48 Hours in Luang Prabang, Laos
The royal capital of Laos until 1975, Luang Prabang is a small town that lies in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Known for its many Buddhist temples, this town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Tourists flock this town nowadays and every other house around the town center is a hotel or a guest house.
Having ruled by France for 60 years, one can still see French influence in the architecture of the houses and all the road names are in Lao and French. Additionally, because the locals speak French, tourists from France compromise the most number of visitors to Luang Prabang.
With a tiny, sleepy town attitude, you can spend a lot of days here – with a whole lot of activities catering to all ages. But my visit to Luang Prabang was for two days and I wanted to cover a whole lot in that short time. So this is what you can do if you have 48 hours in Luang Prabang.
- Joma Bakery Cafe
- Elephant Sanctuary
- Pak Ou Caves
- Whiskey tasting
- Kuang Si waterfalls
- Night Market
- Alms giving ceremony
- Temples and monasteries
- Traditional theater performance
Begin your morning at one of the many French bakeries in Luang Prabang, Joma Bakery Cafe, with Lao coffee and fresh baguette, and perhaps indulge yourself in some oat french toast with mango, their signature homemade whole-wheat bread, french toasted with whole oats, topped with fresh mango and real whipped cream, served with maple syrup!
8:30 AM to 5:30 PM
Every corner of Luang Prabang sell the same tours across the region. While some tours are covered in many days, there are day tours available that are the most common. And one of the most favorite among the travelers is “Elephant sanctuary (with riding), Pak Ou caves, whisky tasting and Kuang Si waterfalls along with visiting some local markets.” The cost of this tour varies at different agencies, so make sure to shop around a bit.
Most agencies charge between $40-$50 for this trip.
The tour begins with hotel pick up at 8:30 am, and drive for about 40 minutes to the first stop – Elephant sanctuary.
All the sanctuaries are conservation centers and depending on the size, they may have up to 15-20 elephants. Activities include a 60-minute ride on the big animals, taking a shower with them in the Mekong river, or taking a multi-day class to become a Mahout.
While the last two sounds great, you can take the hour long riding the elephants for today.
Once you reach back to your starting point, lunch is served at the shack. If you have selected a tour package that does not include lunch then you will have to pay in cash at the shack.
Another 10 minute car ride brings you to the embarkation point form where you will sail a small “tourist” boat for about 30 minutes. The boat is comfortable with good seating for everyone and open “windows” across. These fishing boats are now converted for tourists, sailing along the Mekong river, inviting various activities along the river depending on your tour package.
First stop after a 30 minute boat ride is Pak Ou Caves. Overlooking the Mekong river, the first cave entrance of Tham Ting (lower cave) is visible from the water; while Tham Theung (upper cave) is accessed by stairs. The Buddha images in the Pak Ou Caves assume a variety of positions, from meditation to peace and nirvana (the reclining Buddha). Both caves are shrines to Buddha, offering places of worship with the largest image in Tham Ting being a popular place to burn incense and offer prayers. The smaller cave is the more peaceful, with glimpses of the Mekong providing a breathtaking backdrop. The caves are a very popular pilgrim site for locals and get very busy during April when the Lao New Year is in full swing with locals washing and attending to the images.
[Entrance to Pak Ou caves from Mekong river]
[Buddha statues at Tham Ting (lower cave)]
[Buddha statues at Tham Ting (lower cave)]
[Boats at the entrace to Pak Ou caves from Tham Ting]
[Entrance to Tham Theung (upper cave)]
[Buddha statues inside Tham Theung]
After spending a few hours to and from the caves, you are brought to land and driven to Ban Xang Hai village, famous for its wine production and for the making of Lao wine earthen jars; it is a great side trip where you will get the chance to try locally produced whisky and wine.
A quick stop at the whiskey village and another 1 hour drive takes you to the entrance of Kuang Si waterfalls. A favorite side trip for tourists in Luang Prabang, these falls begin in shallow pools atop a steep hillside. These lead to the main fall with a 60 meters (200 ft) cascade. The falls are accessed via a trail to a left of the falls. The water collects in numerous turquoise blue pools as it flows downstream. The many cascades that result are typical of travertine waterfalls.
Your return meeting time is 4:30pm at the parking lot, so when everyone in the group is back, you’d start by 5pm, heading back to Luang Prabang takes about an hour.
6:00 AM to 7:00 PM
Upon reaching the town, you’re dropped at the hotel, but if you have the energy for some more walking, then ask the driver to be dropped off at the night market. Open 5pm to about 10pm, it is located along Sisavangvong Road from the Royal Palace Museum. Every evening a kilometer-long stretch of road is closed to vehicle traffic and turned into a walking and shopping street while the market takes place.
More than 300 handicraft vendors sell their hand-made products here every night. The market showcases an extensive variety of handicrafts made by local ethnic groups. On display are many types of textiles, exquisite ceramics, antiques, paintings, coffee and tea, quilts, shoes, silver, bags, bamboo lamps of different shades and sizes, and even rare spices.
Best of all they are cheap, but bargaining is highly recommended. The traders quote quite low prices considering most of the items are hand made. So even if you’re not good at bargaining, you can be sure that you will get good value. But if you enjoy or want to practice your bargaining skill you can do so, though don’t expect huge discounts.
End your day by dining at one of the many restaurants along the Mekong river or along the main streets of Luang Prabang.
Make sure to call it an early night because you will have to wake up before surise!
Wake up early and be ready by 5:30am when the alms giving ceremony begins just before sunrise. This ceremony takes place everyday at dawn where the monks in the city go out of their temples, barefoot, dressed in their colorful orange robes, to collect alms in the form of offerings of rice on the part of devotees waiting monks kneeling on the floor.
Hundreds of monks leave 35 temples of Luang Prabang in the early hours of the morning in total silence and barefoot to walk the streets and collect the offerings of the faithful. They carry a metal vessel hung as a shoulder bag go where keeping the offerings of the faithful.
The devotees await the start of the ceremony on their knees either sitting on the floor. The offerings of alms-giving ceremony is generally food (glutinous rice mostly), although they are also delivered another kind of offerings such as biscuits, fruit, etc.
If this day falls on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, then make sure to walk over to the Phralak Phralam Theater in the same compound as the Royal Museum, and buy tickets for the evening traditional performances starting at LAK 80,000. More on this below.
Start your morning with some breakfast at the hotel or at one of the many cafes spread around the city.
10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
The 35 temples spread across the city are worth watching since each one has a unique design and artwork on it. Remember that most of them will close for lunch time between 12pm and 1:30pm, so make sure to draw a route you want to follow before starting. Here’s all the temples on map:
5:30 PM to 8:00 PM
The Phralak Phralam Theater, housed in the compound of the Royal Museum, hosts traditional performances for about 2 hours every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. If you are in Luang Prabang on these days, then make sure to book your tickets in advance (in the morning is good).
The music accompanies and illustrates the nine dances of the Phralak Phralam. Two of the nine dances are performed and totality of the performances invoke the ancient royal kingdom of Lane Xang.
Dinner at one of the many cafes around the city is a perfect way to end the day.
You can spend many days in this gorgeous city with so many activities to offer. I have listed the ones that will cover almost everything around.