Luang Prabang cruise port guide

Claire Boobbyer
Luang Prang's skyline is lined with palm trees - Craig Hastings

Why go?

The royal and spiritual capital of Laos for centuries, tiny Luang Prabang’s architecture is an exquisite mix of the sacred and profane. Glittering golden Buddhist temples and handsome Lao-Gallic villas dot a palm tree-lined peninsula set between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in rugged mountain territory. Boats moor directly behind the Royal Palace.

Location

Boats dock behind the Royal Palace in the centre of town; a slip road leads up from the river to the main riverside road. It would be unusual for passengers to have to walk across other boats to reach shore; the weather may affect the mooring location.

Can I walk to any places of interest?

All the main sights of interest on the small, flat peninsula are within walking distance. A mild incline rises on the west-east Kounxoa Road. Between the Royal Palace and the city’s temple highlight, Wat Xieng Thong, is just over half a mile’s (a kilometre) walk. Crossing the peninsula north to south takes less than five minutes.

Getting around

Tuk tuk drivers, who speak some English, are parked up almost everywhere. Local journeys cost between 20,000-30,000 kip (£1.80 to £2.70). A blissful way to see the town is via a city bicycle (most come with baskets attached) for 20,000 kip per day (passport required) from the numerous spots and cafés that hire them.

What to see and do

What can I do in four hours or less?

Half-day cruise excursions take in the city temple highlight, glorious 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong with its dazzling mosaic decorations and staggeringly huge funeral chariot of Lao King Sisavangvong; the fascinating early 20th-century Royal Palace, home to the kings of Laos until 1975, and to the city’s golden Phra Bang statue, the source of the city’s protection; the beautiful bas-relief work, and golden stencilling of the multi-tiered roofed 18th-century Wat Mai. Climb Mount Phousi, topped by golden stupa Chomsi, opposite the Royal Palace, at sunset (or just before to escape the crowds) for magical mountain and city views. A sundowner watching the pink setting sun leak across the sky is memorable at one of the many Mekong River bar terraces.  

The Royal Palace Credit: Getty

What can I do in eight hours or less?

Magical Luang Prabang is made for walking. Wander the peninsula, the frangipani-framed alleyways, and visit lesser known wats (golden Wat Paphaimisaiyara is visually gorgeous and tucked down Sisavangvatthana Road opposite the impressive green and cream Lao-Gallic Institute Francais).

Laos’ 49 ethnic minorities are explored through engaging exhibits at the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre. Between 1964-73, the US dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos during the ‘Secret War’. Unexploded bombs still cause devastating injuries. Learn more at the UXO Laos Visitor Center. Plant lovers should hop on the regular boat downriver to Pha Tad Ke, Laos’ only botanical gardens (with organic food café on site).

Textile fans can book in to a weaving or batik class at Ock Pop Tock; free transport included. Meet novice monks for a deep dive into ritual and religion through new Orange Robe Tours.

Wat Xieng Thong temple features an elaborate tree of life mosaic Credit: Getty

Eat and drink

Popular snack khaipen – dried and fried river algae coated in sesame and garlic – goes down a treat with cold Beer Lao. Saffron Coffee offers northern Laos brew. Try Lao food tasting menus at pretty Dyen Sabai, or Tamarind. Vegetarian Café del Mundo is perfectly situated alongside the Royal Palace. Splashing out? Dine at Paste Laos. At the helm are 2018 Michelin-star Paste Bangkok restaurant chefs. Paste Laos’ menu draws on recipes created by a chef to the now banished Lao Royal Family. Lantern-lit 525’s garden is the spot for creative cocktails.

Don’t leave Laos without…

Buying handicrafts, and other souvenirs at the night market on the main strip. For photographic prints and antiques visit Asiama. Browse Passa Paa for contemporary textiles using traditional motifs. Buy upcycled jewellery made from bomb scrap at Queen Design, and minority handicrafts at Ma Té Sai.

Need to know

Flight time from the UK

No direct flights from the UK to Luang Prabang are available. Flights via Bangkok (11 hours 25 minutes ) are followed by a connecting flight to the city (one hour 45 minutes to two hours). 

A tuk tuk can be a quick way to navigate the city Credit: Getty

Safety

Luang Prabang is a very safe city by day and night. The usual precautions apply regarding valuables.

Best time to go

Monsoon season runs from May to October. During Lao New Year (April 14 to 16) visitors might get a water drenching as locals shower passersby during a festival that marks the coming of the rains. Autumn lunar calendar date Lhai Heua Fai (Festival of Light) is an uplifting and beautiful festival.