Feeling Disappointed in Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao airlines in luang Prabang
Luang Prabang became the capital of the first Lao empire in the 14th Century. Its 33 Buddhist temples, many built in the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as colonial architecture (the French built villas in the late 1800′s/early 1900′s) contributed to the city being declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lonely Planet: “This glittering Shangri La of affordable top-class cuisine and colonial buildings is so achingly pretty it has you reaching for your camera at every turn“. It’s been described by others as “the most charming city in all of Southeast Asia”. Wow.

photos of luang prabang, laos

So I’m almost hesitant to say that we were a bit disappointed with Luang Prabang. The main problem were the sheer number of tourists. We saw more tourists than locals walking down the street. The local ATM was 10 deep of tourists, most of them backpackers. I had somehow thought that we were leaving the tourists behind in Thailand. I was wrong.

Temples were beautiful, but not grandiose. But then of course we had just come from Chiang Mai which blows the mind away when it comes to fantastic temples. It’s an unfair comparison. But when you hear a place referred to as ‘Shangri La’  your mind starts envisioning temples and monuments grander than anything, anywhere else. Somebody told us that Luang Prabang is ‘an oasis’ compared to places like Phnom Pehn, Kampot, and Vientiane. Again, it’s all about comparisons and where you just came from.

Below: The main street in Luang Prabang

main street in luang prabang, laos


What to do in Luang Prabang:

1) Wake up early to give alms to the monks
2) Walk around town and see the various temples (Including Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Xieng Mouane, and Wat Suwannapumaram)
3) Visit the Royal Palace Museum for Buddhist art.
4) See the incredible Kuang Si waterfalls (about 45 minutes away).
5) Climb up to Phousi temple for great sunset views over the Mekong.
6) Check out the town’s night markets.
7) If you’re adventurous, you can hike in the countryside or even ride an elephant (see here for both).
8) Best of all, relax and enjoy the many bars and restaurants.

Below: Views from Phousi temple, the best place for sunset views of the Mekong river.

Views from Phousi temple, Luang Prabang, Laos
Below: Monks and temples in Luang Prabang

monks and temples in Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is a very pretty town. But ‘Shangri La’? Hearing these kinds of words getting thrown around makes for high expectations. My big problem however, above everything else, were the number of tourists. I didn’t expect a tourist guetto. It made me wonder – are we ruining the places we visit by our sheer numbers? Because that’s what it felt like to me.

Our Detailed Guide on Laos

 

Have you been here? I’d be interested in hearing what other travelers have to say about Luang Prabang.
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Comments

  1. I totally agree with you on places that have become infested/over-run with tourists. When I go somewhere I want to see that place, the people, and maybe learn a bit of their culture. Not to be in some kind of tourist zone.

    While tourism can definitely help the economy of the place you’re visiting it can wreck everything else that may have helped you fall in love with the place. If you see an AppleBee’s/Outback pop-up …. RUN LIKE THE WIND!
    Devlin recently posted…Comment on Five Reasons to Live Abroad by FrankMy Profile

  2. I generally don’t enjoy the places overrun with tourists either. Shame that it is happening, though surely boosts the economy in places like this.
    Jennifer recently posted…We Want to Go With Oh to Dublin! #GwOGuestTesterMy Profile

    • It does…but how viable is that in the long term? Look at Phi Phi (actually maybe a horrible example – they’ve ruined that place beyond belief and people still go…)

  3. Wow, my experience/memory couldn’t have been more different. My wife and I visited there in September 2012 and ended up staying for 10 or so days. While it certainly is “touristy” we did not feel like it was overrun with tourists. (Maybe we were just lucky with the time of year? )The benefit of a town that is a bit touristy is that it had great restaurants, bars and accommodations. (after traveling for 6 weeks in Cambodia and Laos we were especially in the market for some good food, comfortable beds and great massages) We found the people to be very charming and enjoyed playing with the kids. The day trips out of town to the waterfalls and villages were a pleasure. eating meals on the river were delightful. We got a message almost every day for $10 or so. We took a trip up the Nam Khan river to Nong Khiaw that we enjoyed thoroughly. While the alms ceremony has been ruined somewhat by tourist gawkers with cameras it is still a very unique experience. All in all we loved Luang Prabang and while nothing you say is “wrong” our experience of the place was very different. We spent 3 months traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and consider Luang Prabang a highlight. Finally, you couldn’t be more right when you speak about expectations and that is why i work on always tempering mine, high expectations are a set up for disappointment. Cheers!
    PS- I really enjoyed reading about S Africa, our next journey

    • Thank you for your comments Mark. You know, you (and a few others who proclaim their love for Luang Prabang) have convinced me to give the place another chance. We’ll be back in SE Asia in late 2014 and will make it a point to check it out again and to spend more time. Maybe comparing it to Thailand isn’t fair? I’ll get back to you with 2nd impressions :)

  4. Sam Kurikawa says:

    Well, you come in the peak tourist season, as a tourist yourself, and then complain about all the tourists? That’s a bit stupid! Come in May, June, September or October and there’s no-one around except people going about their lives. Your list of things to do in Luang Prabang exudes ’100% tourist’. Alms giving anywhere outside the main street and the peninsular is not remotely touristy, leave the main centre of town and foreigners are few and far between (even in high season). As for the temples not being grand enough for you…well, Laos’ economy is significantly worse than Thailand and they simply don’t have the money to restore them and many of the skills needed are a dying art form. By juxtaposing Thailand/Chiang Mai and Laos/LPB, you’re comparing a population of 66 million against 6 million, and a GDP per capita of $5500 in Thailand and $1300 in Laos! So the fact it has much to offer tourists at all is a pleasant surprise!

    Perhaps it’s the fault of website and travel book claims using superlative adjectives that misrepresent what’s on offer. But if you do come back this year, again in high season, you’re going to have a similar experience. Maybe if you wish to avoid tourists, don’t go to the jewel in the tourist crown of Laos?

    • Thanks for the comment Sam. A place being ‘touristy’ is always relative and sometimes you don’t know the extent before going there. Florence is touristy when you go in the summer, yet you never feel like you’re in a tourist guetto. Versus Luang Prabang where I could count 5 tourists for every local in February. So I’d be ok 4 out of 12 months of the year? Basically you’re proving my point. List of things to do; so you’re saying not to do those things? Are you the type who walks up and down main street eating a baguette and judging other travelers?

      Your point on websites/travel books well taken and I agree. Which is why bloggers give their own opinions on a place. Other travelers might appreciate hanging out with travelers from back home or going to wine bars in the middle of Asia. Good for them, if that’s what they like they picked the right spot. But others, like me, may find it too touristy. People are entitled to other opinions. I’m always open to constructive criticism and differing viewpoints – but I think you would have been better served pointing out why LP is ‘the tourist crown’ rather than snarky comments calling people stupid and what they saw ’100% tourist’. Nothing you’ve written above will convince anyone that they should go to Luang Prabang. If you like it so much how about a constructive comment on the reasons why?

  5. It’s funny reading about a tourist complaining of too many tourists.

    • Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

      I think if Lonely Planet can call a place ‘touristy’ then I can to.

  6. Being a tourist yourself makes you different from the locals. I think more than feeling disappointed you should have looked at the differences. I respect and expect everything, everyone and any places upon my travel be it local or out of the country. I was soaked in different cultures which I learned to appreciate cause above all these differences, we all share the universal language!

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      What universal language are you talking about Ian? I’m not quite sure what to make from your comment and I’m not even sure you read the post…

      We’ve been many places, some where many wouldn’t go. What makes travel interesting are the differences between different places and peoples. But anyone who says they love or appreciate everything everywhere they go isn’t being honest. You may enjoy this post.

  7. Nice to read your comments about Luang Prabang and the photos are excellent. I was there once in August 1998 for about five days. It sounds like it has changed a lot. Also August is not the prime tourist season to go as it is in the middle of the rainy season.

  8. Chiang Mai is also very touristy. The centre seems totally fake and not real Thailand. Pai is even worse. You have to visit places like Phayao, Lampang or Nan for the real local culture. LP is just a Laos version of Chiang Mai.

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks Tom. Yes, Chiang Mai has changed a lot in recent years. My mom was there for 10 years and it got too much. She changed Thailand for Mexico.

  9. Why can’t a tourist complain about too many tourists? Hikers dont want to share a path with a 1000 others and beach lovers dont want to share the sand and water with too many people.

    Some of the responses above are foolish. The whole point of travelling is too experience a different local culture and you cannot experience that surrounded by thousands of tourists.

  10. I think had I gone in peak season I, like you, would’ve come away really disappointed and probably hating the place as there really is nothing worse than somewhere being ruined by hordes of tourists. And yes, I’m a tourist too, but I travel to experience new places and cultures, not other tourists. We went in June and I have to say totally fell in love with the place. There were few other foreigners, the waterfalls were perfect, and the city was so laid back and charming that we wished we’d stayed longer than 5 days. Totally agree though if it had been busy we would’ve legged it after about 1! You should go back in low season and give it another go…I hated Venice on our first trip but we’ve just revisited and actually I’ve totally changed my mind :-) Love your smiling monk pics by the way, they all looked very serious when we were there!
    Heather Cole recently posted…Champing – would you sleep in a church?My Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks for the comment Heather!
      I guess we’ll have to give it another chance sometime in the future. But yes, would have to be in low season.

  11. Well of course LP is overrun with tourists. The city is very small. It has only one-sixth the population of Chiang Mai. The old sector of the city is just a few blocks. A few thousand tourists are going to be very visible. And when you have thousands and thousands and now busloads of Chinese tourists, you will be lucky to notice any local people at all. LP has been ruined. It’s not even worth going anymore. Go somewhere else people.

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks for the feedback, I went back in 2008 (before the Chinese started inundating Laos and Thailand).

Thanks for reading! Feedback is always appreciated!

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