From the luxurious curves of the alphabet to the intricate designs of the textiles, Lao culture is one of the most diverse and enchanting in Southeast Asia.

When I lived in Laos, I learned that the phrase Baw Pen Nyang (‘no problem’) is a good way to summarise the friendly, laid-back culture of modern Laos. But there’s another, more earnest side to the country: this is also a land steeped in ritual and tradition.

Laos, especially its cultural capital, Luang Prabang, has changed a lot since I visited. For an expert insight, I invited guest author Marie to share her top tips for experiencing the beauty of Lao culture when you travel to the UNESCO-Listed city in the north.

About the author: Marie Moncrieff is an Australian expat who calls Vientiane home. She explores the lesser-known towns and villages of Laos and Southeast Asia on A Life Without Borders, a Laos travel blog.

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Landlocked, and geographically bounded by Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east, China and Myanmar to the north and Cambodia to the south, Laos offers a unique cultural perspective for even the most seasoned of travellers.

One of the least populated countries in Southeast Asia, but one of the most ethnically diverse, Laos has a lot to offer. With an official 50 ethnicities divided into 200 subgroups and more than 80 different languages, you’ll undoubtedly discover some fascinating cultural experiences no matter which part of the country you visit.

A set of brightly coloured temple offerings.

Laos as a country dates back to the 13th century when it existed as the Kingdom of Lan Xang (‘Kingdom of One Million Elephants’). With frequent conquests by both European and regional rivals, the Laos of today still retains cultural influences from France, Thailand, China and several other of its neighbours.

The majority of Lao people identify as Theravada Buddhist, and the remainder as animist. However, Lao uniquely combines the two practices in daily life and in their many colourful Lao festivals.

Of all the cities and towns in Laos, most travellers are drawn to the former royal capital city and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. Located in Northern Laos and considered the cultural heart of the country, Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Surrounded by mountains, stunning turquoise waterfalls and colourful French colonial architecture, it is most renowned for its Buddhist temples – there’s 34 of them!

7 things to do in Luang Prabang for local Lao culture

Gilded temples, monks on their daily almsgiving rounds, Lao textiles and handicrafts galore – plus traditional Lao food. Here are 7 unique ways to experience Lao culture in Luang Prabang.

1. Explore the temples of Luang Prabang

A richly decorated pagoda in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Wat Xieng Thong.

With an astonishing 34 UNESCO Heritage Listed temples to explore, you must go temple-hopping in the Old Town of Luang Prabang. It’s exceptional, not only for the sheer number of wats (temples) in such a small area, but because they are living, working institutions.

With a tangible spiritual aura, the temples of Luang Prabang are home to hundreds of monks and novices, as well as places of study and worship. Enjoy witnessing the saffron-robed monks as they go about their daily routine within the temple compounds.

The temples, and the communities within, all welcome visitors, although you should be aware of temple etiquette which includes removing shoes before entering any wat or shrine. Both males and females should have their shoulders covered and women should ideally be wearing a sinh (Lao skirt), or at least have their knees covered.

Additionally, when sitting or kneeling before a Buddha image, always keep the soles of your feet pointed away from it.

Culture-lovers should aim to visit the temple at around 6pm to hear the haunting sound of monks chanting their evening mantra. Feel free to sit quietly at the back of the temple and be transformed by their mesmerising voices.

2. Witness the ancient almsgiving ceremony

A line of monks in brightly coloured orange robes walking down the street in Luang Prabang, Laos.
The daily almsgiving ceremony in Luang Prabang. Photo credit: Jeff Cagle/

Witness living history as hundreds of monks join together in the daily almsgiving ceremony in Luang Prabang. Similar to other neighbouring Buddhist countries, lay persons give alms (food) to the monks in their local wat in order to gain merit in the next life.

Every morning at dawn, monks and novices join together to walk silently through the streets of the Old Town, collecting offerings from the faithful who kneel on mats on the side of the road. The almsgiving practice is pivotal to the cultural identity of Lao people and the ritual has been carried out for over 600 years.

The iconic sight of hundreds of orange-clad monks walking barefoot in procession, demurely receiving their gifts of sustenance, is truly humbling to watch.

Visitors may actually participate in the alms giving ceremony, but as a responsible traveller, this is best undertaken with the help of a local who will guide you in the correct behaviour and etiquette.

In general, being a respectful participant or observer means arriving early so as not to disrupt the ceremony, dressing in modest clothing with shoulders and legs covered, and remaining silent in order to not disturb the monks’ meditation.

For those participating, remove your shoes and socks, and kneel with your feet tucked in behind you. Females should avoid any physical contact with a monk, his robes or bowl – so be particularly careful when placing offerings in an alms-bowl.

3. Learn to weave at Ock Pop Tok

A woman weaves with a shuttle on an upright loom.
Weaving on a traditional upright loom.

Whilst in Laos, you can’t help but notice the gorgeous textiles all around – including the traditional Lao skirt (sinh) worn by many Lao women. What better way to learn about Lao textiles than participating in a weaving workshop at the fabulous Ock Pop Tok. 

Meaning ‘East Meets West’, Ock Pop Tok is a fair trade social enterprise that assists Lao women to earn an income by practicing traditional handicraft techniques.

The tradition of weaving in Laos goes back thousands of years, with mothers passing down knowledge and skills to their daughters. An important part of a woman’s life in Laos, young girls from the age of 10 are taught how to spin cotton, weave and produce natural dyes from flowers, plants and trees.

Located just 15 minutes from Luang Prabang, the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre offers classes in natural dyeing, weaving, basketry and ikat. Ranging from half-day to full day and multi-day experiences, you’ll be guided by expert weavers and artisans as they pass on their skills in creating incredibly intricate designs.

Take part in each step from winding silk on a bobbin, to operating the spool and foot pedals of the weaving loom. Once you get your coordination happening, the process is strangely cathartic and meditative. At the end you’ll have created your very own silk scarf to take home as a memento of your time in Laos.

4. Visit Ban Chan pottery village

Experience an authentic Lao pottery village just a short boat ride across the Mekong river at the little-known Ban Chan Pottery Village. Although the village has been producing pottery for hundreds of years, only a few families still continue to make it by hand, the traditional way.

The sleepy riverside village consists of a handful of wooden stilted homes with shaded potters’ workshops underneath. Sourcing red clay from around the river, artisans produce all sorts of rustic pots, bricks and vessels, including the large jars meant for storing the potent Lao-Lao rice whiskey.

Join one of the family-run workshops where you’ll tour the village, see traditional artisans at work, and, if it’s a firing day, witness the wood-fueled, underground kiln in action.

Visitors can also create their very own piece of Lao pottery using a hand-powered potter’s wheel. The half-day or full-day classes are intimate with up to six participants and an experienced potter to guide you every step of the way. 

5. Wear sinh, the Lao skirt, for a day

Three Lao textiles with intricate designs.
Lao sinh.

One of the best ways to experience Lao culture is by wearing traditional clothing, especially when temple-hopping. A lovely experience, it won’t cause offense as Lao will enjoy the fact that you are interested in their traditions and history – and it’s actually the most appropriate attire for a temple visit.

A sinh is a traditional Lao skirt. Worn on a daily basis, Lao women don sinh for school, work and play; however the most elaborate and expensive sinh are reserved for weddings and formal occasions.

The tubular skirt wraps around the body and is pinned at the waist, often being held in place with a silver belt. Consisting of three parts – the head, body and feet – a Lao skirt must be stepped into, in keeping with Buddhist culture where the feet are considered unclean.

Therefore, a Lao skirt must never be pulled down over the head. In fact, sinh are so revered in Laos, they are said to carry powers, and men will not touch them.

Usually worn with a matching short jacket or silk blouse, women will traditionally put their hair in a bun whilst wearing Lao sinh. For men, the large, baggy salong pants are usually worn.

It’s worth seeking out Sao Sinh in Luang Prabang’s main street, an innovative ‘rent and roam’ service that allows visitors to experience wearing Lao traditional clothing for a full or half day. Choose from a variety of sinh, blouses, and men’s trousers and sashes, as well as gorgeous add-ons such as jewellery, hair accessories and parasols.

Staff will be on hand to assist you in wearing the clothing correctly and have lockers on site for storing your original clothes and belongings. Experience the historical city of Luang Prabang wearing heritage clothing – Lao style!

6. Make paper from mulberries at the paper village

Freshly made mulberry paper dries in wooden frames outside a house in Luang Prabang.
Mulberry paper.

Luang Prabang’s artisan villages of Ban Xang Khong and Ban Xieng Lek make an ideal outing for those interested in Lao traditional handicrafts. Specialising in saa paper, artisans create beautiful products from the bark of the mulberry tree.

Visitors can see the entire paper-making process as well as participate in their own paper-making workshop.

Get hands-on by boiling mulberry bark into a thick pulp and then spreading it out over a large mesh tray. Once the correct thickness is achieved (it’s harder than it looks!), the tray is drained and you will have the chance to decorate it with pressed flowers and leaves. The sheets of paper are then left to dry naturally in the sun.

Once finished, the beautifully textured paper is made into cards, bags, notebooks, and used for the famous Luang Prabang star lanterns.

7. Sample traditional Lao food

A colourful spread of traditional Lao food at a restaurant in Luang Prabang.
A spread of Lao cuisine.

There’s no better way to get to know a culture than through its food – and Laos certainly has its own unique culinary identity. Although influenced by its neighbours, especially Thailand, Vietnam and China, you’ll find the food of Laos fresh and simple, its flavour hit coming from the plentiful use of chillies, herbs, and the distinctive fermented padaek (fish sauce).

Lao food tends to be quite bitter and often contains ingredients that can be quite unusual to say the least. However, there are several Lao dishes you should definitely seek out whilst in Luang Prabang.

One meal that should not be missed is laap. Considered the national dish, finely minced meat is mixed with garlic, fresh herbs and lime juice and eaten alongside the ubiquitous khao niaw, or sticky rice.

There’s barely a meal in Laos when tam mak hoong, or papaya salad, is not eaten. This refreshing, crunchy salad is made from finely shredded green papaya mixed with tomato and green beans, with the addition of sugar, chilli, and fish sauce.

A word to the wise: Specify upfront how many chillies you would like, as the chilli level in Lao papaya salad is off-the-scale.

Other Luang Prabang specialties to try are khao soi and or lam. Khao soi is a clear pork broth containing thick rice noodles and a large dollop of tomato Bolognese-type sauce on top. A Northern Lao specialty, the khao soi of Laos is totally different to that of its Thai neighbour, and is usually eaten for breakfast or lunch.

Or Lam, on the other hand, is a thick stew made with buffalo meat and peppery, spicy chilli wood.

Experience the beauty of Lao culture with these 7 unique and special things to do in Luang Prabang.

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