Luang Prabang is the former Royal Capital and an UNESCO world heritage site. The incredible charm of the old town on the peninsula is wrapped on three sides by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. While there are enough tour companies, activities and natural wonders to keep you busy from early morning until late night, resist the urge to over-plan. Simply being in Luang Prabang and enjoying the cafe culture is half the fun. Follow this two-day itinerary to eat, drink and enjoy a sampling of this northern Lao town.
Start your day with the best of the best. Saffron Coffee sources their beans from local Lao farmers. Run by American and Australian aficionados, Saffron has not only amazing coffee but a great food menu, Wi-Fi and outdoor seating along the Mekong. Find a spot to watch the boats cross the river from the nearby ferry dock as you eat a pastry and take in the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
Before the sun reaches its apex, making walking unbearable, check out some of Luang Prabang’s temples, the most impressive in all of Laos. With several dozen to choose from, you can’t go wrong, but favorites include Wat Xieng Thong, the Royal Temple and museum and Wat Mai. Be sure to dress appropriately by covering the shoulders and knees and removing your shoes before entering any buildings.
All of that walking around town will help you work up an appetite. Choose from any of a number of cafes. Cafe Toui is an elegant French/Lao eatery in the middle of town on Sisavangvatthana Road. It is a great place to dip your toe into Lao cuisine. Try some of Luang Prabang’s famous sausage and the impeccably seasoned pumpkin curry.
After lunch, it’s time for a swim. Go with a tour operator in a mini-van or grab a tuk tuk to the banks of the Nam Khan. Settle on a price beforehand and ask your driver to wait for you to take you back to town. Hop on the boat for a nominal fee and hike up to the top of the falls. Tad Se is most magnificent in the beginning of the dry season in October and November.
Several restaurants in Luang Prabang offer traditional cooking classes where you can create your own delicious meal. Some courses are all-day affairs while others are a few hours in the late afternoon and end with dinner. Check out the classes Tamnak Lao, The Terrace Restaurant or Tamarind. Create traditional dishes such as Luang Prabang salad, laap, jeow and of course, sticky rice. Take home the recipes to replicate in your own kitchen when you’re back home.
After a long day of sign seeing and working hard in the kitchen, it’s time to unwind with a magnificent artisanal cocktail at Icon Klub. The owner, Lisa will whip you up a drink on demand based on your preferences. The decor is charming with inspirational quotes and quirky artwork on the walls. It’s the perfect place to kick back, listen to the delightfully curated playlist and relax.
Climb Mt. Phousi at Dawn
As they say, the early bird gets the worm. If you can get yourself out of bed by 5 a.m. and up the steps to the top of Mt. Phousi before the sun comes up between 6 and 6:30 a.m., you’ll be handsomely rewarded. Views of Luang Prabang in the first light of day in a gloriously uncrowded area around Wat Chom Si are worth the lack of sleep. The most popular time to climb to the top is before sunset; throngs of people make for a noisy and crowded experience. Dawn, on the other hand, is blissfully peaceful.
All those steps surely have made you hungry and in need of caffeine. Stop by La Bennaton for coffee and scrumptious French pastries. Debatably, the best pain au chocolat in the city can be found at this cafe. They also have an excellent croissant au jambon fromage as well as a full breakfast menu.
Tour Jom Phet by Bicycle
Take in the Laos jungles across the Mekong in Jom Phet, also written Chompet, on two wheels. Rent a bicycle from any number of tour operators in town. Tiger Trail specializes in sustainable eco travel and rents mountain bikes. Take your bike across the ferry and cycle the 23-kilometre (14-mile) dusty dirt road loop through the less-developed side of the Mekong. Visit Ban Chan to check out the pottery and cycle through the mountains.
After cycling, come back to town to eat a Lao feast at one of two excellent restaurants on the Nam Khan side of the peninsula. Bamboo Tree and Tamarind Cafe are next door to one another, both offer cooking classes and tasting menus featuring the best of northern Lao cuisine. Enjoy the sausage, chicken in lemongrass, buffalo jerky and spicy sauces. If you’re vegetarian, no problem! Both of these spots offer great no-meat options as well.
Leisurely stroll through town after lunch to check out the handicrafts, souvenir shops and abundance of beautiful textiles made by local villagers from various tribes in Laos. Of particular note is Ock Pop Tok, meaning east meets west. It functions as a cooperative and training organization helping keep local traditions alive, train the next generation of weavers and get final products in front of potential customers. Check out their shop in town or venture to their living craft center to try your hand at dying textiles or weaving.
When you’re ready for a break from the hot Lao sun, check out La Silapa Italian & Lao Kitchen. The patio in the back is perfect for siping prosecco. Make your way to Amigos Mexican Restaurant for the best tacos in town. The Lao and Australian husband and wife duo who run Amigos in Luang Prabang have a second location in Vang Vieng where they also have a farm. All of the ingredients are locally sourced and made in Laos. The patio is adorable with Christmas lights and tons of plants. Drink a Beer Lao or two and enjoy.
If you aren’t totally worn out, you might make your way back to the main strip to check out the night market which happens every evening in Luang Prabang from 5-10 p.m. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, household goods and street food to passersby. The streets are closed to motorized vehicles and while the market is busy, it’s far more manageable and less overwhelmed with packed crowds than markets in Thailand or Vietnam.