Before I ventured into Laos, the country conjured up images of mountains, bright green fields, elephants and breathtaking waterfalls.
My expectations were realised when I arrived in the northern town of Luang Prabang – a quiet town bordered by lush tree covered mountains and two rivers, including the imposing Mekong.
Luang Prabang has plenty of options for the adventurous or more relaxed traveller who have a passion for the outdoors and local wildlife.
The adventurous can choose from a number of trekking and kayaking tours. Or you can go at a more leisurely pace and make a visit to Pak Ou Cave and stroll through the Whiskey Village.
Here’s the top 7 things to do in Luang Prabang.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Most people who come to Luang Prabang know about the Kuang Si Waterfall. A range of options to visit the falls fill the boards of local tour agencies, and every day you’ll meet someone who asks if you’ve been the falls yet.
I admit I was sceptical that the falls were as amazing as everyone said. I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls and thought it would be more of the same – but of course with my fear of missing out, and hoping for some beautiful photos, I went along.
And I returned so impressed by the Kuang Si Waterfall.
It’s not just one waterfall – it’s one large one and then the water cascades over limestone terraces and into pools of turquoise blue water. You can’t help but want to jump in the water for a swim immediately.
From the first swimming waterhole, you head up the dirt path to the waterfall.
You get a great view of the main falls from the wooden bridge and viewing platform. You can then head up to the top of the falls.
The path to the left of the falls is your best option. It’s steep but the other side is steeper.
It will take about 15-20 minutes to reach the top of the falls, where you’ll be met with sun dappled waterholes crisscrossed by rustic wooden bridges.
Here you can enjoy the view at the picnic tables, or head back down for a swim. Swimming is only allowed in some areas and the off limit areas are clearly signed.
The journey to Kuang Si Waterfall takes about 50 minutes from Luang Prabang along a windy, green road.
You can head up to the falls independently in a tuk tuk but you’ll need a group of people to keep the price affordable. The tuk tuk in itself is an experience. Laos tuk tuks can seat about 4-6 people and are more like converted tractors than the tuk tuks I rode regularly in Sri Lanka.
Minibuses run from the town centre at 11.30pm and 1.30pm for $A7 return. This option is good for solo travellers but means you will arrive at the falls with everyone else. Luckily there are a few activity options in the area so it doesn’t feel as crowded as I thought it would be.
The area has plenty of picnic tables so bring a packed lunch and make a day out of your trip to the falls. Entry into the falls is $A3.
Visit an elephant sanctuary
Seeing elephants was on my to do list for my Laos trip.
Laos was once known as the land of a million elephants but poaching and hard labour has reduced the numbers of elephants and they are now in danger in dying out in 50 years.
Luang Prabang’s Elephant Village Sanctuary is working to help Laos’ elephants. It has rescued 12 elephants from the hands of loggers who treated the elephants badly. Two elephants have also been bred at the elephant sanctuary. The youngest elephant is three year old Maxi and the oldest is 43 year old Khamkhoun.
The Elephant Village Sanctuary offers courses to show people what it is like to be a mahout (elephant handler) and you also get the chance to get up close to the beautiful animals. Visitors learn why it’s important to approach an elephant from its right side, and what are the good and bad signs of an elephant’s behaviour. For example, constantly flapping ears and a swaying trunk and tail means the elephant is happy.
Tours out to the elephant sanctuary also include a boat trip to Luang Prabang’s other waterfall, Tad Sae. Tad Sae isn’t as spectacular as Kuang Si, but it’s a nice place for a swim. If you’re looking for a quiet spot, take the trail on the right of the falls and continue up for about 15 minutes until you hit another waterhole.
Tours out to the Elephant Village Sanctuary start at $A65. You can reserve your place at the shopfront on Sisavangvong Street.
See the sunset from the top of Mt Phousi
Back in Luang Prabang, one of the must do activities is walk up to the stupa on the top of Mt Phousi, located in the middle of town.
There’s a number of temples and statues along the steep path up the mountain.
It’s also a great place for a sunset view, but expect a crowd. Cost is $A3 to enter the Mt Phousi grounds.
Another great sunset view is from the banks of the Mekong River.
Photograph the beautiful temples and witness the alms giving ceremony
You’ll see many temple complexes throughout the alleys of Luang Prabang. The layered, peaked roofs shine with bright colours and you might see monks darting in and out of the nearby buildings. My favourite was Wat Mai.
Luang Prabang is home to hundreds of monks. Each morning at sunrise, locals line Luang Prabang’s main streets with baskets of food in readiness for the monks’ alms giving ceremony. This ceremony involves the monks filing past the locals carrying their alms bowls and collecting their food for the day. Tourists can also participate in this religious ceremony but are requested to remain respectful and ensure their shoulders and knees are covered and not to make eye contact with the monks.
Browse for souvenirs at the Night Handicraft Market
Another must do in Laos is the Night Handicraft Market. The market is held every night and features beautiful handmade items including jewellery, artwork, clothing and bags. The market starts setting up shortly before sunrise.
On the fringes of the night market is where you can pick up some cheap and freshly made street food. You can get anything from fried rice, meat skewers, spring rolls or coconut pancakes. Prices start from $A1.50. I ate at the street market every night during my stay in Luang Prabang and loved the food.
Enjoy a drink at Utopia Cafe
Utopia is the backpacker hit in Luang Prabang and you’ll find a crowd there every night. Utopia is hidden down a maze of side streets on the riverside. During the day, Utopia Café is the perfect spot to relax and take in the view of the river. You can also play a game of beach volleyball. Utopia also offers daily yoga sessions from its outdoor deck.
Utopia offers a wide selection of snacks, drinks and meals.
Go for a hike
From Luang Prabang, you can set out through the jungle or into a traditional village on a hike.
There’s many tour agencies offering hiking packages. You can choose to trek to Kuang Si or Tad Sae Waterfalls, or visit a Hmong village.
Kayaking is another popular activity offered in Luang Prabang and many kayaking packages include a trip to the Pak Ou Cave, which is filled with Buddha statues. The Pak Ou Cave tour usually also includes a trip to Ban Xang Hai – better known as the Whiskey Village. Here you’ll have a chance to see the process of making Laos’s rice whiskey, lao-Lao.
Things You Should Know:
- Many nationalities can get a visa on arrival in Laos at Luang Prabang or Vientiane airports. The cost is $US30 and is payable in cash only in US Dollars or Laos Kip. Make sure you bring a passport size photo for your application.
- There’s an array of activities on offer in Luang Prabang and plenty of tour agencies to choose from. It’s best to book when you arrive with the tour agencies or through your hotel. The bulk of tour agencies are on Sisavangvong Street near Mt Phousi.
- You can reach Kuang Si waterfalls independently or by organised minibus. If going independently, it’s best to go early as all the minibuses arrive between 12.30pm and 2.30pm.
- You need to remove your shoes when entering temples, or Laos homes or hotels. Some temples may also require women to wear a wrap around skirt if you turn up in shorts or a short skirt.
- When in Luang Prabang, make sure you try the street food. It’s sold near the Night Market and is cheap and tasty. Prices start from $A1.50 for fried rice or spring rolls.
- December and January are the most popular months to visit Laos as you can expect warm, clear days.