Walk with elephants, try buffalo milk cheese, meet the monks and say hello to rescued bears in this three-day travel guide to Luang Prabang.
Maybe it’s the old-world charm, majestic temples, natural wonders or rich Laotian culture, there’s something alluring about Luang Prabang that leaves us awestruck. What was once overlooked by tourists – thanks to popular counterparts like Thailand, Indonesia and The Philippines – is high on the bucket list for travellers in the know. And here’s a hot tip: you can now get direct flights from Singapore to this UNESCO heritage site for a slice of culture. But aside from the better-known attractions like Kuang Si Waterfalls and Mekong River, there’s so much more to this pocket of the world. We take you on a three-day adventure as we uncover hidden restaurants, unforgettable experiences and local businesses that give back to the community.
Day 1: Walk with elephants, take part in a baci ceremony and visit the night market
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Hands down, this was the highlight of our trip so why not start yours with a therapeutic trek with rescued elephants? The MandaLao Elephant Conservation is the first and only camp that stays away from elephant rides (everyone else should too, btw). Instead, it puts a spotlight on education and elephant welfare with tours that focus on the ethical treatment of animals. Our half-day tour gave us a chance to prepare their lunch (baskets full of nutritious bananas loaded with tamarind, sea salt and sticky rice), feed them and go on a little trek with these gentle giants. We had to pinch ourselves multiple times to believe this was actually happening. Mother-daughter duo, Mon and Man (pictured above) were our companions for the day.
MandaLao Elephant Conservation, Ban Xieng Lom Luang Phrabang, Laos
This traditional ritual with a cool backstory has been a part of Lao culture for generations. It’s believed that there are 32 spirits in the body. Over the years, these spirits wander around causing one to get weak. The ceremony calls the spirits back while also ushering in good luck. Participants sit around a centrepiece made of banana leaves, flowers and traditional snacks and wine. The person who performs the baci (usually the oldest in the group) starts by calling upon the spirits. Shortly after, participants go around to tie a white thread around your wrists while sprouting wishes of good luck. The white threads signify peace, harmony, good luck and health and it’s recommended to keep them on for at least three days. There are various tours in Luang Prabang that provide private baci ceremonies.
For authentic Lao food, Tamarind is your hang. Try traditional sticky rice with jeow, mok pa, kaao and Tamarind’s specialty: lemongrass stuffed with chicken and herbs. Best you dig in with your hands ‘cos it’s how the locals enjoy their food. Cooking classes are available in beautiful lakeside pavilions if you want to recreate the experience when you get back home.
Tamarind Restaurant, Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
The night market in Laos is a far cry from the ones you’ll find in Bangkok. It’s small in size but packed with traditional Lao textiles and paintings to Lao coffee, tea and jewellery; bamboo straws and cool accessories, including some beautiful embroidery. There’s a really chill vibe to the market so take your time with it. Oh, and it’s a great place to put your bargaining skills to the test.
Night Market, Sisavangvong Rd, Alley Behind Lao National Tourism Office, Luang Prabang 0600, Laos
Day 2: Give alms to monks and try buffalo milk cheese and ice cream and local coffee
This begins in the early hours of the morning (sometimes even before sunrise) but it’s worth sacrificing your sleep. Almsgiving, or tak bat, is a Buddhist practice where locals offer homecooked food – mainly sticky rice and bananas – to monks. A quick note if you plan to go: cover your shoulders and legs and take off your shoes as a sign of respect. It’s a solemn event so refrain from making too much noise. Oh, and turn off your camera flash as it might disrupt their meditation.
Almsgiving Ceremony takes place all over Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang Morning Market
If the night market is way too chill for you, expect a 180-degree shift at the busy morning market. Unless you’re looking for fresh produce, you won’t be spending much here so just take in the morning hustle as locals shop for their groceries. We came across quite an interesting mix; from exotic snake meat, eel, fried squirrel and dismembered frogs displayed along the narrow pathways with the usual tropical fruit, veggies, eggs and Lao snacks, coffee and tea.
Luang Prabang Morning Market, Alleys between Main St. (Sisavangvong Rd.) and Mekong River, Luang Prabang 0600, Laos
Saffron Coffee’s espresso, brew bar, and roastery
After enjoying the bustling market, take refuge in this quaint coffee shop at Khem Khong Road right across the Mekong River. Saffron Coffee is quite the establishment, attracting hordes of locals and tourists for a varied mix of brews and specialty northern Lao Arabica produced by local farmers. A quick tidbit: the profit-for-purpose business has partnered with a few organisations and charities to promote coffee to over 800 farmers in Northern Laos. Do your part by ordering the signature Lao latte with some homemade cakes and pastries and remember to enjoy the breathtaking riverside views.
Saffron Coffee, Khem Khong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos Buffalo Dairy
The main draw at this dairy farm might be the buffalo milk cheese and ice cream but there’s so much more to it. Founded by four expats from Singapore, this socially-responsible enterprise has identified a great source of income for local farmers through an underutilised source – their buffalos. The dairy farm rents female buffalos from local farmers for six months. During this time, the buffalos live in healthy conditions, are milked daily and given ample nutrition. Once they go back to the farmers, they are able to bear healthy calves and the cycle goes on. The operation of the dairy farm has created over 30 jobs and have benefited the farmers in various ways. More income for farmers and delish ice cream for us. It’s a win-win for all! During our tour, we learnt how to milk buffalos, washed them and even fed some adorable calves.
Laos Buffalo Dairy, Ban Muang Khay, Luang Prabang, Laos
Tangor Restaurant Bar & Lounge
French cuisine in Luang Prabang? Oh yes, this hidden resto along Sisavangvong Road is probably the best in town. Perfectly mixing French and Lao fine-dining cuisine, cap off your experience on the right note with tapas, cheese platters, spring rolls and satay.
Tangor Restaurant Bar & Lounge, 63/6 Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
Day 3: Take a dip in Kuang Si Waterfalls, visit a bear rescue centre and discover Lao textiles
Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre
The Bear Rescue Centre is hard not to miss if you’re planning to visit the iconic waterfalls – and trust us, it’s worthy of a quick pitstop. Who could say no to an adorable moon bear? Supported by Free the Bears wildlife-protection organisation, Tat Kuang Si plays home to over 35 sun and moon bears that have been rescued from bear bile farms, poachers and illegal wildlife trade. We were definitely moved when we saw a comparison between a malnourished bear and their ‘beautiful surprise’ that was born on the premises.
Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang 06000, Laos
Kuang Si Waterfalls
The trek is not as intense as the one in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, but the views are as magnificent, if not, better! Just 30 kilometres Southwest of Luang Prabang, Kuang Si or Tat Kuan Si is home to an impressive array of tiered waterfalls, where you can frolic around and take in the scenic views of the jungle. A mere 20-minute trek brings you to the centre of it all. After bumping up your Instagram feed with a lovely picture, take a dip in the freezing but refreshing waters. The lower tiers are rife with locals and tourists as they gather for picnics.
Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang 06000, Laos
Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre
If you’re looking for a mindful souvenir to take home or just intrigued by Laos’ unique textiles and handicrafts, hop over to this craft store. Founded by two women, the Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre allows you to witness how textiles are made from silkworms to the finished product. Discover how natural dyes are made, take part in one of their classes or watch master weavers in action as they show off intricate weaving techniques before your eyes. The sustainable business also practices Fair Trade and ethical fashion and has provided jobs for over 500 women in villages around Laos. And we also have to talk about the beautiful location. This hidden gem just outside the old town has a cafe that overlooks the majestic Mekong River. A definite must-see!
Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre, Ban Saylom, Luang Prabang, Laos
Pullman Luang Prabang
Ah, where do we begin? This place took us straight to nirvana with lush green surroundings and paddy fields set against mountainous landscapes. And you actually get to live amongst it all. Book a deluxe room at Pullman Luang Prabang and you’ll be treated to a spacious 42sqm room complete with a balcony that looks out onto paddy fields and an ensuite bathroom that comes with a huge tub. The villas are built around traditional Lao terraced houses but with a contemporary twist. Perfect for nature lovers looking to experience Laotian culture but with a dose of laidback luxury.
Pullman Luang Prabang, Ban Pong Wanh, 06000 Luang Prabang, Lao
Sofitel Luang Prabang
It’s a whole different vibe at Sofitel Luang Prabang. Oozing laidback luxe vibes and timeless elegance, it’s the smallest Sofitel property in the world with just 25 villa suites – great for a romantic getaway. Each suite comes with an outdoor gazebo and bathtub but our eyes are set on the pool villa which opens into a garden with a private plunge pool. Absolute bliss. The hotel also boasts a mix of UNESCO protected heritage colonial buildings along with a petite library, spa and a large 25 sq.m. swimming pool. Oh, and look out for the resident bunnies hopping around the property.
Sofitel Luang Prabang, Ban Mano, Luang Prabang 00600, Laos
Getting to Luang Prabang
Travelling to Luang Prabang just got a lot easier with Scoot’s new direct flights to the ancient capital of Laos (and Vientianne if you’d like to extend your vacay) with three flights per week.