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Ah, Luang Prabang. The jewel of Indochina. The city about which everyone raves. Naturally, I could only love it, couldn’t I?
Well, here’s the truth:
Luang Prabang made my skin crawl and I had to get the hell out of there.
Blasphemy, eh? It might as well be, because just about every travel blogger in the world is crazy about this city.
But Luang Prabang felt incredibly fake to me. It was as if a Lao Disneyland had been plunked down in the middle of the country, catering to Western tourists and nobody else.
In my time in Laos, I’ve visited Pakse, the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don), and I’ve crossed the seldom-visited Bolaven Plateau on a motorbike. I’ve gone swimming in the Mekong. I’ve partied up in Vang Vieng. I’ve also traveled overland throughout the country.
Does that make me an expert on all things Lao? Of course not. Even if I had spent time in Vientiane, the far north, and central Laos, I still wouldn’t be. But I think I’ve got a fairly decent idea about the kind of place Laos is.
And it’s nothing like Luang Prabang.
A fashion show…where the girls were smiling. Come on. Laos rarely smile. And a Lao girl wouldn’t dream of putting herself front and center in a show like this — showing this much skin for tourists!
The night market had a lot of beautiful things for sale, most of them priced much higher than they would be elsewhere in Southeast Asia. For the record, you wouldn’t see any of these things worn by any Lao.
The town was filled with wine bars, which really made me happy (I haven’t had a decent glass of red in months!), but of course, they were only filled with Westerners. The same thing goes for the pizza places.
I don’t have a problem with the fact that it caters to tourists. (Come on, I spent two weeks in Vang Vieng!) I do have a problem with the fact that it presents itself as authentic Laos.
Vang Vieng, by contrast, doesn’t pretend to be anything other than the party town that it is.
I will say this: Luang Prabang is very beautiful, the architecture is fantastic, and the romantic setting is nothing short of extraordinary.
So my friend Jon and I decided to rent bikes and explore the surrounding countryside.
As soon as we left the city limits, we were surrounded by dusty roads, children playing in the street, tiny stores decorated with Beerlao signs, entire families on motorbikes, and thatched huts surrounded by new, modern, three-story developments.
Now, that felt like Laos.
Seeing Luang Prabang actually made me quite afraid for my beloved Kampot, Cambodia. As a lovely town with crumbling architecture and growing tourism infrastructure, it has huge potential to become the next Luang Prabang. And that terrifies me.
Go to Kampot. Go now. Luang Prabang may be a lost cause, but we still have that beautiful riverside town in Cambodia. Before the tourists get there, anyway.
If you do decide to visit Luang Prabang, you can find hotels here. Find Kampot hotels here.
101 thoughts on “Confession: I can’t stand Luang Prabang.”
I have a question for you…what is the difference between a tourist and a traveler? Is it the amount of time that one spends in a different place? Is it what you do when you are there? For example, I visited Santa Fe recently. We spent three days there, ate locally, and did both the touristy stuff (the Plaza) and more authentic stuff (Shopping at the Native American flea market, away from the center of town). What makes a traveler different than a tourist?
This reply is for both Colleen and everyone else —
I think talking about the different between a tourist and a traveler is really a battle of semantics, and nobody is going to agree on it entirely. I’m sure many people would consider me both.
When I wrote “tourists” in this piece, I should have said “package tourists” — and by that, I generally mean people who sign up for group tours, visiting tours of places that they think they “have” to see more than they want to see, miserable men being dragged around by their wives as a tour group leads them with an umbrella, hordes of Japanese tourists taking photos of everything in town.
In short, some places are overrun with tourists. Some of them are nice in spite of that — take Florence, where I studied abroad! Every morning on the way to class, I would battle my way through giant crowds of Japanese tourists on Piazza della Signoria!
well i think one thing evident from your reply is that the difference between a tourist and a traveller is not necessarily having an understanding and respect for other peoples and cultures…
“hordes of Japanese tourists taking photos of everything in town”… ” battle my way through giant crowds of Japanese tourists”…
come on, that is blatant, stereotypical prejudice, verging on racism. why single out japanese people, did you not see tour groups from other places too? in many places, there are large groups of australians, chinese, americans, russians, indians… does the fact that japanese people are there somehow cheapen a place by their very presence? i assume the japanese have done something particularly to offend you? ‘taking photos of everything’… so you have only ever seen japanese people take pictures of dumb stuff? i think 50% of any photos that “travellers” take are pointless and deleteable (not a real word, i know!), hence why you always see people sitting around DELETING unnecessary photos!
i’ve met loads of young, cool, independent japanese people in other countries who take the same amount of photos as anyone else. yet your post suggests that the very fact of being born japanese means you are unable to go anywhere without being en masse with only a extra-long zoom lens for protection.
this reply is generally the sort of thing you hear people who haven’t been to varied and exciting places say, or who havent met people from other parts of the world. it suggests that although you travel, you spend most of your time with other travellers from similar backgrounds to yourself and dont really develop more than surface understanding of other people. you are coming across as particularly elitist; because you went out of town on a bike, your holiday instantly becomes more valid than people who may not have the requisite language skills (because you were BLESSED to be born english-speaking) to see all the things they want to see without a guide. also, japanese culture is particularly non-intrusive, for all either of us know they may not feel comfortable venturing off-the-beaten track for fear of inconveniencing/upsetting local people (and, while i do not know about laos particularly, there are certainly parts of the world where local people simply do not want ‘travellers’ traipsing around their homes/towns and generally having their privacy invaded to assuage someone else’s curiousity)
in fact, i would suggest that there will be little ‘authentic’ about any exchanges you have in laos, unless you learn to speak the language as everyone who communicates to you in english has done so in order to work in tourism. which means you- you are a tourist!! the annoying hordes of japanese people spoiling your photos are there for exactly the same reason you are- to visit and see the place. so the distinction of tourist and traveller is essentially the attitude and pretentiousness level of the person saying it. driving outside of town, then having to point to buy a coke because you cant talk to anyone any more doesnt make for a more authentic experience, you are not communicating in any fantastic way, you’re just gawping at people from your bike most of the time!
and the reason i say gawping is that given the tone you use, it doesnt appear that you are learning anything or becoming a more broad-minded person, so it just seems to be looking at stuff. at least you are trying to get beneath the surface of the country, i get that, but for what purpose particularly? to tell people on your website?
finally, to say that the lao people in luang prabang and their town is inauthentic is really pretty nasty to them… what right do you or any other foreigner have to make judgements on life in any place in laos and how the people should/shouldnt behave or should/shouldnt wear (as you mention a couple of times in your post)… you are actively discouraging people from going to luang prabang and negatively affecting people’s livelihoods- people doing their best to make sure YOU enjoy yourself in their country… i understand that this website is not written to be read by any of the ‘authentic’ people you meet along the way and that speaks volumes about your attitude to these places- turn up, gawp, pass judgement on to other potential gawpers- and all in order to sound more enlightened than they are just cos you hired a bike.
its great that you have the lifestyle you have- good luck to you, do what you want and more power to you- but always remember how blessed you are in life to have this lifestyle. throwaway comments like these about people and places do not come across in the worldly way that perhaps you think they do… travelling, it seems to me, is a selfish pursuit for most people- just sensory stimulation and stories to tell their friends. given the situation you are in with the resources you have, you could encourage people to make it much more than this- try to enrich and help the lives of the people you meet in the same way you expect them to enrich yours.
oh and by the way, ‘go to kampot before the tourists get there’…
you were being ironic, right?
you, yourself a tourist, are telling other potential tourists to go to a place before tourists all go there and the tourism spoils it…
im not sure where to start!
You are absolutely right. It really gets on my nerves this kind of Indiana Jones “travellers” that make a quick jump into a country and believe they are somehow superior and more entitled to enjoy the places that the “other ” tourist. I call those pululantes in spanish and you can spot them miles away usually with their looks and attitude. I am a photojournalist reporter and I always prefer to encounter those naive bus tourist that the more ‘the world is mine ” ones for a number of reasons: they make much more difficult my job and really disturb local customs as much or more than the ‘japanese crowds ‘. At least those are more honest on what they came to do.
Bravo David, such a great reply. It’s great to be reminded that there are still people out there that realise life is more than one persons point of view.
I love Lao and I travel there as much as my western life allows, I will never be a local but I always try to leave a little bit behind to help those who benefit from falang tourists. Boxes of books for the school, money to help build a toilet block with a proper septic system, a donation to the temple to help rebuild the roof. None of this cost as much as I was prepared to spend in the bar or restaurant that was set up primarily for falangs but just my own personal way to say thanks to the local people who put up with me invading their space.
Bravo , David!
You just said it all..
It appears that you’re suffering the “too much travel – too much off the beaten track” disease. It has only one symptom: you don’t appreciate places that are too much on any tourist/traveler track.
But when is a place authentical? I think it’s when people lead their daily life. And that’s exactly what happens in Luang Prabang. People have seen a possible market, tourism, and adjusted their jobs and daily tasks to that.
Very similar to Vang Vieng, only that Vang Vieng focusses on backpackers and LP more on the richer/more luxury traveler.
Us “tourists” “travellers” “backpackers” “whatever” all wish to visit places so out of the norm, off the beaten path, no gimmicks, etc etc…. and then we get flabbergasted when we arrive and see something as big as a McDonalds or just as little as bars created for the sole purposed of westerners. “OMG!!! How could they?” But really…. why wouldn’t they? This creates them more jobs/money which in turns give them a chance to educate their children and possibly give them a chance to live a life like we all do… Where they can travel the world, experience things they have never done before, get a career, etc. It’s hard to remember this sometimes while trying to experience that off the beaten path experience we hear from travellers of the past.
Nicolas, I don’t mind overly touristed places — I mind overly touristed places that market themselves as authentic! That’s how Luang Prabang felt to me.
It’s people like you that shouldn’t travel to ANY Asian countries as you are much too demanding and apparently have a bias against Asians. Stay home in your glass house and let others enjoy their travels and the people they meet along the way!
There isn’t a difference in my mind. You are either a local, living and working, or you’re a tourist, passing through on holiday. Some tourists want to get off the beaten path, others want to have everything from home available where they go. These are some of the many different styles of travel, with different advantages and disadvantages to each.
Statements like “before the tourists get there” are misleading. We are all tourists, despite what we tell ourselves.
I’m glad you can be honest about it. I hate when things get hyped up and people feel like they aren’t allowed to hate them! It’s sad that this town has changed so much for tourists/
I was devastated when you first tweeted about hating Luang Prabang. I loved it when I was there in November 2007.
I flew in from Hanoi, where I’d been jostled, ripped off, leered at and lied to. At the airport in Hanoi I met a Swiss guy who’d had a similarly bad experience in Vietnam.
We arrived in Luang Prabang to find a laid back relaxed country town. We spent two days cycling round the outlying villages, talking to teenage monks, getting lost and taking photos. We climbed up to the wat on the hill in the centre of town and watched the sun set. We finally got up early enough to see the monk’s procession – now THAT was touristy but stunning all the same.
We drank Beerlao at a small bar overlooking the river. We drank overpriced cocktails at a backpacker bar across the street, where we magically gathered a group of Israeli, English and Belgian backpackers who stayed together for a week. We traveled down to Vang Vieng and I HATED that place.
VV to me was a backpacker infested drinking druggy town full of scuzzy bars playing endless reruns of Fiends on TV. I could not wait to get out of there. I hated the tubing scene. I hated the bar scene. I hated the “special menu” slid sneakily at you late a night, listing the drugs available at the bar.
I gave it a few days and my feeling didn’t changed so I booked a kyak tour that took me to Vientiene.
From your pictures of VV, it hasn’t changed. Maybe Luang Prabang has, but it’s still on my list of places I will return to.
Amazing! Your story is literally IDENTICAL to my experience. I seriously felt so strongly about it that I wrote a post on the topic:
I think one of the biggest factors of whether or not you like a place is what you’re looking for in that moment. Like you, I was frazzled and pissed off from being in Vietnam for so long. Coming to LPB was like coming to paradise on earth. So chilled that I spent an entire week.
And let’s be real, no matter how much we label ourselves as travelers, we’re all tourists. Just get there before more of us show up!
I’m really sorry you two had bad experiences in Vietnam…I can’t get enough of this country!
I only had bad experiences in Hanoi. I lived in Ho Chi Minh City until May last year, a total of three and half years. We’ll probably end up back there.
I’m currently working on a street food guide to HCMC. Let me know if you’d like some tips, Kate!
I think sometimes it is hard to define “those who like to leave one location for another” (be it backpackers, travelers, tourists, etc.) because more often than not, it is those people that do not wish to subscribe to certain labels or definitions.
At the same time, you are totally right…sometimes it is nice to find that escape in a wine bar or pizza joint ..to find something relatable in a place that we cannot reference. Maybe it just so happens that those backpackers, travelers, and tourists alike, are all looking for that same escape point of reference?
Whatever the debate may be, congrats on your anniversary as well! High five!
Plain and simple. I love Lunag Prabang. I love it for everything it is and everything it isn’t. I think you shouldn’t allow yourself to be caught up in the off the beaten path mentality. We have traveled all over Laos including central laos and to the border of Vietnam. Luang Prabang is a town that yes does cater for the tourist, but what town doesn’t. Locals have to make money too! I think it is a charming town that shows its French influences and historial background everywhere you look. Fake. I think not. It there is a place you should be writing about, it should be Vang Vieng. Now that is disgusting place to travel. Skip Vang Vieng and go straight to Luang Prabang. In my opinion this quaint little town is a must see.
Well it’s good you’re being honest with yourself. Not every city appeals to every person, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. Catering to “tourists” probably does wonderful things for the city’s economy, but I can understand being kind of disappointed if none of it really feels very authentic.
However, I could argue (and I just did in my most recent post!) that a place doesn’t necessarily have to be completely authentic to be worth a visit. If someone was only visiting one place in Laos and picked Luang Prabang, perhaps they wouldn’t see the true “local” Laos that you know and love. But they would still get a taste. And that’s definitely better than skipping Laos altogether as far as I’m concerned!
Different strokes for different folks, right?
Appreciate the honesty. It can be tough when everyone seems to love a place and you’re a bit underwhelmed–how do you be genuine without pissing a lot of people off? But not everyone has to love everywhere–or else travel wouldn’t be any fun! Great post with good insights.
“Come on. Laos rarely smile.”
I’ve been all over Laos and of all the things in this post, I find this the most astonishing. In my experience Laos people are among the most friendly in the world – smiling, welcoming, lovely and warm.
And I’ll echo what the others have said – Vang Vieng is one of the most dirty places in the world. I lived in Laos for a year and most of the locals really disdained the tourists going to act out there. It’s a fairly modest culture and the majority of Laos people (outside those making their living in VV) seemed affronted by the culture of tourists going there to get wasted and screw.
Ephemeralist, I knew someone wasn’t going to be happy about that, but I absolutely stand by it.
Did I meet wonderful, friendly Laos? Absolutely. Some truly wonderful people. Little boys who high-fived me in Si Phan Don, a sweet lady at a petrol station on the Bolaven Plateau, a lovely restaurant owner in Pakse, my favorite pancake lady in Vang Vieng.
But they were the exceptions. For the most part, I found that Laos, while always polite, rarely smiled. And when you compare them to the warm, always-smiling Thais and Khmers, for example, they seem downright miserable by comparison.
Again, not every single Lao is like that, but for the most part, I found that the average Lao was much more likely to stare or frown than to smile.
Gosh – what nonsense!
Perhaps you should learn the language and listen to Lao banter- the constant joking and teasing, the reams of innuendo and punning…
Come and work at NGO. Then you will learn how the spirit of fun pervades everything in Lao culture — and I do mean nigh on everything!
Angus, I couldn’t agree with you more.
Lao people are more friendly than the rest of Indochina put together.
I moved to Laos to work in Vientiane and have loved every single day. The Lao people really know how to enjoy life and smile even though their life far from easy. I have lived and worked here for the last 4 months, traveled through 5 provinces and I am just about to move to Luang Prabang for a new job. I have nothing bad to say about Laos.
Kate, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You JUST a traveler who sees what you want to see and most of the time its the tourist spots. Try living in Laos, having cold showers every day, eating Lao food, learning the language, feeling the 40 degree heat on a daily basis, working 6 days a week, the list goes on… I could go on about your ridiculous blog for hours but I just want to say everything you said about Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Laos in general makes me so angry and I disagree with everything.
It would seem to be a question of context and perspective. I’d live in Vietnam over a year before traveling by bicycle through Laos, from tiny ethnic communities to Luang Prabang. I can attest that almost as soon as I crossed the border the smiles the kids’ enthusiastic hello! (or baidee!) slowed to a trickle—especially from the adults. (Mind you, I was not particularly enthralled with Vietnam.)
I still meet people here who smile and enthusiastically say hello, but one-quarter what I experienced in Vietnam. Plus, Lao seem to regularly inflate their prices dramatically for every day grocery objects. So if anyone says that Lao “are the most warm and friendly in all of SEA!”, well then their perspective (and mine, sure) is their own.
We liked Vang Vieng, as a kind of guilty pleasure, but really appreciated Luang Prabang. There’s very little authenticity in Vang Vieng. A lot more in Luang Prabang.
Sure, the night market’s pure Disney — any market selling crafts is, definitionally — and some of the crafts villages are very developed from a tourist perspective, but it’s a World Heritage site for a reason, with an extraordinary, native culture and spirituality that does live within the monasteries and temples. It’s that World Heritage funding which means the buildings are so beautifully renewed, which may in itself contribute to the Disneyland feel.
We also travelled within Four Thousand Islands, including the less-visited islands, and quite extensively in Northern Laos… I’m with the Dropout Diaries on this one, I’m afraid.
We enjoyed Luang Prabang, it was our first stop coming in from Thailand so had nothing to compare it to. We did cycle out of the city and see a completely different side to it though, although I guess I could say the same for places in England, fancy office building and shops and then council estates with closed down smashed up shops and kids fighting?
Since then we’ve been to VV and Vientiene and all three have been completely different so I don’t know what to make of it, down south next.
Motorbike the Bolaven Plateau…it’s a great way to experience Laos off the beaten path.
As someone who is Southeast Asian and who hears someone talk about authenticity about a culture that not a lot of people are educated about screams spoiled to me. I mean, the fact that you write a blog about it, kinda desperate
As a fellow Southeast Asian, I would have to concur with what Anonanna wrote. Culture is not something you observe or experience during a visit (no matter how extended it is). Culture is understood only when you’ve lived amongst the people, fully immersed in every day life, for an extended period of time (and, I believe, it is something that has to happen when you are most influenced, i.e., when you are growing up). I am Lao by birth, but I was one of those who were forced to flee the country during the war. My family settled in The U.S., and I’ve only just returned this year, almost 40 years later. I look like the locals, speak the language, so can relate on some level, but culturally, I have an american mindset, first and foremost.
A good example of understanding the depth of influence from culture is when my mother visited Laos almost a decade ago. She tried to blend in when she went to the market, in an attempt to avoid the dreaded farang price markup on goods. She dressed like the locals and spoke the language, HOWEVER, the locals had no problem recognizing she wasn’t one of them.
With that said, I think it’s perfectly ok for Kate to offer her opinions regarding Luang Prabang. It’s obviously not the popular perspective, but it’s still hers, based on her experience, likes and dislikes. After all, this is her blog. I think anyone that criticizes her for that should take a moment to think about what they are really saying, and that is, only their perspective counts. Nonsense.
Sophaa – nobody here objects to Kate not liking Luang Prabang – that is not the issue – everybody is entitled to their opinion!
but it is one thing for this piece to be littered with inaccurate, mistaken and ignorant opinions – it is altogether another to do what Kate does and pass them off as facts
I have family who work in the Luang Prabang night market selling beautiful handmade clothes dyed using natural dyes – things like the lovely indigo Lao mutmee skirts you see Lao women wear to the office every week day
but then I read that: “The night market had a lot of beautiful things for sale, most of them priced much higher than they would be elsewhere in Southeast Asia. For the record, you wouldn’t see any of these things worn by any Lao.”
… frankly that makes me pretty angry, as it is little more than a lie —
firstly there is the fact that it takes weeks to spin, dye and weave these textiles – and they are sold for peanuts…
secondly, I would love to be able to pay the weavers more, but I can’t while so many farang tourists (often aggressively and rudely) haggle to the lowest possible price (the same prices they are sold for in Cambodia, where materials are waaay cheaper, which knocks our margins way down) with a tone that implies they are sure they are being ripped off
but most of all, it is an out and out lie to say that Lao people do not wear these items – the sashes are worn to the wat; the skirts are worn every week day to work, and so on, and so on
so as I say, I live in Laos and regrettably I occasionally I encounter the kind of ignorant, entitled attitude this blog post of Kate’s embodies
and honestly Sophaa I think you are being far to generous to what is little more than trolling and bigotry
the aim of this piece is to provoke hits and bring traffic to her blog site, thereby enabling her to make more money through online advertising – simple as that
nobody objects to opinions themselves – but publishing falsehoods about Lao people and Lao culture in order to do that is frankly low – and to do it merely as a way to troll for advertising revenue is just hateful
and just to add: I had a look around this blog a while back – how ironic that Kate chooses to live in Chester – a town in the UK that is synonymous with twee tastelessness…
Angus, there ARE people on here that disagree with Kate. That’s what I was addressing in my last paragraph.
In regards to your other points, I totally agree. Kate is being shallow and irresponsible. But hey, she’s here to ‘provoke hits and bring traffic to her blog site, thereby enabling her to make more money through online advertising’. And here we are, aiding and abetting…
I am a Travel & Tourism teacher and have recently spend a month in SE Asia – Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Frankly, I think all the debate about traveller or tourist is a waste of time. You are what you want to be – forget the labels and stop being ‘traveller snobs’. Plus, everybody gets different experiences from a place, depending on what they do or discover. Personally I really enjoyed Luang, wanted to stay longer and would visit again. I didnt find things more expensive than other places in S.E Asia , on the contrary I thought it was v.cheap. I loved the nik-nak crafts sold in the night market. and yes the Laos people would wear them but does it matter, it helps boost their meagre income and the locally economy, which can only be good. The wats were magnificent and the French buildings interesting. The paddy fields, water buffalos and little villages surrounding Luang were enchanting. People in Luang were eager to speak English and were very friendly. And I dont mind admitting the AC, coffee and cakes in Joma patisserie were to die for after a long day sightseeing in 33 degrees (checked Joma out in Hanoi too – a bit of an oasis in a manic city). The Laos BBQ was amazing, although I nearly melted cooking all that stuff! Make your own mind up about Luang Prabang. The trip to get there on the Mekong (2 days) was interesting and Pak Beng (the overnight stop on the way) was different; basically a street in the jungle – try it. Stay longer if you can. Vietnam was amazing but beware of getting scammed in Hanoi. Taxi drivers giving fake notes in change, Green cars trying to charge twice the price, Taxi meters being speeded up to charge you more and taxi drivers telling you about the sites when you only want to get from A to B not get a tour!Some restaurants short change too. Apart from having to be continually vigillant the place itself is quite mad; try a cyclo which will take you around the streets to view the myriad of shops crammed to the brim with everything you can imagine. Stay in the midst of the old quarter where the locals sit in street cafes and you can get lost in the culture of the place. Then onto the Vietnamese coast; Hoi An was my favourite but Natrang was also good but much more developed. Ho Chi Min was a city of massive contrast and quite interesting. All in all a good trip, stayed in cheap hotels which all had AC, no need to slum it in hostels at that price. Plus the security was better and worth paying that bit extra for. Hope this helps some readers.
I live and work in Laos. There really is a lot of inaccurate and misleading stuff about Laos on this blog of yours – an unpleasant amount.
“Laos rarely smile” eh?
I guess you meant: “Lao rarely smile”. How strange to write something so patently untrue.
As I say, I live in Lao PDR and my wife is Lao. I can read and speak the language and know the country very well. I have to say, I have no idea what to make of your comment that “Laos [sic] rarely smile”.
The Lao people really are some of the most genuinely friendly and smiley people I know. Smiles are everywhere, and none of them are of the ironed on ‘have a nice day’ type. Playfulness is everything, as you would find if you lived and worked here. Lao culture is infused with with the philosophy of fun (‘muan’) and not being all earnest and serious. Westerners could learn a lot by working here, where life is all about play and being as silly as possible.
Given the appalling abuse Lao PDR has suffered at the hands of foreigners – 30,000 people Lao people have been killed by UXO (dropped bombs that didn’t explode in impact) since the American invasion of Indochina ended in 1975 – it’s a wonder that there so little resentment of the outside world, and that Lao people are so genuinely welcoming to Westerners.
The only Lao I have seen being ‘unsmiley’ are a small minority of the poor unfortunates who work in the tourist sector. I expect they become jaded from dealing with backpackers. Some tourists, especially the young ones, can be very rude, apparently without realising how offensive they are being. They don’t seem to make any effort to learn Lao manners: in particular, don’t raise your voice and be strident when problems or misunderstandings arise. I see this kind of behaviour often, and I don’t think ‘farang’ have any idea how much discomfort and embarrassment it causes people here.
Readers who are yet to visit Laos, rest assured that – beyond the occasional loud, abrasive North American – there is nothing in Luang Prabang that will remind any normal visitor of Disneyland.
This is a very special country, and approached with the right attitude, and just a little knowledge, there is an immense amount you can learn from the wonderful people here.
I totally agree with your comments. I found the local people I spoke to to be happy, smiley and interested in conversing. LB was one of the best places I visited.
Angus is generally correct. However the loud and abrasive travelers now tend to be European; even the thousands of Chinese are not as repulsive as some of the Europeans chain-smoking cigarettes, wearing far too revealing clothing and being insensitive to the peculiarities and subtleties of the rich and varied Lao cultures.
Wow a few harse comments, Kate I agree with everything you say about luang prang, I have just left there and will be writing on my blog soon about it. And angus, History wise you are very inaccurate, America did not invade Laos, the north Vietnamese did so they could have a strong hold on the ho chi Minh trail, followed by the the south and then the Americans a good year later before the Thai army joined the north!!! Love your blogs Kate!!!
where did I write that the Americans invaded Laos? I wrote “American invasion of Indochina”, as you’ll see if you go back and read more carefully…
also – is it “history” when innocent people are still being killed by American UXOs? …current affairs might be more accurate…
“History wise you are very inaccurate, America did not invade Laos, the north Vietnamese did so they could have a strong hold on the ho chi Minh trail, followed by the the south and then the Americans a good year later before the Thai army joined the north!!! Love your blogs Kate!!!”
pretty inaccurate yourself mate — the Thai army was never in the north – the Thais there were mercenaries, fighting on the side of the Yanks
and you seem to imply the American army were eventually in Laos subsequent to the North Vietnamese, which, if that is what you meant (your writing is unclear) is also wrong…
in fact the brave Americans just bombed the hell out of Laos from the air. My uncle, a Christian preacher from Texas, was among them, and is still proud of his role in the war… despite having lost the war and in fact achieving nothing by killing countless innocent civilians, among them women and children
I do hope you aren’t one of those American bores who goes around Southeast Asia preaching about the so-called “Vietnam War”. We call it the American War here – so much more apt, don’t you think?
Infact you are the one who is inaccurate. The States bombed Laos in a wave of criminal raids. Laos is the most bombed country in the history of man.. Millions of tonnes were dropped and thousands of UXO litter the countryside during the ‘secret war’. The bombing raids were not published in the American press and many of the raids targeted civilians. A criminal act similar to the firebombing of Tokyo during WW2.
How is what I wrote inaccurate, Max? I’ve written about how Laos is the most bombed country in the world elsewhere on the site.
“A fashion show…where the girls were smiling. Come on. Laos rarely smile. And a Lao girl wouldn’t dream of putting herself front and center in a show like this — showing this much skin for tourists!”
There were several fashion shows in Vientiane during the time I lived there – especially during the 450 year anniversary celebrations. The audience were fairly well all Lao.
More to the point, every Lao New Year in Luang Prabang the community puts on a show at which a beautiful young woman is chosen from several other smiling beautiful young women to be the ‘Nang Sangkhan’ to lead the New Year parade through the town…
This is during the ‘songkran’ water festival — n.b. smiling, playing and laughing, lots of…
Young women, usually in their late teens, are judged by a panel of ‘notables’ from LPB, while friends and families look on and cheer for them, and the winner leads the parade. There were a handful of foreigners at the ‘Nang Sangkhan’ event this year, and many hundreds of Lao.
“The night market had a lot of beautiful things for sale, most of them priced much higher than they would be elsewhere in Southeast Asia. For the record, you wouldn’t see any of these things worn by any Lao.”
Several of my family and friends sell items in the night market in Luang Prabang. Among them are Lao handmade ‘mutmee’ (ikat) cotton and silk skirts which Lao women wear to work every day. As for the other silk items such as scarves etc.: you’ve obviously never been to a Lao wedding, or a Lao basi, or any other formal occasion in Lao, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing this.
I’m struggling to impute a motive for writing all this crap. It wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for the fact your blog obviously gets plenty of hits.
This really is a most unpleasant blog.
Blasphemy! I’m currently on a circuit of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and, soon, Indonesia, and Luang Prabang is probably my favourite place so far!
I don’t think it pretends to be “authentic Laos”; I think that’s a label that travel bloggers label it with.
Luang Prabang is just a sweet little town which is like a breath of fresh air compared to practically all of Vietnam and Thailand and most of Cambodia (my fave SE Asian country so far), not to mention Vang Vieng (a slightly obnoxious party town) and Vientiane (perhaps the dullest capital city in the world?).
But hey, I don’t care for Rome much – and I know that’s one place that, like Luang Prabang, everyone is supposed to adore!
To each one’s own! (And I say this while wearing my Vang Vieng t-shirt.)
Hey, another LP lover. I havent been to VV or Vientiane and take your comments on board about them. I will be going to Cambodia and Thailand again this summer though, but unfortunately not Laos this time.
Im surprised you dint rate Rome, I had a fab time there with my girlfriends last summer but it was very busy, particularly the Vatican, which spoiled the experience – perhaps winter would be better? Tried Madrid?
P.S. (and sorry for the double comment!) I wrote about my experience going from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, too, and what a breath of fresh air I thought it was. You can read it here: http://www.manversusworld.com/from-hanoi-to-luang-prabang-a-love-story/
Wow! You have no idea!! You are so much a tourist…and an ignorant one at that. Luang Prabang doesn’t “promote” itelf is anything but what it is. Yes, it is different to the rest of Laos in some ways but doesn’t mean it is not “authentic”. People go about their daily lives as everyone does. It’s not a ‘show’ they put on for your sake! How ridiculous. Besides, Laos has many faces.
Also want to point out some glaring inaccuracies:
1) Lao people DO smile….all the time! Constantly! Their entire culture is built around the phrase ‘Baw Pen Nyang’ (so complex but roughly ‘No worries’) and the concept of ‘muan’ (roughly translated as ‘fun’). If you didn’t see people smiling YOU did not see real Laos!
2) The girls at Hive’s ethnik fashion show are real Lao alright – they’re students by day and they DO NOT show inappropriate amount of skin! They are wearing entirely ethnic clothing until the very end where they showcase modern interpretations and still cover shoulders and knees.
3) The stuff in the night market in fact mostly comes from villages in the north (where you say you didn’t visit), including Xam Neua, or are Hmong creations. SOME items are tourist items, but most of it is genuine. Numerous Lao friends of mine shop at the night market, so get your facts straight. Furthermore, yes they’re more expensive than elsewhere in SE Asia, because in case you didn’t notice, Laos IS the most SE Asian country That’s also a fact!
4) No, Lao don’t drink wine generally and they also don’t socialise much in town because yes, any places have been converted to tap into the tourist trade. Nevertheless, the French colonial history of LPB is as real as anything else and hence it is inevitable that those influences will still be felt. Next you’ll be saying the baguettes and coffee and are recent tourist additions 🙂
The point is, like it or don’t like it…whatever. But don’t slag off a place you clearly actually have very little knowledge about. You come off as ignorant and the rest of your opinions thus invalidated.
a really excellent post Mr. Kurikawa – spot on, thanks for taking the time to write it
Wow, I came to read your blog about Luang Prabang and I think you are being judgemental. It’s more of an insult. If you compare the girls from the fashion show to the western girls’ fashion show, who do you think shows more skin? You expected the girls not to smile during the fashion show? Who wants to see a grumpy face on stage? Btw, Laos is the country and Laotian are the people. Why don’t you research more about the history and ethnic people who lives in Laos because the person selling the stuff to you is possibly Hmong or one of the many other ethnic groups that lives there. In order to explore a country, be open minded and don’t talk down about the people. Go explore more of the areas like the temple and join the ceremonies because Adventurous Kate isn’t so adventurous haha.
wow… This is just a sad post… It’s one thing to not like a place, that’s of course fine and to speak your mind about why you didn’t like Luang Prabang also of course fine, it’s your blog. But whats just sad- is that you give a thumbs up to Vang Vien, this just turns me off about your priorities while traveling… People might find this article from the Guardian about Vang Vien interesting and sad… Meanwhile I love off the beaten path traveling and still found Luang Prabang a very cool place.. Just walk 10 minutes in any direction from the center of town and your right out of the tourist area if you want to be and its gorgeous…
I was in LP many times before it became what you have now described. 1999-2005 I saw it slowly change from a sleepy Lao village with an occasional tourist siting to a place that mainly caters to tourists. I was also in Kampot 6 years ago. I was worried then that kampot would be the next LP.
I don’t know if it has become that since It’s been awhile since I traveled there. Best thing to do is Keep your disicoveries to yourself if you want them to be there when you return. Word of mouth ruins these lovely paces. But, I suppose it’s inevitable.
Yeah too bad you had not seen the place in the mid 90s or even post 2000 maybe youd have some respect.
Yeah, its over the top. The crappy restaurants, the night market, the ruination of the central.market to make room for the chinese. Oh the list is endless it is. The package tourists, the yuppies, the hipsters and then you – the cultural central scrutinizer.
But who ruined it? Foreigners. People just like you and well….you.
Ypu might want to visit Bali, Kathmandu, Phnom Penh even Hanoi. All ruined, and you bitch about Luang Prabang.
The price of everything and the value of nothing
Man I love being subscribed to this comment thread.
Angus, I find it quite interesting that Kate has never once addressed you.
What say you, Kate? You seem to defend yourself with others, especially when it only involves a simple one liner response.
Maybe glad then that my last trip to Luang Prabang was in 1996. I have wanted to go back ever since, and still intend to one day.
I think I am gonna need your help. I am planning an 18-day Vietnam-Laos-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam Trip but on a tight budget. Now, I am checking out Luang Prabang “what-to-dos” , i just don’t know how much Im gonna need for this trip.
I have been to Luang Prabang many times and am heading back there in a couple of weeks. It’s my favourite place in Laos. I have been to the Plain of Jars, Vang Vieng and Vien Tien. This time I will be spending 4 weeks in LP with friends who own a boarding house. My friend (Australian) owns a house in VV and she looks after schools, living there 3 months of the year. When I go to visit her there, I teach English to the children and the monks, take over clothing and toys (she is starting a toy library in one of the schools). We painted a whole school once, in one of the very small villages near VV. Fixed plumbing and another one of her friends built them a bridge. These villagers have nothing and the little we do is just a drop in the ocean of what is needed. She fundraises during the year in Australia and takes the money directly to the people. She directly funds students to go to college and pays for a full time teacher at one of the schools. Sometimes the teachers there don’t get paid for months and don’t bother to turn up. We must remember that it’s a communist country with the usual corruption, so funds don’t always go where they’re intended. In a house near hers in VV, there are 6 children living there by themselves (from different families). Their parents are poor farmers and send their children into town to get an education. They can not afford to stay with them as they must keep working on their farms. This is not an unusual occurrence. I’m happy to inform you all that VV has changed. The dreadful bar scene along the river has been banned. My friend is involved with the owner of the The Organic Farm (she helps with his educational pursuits), which is close to where the tubing starts. The noise from this prevented tourists staying in his little accommodation cabins (which my friend and her husband helped to build). This is a nice place to stop for lunch. So, back to LP – yes it is full of tourists, but that’s because it’s a pretty little town on the Mekong. I suggest to Kate that if she wants authenticity, she go to the morning markets. Now that’s a sight you won’t see in the western world! – and definitely NOT for tourists. Also, I’m pretty sure all the temples (and there are so many), are authentic, working temples, and not there as a tourist drawcard. Can’t blame the locals for building restaurants and bars etc. to make a little money off the tourists. Sure, it tends to spoil it a little, but hey, it’s our fault. A Lao massage is to die for!
Excellent post. I would consider some voluntary work myself in the future. So maybe you could contact me.
YOU ARE SO WILD!!!
What is this pretentious bullshit I’m reading. You befriended a pancake lady in Vang Vieng and now you’re some self appointed ambassador of Laos. The people who have responded to your throwaway observations clearly have a much better understanding of Lao culture and the impact of tourism on the country. You need educate yourself dear if you are going to be promoting yourself on here.
“Content Is King”
Well, Adventurous Kate just showed everyone that by taking a well-aimed contrarian position in her blog, she will will reap the high traffic SEO rewards for her professional travel blog.
Luang Prabang is the darling of Southeast Asian tourism–an easy mark–LOL.
“You can’t teach an alligator to swim”
Kop jai lai lai
It’s not “You can’t teach…”, because that implies the alligator cannot be taught which doesn’t make any sense. The proverb is “Don’t teach an alligator how to swim.” which means the alligator is already a proficient swimmer so it does not need to be taught.
Baw pen yung,
(Hold the applause lol)
Love your spirit, lifestyle and blog.
Thanks for the reality check on LP. I’m going in May, fully expecting to like:
1. The BelleRive hotel.
2. The quiet early morning.
3. Giving alms to the monks.
4. Bicycling to a charming cafe with warm croissants and cafe au lait.
How bad can it be?
Wish me luck.
Enjoy your stay, Gringo!
Although Luang Prabang did seem quite touristy with more travelers being part of packaged tours than anywhere else I went to in Laos. Then again, it was a very welcome change from Vang Vieng – I was there before they started cracking down on the not so nice part of town.
Luang Prabang did feel very authentic as long as you stayed away from the main ‘shopping road’ lined with endless vendors and shops/restaurants targeting farang. I wonder if your experience would have been different if you had more time to explore?
Thanks for sharing!
Why would you stay away? Those people are just trying to make a meagre living, so what’s the harm in buying street food from their stalls and a few bits of handicrafts, or clothes? I went for a foot and leg massage and pedicure – the girl was obviously untrained and had a small baby on her hip the whole time but I didn’t mind paying the small amount asked, why would I? Perhaps ‘travellers’ shouldn’t differentiate themselves from ‘tourists’ and should support local economies more, rather than be hung up on the ‘authentic’ experience. What do you think?
Kate is just so hard core, its like, omg, she is so cool. I mean, why not just blog to the world about how much I hate a place because it;’s not cool enough for me.. right!
I know you like this writer, pay attention to how she makes the most out of a place…
It’s called responsible tourism, you dont see Anthony Bourdain harshing on any place… He looks for the interesting and the good in all places… because he knows it will effect there economy if he doesnt…
But hey if will bring more readers to your blog… fuck it right
I hear you!
I am laying on my bed in Luang Prabung as I write this after arranging to change my flights to get out of here early. I HATE it here, there’s seriously bad juju. This town is DEAD, I felt it as soon as I arrived. The streets are lined with Chinese owned souvenir shops and nasty massage parlours. Every second house has been turned into a guest house/hotel or cafe/restaurant. There is no authentic life occurring in this place.
The surrounding countryside is stunning! My guess is: world heritage listing has spelt death to the community here – its only fit for bus loads of cranky, tired, over-heated tourists. It is an absolute tragedy. I can see how exquisite the place would have been ten years ago, but it’s over…
I love it that you ‘Hate’ it cos that means there won’t be so many pretentious, hypocrites there when I visit again! Get off your high ‘traveller’ horse, you are a tourist too – just look up the definition!!!!
No ‘authentic life’? I’m not sure what kind of guesthouse you stayed in, but mine was run by a Lao family, as most of them are – grandpa, mum & dad, 2 grown up sons, one daughter in law, one 6 year old and one todder. They shopped in the market, ate in local restaurants, did their laundry, watched TV, surfed the net, went to school, visited the temple, maintained the family shrine. The women wore traditional skirts sometimes, but not always. OK, so they didn’t own a buffalo, didn’t wear straw hats, and they had indoor plumbing – and, shock horror, they were relatively well off. They were an urban, middle class family – but I guess some tourists expect the residents of the places they visit to remain in picturesque poverty and backwardness just for their benefit.
Thank you for your blog post it is a very honest point of view.: ) You did good to go explore the surrounding of Luang Prabang if it was not of your liking!
See you soon!
Exactly! Well said. There is still so much to see and experience there, so I just can’t understand why tourists would slate it. Comments like Bad ‘juju’ do not help the place – what the hell does that mean anyway? I’m looking forward to visiting Luang Prabang again and will stay even longer next time, hoping to help out at an elephant sanctuary for a while. If anyone done this in Laos please would you let me know how it was and whether it was a truly Eco experience. I was really worried about the treatment of elephants in the Far East and would like to do something to help, albeit only a drop in the ocean.
Kate u are full of shit
Such pretentious uninformed lame innacurate information on your blog Kate, absolutely most definetaly the worst thing I’ve seen online it makes me sick.. Stay home in Boston beeeeaaaatcchhhh
Confession : I can’t stand you
I agree about most of the things you have written here, I felt almost exactly the same while in Luang Prabang. I do have to ”pick” on something however…You suggest people go to Kompot, to go now even, ”before the tourists get there, anyway.” You do realize you are sending people there yourself, helping turn that town into a place just like Luang Prabang. Do you see the irony here?
I am in Luang Prabang now and can’t believe how bad the energy is here..
I came here without biased expectations and I’m still waiting to see why everyone raves about it.
Finishing a brisk trip in South East Asia in LP to relax and enjoy the laid back pace.
Full of tour groups of rude Chinese pigs and Germans and French of course .
Everything truly traditional has been ruined by tourism and locals are just as bad.
Misserable and not engaging with you, unless it’s to take your money and as much as they can relentlessly without any guilt.
How can a country so close to Thailand be so different..
Beautiful scenery but it comes at a price and leaves bad taste in your mouth over and over again, day after day..
Wish I chose a different destination to finish my trip with a smile.
Well, if you want to be somewhere that isn’t overrun with tourists, why go at the absolute peak of the tourist season? Just like Kate did. Duh!! Perhaps there was something about you that made them not want to engage with you – perhaps you were one of those many young people wandering around in scruffy shorts and vest top showing no respect for cultural norms? I had no such problems – but then I’m middle aged, went in March, dressed in clean, neat consevative clothes, and could address them in French. And your implication that Thais, with their insincere auto-smiles, (you do realise that a smile in Thailand does not necessarily indicate pleasure, don’t you?), don’t relentlessly take your money is laughable – obviously they are more practised since you seem to notice it less.
Thank you Dane,
unfortunately I read you post way too late. November 2016 and I arrived in LP for the first time today. And I’m appalled. The 5-suitcases tourist crowd is here. In droves. And they don’t smile. Neither do the locals.
This as a conclusion to a 3 week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia and it is giving me the creeps!
Disneyland is the only way to describe it.
I might be too late with this question: Is the real Laos still to be found or has it been sold by the pound?
You want Laos or Cambodia? Go to Stockton or Fresno, California. Huge population of both group. The girls are a bomb shell no bullshit. And the guys, not to sound gay they’re are as some huge ass dudes and good looking. Kids in America be eating some steroid cow meat, for real, lol. Very diverse town but small compared to S.F. or L.A.you’ll still have fun.
Good article. Luang prabang is imdeed fantastisch and not representatieve as a typical Laos town.
I very much agree with THE very last paragraph: go to Kampot Now !!!
Wow, some people here should get over themselves. Unless you are raised in a certain culture, it is very hard to fully understand it, even after living im a place for years. All this “oh I understand the Lao culture better than you” stuff is just ridiculous.
I’m writing this from Luang Prabang, which I’ve saved for the grand finale of my trip in Laos, and this is the only place in the country I’m not enjoying at all. I’ve found food and accomodation to be about twice as expensive as in the rest of the country. It is also the only place in Laos where I have not felt welcome.
While it is natural that the loval people want to use tourism as a source of income, that seems yo have become the sole purpose of the city which, to me, kills all the atmosphere it might once have had.
So I’m going to hightail it out of here back to my beloved Vientiane tomorrow, where the locals, expats and tourists all do their thing and you’re likely to be invited by a group of Lao or Lao and foreigners to have a beer with them.
Question though – it seems like a lot of people only go to LPB and VV? Guys the south of Laos and Vientiane are amazing.
I agree with the haters — the LP haters, that is. I HATED it there. The people were rude, mean and miserable. I couldn’t wait to leave and regretted spending 4 days of my life there. Completely overrated. Not just bus tours but also backpackers — at the falls, for example, the backpackers in their skimpy bikinis overshadowed the few locals bathing with their clothes on (the women at least). I didn’t even jump in because it felt like I was crashing a private pool party.
I was literally shooed away for asking directions. Had a door slammed in my face by a waiter. Was completely disregarded by another waiter. Was stared at intensely but no smiles. The only time locals tried to engage with me were — at a restaurant the owner tried to get me drunk with free drinks and promises of a ride he kept pushing off 20 minutes later and later. No, his efforts failed. Then the driver who took me to the airport engaged in conversation only to ask if I slept — meaning I had sex — with my boyfriend. I don’t have a boyfriend but was forced to say yes because he kept asking me and telling me to come back to see him. I am a 32 year old Latino woman, dressed decently in pants or long shorts the whole time I was there. There are more rude stories that are not worth remembering.
I hated it there too!
Where are you now?
i completely believe you seeing how places have become unrecognizable even after 10 years.
places like The Canary Islands since 1967 saturated by north European hotels and sprawling suburbs.
South Bali since 1975 when Kuta, Legian and Seminyak were villages on a country road and covered in paddys/fields of cows and trees and houses dotted here and there where we could stay for $1 a day at the old rate.10 years later it was all pretty much covered in concrete,expensive hotels,shops and now like a large overdeveloped city where only a fraction of the people are Balinese.
Also in that year i entered Vientienne just as the French colonials and Americans were leaving and the communist army were everywhere and hearing that Luang Prabang was a good place to go,i couldn’t because buses were being attacked.so i got out of Laos as quick as possible.
So thinking about taking my family to Cambodia,Thailand,Laos etc we will only go as far north as Vang Viang and Plain of Jars.
Thats why i believe you.
I was in LP in 1997 and it was beautiful then. Sleepy, very few tourists, peaceful and friendly people. Now I’m sure it’s been ruined by all the tourism. But generally speaking Laos is a very primitive country ruled by a very repressive communist regime, right up there with North Korea in terms of bad they are. There are better places to visit.