The perfect one-day itinerary for Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is an absolute gem of a town, and it’s worth spending at least a few days there to relax and get into the feel of the place. However, if you’re just passing through with 24 hours to spare, what should you prioritise? In a town brimming with history, hidden temples, cool coffee shops and quirky backpacker hangouts it can be hard to decide. Read on for the perfect one-day Luang Prabang itinerary.
Indigo was, without a doubt, one of our favourite places in Luang Prabang. There are a surprising amount of upmarket coffee shops to choose from in this sleepy Mekong town, so Indigo has some stiff competition, but for us the chilled-out vibe, awesome rooftop terrace and superb views propelled it to the top of our list. When we visited Luang Prabang, we were blighted with days of rain, so relaxing with a book on the terrace also enabled us to feel that we were still taking in the sights and sounds of the town whilst being safely dry and under cover. Come nightfall, it’s also a great spot for watching all the action of the night markets below.
Like elsewhere in Luang Prabang, there’s some great coffee to be had at Indigo (sourced from a small community cooperative in southern Laos), and a nice array of meals and snacks to go with it. From traditional Laotian to something a bit more Western, with some lush cocktails, mocktails and smoothies on hand for a little extra variety, Indigo offers a great range of tasty dishes and drinks. Look out for the bakery goods being sold just outside the entrance too!
It’s around a fifteen-minute walk from Indigo (or even shorter cycle or tuk-tuk ride) to the Unexploded Ordinance Centre, a journey that is well worth your time whilst in Luang Prabang. It’s hard to overstate the importance of understanding the trauma that Laos has been through, and the fact that it is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world is often mentioned to try to quantify this, but the UXO Visitor Centre goes some way towards helping visitors understand the painful human cost behind this statistic.
This small museum is filled with physical artefacts, photos, maps, charts and also shows a short film, explaining why the country’s troubled past continues to affect its present with the huge number of unexploded munitions still scattered in villages and rural areas. Finding out about the vital work that UXO Lao is carrying out, and the context in which they are doing so is worth doing – be sure to set an hour or two aside for your visit, as well as some US dollars to donate.
Utopia (on Facebook)
For the next stop on your Luang Prabang itinerary, head north-east around the edge of the town towards the Nam Khan River: Utopia can be found down an easy-to-miss passageway that turns off from the main road running parallel to the river. Look out for the painted sign on the main road, and then follow the winding route – if you have a good sense of direction, you should feel as though you’re heading down to the river – and lo and behold, you’ll find Utopia!
Essentially a café, bar, yoga hangout, live music venue and backpackers’ dream, Utopia is a place to enjoy all of the above – or just to chill and watch the river drift by. Its star attraction is the wide wooden deck overhanging the banks of the Nam Khan river, piled with cushions for maximum relaxation. The helpful staff will pop down to you with menus and food, and then all you need to do is check your email and social media on the free wifi enjoy the surroundings and relax. Watching the children playing in the river is charming, and if you’re lucky you may see some locals fishing, or even some monks out for a morning expedition as we did.
Peninsula walk and temples
From Utopia, head back to the main road and turn right, following the route as it heads closer to the banks of the Nam Khan river. From here, you can do an easy circuit round the headland of Luang Prabang, where the Nam Khan meets the Mekong. Use the infamous bamboo bridge as a reference point, and either carry on up the road to do an anti-clockwise circuit, or cut left up the hill in front of Saynamkhan River View hotel and take a clockwise route.
As well as watching the Mekong slide past, there are plenty of beautiful temples to stop off at on the tip of the peninsula. The entrance to Wat Paphay, dripping with flowers, is particularly beautiful, whilst you can also take in Wat Xieng Thong, one of the country’s most significant and historically important temples.
Walk up Mount Phousi
In the middle of town, the prominent lump that is Mount Phousi is impossible to miss and should be firmly on anyone’s Luang Prabang itinerary. Despite only being 150m or so high, it is a fairly unrelenting walk to the top, so take it slowly if the weather is warm or if the route is slippy with rain. You will also need to pay a small fee to walk up. We went up a couple of times – once on a rather damp, grey afternoon and again on a stonkingly beautiful day just before sunset.
Whilst I would say a resounding “yes” to visiting on a sunny day – the hazy mountains look gorgeous against the shimmering blue sky – a sunset visit is harder to recommend. You’ll get stunning views almost 360 degrees around Luang Prabang as the sun sets beyond the river, but you’ll be sharing them with all the backpackers and tourists in South East Asia (or at least, it will feel that way). Lots of pushing, shouting, queuing and the occasional risk of decapitation by selfie-stick ensued. Our quieter mid-afternoon visit was much more serene and we even got chatting to a couple of monks halfway down the slopes, which is always a bonus in my book.
Take the route down Mount Phousi that will lead you back to the bamboo bridge, pay the small fee to cross (5000 kip at time of writing) and venture across. After a scramble up some steep steps and a slightly rocky slope, you’ll find yourself at the entrance to Dyen Sabai. The secluded restaurant and bar has a prime spot – perched over the river, it feels as though you are hanging in the canopy of the trees. Low tables and comfy cushions add to the laid-back atmosphere. The food is traditional Laos and Asian, and also caters to the more adventurous, with items such as Mekong seaweed or buffalo available to try. Go all out and order a Lao fondue – a volcanic pot of fiery coals will be brought to your table, over which you cook your own meat, vegetables and accompaniments on what essentially looks like a metal hubcap…!
Back over the river (either via the bamboo bridge, or take a long route via tuk tuk if you’re feeling lazy) head to L’Etranger Books & Tea for the last stop on your Luang Prabang itinerary. This quirky wooden house not only specialises in books and tea (as the title suggests) but also has a daily film night for free, provided you purchase a snack, meal or drink. After a long day of sightseeing, sipping on one of their 65 teas whilst enjoying an arty film is a joy.