What to See & Do
Wats, wats, and more wats. More than 30 of them, to be precise. That’s what Luang Prabang is all about. Some, like Wat Phousi, are better known for the spectacular views, while others are quite historically significant, in addition to being beautiful. Since there are so many wats, it is worth choosing the ones to inspect closely with some care – otherwise you will quickly overdose and all the wats will start to look very much alike.
The “Must See” Wats
Wat May. Next to the National Museum, parts of this structure date from the late 1700s, making it one of the oldest buildings in the area. The building is heavily gilded, and the gilt is embellished with red inside. Make sure to take note of the heavily carved central beam inside – the figures are all from Hindu mythology, not Buddhism.
Mount Phousi (Wat Pa Huak and Wat Chom Si). This is one of the best known landmarks in all of Laos. The “Mount” itself is not all that high – a bit over 300 steps brings you to the top –but it has a commanding position in LP. Its location, almost directly across the street from the former Royal Palace, and the views at sunrise and sunset, make it easy to find and a must-see site. The hill is right in the middle of LP, and many visitors never make it to the top, let alone around to the other side. You can go up one side and down the other, and walk back around the “Mount.” Wat Pa Huak is in poor repair. There is a fee (about $1) to go up from the Royal Palace (western) side, but not from the eastern side. Unfortunately, the eastern side is not well marked, so it is better to pay on the west side and either return the same way, or wend your way down on the eastern side. At the top,Wat Chom Si is worth a quick peek. Note – there is a Red Cross-run Internet center and massage/sauna facility very close to the exit point on the eastern side – you can kill two birds with one stone, if you’re so inclined.
Wats Along Phothisarath
Some of these wats charge admission and some don’t.
Wat Sene lies upriver along the main road. It is built in the highly ornate Thai style, and dates from 1718. The outside borders on gaudy, and the interior is only slightly more understated – lots of red and gold here, too.
Wat Xieng Thong is a bit farther upriver, and you have to climb a flight of steps to get there. This wat is actually a compound with a number of buildings, mostly in the usual red and gilt. This wat is known for its tiled roofs, painted scenes, carvings, and mosaics, and is probably the single most essential wat to visit during your stay in LP. It is also quite historic, having been built in 1559, and having survived both Chinese raids and the communist takeover. Unlike Wat Sene, Wat Xieng Thong is built in the less ostentatious Luang Prabang style. Admission charged.
There are other, less impressive and less important wats lining Phothisarath, and they all make for a pleasant day’s meandering. Some of these include Wat Phra Maha That (near Hotel Phousi), Wat Phra Bath (behind the market), Wat That Luang (behind the stadium), and others farther out of town. If you want to visit all the wats, allow at least two days, and hire a bicycle or scooter.
Other wats close to town that are worth a visit include Wat Vixoun at the south end of Mount Phousi. Although the original building dated from the early 1500s, it was destroyed by the Chinese and rebuilt in the late 1800s. It is noteworthy for the large collection of religious art, ancient steles, even older stupas, and Buddha statues.
Wat Aham is right next to Wat Vixoun, and its interior is worth a look.
Suggested Walking Tour
Luang Prabang is meant to be seen on foot. The best way to orient yourself is to bring a map of the town and climb to the top of Mount Phousi. Then head back down the west (river) side, and visit the Royal Palace. Take a break for a leisurely lunch along Phothisarath. Then choose a selection of the wats described above and explore them during the afternoon. You can duck in and out of the many shops along your route.
The next day, head to the south end of Phothisarath (near the Post Office), then down to the Mekong. You can walk along the river, looking down at the dhows and other boats that are so important to community life, and eventually you’ll end up at the far northern reaches of Phothisarath again – the river curves around so subtly you may not even notice. Spend the afternoon enjoying a massage with herbs and hot stones.
This will get you ready to rent a bicycle the next day and ride east of LP to explore some of the outlying wats.
Getting to Luang Prabang
History of Luang Prabang, Getting around Luang Prabang
Day trips from Luang Prabang
Adventures in Northern Laos
Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2)
Laos travel guide homepage
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