Luang Prabang is arguably the most well known travel destination within Laos. You will be well rewarded here whether you’re a passionate photographer, foodie, history junkie or simply have a pension for a great massage. The northern city in the province of the same name is home to an international airport (LPQ), which makes arrival into the mountainous and land locked region far easier than other provinces, but more importantly, the community is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 32 stunning wats, nearly 1,000 monks, and vibrant culture all around. While 72 hours in Luang Prabang isn’t a ton of time, you can experience a lot of the city if you’re organized.

Many people arrive in Luang Prabang and go no further than day trips to nearby waterfalls, elephant treks and river cruises. My recent trip would entail a magical 72 hours in Luang Prabang before travelling further south on a five day cycling trip to Vientiane (stay tuned for a recap of this experience!). With three days in the city I was able to soak a lot of it in, and you can too. Here’s the rundown of incredibly affordable recommendations as well as a few more luxe and unique travel experiences that you can enjoy in this magnificent destination.

Luang Prabang in 72 Hours Itinerary:

DAY 1:

Visit the Wats

A practically free activity, although some require 20k kip ($2-3 USD) entrance fee, the stunning wats and temples are what give Luang Prabang its charm. In addition to the larger and more well-known wats, most notably Mount Phousi (incredible views atop the 100-meter summit), Wat Sene and Wat Xieng Thong, be sure to wander a little further afield. Wat Aham and Wat Wisunarat (Visoun) are a mere 500 meters off of the main street of town, and as I toured I found myself as nearly the only person there thanks to the midday heat. If you venture even further, perhaps by bike given the heat, you will discover plenty more. If you aren’t pinching pennies, donations of food or cash are always appreciated to help with property upkeep and provide meals for the residing monks.

Luang Prabang Travel - wat

It’s very common to catch a peek of the young novice monks chatting, studying or completing chores around the complex, presenting the opportunity for some wonderfully candid photos. Several of the larger wats in Luang Prabang invite travelers to participate in a ‘monk chat’, where you can have a conversation with a monk while their English skills are benefited – just look for signage on each property as schedules tend to change, or ask your guesthouse for advice. If you plan on interacting with the monks, be sure to follow appropriate etiquette – I’ve provided some tips further down.

Luang Prabang Travel - monk

Tea Time

After spending a few hours visiting the wats, both you and your camera will need time to recharge and cool down. Strong French influences in Luang Prabang extend beyond architecture in the region with an abundance of impressive café options. Top picks include Dexter if you’re looking for a modern, somewhat posh atmosphere, or Saffron Coffee if a local and organic vibe is more your style. Not to be missed is Le Café Ban Vat Sene, which offers a tasty high tea menu, encouraging a customized mix & match of sweet and savory finger foods.

Luang Prabang Travel - tea

Night Market

Starting at around 5pm each night, over 400 meters of the main street (Sisavangvong Rd) is closed down to vehicular traffic and becomes a shopper’s paradise. Everything from ornate silk scarves to vibrantly kitschy handicrafts and the Beer Lao tank tops that every traveler seems to acquire are on offer, not to mention the obligatory Nutella crepe that is rampant across Southeast Asia. It’s great people watching, cheap eats, and won’t break the bank relative to several of the high-end craft shops in town. Keep in mind that the market completely wraps up by 10pm, with vendors less engaged in trying to make a sale as they close up shop so plan accordingly. See tips list below for bartering and currency considerations.

Luang Prabang Travel - night market

Catch the ‘Chang’ documentary at Victoria Hotel

Running nightly at 7pm, the 75-minute film that was originally shot in 1927 is played in a lovely and intimate outdoor theatre free of charge. They do request that visitors at least purchase a drink – a Beer Lao and popcorn combo is an affordable $4 USD. The black and white film was a first of its kind, shot over an 18-month period by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack who went on to produce King Kong less than a decade later. It captures the stunning remote jungle life of a Lao family in northern Thailand, and man’s relationship to the jungle.

Luang Prabang Travel - views

DAY 2:

Morning Alms

This is without a doubt one of the most interesting examples of religious tradition that I’ve had the privilege to witness. Without fail, as the sun rises each morning, a procession of hundreds of monks makes its way through the main street, then branch off onto side streets, receiving offerings from locals and tourists alike. The offerings are for both merit and food, normally sticky rice, which the monks will use for their daily meal. It costs nothing to observe although be respectful by watching in silence, avoiding flash photography and under no circumstances following the procession of monks. Alternatively, you can purchase rice, snacks or other items at the morning market and participate. As dozens of monks may walk by you, your offering should be easily divisible, while larger offerings such as gift baskets, household supplies, or cash may be dropped off at the wats for division later on.

Morning Market

Following your early wake up for the Alms, it’s easy to swing by the morning market to catch sight of vibrant produce, fresh fish and local life. To be clear, it is not intended for tourists – produce is sold on the ground, and meat is not refrigerated, but for the odd chunk of ice. But what it may lack in hygiene, it certainly makes up for in energy and the opportunity to see real Laotian life in action. The morning market is located along the side street running between Khem Khong Road by the river and Sisavangvong Road down the centre of town, bound by Kistalat Road on the west, and the Royal Palace on the east. If you’re hopeless with directions, simply enter Lao Lu Lodge into your GPS as the market street is a mere 20 paces inland from there.

Luang Prabang Travel - morning market


For something slightly more adventurous, you have two stunning and easy half-day trip options from Luang Prabang to get your waterfall fix.

Tad Sea Waterfall is 16km southeast of downtown, and is only accessible via boat. To reach the site, it’s a fairly easy 50k KIP tuk tuk ride followed by a 10k KIP boat journey. Some operators go via boat all the way from the banks of downtown. Though lesser known, Tad Sea is more popular with locals than tourists, making weekdays a better option to avoid crowds and is best experienced during the beginning of the dry season from August to November. By February or March the water diminishes to a faint, and relatively unimpressive, trickle so plan accordingly.

Luang Prabang Travel - waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall is the better known of the two, which equates into more tourists overall. It’s about twice the distance from town and an hour’s drive, although easy via tuk tuk. In addition to a series of turquoise pools similar to Tad Sea, it boasts an impressive 200 foot cascade and a greater opportunity to truly hike around, plus an adjacent Asiatic Black Bear sanctuary. Both sites charge a nominal fee for entry of approximately 20k KIP, offer full change rooms and restaurant amenities, and reasonably well maintained boardwalks alongside the water. The refreshing water was amazing, and the brilliant blue colour is something I’ve yet to see replicated anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

River Cruise

Luang Prabang’s “downtown” core is uniquely situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong to the north and the Nam Khan River on the south. The evening cruises offered by Sa Sa Sunset Cruise are known to be pretty amazing, and at just $65k KIP ($8 USD) per person, which includes a drink, it’s a great value. Several cruises are on offer along the banks of Mekong all departing around 4pm and returning by 6 or 7pm. Sa Sa Sunset departs just in front of the Mekong Sunset View Hotel on Chunkham Road at 4pm daily.

Luang Prabang Travel - river cruise

Dining for a Cause

Having enjoyed several meals at their restaurants around Cambodia in the past, I was thrilled to see that non-profit group TREE Alliance has a location in Luang Prabang as well. Khaiphaen, named after the popular Loation snack of crispy Mekong River weed, is a training restaurant that gives disadvantaged youth education and employment opportunities. It also happens to serve some of the most impressive Lao fusion dishes and delectable deserts I’ve ever tasted! Reservations are strongly suggested for dinner and can be made online – be sure to request a table on the patio.

Luang Prabang Travel - city

Day 3:

With 72 hours in Luang Prabang, you should have sufficient time to make a day trip. Consider this day a great opportunity to get out of the “city” and see more of rural life, perhaps at a nearby weaving village or make some five tonne friends at an elephant sanctuary.

Tour & Learn with Ock Pop Tok.

With two high-end shops in town, Ock Pop Tok represents a network of artisans and master weavers across multiple provinces in Laos. These are primarily women, who benefit from micro financing and NGO support and produce one of a kind silk and batik scarves, blankets and rugs. Their products are certainly a cut above what you will find in the night market, and the prices reflect this.

To experience the nearby paper-making and weaving villages of Ban Xieng Lek and Ban Xang Khong, and perhaps pick up a souvenir or two, you’ll have to complete a fairly simple walk over the Bamboo bridge (available in the dry season from November to June), then another 10 to 15 minutes from there. The Bamboo bridge in itself is a lovely photo op. Unfortunately, the bridge is regularly wiped out due to flooding so you may need to take the longer route. Ock Pop Tok also offers several hands on workshops, which include pick up/drop off, all required supplies and meals. Options range from half-day bamboo weaving ($60 USD) to multi day natural dye and weaving ($136-198 USD). Class details are available here.

Luang Prabang Travel - Silk Road

Elephant Encounters

The opportunity to ride and bathe an elephant in the Nam Khan River or walk them to their resting place in the jungle at night is a dream for many people. While I acknowledge that the ability to humanely and sustainably keep elephants for what amounts to tourist activity is challenging, and some people may opt to avoid such tours, I must say that my experience at Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort was a positive one. Opting for the two day / one night package, you are picked up at 8:30am on day one and returned by 11am the following day. For $136 USD per person, you enjoy multiple quality buffet meals, lovely accommodation overlooking the river, and three different elephant interactions, which equates to about two hours of actual time with the elephants. Unlike other facilities in the province, Elephant Village only allows guests to ride ‘bare back’ on the necks of Elephants instead of using large, heavy and potentially painful ‘howdah’ – mini wooden benches strapped to the back of the animal.

Luang Prabang Travel - elephant reserve

If you’re interested in other tours, such as full day boat rides up the Mekong, kayaking, trekking, cycling etc, there are a multitude of options with several providers and a range of budgets. Hawkers/drivers tend to cluster at the roundabout on Kitsalat Road by the Post Office with laminated cards outlining day trip itineraries – don’t be afraid to negotiate if you have multiple people in your party. Several tour operators also have storefronts along Saisavangvong Road if you’re more comfortable doing business with a larger company who has fixed tour prices.

Quick Tips:

Temple Attire: When visiting the wats, just like other Buddhist temples or any religious site for that matter, ensure appropriate clothing is worn. That means covering shoulders and knees. Shoes should be removed when entering the temples, and feet are never supposed to point directly at Buddha statues. I adore taking photos but even I understand the need to be respectful. Women are not permitted to touch or stand too close to monks, and always ask permission when taking photos of others.

Bartering: After trips to neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, your bartering skills may be pretty strong but they won’t do you much good here. Unlike other countries where the true value seems to be 25% of the original asking price, here it’s more like 80%. If a price tag is visible in a store, assume prices are fixed.

Currency: Lao currency is the KIP and as it’s not traded anywhere else in the world, you’ll have to convert upon arrival and understand that outside of the country it’s only use is essentially a souvenir. As of December 2016, $1 USD is equivalent to approximately 8,150 KIP. US dollars are also widely accepted in most places, but the exchange rate they give you will be slightly less favourable (often a flat 8,000 KIP per $1 USD).

Photos for ‘Travel Luang Prabang in 72 Hours’ by Madeline Burch.