10 THINGS TO DO IN LUANG PRABANG
Updated: Mar 8
There is no shortage of things to see and do in this UNESCO World Heritage town. We spent a total of 10 days in Luang Prabang, and although it took a few days of warming up, we thoroughly enjoyed our time here. Whether you are a nature lover, culture seeker or history buff, there is something for everyone, including kids. Below are some of our favorite family outings:
1) NIGHT MARKET
There are plenty of night markets all over South East Asia, and by this point we have visited many. This one stretches endlessly on a traffic free road, with a nightly set up and take down of local handicrafts under lit up tents. Haggling is expected, but vendors are friendly and rarely pushy. There is a wide variety of typical souvenir items like handbags, scarfs, key chains, coconut bowls, reusable bamboo straws, and clothing items. In terms of quality, variety, and price, this particular night market is a standout.
2) KUANG SI WATERFALLS
No matter how popular, it deserves to be seen. Quite possibly one of THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WATERFALLS we have ever visited. The easy walking path begins with the shallower, turquoise blue pools of water, where you can go for a cold swim. A few minutes further, it leads you to the main attraction (photo above). You can also go on a steep hike all the way to the top of the waterfall, but there is hardly a view from above, so it's more for the exercise and to enjoy the jungle scenery. Apparently there is a SECRET POOL, as per NOMADIC MATT, but despite having fun with the kids searching for it, it was nowhere to be found.
Caution: the path has been so worn and overrun with tourists that it can be quite slippery coming down. It may even be safer to do the circuit in reverse, despite signs that say otherwise.
Kuang Si is about 29 km south of Luang Prabang, and takes an hour to get there by minivan. Arriving early is key, unless you don't mind jostling with other tourists for that perfect "there-is-no-one-else-here-but-me" photo. It cost 35,000 kip per person/kid for a return minivan ride with about 2 hours of wait time. The entrance to Kuang Si is an additional 20,000 kip/pp, free for kids.
3) FREE THE BEARS RESCUE CENTRE
Though the kids appreciated the beauty of Kuang Si waterfalls, even braved the cold water and went in for a dip, their highlight was the Bear Sanctuary at the entrance. At no extra cost, you can see these asiatic black bears lounging and playing in a large enclosed area. We lucked out with a perfect view of two bears on one of the wooden platforms playfully wrestling with each other. These so-called "moon bears" are actively poached for their bile, which is extracted from their gallbladders for traditional medicine. To date, this organization has rescued over 950 bears throughout South East Asia! Check out freethebears.org.
4) PHOUSI HILL
At just 100m, this pleasant walk is easy to do and right in town. Plenty of buddhas, shrines and even a cave to keep the kids' interest high, ending with the golden stupa, Wat Chom Si, and expansive views of Luang Prabang at the summit. Sunset is a popular time, so if you want to avoid crowds, better to do it earlier in the day. About half way up, you will be required to pay an admission fee (20,000 kip/pp, free for kids) before you ascend to the top.
5) WATCH THE OUTDOOR MOVIE "CHANG"
It isn't often when you get the opportunity to watch a movie in an outdoor cinema. When we stumbled upon this screening on one of our evening strolls, we didn't hesitate to check it out. "Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness" is a 1925, black and white film which claims to be one the first documentaries of its kind. It is filmed by the same directors who made King Kong, but it never gained the same level of fame. The story itself is interesting and easy to follow for the kids, but more fascinating is how they captured these spectacular wild animal scenes without any special effects. The kids were at the edge of their seats, fully engaged from beginning to end.
There are two locations in town with nightly screenings. The Sanctuary Hotel showing, which is where we went, is at 6:30pm, and the Victoria Xiengthong Palace at 7pm. It is technically FREE to watch, but a not-so-cheap drink purchase is required. Bring bug spray if you go.
6) BAMBOO BRIDGE or BOAT TOUR at SUNSET
If you walk along the river around 4:30pm, you will come across many locals trying to sell you a boat tour. The choices are plenty, from basic private boat, to larger, fancier ones with a full bar and dinner included. Knowing more boat rides awaited us up north into Muang Ngoi, we opted for the cheaper walk along one of the two bamboo bridge, and enjoyed the sunset from the other side of the river. The slight wobble and wide open spaces between the railings made it an exciting bridge crossing for the kids. They do charge 10,000 kip per person, kids half price.
7) UXO VISITOR'S CENTRE
UXO, we have come to learn, stands for "Unexploded Ordnance". It is surprisingly not common knowledge that Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in history. 270 MILLION BOMBS were dropped by the US during the Vietnam War, 80 million of which are still scattered throughout the country. More than 40 years have passed since the war, yet sadly these bombs are still injuring and killing innocent people today. We have even gone on hikes with clear signs strictly warning people to stay on the trails. This small but very informative museum has no admission fee, however, there is a donation box at the entrance.
Warning: Although it is a great learning opportunity for kids, the realities of war and destruction can be a subject matter too disturbing for sensitive minds. There are, for instance, photos of scarred victims on display. One of my kids didn't seem phased, while the other had to wait for us outside.
8) ROYAL PALACE HISTORY MUSEUM
As the name suggests, this was once Laos' Royal Palace for King Sisavangvong, during the colonial times. It is full of artifacts, artwork and treasures that the royal family had acquired over the centuries. The kids favorite part was the throne room, with the ceiling and walls covered in brightly-coloured mosaic tiles. In addition, there is a garage with an impressive collection of vintage cars. There are plaques with descriptions in English or you can pay for a guide to show you through. No photos, shoes or backpacks allowed, and a strict dress code is in effect.
One of Luang Prabang’s most iconic temples is also on the grounds of the Royal Palace, the HAW PHA BANG. Construction of the temple began in 1963 but was completed in 2006. It was built to house a sacred Buddha image, though you can't see it up close as you can only go as far as the entry way. The entrance fee is included in the Royal Palace admission.
NOTE: Both sites are closed on Tuesdays and open on all other days of the week from 8-4pm, EXCEPT between 11:30 - 1:30pm. It costs 30,000 kip/pp, kids under 10 are free.
9) MORNING MARKET
In the narrow alleys between the main street and the river, the lively and colourful morning market scene in Luang Prabang is worth a wander. Lots of local vendors are seen selling all kinds of exotic produce, traditional textiles, dried goods, and the occasional unidentifiable meat on a stick. It is a refreshing change to see such a raw and real glimpse of the local life in the middle of the most touristy part of town.
10) EAT STREET FOOD
Laos may not be globally famous for their cuisine, but you will be surprised how delicious their food actually is! It isn't as rich and spicy as Thai food, and their noodle soups are quite similar to Vietnamese pho, always accompanied by lots of fresh herbs on the side and a wedge of lime. Kid-friendly choices are plentiful, like baguette sandwiches, coconut pancakes, fresh smoothies and meat skewers. Since we didn't have a kitchen, we ate out for almost every meal, and it was easy to do on the cheap.
WHAT TO AVOID
Alms giving ceremony - This old Laos Buddhist tradition involves a quiet procession of a couple of hundred monks receiving alms from the locals in the early morning hours before sunrise. It has become an all too popular tourist spectacle over the years, with many ignorant about the proper etiquette in witnessing such an intimate event. Some things are best not to partake in, if it runs the risk of too many tourists ruining a beautiful, sacred tradition.
Tat Sae waterfalls - We went here hoping to see beautiful turquoise blue pools to swim in, like last the time we were here. However, instead of waterfall paradise, it was a murky, mosquito infested swampland with hardly more than a trickle flowing over bone-dry limestone. At the right time of the year, these waterfalls are almost as breathtaking as Kuang Si. We were there in late December, same time as 12 years ago, but with significantly different views. Always check with someone who has been there recently. Otherwise, the bus, boat ride (10,000 kip/pp, half price for kids) and 15,000 kip/pp (free for kids) admission there isn't worth your time, though we did enjoy some treacherous hiking up to a cave and beyond.
Elephant riding - It is still happening folks. Lots of travel agencies in Luang Prabang are still offering these tours and people are still riding elephants, despite more awareness in recent years of why this NEEDS TO STOP. Click HERE to read one of many articles out there highlighting all the reasons why it isn't a good idea.
With the exception of Kuang Si, many of the main sights are within walking distance of the historic centre, which makes it that much more convenient and family friendly. Admission fees are budget friendly, and kids are often free or at most, half price. There are so many things to see and do in Luang Prabang, we didn't get a chance to do them all. We enjoyed 10 fun-filled days of exploring this beautiful town.