Lovely Luang Prabang with Teens
If Paris and Southeast Asia had a love child, her name would be Luang Prabang. This charm-oozing town in northern Laos is the perfect mashup of French charm and Southeast Asian culture. Picture night markets, monks, and wats (temples) set against a backdrop of French colonial architecture and coffee shops.
It’s no wonder that UNESCO deemed Luang Prabang worthy of World Heritage Site status in 1995. It’s also no wonder that many travelers deem Luang Prabang as the crown jewel of all Southeast Asian cities.
Unlike many Southeast Asian hotspots, you are more likely to find yourself in a mob of middle-aged, French-speaking white people than backpackers sporting Aladdin pants and man buns. If this sounds like a destination that might appeal more to a mature crowd than a teenager, think again. We found 14 things to do in Luang Prabang with teens.
14 Things to Do in Luang Prabang
1. Hike and swim at Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si Falls is a three-tiered waterfall and swimming hole that you simply will not want to leave! Word of advice: Do not visit the waterfalls in conjunction with any other activities. The waterfalls are so spectacular, you will not want to be rushed. Take a picnic lunch, hike to the very top of the waterfall, and enjoy the day. Plan to spend at least 3 hours here.
Tuk-tuk to the falls and back costs 150,000-200,000 LAK (~USD$20) depending on how hard you bargain; entrance to the falls 20,000 LAK (~USD$2.50/pp).
2. Kick back at Utopia
There is no false advertising in the name of this restaurant/bar/lounge. Utopia is simply a place to “be.” No other agenda is necessary. Set on the banks of the Nam Khan river, this could be the coolest hangout in Laos, or the entire continent. Take a book, take your computer, or take a nap. All options are good.
3. Visit the UXO Museum (Unexploded Ordinances)
Sadly, Laos has the distinction of being the most bombed country in the world, relative to the size of its population. Laos was a supply route for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam-American war. In an attempt to cut off supplies to Northern Vietnam, the U.S. dropped over 260 million bombies over Laos between 1964-1973. An estimated 30% did not detonate on impact, which means that today, there are still millions of unexploded ordinances lying around Laos.
What does this mean? Nearly every day, one person is killed or injured in Laos from bombs that were dropped 50 years ago! Free. Donations accepted.
4. Volunteer at Big Brother Mouse
Each day between 9-11 a.m. and 5-7 p.m., tourists and locals meetup to talk…in English. Many of the locals desperately want to improve their English speaking skills, and the best way to do that is to speak with native English speakers. Just show up at Big Brother Mouse and plop down next to someone. The conversation will flow naturally from there. Free and priceless.
5. Boat to Pak Ou caves and Whiskey Village
A two-hour boat ride up the Mekong brings you to two caves filled with over 4,000 Buddha statues. The caves themselves are pretty interesting, but the boat ride up the Mekong is the cherry-on-top.
Catch the public ferry at 8:30 a.m. each morning from the boat jetty across from Saffron Cafe. (65,000 LAK; ~USD$7.50/pp). The ferry also makes a quick stop at Whiskey Village where you can buy scarves or local whiskey with very interesting creatures in the bottles. Entrance to the caves is 20,000 LAK (~USD$2.50/pp).
6. Climb Mount Phousi
Sure it’s over 300 steps to the top, but the 360* view is worth it! Located right in the heart of Luang Prabang, Mount Phousi is hard to miss. There are two ways to the top: 1) just across Sisavongvang Road from the Royal Palace Museum, or 2) on the backside, near the Nam Khan river. The Nam Khan entrance has more steps (355 vs. 328) but is also more scenic.
For the full effect, enter from one side and exit the other. Mount Phousi is a very popular sunset location. If you want to get the perfect Insta-shot, get there early to stake out your spot. Entrance fee: 20,000 LAK (USD$2.50).
7. Observe the Buddhist alms giving ceremony (AKA Tak Bat)
The ancient practice of giving morning alms to the Buddhist monks dates back over 600 years. It is a daily symbiotic ritual: the villagers provide alms (usually sticky rice) to the monks for their daily meal. In return, the monks give good karma points to the villagers. We’ve seen this practice in various forms throughout Southeast Asia, but nowhere is it as beautiful or commercialized as in Luang Prabang.
To view or participate in the morning ceremony, you’ll need to be up before the crack of dawn. As our innkeeper told us, “if you’re still in bed at 5:30, then don’t bother.” To avoid the tourist circus that this beautiful ritual has become, consider viewing from one of the side streets. Be warned: there is no shortage of tourists acting like jerks at the morning tak bat ceremony. Be sure to learn the proper Buddhist alms giving etiquette and don’t be one of them.
8. Release a bird (or not)
Lining the entrances to Mount Phousi, Pak Ou caves, and many other popular tourist sites, you will find women with tiny birds caged in tiny baskets. Buddhists believe that releasing birds or other captive animals will bring good luck. So in exchange for a buck or two, you can buy yourself some good luck.
But should you?
If you have even an ounce of compassion in your heart, you will want to free every last bird from its basket prison. We bought and freed two such captives. And as much as it delighted us to set these two birds free, we had unwittingly participated in a terrible animal cruelty practice. Because, of course, for these birds to be held captive, they have to be captured first. And they wouldn’t be captured, if there weren’t demand to set them free. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
9. Visit Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple)
With 34 UNESCO protected wats (temples) in Luang Prabang, you’ll have to pick and choose wisely. No normal teenager is going to agree to all 34! Arguably the best of the bunch, Wat Xieng Thong is one of the few wats that charges admission. I think you’ll agree that the 20,000 LAK (~USD$2.50) was worth it.
10. Cross the bamboo bridge
The bamboo bridge that straddles the Nam Khan river for 6 months every year is well worth the 5000 LAK (~USD.60) charged to cross it. Why is it there just 6 months out of the year? The bridge must be dismantled during the monsoon season or it would wash away.
11. Shop at the night market
The words “Southeast Asian city” and “night market” are typically synonymous, and Luang Prabang is no exception. Each night the old quarter comes alive with vendors selling their goods. Teenagers, especially girls, can’t ever seem to get enough shopping.
12. Catch up on school or work at Dexter Cafe and Bar
Dexter Cafe and Bar is a wonderful restaurant right in the heart of the old quarter. Its beautiful exterior drew us in, but its upstairs area is what kept us there for hours. Between lunch and dinner, you will probably have the place to yourself which makes it the perfect place to catch up on school or work.
In addition to a fabulous menu, Dexter also provides a great view of the main street and free WIFI. As a bonus, an outlet is located behind the 2-top table which comes in handy for marathon online sessions. Be sure to enjoy the spaghetti carbonara and a beverage or two so you’re not a freeloader.
13. Get a Lao massage
Like every other city in Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang has no shortage of massage options. From uber fancy to downright cheap, you’ll find a spa that suits your budget. Consider rewarding yourself with a massage after climbing Mount Phousi.
14. Watch Chang (optional, according to my husband and daughter)
This silent film with captions in English was shot in the Southeast Asian jungles in 1925 and premiered in 1927. It documents the struggle of a Lao family living in the jungle at that time. If you can go into the film remembering that this was filmed almost 100 years ago, you will be amazed by the footage captured. The movie shows each night for free at the following hotels. Please purchase a courtesy drink. All are welcome.
- Sanctuary Hotel Luang Prabang at 6:30 p.m.
- Victoria Xiengthong Palace at 7:00 p.m.
Teen’s Favorite Southeast Asian Cities
Our teen has visited nearly two dozen cities and towns in Southeast Asia, including traveler favorites: Hoi An (Vietnam), Siem Reap (Cambodia), and Chiang Mai (Thailand). But with its chilled out vibe, beautiful architecture, and plenty of things to do in Luang Prabang, our teen has crowned it as the fairest of them all.