A place where time stands still is one way to describe the charms of this historic capital of ancient wats. Languid and lovely Luang Prabang is the most popular destination in Laos, a compact, atmospheric town that can be enjoyed at leisure on foot. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, there are more than 30 historic temples hidden among the backstreets of town, as well as the Royal Palace Museum. Popular activities include rising early to take part in the Tak Bat or alms offering to the monks. Beyond town, adventures await, including waterfalls, elephant camps, kayaking and cycling. Luang Prabang is now plugged into Laos and the rest of the region, with flight links to nearby Bangkok, Hanoi and Siem Reap. Combining this atmospheric place with the highlights of Indochina such as Hoi An in Vietnam and Angkor in Cambodia has never been easier.
The Royal Palace, known locally as the Golden Hall, was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and is now a musuem that makes a good starting point on any tour of Luang Prabang. Combining elements of traditional Lao architecture with French influences, the building houses some unique Buddhas, including a large golden Buddha gifted by a Khmer king in the 14th century, and busts of the Lao royal family.
Wat Xieng Thon is the most striking temple in Luang Prabang, with a stunning, sweeping roof that flows almost to the ground. Dating from the 16th century, the interior contains some fine decorative features, as well as some uniquely Lao Buddhas. It is also worth looking out for the funerary carriage in the compound, originally used for royal funerals. Wat Wisunlat is a curious shape, resembling a giant watermelon, hence its Lao nickname of That Makmo. One of the oldest temples in Luang Prabang, it was rebuilt after the Black Haw burned the city to the ground in 1887. Other popular wats include Wat Aham, with its large Boddhi trees and Wat Manolom with a giant seated Buddha, cast in bronze, about six metres high.
Pak Ou Caves
These two limestone caves, looming over the Mekong, are overflowing with Buddha images large and small and are easily accessible by boat from Luang Prabang. The lower cave is well lit and hundreds of Buddhas stand guard overseeing the river, while the upper cave is dark and visitors need a torch. It is possible to combine a trip to the Pak Ou Caves with a local lunch on the banks of the Nam Ou River or enjoy a catered picnic on a remote Mekong River island.
Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si is the most impressive set of falls in the Luang Prabang region, a series of cascades tumbling down a steep cliff into small bathing pool below. In the dry season it is possible to have a swim to cool off here, but in the wet season most of the forest becomes inundated with water.
Cycling, Kayaking and Trekking
Luang Prabang has emerged as an adventure centre with lots of activities on offer beyond the old town centre. Mountain biking is a popular pursuit, as there are lots of jungle trails. Trekking is possible, including overnight treks with a homestay in a minority village. Kayaking is also popular and it is possible to combine exploring the Nam Ou River with a bike ride through the countryside.
There are several elephant camps around Luang Prabang, home to retired working elephants. Elephant rides are possible, as well as a longer ‘mahout for the day’ experience. You will be taught how to control the elephant and can join in the elephant bath in the Nam Ou River.