of the most revered image of Buddha’s image in Laos, on the other.
The white-washed Royal Palace began to look more and more imposing as soon as we approached the main doors. I could clearly see the Lao motifs intertwine with French beaux arts style by the symbol of three-headed elephant flanked by fleur-de-lis, respectively. Photography inside the museum is not allowed so I had to leave my camera and backpack in the locker room.
On the inside, there was no sign of opulence , just a fine taste in the arts like the collection in the King’s and Queen’s reception rooms. The royal family’s bedroom looked rather simple while the Throne Room was naturally the most lavish – the room was splashed in red and decorated with glass mosaics like the ones in Wat Xieng Thong and the throne was carved like a howdah, a seat attached on an elephant’s back.
Unlike other castles we have been to, we really enjoyed the Royal Palace because it feels down-to-earth and not a creation some king’s ego trip. Once we finished the tour, tents were already being set up for the evening festivities!
Entrance fee: 30,000 Kip
8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m and 1:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Daily
6) Hunt for Amazing Handicrafts at the Night Market
The Luang Prabang Night Market was one of the highlights of our trip due to the sheer variety of clothes, foods and handicrafts on display.
Traders began setting up their stalls as early as 5:00 p.m. and by sundown, things get really busy when everyone converges at this open-air bazaar, from the bargain hunters like us to budget travelers looking for cheap eats. The night market is easily navigable since it runs along the main road for a couple of blocks but the stalls are not arranged according to sections so you get a sample of everything from one end to the other.
While the selection of clothes was at par with Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market, the handicrafts were the ones that caught our attention! We actually spent more time at a handicraft booth, perusing the workmanship of the artisan, than at a booth selling garments where we already knew what to buy so we just had to select colors and designs that we fancied!
There were so many interesting items on display like the adorable elephant-themed slip-ons for infants, papier-mâché table lamps depicting scenes of daily life in Laos and cut-out pop-up greeting cards so wonderful you would be hard-pressed to send them out. We also encountered stalls selling traditional wares like tapestries weaved from silk and bags and baskets made from cured bamboo.
The night market looks like a microcosm of Luang Prabang’s arts and craft scene where both the modern and traditional has a place. If I had my way, my whole house will be decked out in everything that can be found in Luang Prabang Night Market!
5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m., Daily
7) Learn About Laos’ Thriving Textile Enterprise At Ock Pop Tok
On our third day in Luang Prabang, we decided to venture out of town. We hired a private van for a half-day trip to Kuang Si Falls and a few places in between.
Our first stop was Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre, a social enterprise that aims to preserve Lao’s hand-loomed textiles by offering women weavers good wages and personal development. While Ock Pop Tok has two stores in the town center, the Living Crafts Center allows visitors to see how Laotian textiles and handicrafts are made besides participating in their own DIY classes.
The morning was still covered in mist when we entered the lush tropical garden of the Living Crafts Center. Apparently we were the first visitors and a hostess greeted us with a warm smile before giving us a brief about the center.
We then marched to our first stop which was a hut housing silkworms. The hostess brought out two huge round bamboo trays – one containing live squirming silkworms and the other with the silkworms in a cocoon stage wrapped in yellow and white silk. We were simply amazed by the silkworms ability to produce raw silk and each pupa looks like a ball of cotton bud!
The next station is where the main body of work is done – the weaving.
Before that, we were given a lesson on the natural dyes that gives silk its vibrant colors and all the dyes like indigo, jackfruit bark, lemongrass and turmeric can be found either in the jungle or in your backyard. We then proceeded into the weaving room where Master Weavers were diligently producing their fabric. Weaving might look easy but the weavers were really focused and moved their hands in clockwork precision which requires years and years of practice.
After the quick tour, we wandered around the traditionally chic center snapping photos while enjoying the cold morning by the banks of the Mekong River. The shop has quite the collection of tapestries, clothes and wearable but we did not purchase anything after our shopping spree the night before.
8) Dip In The Cool Waters of Kuang Si Waterfall
From Ock Pop Tok, it was one hour of driving by busy villages and potholed roads to Kuang Si Waterfall, a cascade of turquoise pools that leads to a jaw-dropping waterfall upstream.
Just five minutes from the entrance is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center.
This center is a sanctuary for over 20 Asiatic Black Bears rescued from bear farms used to harvest their bile for medicine. We were there around mid-morning and could see the round and furry creatures lounging around (or trying to climb a platform so he could lay on it) which made our little one very excited. We got a dose of reality when we saw one bear missing his front left foot, presumably due to being caught by a poacher’s trap.
Once we were done ogling at the nonchalant bears, we followed the trail running parallel with the clear blue river. The first few levels had short falls that looks like a picture from a postcard. There were not that many people swimming in the river or wading pools because the January water was too cold for the rest of us. We only dipped our feet in a creek and played with the little fishes trying to nibble at our toes!
A further 15 minute hike upstream brought us to the big one – THE Kuang Si Waterfall. This waterfall is an unending gush of water over a 50 meter drop. The sound of the water hitting the bottom of the falls is so loud, we had to shout at each other’s ears just to hear one another. There is a bridge that cuts across the river allowing visitors to take photographs (and in our case selfies) with this picturesque behemoth.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip
8:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Daily
9) Mingle With Buffaloes at Laos Buffalo Dairy
On our way back to Luang Prabang , we had to stop by Laos Buffalo Dairy to grab a scoop of their buffalo milk ice-cream!
I really wanted to visit Laos Buffalo Dairy after seeing it on my friend’s Instagram feed when she went there a few months back and here we are, right in front of a purple hut by the roadside, intensely figuring out which two local flavors – lemongrass and tamarind – we should try (we eventually ended up with chocolate after much pressure from the little one).
We had a good chat with our server who was a volunteer on the farm so he invited us on a free tour of the farm. He passed us to his colleague Jane who became our “personal” tour guide. Laos Buffalo Dairy is a social enterprise that rents buffaloes from locals and gets these bovine to produce milk to be turned into cheese or ice-cream. The buffaloes will be well taken care of through better feed and vaccination throughout their “stay.”
After checking out the lazing pigs at their shaded sty, Jane brought us into the buffalo pen where the adult buffaloes roam around. The pen is divided into a feeding area, milking corner and a common area complete with a “swimming pool” for them to cool down! Laos Buffalo Dairy actively conducts cross-breeding to improve the genetics of the local buffalo because currently the amount of milk they produce is much lower than a cow.
The star of the show is Ferdinand, the friendly Murrah bull who would just come up to us and starts to rub his head against our body, not aware that he has a pair of large horns! We then went to another pen housing only calves who were given special attention to make sure they grow up healthy. Jane gave us a couple of oversized milk bottles which our little one had so much fun feeding the hungry baby buffaloes.
10) Admire Laos’ Cultural Diversity at Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre
Our very last stop at this whirlwind of a tour is at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center, another social enterprise that aims to promote Laos’ ethnic cultural heritage that spreads across many regions.
The center has a museum with a revolving collection and a fair-trade store selling ethnic crafts which I noticed was not found at the night market. The small museum has a mine-full of information on the ethnic groups of Laos and how they each differ based on their artisanal skills, like the variation and seed arrangements of Job’s Tears millet in decorating clothes and bags.
I find this to be an enriching experience as we are able to see up close the cultural richness of Indochina and it sort of acts like a teaser if we wanted to explore further into Laos on our future trips. This center is also child friendly – there is a play area at the back where kids can do some coloring and even dress-up in traditional gear!
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center
Entrance fee: 25,000 Kip
Google Maps | Website
9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., Daily except Mondays
There you have it – three action-packed days in Luang Prabang!
The most remarkable thing about our trip was we were in no rush going from one place to another because the town is compact so everything we did is definitely doable even for family travelers.
Booking a flight to Luang Prabang without thinking twice was one of those risky “spur of the moment” things we did but after thoroughly relishing every single moment in this ancient Lao capital, we felt it was the most serendipitous decision we ever made.