On a previous trip years ago, Luang Prabang in Laos had left one of the deepest impression of all the places I visited. It seemed to exist in a peaceful bubble in a crazy world, bringing calm and relaxation to anybody escaping the frenzied pace of modern life. While I was excited to go back, I was also a little anxious how development might have changed this beautiful little town. And while there certainly has been a lot of change, most of it is for the better, leaving Luang Prabang one of the best small towns worth visiting!
When I first visited Luang Prabang, it was still off the beaten path and few people ventured there. A handful of simple guesthouses and restaurants served the travelers, mostly backpackers. Strolling along the sandy alleys and visiting the old temples was a delight and meeting the genuinely friendly locals made the trip special. It was easy to relax and adjust to the slow local pace, drawing many people in to stay longer than planned or return.
Since then, many more people have discovered Luang Prabang and the town has changed with it. Dusty alleys and backstreets have been paved and sidewalks have been built along the Mekong and Nam Khan river. The many temples have been renovated, repainted and decorated in gold and bright colors. Where people enjoyed the scenery or sunset over the Mekong from rocks on the cliffs, little cafes and restaurants have been built, serving food and drink to go with enjoying the environment. And all over town, the old Lao and French colonial homes, now protected as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, have been restored to their old splendor and opened as guesthouses or restaurants.
And with all those renovations, Luang Prabang has moved upscale. On our first visit, we moved from the outrageously expensive guest house in the old town (it was $20/night) to a more reasonable 3-star hotel for $10/night! Now, you can stay at luxurious boutique hotels with prices up to $400/night. And eateries serving fried rice, sitting on plastic stools, have been replaced by upscale Lao, French and fusion restaurants serving excellent meals. But with the prices, the quality has gone up as well – the food is excellent and the accommodations more stylish than ever. And if you do want the backpacker experience, there are still plenty of cheap guest houses and eateries around town, so do not fret!
If you are tired from walking the small town, getting around has gotten much easier in the process: In addition to tuktuks and taxis, you now have ebuses (ok, really golf carts of different sizes) circling the town. Your visit is made much easier by stores that sell local wares and all the modern conveniences; tours to the sights in the region around Luang Prabang, like the Pac Ou Caves or Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, sunset cruises on the Mekong or visits to elephant camps can be purchased along the main street.
Yet with all the improvements and conveniences, some of the experiences that made Luang Prabang so special, have vanished. On our first visit, young novices at the temples would walk up to the few visitors and practice their English and offer to show the wat. Today, the constant stream of visitors is turning from an opportunity for both to engage into a hassle for the monks going about their business in peace.
Every morning, the monks from all the temples would walk down the main street at sunrise to collect alms from the local residents, receiving all the food they would need for the day. Visitors would respectfully observe the solemn ceremony from the distance. It was one of the most humbling experiences on my travels to see one of the monks share what he had received with a little street kid who had even less – while I was taking photos with my digital camera, probably worth more than all the alms given on the day. Today, this same ceremony is at risk of being turned into a tourist circus, with tourists participating in the ritual, more for the photo opportunity than the spiritual experience, others sticking their tele lenses and selfie sticks into the monks faces – far from showing the respect the monks deserve. Fortunately, the locals are recognizing the issue and started to call for a more respectful participation by visitors. Let’s hope that the tour group leaders take some responsibility and reign in their unruly groups!
And some previously peaceful sights, like sunset views from Mount Phousi, have become a crowded tourist spectacle best avoided!
But overall, you can still experience what I and so many other visitors to Luang Prabang fell in love with: the peaceful atmosphere, genuinely friendly locals and an un-rushed way of life that has long disappeared in much of the developed world! So, when People translate Lao PDR not with “People’s Democratic Republic”, but with “Please Don’t Rush” it is not a joke, it’s an apt description of what you can expect when you visit Luang Prabang!