Once you get beyond the glittering UNESCO-recognized cultural infrastructure of Luang Prabang in Laos, you’ll realize it’s actually the exception. The surrounding Lao landscape feels overgrown, wild, and only very occasionally interrupted by Lao ethnic villages.
But the Lao countryside makes Luang Prabang a prime launchpad for day trips exploring Laos’ age-old culture, fantastic trekking trails, and unique biosphere. We’ve picked some excellent adventures that only begin in Luang Prabang, expanding your local experiences with trips that often take you off the beaten path.
Trek & Swim at Kuang Si Waterfall
Thanks to Laos’ karst topography, Kuang Si Waterfall rises above ordinary waterfalls with multiple tiers of pools that (at least in the dry season) look gorgeous and offer a perfect swimming break for sweaty tourists.
What to do: Join the locals and tourists bathing in the dazzlingly-blue pools or jumping into the water (watch out for hidden rocks). Climb up the trail to get past the pools and up to the main waterfall.
A hiking trail snakes past the cataracts through the jungle and to nearby villages. A popular three-mile (4.75 km) trail begins at the Khmu village of Ban Long and ends right at Kuang Si Falls.
Wildlife lovers will appreciate the Free the Bears Sanctuary, where sun bears are kept after their rescue from farms that harvest their bile (a prized ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine). Come at 2:30 p.m. to see the bears being fed. Entrance costs LAK 20,000 ($2.35); souvenirs sold on site help with costs of running the place.
Getting there: Get a seat on a shared tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang for about LAK 40,000 (about $4.70) per person per way – or hire the whole tuk-tuk for LAK 250,000 (about $30). The 14-mile (23 km) trip takes about 50 minutes to complete. An entrance fee of LAK 20,000 will be charged upon entry. The falls are open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Bike to Ban Phanom for Textiles, a Temple, and a Tomb
When the Kings of Luang Prabang held sway, they sourced their gowns and other garments from the weavers of Ban Phanom. Today, Ban Phanom has hardly lost its touch—the locals are still dab hands at weaving cotton and silk, though their wares now cater to tourists at the Night Market.
What to do: Located some 1.5 miles (2.3 km) by road from the Luang Prabang town center, Ban Phanom is accessible enough for a biking excursion. Ban Phanom is usually included in a biking itinerary that also covers the ruined Phon Phao temple and Henri Mouhot’s tomb.
Visit the Phanom Handicraft Centre, site of a local cooperative where you can watch weavers working on old-fashioned looms (or try working the looms for yourself), and buy the scarves, wall hangings, skirts, and wraps they have for sale. Prices here can be haggled down.
Getting there: Hire a tuk-tuk or a bicycle to go to Ban Phanom; by tuk-tuk, Ban Phanom is a 10-minute ride from the town center. Bikes are available for rent all throughout Luang Prabang for about $2 to $6 a day.
Picnic and Frolic with Locals at Tad Sae Waterfall
Unlike Kuang Si, the gentle stepped waterfalls of Tad Sae dry up during peak tourist season. During the rainy season (August to November), though, Tad Sae is gorgeous to behold—multiple levels of waterfalls surrounded by other fun diversions.
What to do: Most visitors go to Tad Sae to swim, and the bigger pools around the waterfall have steps that permit easy access. Out of respect to local visitors, please wear modest clothing when bathing – cover up skimpy swimsuits with a T-shirt or sarong.
You can also check out the elephant paddock, and get to know Laos’ unofficial animal mascot. Or if a view from atop an elephant’s back isn’t high enough for you, strap up for a ride on the zipline that scoots above the waterfall and the surrounding greenery.
Getting there: located some 10 miles (15 km) southeast of Luang Prabang, Tad Sae requires a two-step, 40-minute trip from the city. Take a tuk-tuk to the dock on the banks of the Nam Khan River, then cross over on a rented longtail boat.
Instead of going by yourself, engage one of the tour operators in Luang Prabang for a better deal – expect to spend about LAK 50-70,000 (about $6-8), inclusive of entrance fees and transportation. Elephant rides and ziplines cost extra.
Meet Thousands of Buddha at Pak Ou Cave
This mysterious cave sits above the waters where the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers meet, some 15 miles (25 km) upriver from Luang Prabang. Judging from the thousands of Buddha images sitting around the cave’s walls, you can tell you’re in one of the country’s holiest sites.
What to do: The approximately 5,000 Buddhas around Pak Ou speak to generations of devout Buddhist practice by locals. The Buddha images are placed there to help their donors store up merit; at the better-lit lower cave (Tham Ting), travelers can climb to view the Buddha images. You’ll need a flashlight to check out the upper cave (Tham Teung), which holds the majority of the Buddha statues.
Many of the Buddha images show signs of damage or wear; it’s likely they were brought there by conscientious devotees who left their images here instead of throwing them away.
Most package tours combine a trip to Pak Ou with a visit to Ban Xang Hai, Luang Prabang’s “Whiskey Village” where locals brew the rice liquor known as “Lao-Lao.” (Read about getting drunk in Southeast Asia.)
Getting there: Pak Ou can be reached in 1.5 hours by slow boat upriver. The slow boat ticketing office along the Mekong charges LAK 65,000 (about $7.60); the boat leaves at 8:30 a.m., inclusive of a stop at Ban Xang Hai.
You can charter your own ride to Pak Ou. Get your own boat and driver for LAK 300,000 ($35.20), or hire a tuk-tuk at Luang Prabang for about LAK 200,000 ($23.50). Tuk-tuks stop at Ban Pak Ou, from which you’ll hire a ferry boat to cross the river (LAK 20,000/$2.35 for a two-way crossing).
Avoid visiting during peak tourist season, as the cramped spaces of the caves become even less pleasant with the tourist crush. During Bun Pi Mai (Lao New Year), locals will swarm to the caves to wash the Buddha images.
Try Exotic Tipples at Ban Xang Hai (Whiskey Village)
Halfway between Pak Ou Caves and Luang Prabang, the “Whiskey Village” is often packaged as part of a single itinerary to the caves. For generations, the villagers of Ban Xang Hai have brewed Lao rice whiskey for local consumption – visit the village to see how it’s made.
What to do: Get a local guide to explain the rice whiskey brewing process. The Lao have perfected the art of turning sticky rice into a potent rice spirit – it’s about 40% ABV, and it’s particularly prized for traditional ceremonies like baci.
You’ll be cajoled into trying the rice whiskey – plus points if you can drink the whiskey where a dead animal has been left marinating for flavor! Buy a bottle or more to take home, Lao rice whiskey is famously cheap.
Getting there: Ban Xang Hai can be reached in about an hour by slow boat; the slow boat ticketing office along the Mekong stops over at the village between tours of Pak Ou – see the entry on Pak Ou for slow boat rates.
Trek to Temples through Chomphet District
Make the short crossing across the Mekong from Luang Prabang town center and you’ll find yourself in a barely tamed town – the start of a trail that leads to a series of atmospheric Buddhist temples.
What to do: Chomphet District feels like the flipside of Luang Prabang: rustic instead of refined, overgrown instead of over-built. The ferry boat drops you off at Ban Xieng Mene, a typical Lao village that (like most Lao villages) orients itself around its Buddhist temples.
The hilltop Wat Chomphet offers a wonderful view of the Mekong River, almost opposite that of That Phousi in Luang Prabang Town. But it’s the neighboring Wat Long Khun that flaunts a classier pedigree: the King spent a three-day retreat here prior to his coronation in Luang Prabang.
Ask for the key to enter Tham Sakkalin nearby, a cave that reportedly houses a few relics of the Buddha.
Getting there: the wharf on the Mekong facing the National Museum services ferries crossing over to Ban Xieng Mene, tickets costing LAK 40,000 (about $4.70) per way. Once you’ve crossed, stalls just past the boat landing sell maps and rent out bicycles to tourists.
Chomphet temples charge an admission fee of LAK 20,000 (about $2.30).
Care for Elephants at the Elephant Conservation Center
The “land of a million elephants” now only have about 800-plus within its borders; the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury cares for a small number of that remnant, rehabilitating elephants after years of abuse in the logging industry.
Visitors to the Conservation Center can help care for these creatures, or stay amidst rustic but comfortable cabins in the Center’s lakeside environment.
What to do: Instead of observing the elephants from a distance, meet the pachyderms on their own turf. The one-day visit to the Conservation Center includes a guided visit with the local veterinarian, and you can also feed a few friendly elephants and visit the “nursery," where a new generation of elephants are being raised in a caring, humane environment.
The length of your stay depends on how much time you’re willing to spend with the elephants: you can stay overnight, or go all-in and volunteer for a week.
Getting there: A dedicated minivan picks up guests outside the Luang Prabang Post Office every morning at 8 a.m., traversing a three-hour ride to Sayaboury and the Center. The same minivan departs Sayaboury at 2pm for Luang Prabang. Visit the Elephant Conservation Center’s official site.
Go Native at Nong Khiaw
The further you drive from Luang Prabang, the closer you get to authentic encounters with Laos’ traditional tribes. That’s why you should head some three hours’ drive north of Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw.
What to do: A sleepy backpacker town on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Khiaw gives you easy access to traditional Tai Lue peoples; mysterious caves with a Vietnam War history; and hiking around the area’s forested, scenic mountains.
Visit the nearby hamlet of Ban Nayang to meet the Tai Lue community here, a deeply traditional people still engaged in making indigo-dyed cotton cloth. Afterward, visit a local collection of caves – Pha Kuang and Pha Thok caves served as hiding places for Communists in the 1970s, enduring heavy bombing from American air assets during the Vietnam War.
Challenge your stamina with a 1.5-hour hike up to Phadeng Peak and be rewarded by the gorgeous view of the cloud-kissed mountains and the Nam Ou River snaking in between.
Getting there: Buses depart Luang Prabang’s southern bus station daily; fares cost LAK 50,000 (about $5.90) per way. The riverside budget stays at Nong Khiaw offer excellent views of the Nam Ou River.
Hit the Trails from Muang Ngoi
With Vang Vieng now seen as more “family friendly”, Muang Ngoi has since moved to the top ranks of Indochina’s last true backpacker spots. From this sleepy riverside town, you can trek to nearby mountains and waterfalls, or go kayaking to see the sights from the middle of the Nam Ou River.
What to do: The mountains surrounding this village set on the Nam Ou River hide bucolic villages, caves, and waterfalls worth a few days’ hiking; local tour guides offer one- to three-day hikes through the barely tamed local landscapes.
A two-day hike from Muang Ngoi to the Khmu village of Ban Kiew Kan, for example, passes by forests and natural features like Tam Gang and Tam Pha Keo caves before stopping at a homestay where guests are welcomed with a traditional baci ceremony. On the way back, you have the option of kayaking downstream to Muang Ngoi, admiring the riverside scenery along the way.
If you prefer to stay in-village, visit the Wat Okad temple to get a blessing from a local monk, or just enjoy the cheap river shrimp and fish at one of the local restaurants.
Getting there: Motorized boat taxis leave the Nong Khiaw pier, taking less than an hour to cruise down the Nam Ou River to Muang Ngoi; the ride costs LAK 25,000 (about $3). Riverside hostels and homestays welcome guests.
From Muang Ngoi, you can reach the Laos-Vietnam border crossing at Pang Hoc, entering Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu.