Feeling Disappointed in Luang Prabang, Laos

Feeling Disappointed in Luang PrabangFeeling Disappointed 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.

Luang Prabang temples


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

streets of Luang Prabang

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 in Luang Prabang
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.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Villay Vanh Place House. Great spot, recommended.


Related: Where to Go and What to Do in Laos


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


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Feeling Disappointed in Luang Prabang
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  1. I thank all of you for your valuable input. I couldn’t agree more with those of you feel a bit strange in places overrun by tourists.
    Reading this I’m wondering where I should go instead of Luang Prabang. I have only two weeks. I was hoping to travel into Laos on ground transportation, but can try to find a cheap flight (if that makes a more distant place in Laos more viable) instead.

    Any thoughts/advice on charming places in Laos (preferably northern, but would consider central if I can fly to Hue or to the Laotian city itself) that aren’t as touristy?

    I’m a photojournalist and love simply interacting with the locals, eating their food, learning their culture and making some photographs of people/daily life (not as interested in landscape/nature photography).

    Any help is appreciated.

    Thanks so much.


    1. Hi Brad,
      The place I hear people say good things about is Savannakhet – and you can fly there from Bangkok (as well as Pakse and a place called Wattay).

      You can still see LP and then go a bit further north to Nong Khiaw. Keep it flexible, move on if you don’t like a place. We did a hike a bit out of LP (wrote about that here) and saw some great scenery as well as villages that don’t see many tourists. Sounds like a great combination for you. Lp is small, so if you don’t like it you can find places nearby. And who knows, you may find LP to your liking. Our trip there was almost 10 years ago and I really don’t know what it’s like there these days.

      Hope that helps a bit 🙂

      1. I visited Savannakhet a few months ago to see a friend who lives there and while there is nowhere as many tourists compared to Vientiane or LP, I was not impressed. Most go there to do a visa run back to Thailand and leave. There isn’t much to do or see except bike around the place, see Wat Inghang, or take the bus to Hue or Thakhek. I don’t recall ever seeing a taxi and the tuktuks (which weren’t abundant when I was there) were really overpriced compared to Vientiane if I remember correctly. If you do decide to visit Savannakhet, beware of some of the local dogs that wander the streets. They are quite territorial and can be vicious.

        1. Thanks for the feedback Prod, haven’t been to Savannakhet but have heard good things. This doesn’t sound so good 🙂

        2. I have to many places to visit in Thailand that they are much more beautifull than Laos .Ayuthaya , Loei , Nan , Phayao , Sukhothai , etc .Visit Thailand first .Thailand mass tourism ? Because Laos not ? We want to compare the Wat Phu in Laos two bricks with the majestic temples of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya , Pimai , Panom Rung , etc .No competition at all with Luang Prang and the other little things Laos has to offer and Laos is very touristy too .

  2. Hey Frank, I know this is an old post but since I’m back in Luang Prabang (after 8 years), I thought I’d give a bit of an update following on the same theme….. Well…..LP is still a lovely, atmospheric town squeezed between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers…….if you can “see it”.

    The first few days I thought this town was just heaving with tourists. And it’s funny, as you noted – there often seems to be way more foreigners in the field of view than Lao folk. I guess it’s a fact of traveling almost anywhere popular these days. Actually, after awhile I don’t find the crowds detracting too much from the pleasure of being in LP. Although it does seem quite commercial in places, I found several areas of the town that are not crowded or tacky and have retained some feeling of “authenticity”. Especially in the evening when all the tourists are at the night market, I’m at the other end of town where I’m practically the only falang around. I think for me, the pretty setting of the town helps to make this a special place.

    Interesting that several locals have mentioned that there are far less tourists here than a few years ago. Vientiane seems to be like that as well – less tourists around compared to previous years. Ironic since the Lao gov’t has designated 2018 as “Visit Laos Year”. But as locals mentioned, other than a bit of marketing, the gov’t hasn’t done much to incentivize tourists to visit the country, like eliminating that $42 visa fee for the year……too much of a cash cow for them I guess.

    BTW, in 3 mos of travel in the region, I have yet to hear of any locals complaining about all the tourists here along the same lines as in certain European cities. I actually think they want a lot more. And of course – locals notwithstanding, falangs (like me) are complaining enough about all the falang tourists here!

    Other than both LP and CM having high numbers of tourists (majority are fly in/fly out), comparing the two doesn’t seem realistic. Despite all the tourists, I can “see/feel” what makes LP magical (and warrants it’s WH status). I cannot say the same for CM. If you were to strip CM of all the expats, tourists, its trappings, gimmicks, etc, you’d be left with a fairly generic Thai city with a few temples and a city wall. On the other hand LP, with its myriad of functioning temples, colonial era architecture, charming tree shrouded streets and traditional ways would still retain its unique, charming character that by the way, every French colonial administrator wanted to be posted to until they died!

    I hate to think what LP would have looked like w/o its WH status……picture hideous 6 story Chinese style block hotels stretching along both river banks!

    Anyways, when you’re back in SEA again, give LP another shot. As several have mentioned – come during the rainy season……I think it would be very sweet!

    Now, if I can only snap my fingers to make 80% of these blooky tourists disappear……I just might have found a kind of “heaven” here!

    1. Love when people give me updates on a place. For us it was 10 years ago that we were in LP, back in 2008. Feels like a really long time ago.

      Yes, I can see that you weren’t a fan of Chiang Mai Don! I thought LP was nice but there were just too many tourists for a town on it’s size. I’m actually surprised the place isn’t teeming with Chinese tourists. Weren’t they building some kind of highway linking China to Laos? Glad you like it – I haven’t finalized all our SEA plans (been really busy here) but I would like to go back to Laos…

      Great feedback, thanks once again Don. You have a great way of describing places.

  3. Great photos Frank – you even managed to capture the smoky haze that I remember from farmers burning their fields. I was contemplating another visit to LP in late Jan. but now I’m not too sure. We were there in 2011 for a week- arrived by boat down the Mekong (kind of boring, not recommended) and found the town quite charming. Yeah, there were lots of tourists, but we expected that and it didn’t really detract from what makes the place special. We biked around, ate delicious meals, had massages and spent another week exploring the countryside, up to Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, etc.

    Anyways, I’ve been reflecting on this theme of why certain places feel more touristy than others. I’ve been in Penang for over a week now and despite all the tourists (i think the vast majority are Malays and Singaporeans), there is still this incredible earthy vitality here that tourism only plays a minor role in. Day in and day out, the muggy streets of Penang offer this feast for the senses! We were here in 1985 and while it was certainly more dilapidated and gritty back then, the city has really stood the test of time (and tourists) very well.

    So when places face the tourism onslaught,why are some able to retain a modicum state of authenticity and others not so much? It seems to be a 2-way dynamic at play here. On the one hand you have the tourists coming in larger and larger numbers with the usual interests, needs, demands, etc. and on the other hand, it’s a question of how the local people, businesses and gov’t respond to it. BTW, I’m not an economist, tourism or human behavior expert….just an observer passing through.

    In my mind I was comparing Georgetown (Penang’s WH old town specifically) with other old towns I’ve been to recently and in past years. Last summer I travelled through Dresden, Gorlitz, Wroclaw, Krakow and in Sept. I was in Tblisi.  Out of all of them, only Gorlitz and some of the rougher Tblisi neighborhoods retained a genuine sense of authenticity. The other old cities while certainly attractive (they were mostly flattened during WW2), felt kind of fake, disneyfied and boring. They were completely restored, revitalized and redesigned with mass, consumer-based tourism first in mind – not that there’s anything wrong with it. And the tourists have responded in huge numbers, smothering the ambiance of the old towns (don’t you just hate those tourist double decker buses and those plastic choo choo trains that transport lazy tourists around town?). Well it’s certainly good for business, but I and many others are completely put off by it and will choose to go elsewhere. Other old cities like Dubrovnik, Salzburg, (Barcelona?) are the same.

    But Penang (and others like it: Old Havana, Cartagena, Fez and Stonetown) are different. What I recall is that all these places feel alive, not contrived! These thriving old towns are still full of local people who continue to live a busy, non-tourism based life 24/7/365 and function much as they have done for generations, regardless of the tourist influx. In other words tourism is nothing more than a secondary (but still important) economic activity. All you have to do is walk around Penang streets and peer inside the old shop houses and it looks like nothing has changed in 150 years! The streets of Little India take me right back to a typical neighborhood in Chennai! The nightly street food stands…..fascinating to observe and in large part it’s really for the locals.

    You get the sense that life would go on just fine if all the tourists left tomorrow. But of course there are now a lot of businesses, people, and gov’t that have become very dependent on the sector and they would be hurt if the tourists stopped coming.

    I’ll have to check out LP again to see how much it’s changed in 7 years. Maybe there are more indications that it’s slipping to more mass commercialized tourism like too many other WH cities.

    To conclude, tourism has its impacts (for better or worse), but it’s as much about how the local population reacts, whether they want to go all in and completely surrender to this sector or whether they recognize that there is still a lot of value to retaining their true “face” and promoting their unique way of life.

    1. Hi Go Bruins!
      This is an old post, written before we started travelling full time (I think we were in Luang Prabang in 2008). I’m sure it’s changed a lot since then and we should really go back one day and give it a chance again.
      You’re helping me decide that we want to spend some time in Penang in April. I was there back in 2001 and by all accounts the place has changed…but the good things like food and friendly people haven’t. We’ll be 3 months in SEA and I’ve been working on our plans. Muggy is it? I can only imagine in April.
      Are you staying in any kind of furnished apartment? Any recommendations useful.
      Love your comments, you’ve done a lot of travelling and interesting to hear your thoughts and comparisons. I very much agree, a place must have a real life and economy outside of tourism (ie. locals walking around doing their day to day) and not have an economy based solely on tourism. Dubrovnik is a good example.
      Great comment.

  4. 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.

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

  5. 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!

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

    1. 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.

    1. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

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

  10. 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?

    1. 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?

  11. 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

    1. 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 🙂

    1. 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…)

  12. 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!

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