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If you visit Laos, one of the places most frequently recommended is Luang Prabang, Laos’s capital city. This old city is located in northern central Laos along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and was previously the capital of the ancient kingdom Luang Prabang.
Today, the old capital remains steeped in history and cultural importance, including a number of important Buddhist sites. It is a great place to visit if you want to immerse yourself in Laos’s history and culture. You can appreciate impressive buildings and beautiful natural sites nearby.
The key downside to these attractions is that they make Luang Prabang a popular tourist destination. It can get crowded and full of visitors, so if you’re looking for a more authentic and relaxed Laos experience, you may want to spend more of your time in towns outside of this historic city.
Part of what makes this capital such an interesting place to visit is its long and rich history. In the 7th century, the Tai prince Khun Lo made Luang Prabang, then called Muang Sua, the seat of his century-long dynasty. The city was a central location throughout Laos’s pre-modern history. Then, in 1707, the independent Kingdom of Luang Prabang was founded with the city as its capital.
Luang Prabang stood as an independent kingdom until 1893, when France took over Laos as a protectorate. The French viewed the city as Laos’s cultural and royal capital, reinforcing its importance. When Laos became independent in 1953, Luang Prabang became the national capital with its king becoming the country’s head of state.
In modern history, Luang Prabang has continued to play an essential role as Laos’s capital and the country’s cultural center. During World War II, the city was occupied by both Japanese and allied forces seeking to attain Laos’s allegiance.
Between 1945 and 1953, Laos fought towards independence, and Luang Prabang was often the center of conflict. In 1946, for example, French paratroops attempted to capture the city. Despite all this conflict, Luang Prabang remained the royal capital and home of the king of Laos until the Laotian Civil War, which took place from 1953 to 1975. This war culminated in the Pathet Lao communist party seizing power and dissolving the Laotian monarchy.
Luang Prabang is famous for its abundance of ancient temples, qualifying it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best-known Buddhist temple, called a wat, is Wat Hosian Voravihane, a beautiful temple that is still an active worship site.
At the site, you can see the monks’ living quarters, stupas, a drum house, a school building, and an impressive main temple building. All of these buildings are complete with elaborate decoration and figures from Buddhist mythology.
Another excellent temple is Wat Xieng Thong Sim, built in 1560 in the northern part of Luang Prabang. Wat Xieng Thong Sim is where Laotian kings were crowned until the civil war. Royal patronage is one reason for the temple’s rich decoration.
There are elaborate mosaics and carvings throughout the temple depicting important scenes from Buddhist teachings. The temple also features a large Buddha statue. If you visit, leave yourself plenty of time to explore the site; there are over twenty structures and beautiful gardens that are worth seeing.
Wat Hosian Voravihane and Wat Xieng Thong Sim are just two of Luang Prabang’s most impressive temples. There are many other smaller ones dotted along the city's main street and elsewhere throughout the city. We recommend taking some time to stroll through the city and explore the smaller temples; you’ll be sure to find some hidden gems.
Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to view or take part in Buddhist culture. Each day at sunrise, Buddhist monks perform an alms-giving ceremony. As the sun rises, the monks, dressed in traditional orange robes, form a procession through the main street.
Both locals and visitors can take part in this ceremony. Rather than money, you should give alms in the form of food. Make sure to prepare ahead of time by purchasing rice, fruit, or other local foods and stationing yourself along the street before the procession begins.
The most respectful way to give alms is to kneel or sit along the side of the road so you can give alms to the monks as they pass by. If you choose to give alms, you should make sure you are dressed conservatively and remove your shoes. When in doubt, follow the lead of the locals.
You may also choose to observe the ceremony without taking part. If you do, make sure to keep a respectful distance so that you do not impede the procession. If you take pictures, do not use flash. Keep in mind that for the monks and locals, this is an important religious ceremony. As long as you are respectful, this can be a beautiful and memorable tradition to witness.
Luang Prabang is a great place to buy textiles, local handicrafts, artwork, and jewelry. There are a number of gift shops that cater to tourists, and you can find great local shops in the Old Chinese Quarter. If you want to try fresh local food, try the Phosi Market. The most famous market, however, is the Night Market.
Every night between about 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm, a market stretches over a kilometer on Sisavangvong Road. This is the best place to buy local handicrafts. You’ll find ceramics, textiles, antiques, artwork, food, spices, coffee, quilts, shoes, purses, clothing, and more.
The prices are generally very reasonable, and although you may be able to bargain a little, haggling is not a big part of the culture. The Night Market is a great place to stock up on local crafts and support the local economy.
In addition to containing a plethora of impressive man-made sites, Luang Prabang is also close to a number of beautiful natural sites. Within the center of the city sits Phou Si, a hill that offers beautiful views overlooking the city and the countryside.
The Pak Ou Caves are another popular tourist site near Luang Prabang. These caves feature a collection of miniature Buddha sculptures and overlook the Mekong River.
There is also a collection of beautiful waterfalls, most notably Kuang Si Falls and Tat Sae Waterfalls close to the city.
With these natural sites nearby, it’s easy to enjoy nature by using Luang Prabang as a base. When you’re done exploring, return to the city in the evening for a coffee, croissant, and stroll through the Night Market.
Visiting Waterfalls Near Luang Prabang
Let's look at those particularly impressive waterfalls, Kuang Si and Tat Sae, which are a quick trip away from Luang Prabang. If you enjoy hiking, beautiful views, and swimming, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy visiting the falls. If you bring a picnic or stop at one of the nearby restaurants, you can turn a visit to the falls into a pleasant full or half day trip.
Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si is the best known waterfall near Luang Prabang and is a popular site for both locals and tourists. The waterfall consists of three tiers, gathering into turquoise pools and culminating in a 60-meter cascade. Kuang Si is located about 18 miles south of Luang Prabang, and you can get to it by taking a tuk tuk or renting a motorcycle.
At the base of the falls, you’ll see small cascades pouring over limestone ledges. For a small fee, you can access trails that move upwards through the jungle towards the top of the falls. Higher up, you’ll find large turquoise pools that are very popular for swimming. Because the falls are shaded by the jungle, the water is nice and cool.
There are changing rooms, toilets, and a picnic area at the falls, making it convenient for a day trip. The best way to spend your day is to pack a bathing suit and a picnic lunch, then spend your time relaxing and enjoying the water. If you’re interested in wildlife, there is a black bear rescue center close to the front gates of the Kuang Si falls. If you like bears, this is a worthwhile stop during your visit.
Tat Sae Falls
The other popular waterfall near Luang Prabang is Tat Sae, located about 11 miles southeast of the city. Tat Sae is a bit smaller than Luang Prabang, but it is more popular with the locals and generally less crowded by tourists. In order to access the falls, you’ll need to take a short boat ride across the Nam Khan River. The water falls in gradual limestone tiers into a large turquoise pool. Like Kuang Si, Tat Sae is an ideal site for swimming.
Adventurous visitors can jump off limestone ledges into the water below. The falls at Tat Sae blend into the jungle around them, meaning that the entire area is well shaded. For visitors, there are changing rooms, toilets, and even a simple restaurant. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place to visit for a few hours from Luang Prabang.
© 2017 Sam Shepards
Travel-Wise on April 20, 2017:
What a gorgeous spot!! Thanks for sharing some of the history :)