Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers in northern Laos. It’s a beautiful place, like a timeshift into a romantic vision of historic Indochina. The architecture is a mix of the best of French colonial and Buddhist, so it comes as no surprise that the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It’s a sophisticated place. The French established Luang Prabang for the pleasure of their own culture at the end of the nineteenth century, and even now it still rather feels like a stage set. Travelling with my girls, I was surprised by how much more commercialised Laos is, compared with Cambodia and Vietnam. Most activities here were in the region of $100 a throw for my two children and me.
Those of us who can afford to travel should contribute to the economies of the places we visit. But at the same time, I want to feel that I am visiting somewhere with a living culture. Here the primary culture seemed to be one of commercial exchange between tour operators and visitors. They must be doing something right, though, because there is no shortage of tourists.
Despite my reservations, we enjoyed it a lot, and I found plenty to do, so if you are visiting Luang Prabang with kids, read on.
Things to do in Luang Prabang with kids
The Royal Palace – National Museum of Luang Prabang
The National Museum sits in a beautiful garden on the river in the south of the old town. The former Haw Kham Palace was the residence of the last King of Laos until 1976. In that year he was forced to abdicate by the Communists and sent with his family to disappear in a re-education camp. As palaces go, it’s relatively small. The main thing about it for us was the information about Lao history, ancient and modern.
The Haw Pha Bang Temple in the Royal Palace grounds is a beautifully ornate temple. Despite appearances, it was completed in 2006 to house an ancient statue of the Buddha. This statue is the most highly prized Buddha in Laos, giving its name to the city. The name Luang Prabang dates from 1512 and means Royal Buddha Image.
Entry to the museum grounds is free.
Entry to the Palace Museum, including the Temple, costs 30,000 LAK ($3.50) Kids up to 10 years old free of charge.
Opening hours: daily from 8:00 – 11:30 am and 1:00 – 3:00 pm.
You cannot take cameras, shoes or bags into the Palace; free lockers are provided. You should wear respectful clothes. You can hire suitable clothes if you aren’t wearing them already.
Learn How to Grow Rice with the Living Land Company
To experience Lao traditional farm life, visit the Living Land Company. Here you can both see the cultivation of rice and try it for yourself. We did, and we loved it, starting from sorting rice, ploughing the paddies, and riding on the Rodolphe, the buffalo.
We spent a lovely and very educational morning at the farm. Besides the fun and educational value, it was an eye-opener for us about how much effort is required to grow rice.
We also had a lovely rice lunch, a great variety of dishes prepared from cooked or dried rice. We also squeezed our own sugar cane juice to drink.
Price for 1-2 guests 424.000 LAK ($ 49) per guest – including lunch. Without lunch: kip 344.000 LAK ($ 40) per guest.
Children – reduced rate – depending on your negotiating skill, they can be half price or free.
Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Centre
Ock Pop Tok means East meets West. We found their silk and craft souvenir shop on the main street of Luang Prabang. Ock Pop Tok also have a small workshop and showroom just outside the town, and they offer a free tuk-tuk ride to get there. We tried it and loved it.
Once we arrived, a charming hostess took us for a tour around the workshop, explaining the life cycle of the silkworm. We saw how the threads are coloured with natural dyes and learnt how to weave on a loom.
The souvenir shop sells beautiful crafts and next to it is the Silk Road Cafe with its terrace overlooking the Mekong River.
Ock Pop Tok opens every day from 8 am to 7 pm. The educational tour is free, and you can also try payable activities, including batik and loom-weaving workshops.
Giving Morning Alms has been a tradition in Luang Prabang since the fourteenth century. Local people and tourists wake up early and sit on small stools by the edge of the road waiting to give gifts of food to monks.
The first monks emerge from the temples at about 5:30 am. For the next hour or so, two hundred or more monks, dressed in orange robes, will pass through the main streets of Luang Prabang. The sight is awesome. You feel thrown back in time until you see tourists turning their backs on the monks to take selfies with the monks as a backdrop. I thought that this was a sad reflection on the travellers, reducing a timeless tradition to a mere backdrop.
If you want to give Alms or take photos of the monks, please respect a few rules. Do not touch the monks, position yourself no higher than the monk’s level and don’t turn your back towards them. It is also very impolite to stick your camera into the faces of these monks or anyone else! I found I could get great shots with a zoom lens, crouching down in a more distant viewpoint on the far side of the road. Try also to find a less popular street. There will be fewer monks but also fewer tourists.
See the Sunset from Mount Phousi.
Mount Phousi is a sacred hill in the middle of Luang Prabang, just in front of the Palace. From the top, you can see beautiful views over the city, the river, and into the jungle beyond. The climb is 300 steps.
Seeing the sunset from here seems to be a “thing.” The problem with that is you are more likely to see the hands of hundreds of tourists sticking up in the air trying to photograph the sunset or take selfies. I thought it was better to go at any time except sunset for the view and the experience. Then you can download a sunset picture from the web to see something better than the view you missed.
The viewing place is next to the temple and admission is 20,000 LAK (just over $2.) It is a sacred place, so visitors should dress and behave with respect.
If you do make the climb at sunset, then when you come down, you can dive straight into the Night Market, which should be on everyone’s Luang Prabang Itinerary.
Go to Prabang Night Market
The night market starts slowly around 5 pm with just a few stalls, by sunset it has reached full bloom. Come here to buy souvenirs. There is a wide range of all qualities, from authentic cultural relics to the cheap and cheerful.
Night Market hours: Daily from 5 pm to 11 pm
Location: Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang, Laos
Cross the Nam Khan River on a Bamboo Bridge
Luang Prabang is famous for its bamboo bridges. These are rebuilt every year after the rainy season floods destroy the old ones. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to cross a bamboo bridge as we were in Luang Prabang at the end of the rainy season. The new bridges hadn’t been built yet, while the old ones had already been washed away.
Visit TAEC Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center
We found the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center by happy accident. I was looking for a food store on google maps and spotted something called TAEC with good reviews.
We decided to explore, and as soon as we got inside, we knew it would be fun. The ticket-person gave us a cheery greeting and presented a knowledge-hunt challenge to the girls. Immediately, the museum was fun. My girls love “thing-finding”, and this structured hunt was perfect for them.
We learnt effortlessly about Lao clothes, art and decorative traditions. Three hours passed in a flash before I relaxed with a cold tea in the coffee shop while my giggly girls were still busy trying on Khmer clothes.
Entrance costs 25,000 LAK ($ 3) for adults. Kids under 12 and Lao citizens free
Opening hours: Daily except Mondays from 9 am to 6 pm.
Try the Gibbon Experience Zipline
This one is quite expensive, but it’s a good one, and it has excellent conservation, sustainability and social enterprise credentials. Even if you don’t meet a gibbon, the location and tree-house architecture are both beautiful in their own right. Of course zip lines are great fun for all ages, and they have some long ones – up to 600m.
It’s a long drive from the city, and the minimum two day-1 night “Express Tour” is not recommended for kids under 12. The more relaxed tours take longer. Unfortunately, we couldn’t extend our trip to include this, but it’s on our list for next time. You can read more about it here:
Volunteering in a Local School – Big Brother and Sister Mouse
I always had a plan to do some volunteering job while travelling with kids but same time I was aware of negative impact of volunteering tourism – like orphanage exploitation in Cambodia. Luckly Big Brother and Sister Mouse wasn’t the case where volunteering to more harm then good.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is a voluntary organisation to help young people by bringing books to children and helping them to learn English.
They have an office in Luang Prabang where they produce the books and offer English conversation between Lao students and volunteers – mostly tourists. The meeting session is 3 times a week in the morning (at 9 am). We visited them several times to spend mornings talking to Lao students about their country and ours.
Big Sister Mouse
Big Sister Mouse is a sister company to Big Brother with a village school not far from Luang Prabang. The girls and I spent a day here leading the lessons. It was all pretty disorganised, and my white kids were such a novelty for the locals that there was a bit of shy- ice to break. Once through that, though, everybody bonded and the day was enriching for us. I hope for the locals too.
If you want to volunteer at a Lao school, come to the Big Brother Mouse office in Luang Prabang to agree the time of your school visit. The suggested contribution payable by volunteers is 100,000 LAK ($ 12). This pays for gasoline and your lunch.
Try the Best Coffee in Luang Prabang
Saffron Coffee is the classiest place to have a coffee in this chic city. We went there almost every day for my caffeine fix, and the girls had a juice and a snack while enjoying the spectacle of the baristas at work. The coffee was delicious.
Day Trips from Luang Prabang with Kids or Without
Visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls Waterfalls
The waterfalls at Kuang Si are magnificent. There are lots of falls and pools to discover on a 20-minute walk from which you can stop off to swim in pools. We were so mesmerised by the place that we hardly realised that we were dabbling in the sideshows; the main attraction is a 60m high fall.
The falls can get a bit crowded when a minibus arrives but they are an enjoyable experience, and we loved them.
Kuang Si Waterfall is open daily from 8 am to 5:30 pm.
Entrance costs 20,000 LAK ($ 2)
Next to the waterfalls is the Bear Sanctuary
Bear Rescue Centre and Wildlife Sanctuary
Right by the entrance to Kung Si Waterfalls, you will find the Bear Rescue Centre. This is one of several sanctuaries in the Far East established by Australian Mary Hutton working to “Free the Bears”.
The Centre was set up to rescue bears held captive in inhumane conditions for the extraction of bile for traditional medicines. They have expanded to include other animals, including birds reptiles and red pandas smuggled from China. The centre not only rescues animals but also focuses on educating and finding other employment for people involved in their exploitation and trafficking.
This is a fascinating place to see the animals and to learn about their plight and how they are rescued.
There is no separate entrance fee to theBear Sanctuary, but you can support their efforts by buying a tee-shirt or donating.
Visit the Kuang Si Butterfly Park
Also very close to the Waterfalls and Bear Sanctuary is the Kuang Si Butterfly Park. This is a beautifully-arranged garden full of butterflies and the plants they inhabit. We took a guided tour during which we learnt all about them. After enjoying the butterflies, you can relax with a great coffee and a fish pedicure. For us, this butterfly park was one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang with kids. No surprise here, we have been to lots of butterfly parks, and they are always a big hit!
Entry fee 40,000 LAK ($ 5)
The park is open daily except for Tuesday.
Luang Prabang Elephant Sanctuary
I have mixed feelings about this place. This “sanctuary” felt rather commercialised to us compared with other more animal-orientated sanctuaries we have seen in Cambodia (Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai.) Specifically, they offer elephant rides here, which we have been told in other places is not good for the animals.
Visit Pak Ou Cave – and See 1,000 Buddhas, (Or maybe 4,000!)
Pak Ou Caves is approximately 25 km north – up the Mekong river toward Thailand. It is known as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas although apparently it contains at least four thousand.
We visited it as a part of our cruise down the Mekong on the way to Luang Prabang in a slow boat. The cave itself is relatively small, and there is undoubtedly a law of diminishing returns in Buddha-viewing after the first dozen or so! My advice – if a cave visit is a part of your Mekong trip then enjoy it, but if you would have to make a special journey, then do something else that day. We had far more fun volunteering in the school than seeing this cave.
Entrance fee to the cave is 20,000 LAK ($2.50)
Visit a Whisky Village
Ban Xang Village or the Whisky Village is near the Pak Ou Cave. It’s a small village known for (you guessed it) manufacture of Lao Whisky. As well as the product itself, you can buy whisky-pickled scorpions and snakes here. I don’t know if the addition of strange creatures produces medicinal benefits or is just done for the tourist.
You can buy whisky and crafts in almost every house in the village. The good thing about this place is that the products are authentic. Apart from the unique whiskies, scarves are woven in front of your eyes.
Tad Sae Waterfall
This is another multi-tiered waterfall with pools where you can swim. These waterfalls are only accessible by boat. It’s a great place to spend a half a day or longer.
Things to do in Luang Prabang with kids – Conclusion
Luang Prabang is a great place to visit, there is plenty of educational activities for whole family. The whole town is family friendly, but … yes there is a but. Luang Prabang is expensive especialy if you compare prices with neighbor Thailand.