“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”
– Samuel Johnson, Letters Vol. I, p. 137
I was excited to arrive in Luang Prabang — I opted to fly on the smallest plane I’ve been on yet because I read some horror stories about the overnight buses between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I had read the hype of the Laos’ major tourist town and I put too much trust in the hype.
Don’t get me wrong; Luang Prabang is a beautiful town. It lacks a certain feeling, however, likely because few locals actually live there. The town now exists for the tourist industry and it shows. There are tour agencies everywhere, street vendors demanding highly-inflated prices that too many tourists are willing to pay without bargaining, and an entrance fee to almost every temple. The hotels even charge for cheap maps — thankfully I had Maps.me for offline maps with GPS.
Luang Prabang is not the same town as it was when Anthony Bourdain visited while filming No Reservations — he was there years before I arrived. Even then he noted the appearance of tourists who had just begun to arrive to the quiet former capital of Laos. He contemplated the effects the growing tourism industry would have on the town, wondering if traditions would remain.
That doesn’t mean Luang Prabang isn’t worth visiting. I felt that it was over-hyped, which set my expectations too high upon arrival. I still found it to be a relaxing town with beautiful landscape; I just had to find my way into that wonderful part of it.
It was the high tourist season and the hotel was fully booked for the rest of the week. I wasn’t all that impressed by it, especially the following morning when the gate was locked when I tried to go out for sunrise and the daily alms giving. That meant I had to spend time wandering around to find another decent hotel that wasn’t overpriced (and I hoped would take credit cards (please, don’t laugh too hard)).
I ended up paying a bit more for a nicer, bigger room at Sayo Naga Guesthouse — the bathroom was also much better. If I could’ve made friends with a fellow traveler, I could’ve split the room and saved a bit more money that I would’ve just spent on more food. Oh well, I ruined my budget in more ways than just the hotel room.
Tours and Touts
The first thing that struck me as I arrived in Luang Prabang was the prevalence of tour companies. It seemed like every other store front was a tourism office. I went through a few to find a tour to Pak Ou Cave and Kuang Si Waterfall, as well as anything else that piqued my interest.
Almost every tour included elephant rides, which is something I will not do. After learning that about the abuse of elephants as well as the harm riding can do, I opted to never partake in this activity. It was difficult flipping through the books of tour options to find full-day tours that went where I wanted with a guide and didn’t include elephant rides. Prices also varied depending on the office, and apparently prices are still negotiable.
On top of all the tourism offices on the streets of Luang Prabang, there are the tour touts, or rather the tuk-tuk drivers offering rides in town and to the waterfalls. Not sure why anyone would need a tuk-tuk through town as it’s not that big and it’s pleasant to walk around. Of course, there are outer areas where some tourists stay that would require a ride, but I certainly didn’t need one.
However, I learned that to go to the waterfalls — Kuang Si and others — I should’ve skipped the tour and just paid for a group tuk-tuk ride. Of course, I would’ve missed out on the Mekong River cruise, but I’m sure I could’ve booked that separately on another day.
If you visit Luang Prabang, I suggest skipping the tours and hopping on the group tuk-tuks to see the sights.
Eating in Luang Prabang was a different experience from Vientiane. There was something special about dining outdoors, overlooking the Mekong River with the aroma of grilled delicacies in Vientiane. Or even the little open-air restaurants that certainly weren’t all that clean but served up delicious local cuisine. These were the dining experiences missing from the center of Luang Prabang.
There was much less that felt like a local experience in Luang Prabang — the restaurants along the main street catered to tourists with higher-end dining and non-local cuisine. Even the most popular nearby spot for breakfast, Joma Bakery Cafe, served nothing local (and I admit to eating there because my hotel breakfast was lacking). I was tempted by the decor of many restaurants that served local food, but I was turned away after checking prices on the menus.
Sure, there was the night market off Sisavangvong Rd. just past Kisalat Rd., but that narrow alley lacked the quality and variety that I found at the street vendors in Vientiane. Also, it was much more crowded because it was the cheapest option for dinner in town.
The best option I found for dinner was an open-air shack at the end of Khem Khong Rd. overhanging a cliff above the Mekong River. It was quiet and out of the way. And I was the only foreigner there.
Atmosphere of Luang Prabang
Life in this tourist center of Laos has definitely changed over the years. The friends who have been there visited years before me — they had different experiences; they saw the town as more rustic. I witnessed the era of tourist growth; development in the name of attracting more than just backpackers.
There were a lot of renovations at houses in the alleys. And all those houses were being converted into guesthouses or businesses to serve the foreign visitors. At least they kept the architectural style.
Going out for drinks in the evening was certainly different as well. The actual bars were run by foreigners and overpriced compared everything else in Laos, and the convenience stores sold beer for a few more Kip than in Vientiane. There was also no interaction with locals like I had before.
In all, I could’ve seen everything within the town in a day — the tourist center is compact and easy to navigate. But I took my time and spent a day at Kuang Si and another with the elephants. I spent more time wandering the same streets of Luang Prabang — it was a more relaxing pace than I had in Vientiane. If I had to do it again, I would add a couple more total days to the trip, take one away from Luang Prabang, and head to the Plain of Jars and Vang Vieng.
I don’t want to take anything away from a journey to the tourist center of Laos as there is still plenty to enjoy, but I would tell travelers to not set their sights too high based on all the hype written on travel blogs and shown on travel shows. I got caught up in the hype and my expectations were not met — I spent additional time trying to find a new perspective on the town and understand the attraction.