Confession: I can’t stand Luang Prabang.

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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.

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101 thoughts on “Confession: I can’t stand Luang Prabang.”

  1. I actually remember this being one of the first posts I ever read of yours. Now I’m sitting in a guesthouse room in Luang Prabang and I have to say I really like it here. I was struggling with Laos until I arrived here. I’d had a tough time and not particularly enjoyed it (apart from 4000 islands – you can’t not love 4000 islands!). By the time I leave LP I’ll have been here two weeks! I’ll have taken classes in cooking, weaving, dying, knife making, carving and wine making, as well as visiting some beautiful waterfalls and trekking in the mountains. Sure, it’s very tourist orientated, but it’s still a charming city in my opinion, and I love that there are so many travel companies focused on responsible tourism and interactions with locals. Have you been back since? I often find that my opinion of a place is really heavily influenced by other factors. If I feel ill or don’t meet people I relate to that well I’m always going to look back with a little less enthusiasm…

  2. I travelled by kayak down a small river named the Nam Ou, starting at the very top of the country. I was with 5 scientists exploring the region – it was a wonderful experience. When we got to Laung Prabange and carried our equipment up the steps from the Mekong, I felt like I had left the real Laos behind and had stumbled upon a bustling tourist center. Crowded with mostly Australian travelers. Markets selling cheap goods everywhere. The city has beautiful sights, but – Lao Disneyland? Exactly right.

  3. I have to admit I’m writing this from a bar near the night market in LP. I’m based in Hanoi (which I love for it’s crazy wonderfulness) and I’ve just extended my stay here. As a lone traveller (admittedly with means – I first backpacked 30 years ago) I am appreciating the weather, the lack of street hassle and the different food. I’m also here to work – 12 hours lodged in my hotel room being a digital nomad. The Internet is back in the dial-up age, but I find my brain untangling nicely. I have a nice coffee in the morning… Sit at lunch and find myself dozing as I look across the Mekong and wonder how so many empty cafe’s can make any money. I get the feeling this place isn’t optimised yet – there are too many villas making barely any money and the bars don’t understand how to make themselves must-visit dives for everyone who visits.

    Thank heavens for that and thank heavens for LP being a bit random, variable and human.

  4. Hi,

    I appreciate your article. However, saying, ” For the record, you wouldn’t see any of these things worn by any Lao,” is untrue. I can understand why you would say that. No one wears it on a regular basis. It’s not attire you will see people walking around on the streets with. It’s common for ceremonies, festivals, etc.

  5. Go to Kampot?? Really?? Your post must be very dated. I was just there and that town doesn’t have anything “authentic” going for it. There isn’t any history or colonial buildings, the town is dull with little to do, and the only good thing about the area is the massive amounts of expats who have pushed the locals aside and opened decent eateries. Seriously, go to Kep if you want to chill with Cambodians. Go to Kampot if you want a pizza.

    I spent 2 months in Laos and found Luang Prabang delightful. It was the only place with highspeed internet and cheap street food… Much better than the noisy crowded capital city Vientiane which is lit up by LED billboards. If you go realizing that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, then you won’t be surprised by all the “tourists.” — I mean, do you complain that there are no Peruvians at Machu Picchu?

  6. Oh Kate – what a terrible article and full of inaccuracies. I don’t care whether you liked Luang Prabang or not, but this blog is in accurate in so many ways, and YOU are clearly the typical tourist that you are complaining about, and have proved you know nothing of this country. I’ll try to keep this short:-

    Fashion Show: “showing this much skin for tourists!” er, actually some tribes do show a lot of skin, and in the past were completely topless. I don’t like the fashion show either, but more for its modern style than traditional dancing, but hey its just a different style. Talk about showing skin at the waterfall, indeed there are times and places, but what did you wear that day?

    Night Market: “priced much higher than they would be elsewhere in Southeast Asia” – guess what, Luang Prabang is the wealthiest province in the country, you should have done your homework, I believe you are just bitter as you are trying to bum around the world for free with your blogs (G help us all). btw – the locals do wear some of these items, but oh yeah, you never made it into the hills, just the tourist spots along the tourist route (except your little bike ride one day).

    Bars : “The town was filled with wine bars, which really made me happy” – so clearly you made no effort to go to a Lao bar…at this point I clearly saw what kind of traveller you are, which is fine, but don’t then complain about it – the problem is YOU.

    Luang Prabang isn’t trying to come off as authentic, UNESCO is protecting the development and architecture, refurbishing the temples etc…why should we keep the town and other areas deprived for your viewing pleasure and to get a cheap glass of wine because you’re too involved to go grab a beer with the locals, or teach in a school.

    “made my skin crawl” really?? well I actually get the same feeling with you, and now I shall not spend any more time with you. Stop peddling false information about places, if you don’t like somewhere, use facts. You get more genuine smiles here than anywhere in the world, but of course one should not act like they are above the locals. CIAO (that’s for your benefit as I just feel its a word you probably use with your wine buddies).

  7. I have spent a couple of weeks in LP now. I’ve been in SE Asia for twelve years. LP is a nice place. There are nice restaurants and coffee shops, the people do smile (I’m not quite sure where you got the idea of Lao people rarely smiling.) and there is plenty to do and see, especially in the surrounding countryside. A few points to note are to count your change in the night market. A money changer there tried to short-change me by 400,000 kip by giving me loads of 20s and 5s. I also went in a couple of shops where the service was quite poor and the staff quite rude. Despite that, LP is good overall. Most of the people are pleasant enough. I cycled to Koaungsi waterfalls and back and enjoyed that. I did another bike ride to the Pak Ou caves; I enjoyed the ride more than the caves as they were a little busy. Tomorrow I plan to go and see some more waterfalls and swim there as well. It’s also not really that expensive in LP, plenty of places to stay for 100,000 kip or less. Noodles for 15k, pizza 50-70k, coffee 10-20k. Bike hire a little steep at 20k most places. Some of the main temples are also 20k compared to 5k for Wat Sisaket in Vientiane. They have a small supermarket in LP to help save money on food though which helps out. One final thing is that the climate is perfect now in December, not too hot and not raining.

  8. In LP now. I agree with you that it is very touristy but so are so many places today. I started travelling in SE Asia in the early 90s and places like Thailand had loads of tourists then too. It is even busier now and places that were relatively quiet such as the whole of Indochina are tourism central now. The whole world is going the same way and is only going to get more so.

    In my recent travels I have noticed that in many places (not even in Asia) local tourists, SE Asians, Indians, Chinese, South Americans, Russians and Eastern Europeans outnumber the traditional sources of tourism – Western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan. Everyone who has enough money wants to see the world out there and good on them. When you express your fears for Kampot I would say that is pretty snobbish and elitist. And by encouraging people to go there now you are being hypocritical.

    My suggestion to anyone a bit tired of very popular places would be to simply strike out for anywhere not in the guidebook/backpacker/package tour circuit. For example even in somewhere as full of foreigners as Thailand it is possible to to use buses and motorbikes/bicycles to visit many fascinating town and rurl areas where you will be unlikely to see more tthan a handful of other foreigners.

    As for the debate over travellers/tourists I think it is plain silly oneupmanship. Travellers are tourists! I took the slow boat to LP from Chiang Khong and many of the backpackers/travellers on board were embarrassing. They spent the two days getting very drunk, playing loud music, whooping and running up and down the roof of the boat to the irritation of the crew. They were essentially harmless and having a good time but it was hardly anything other than an imposition by inconsiderate, arrogant and childish foreigners on the locals. Luckily the Laotions seemed to take it all in good humour and I suppose see it as the crazy farangs providing them with a bit of entertainment. In the meantime I ended up sitting at the uncomfortable front of the boat with the Laotian villagers and all the sacks and crates of produce as the boat was so full. This turned out too be a blessing however as it was peaceful and the Laotian woman sitting next to me and I shared our food for lunch. A more enjoyable and memorable time than getting drunk and whooping to loud music which I can do at home.

  9. LP is a world heritage site and will most likely stay this way as other World heritage sites are- typically full of bus travelers etc … it’s still a very beautiful small town. I’ve traveled all over the World and would encourage friends to stop off for 2-3 days to walk this beautiful area.

  10. It inflames me, a Southeast Asian person, to read things like this. I’m sorry that we don’t conform to the traditional view of “Asian” people, wearing our loincloths, climbing up in trees and biting off the head of a monkey that we just caught using our primitive tools.

    I feel sometimes that all Western people want is a voyeuristic experience of an “authentic” Asian family for the low, low price of 10 dollars. We are not animals and Asia is not an open-air zoo. We do not come up to you and say, hey Westerner, you really smell bad, could you please shower daily because it is a regular custom in our country to smell nice? We are sorry that we now have actual roads instead of flattened dirt. We apologize for setting up restaurants and wine bars instead of disheveled mud hut type places of dining. We are truly sorry we charge money in exchange for our hospitality and warmth.

    We are horrified that our countries have become safe, mildly developed versions of yesteryears. If you really want authentic, try living in the south of the Philippines where the radical islamic groups live and kidnap foreigners. Or the slums where you shit next to the drinking water source. Or live on 1 dollar a day. I’m sick of entitled Westerners coming in this continent and tsk,tsking their way around because it doesn’t live up to their idea of an “authentic” Asia.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with David’s earlier comments Kate…but perhaps i’ll put it more bluntly. You sound like a bit of a wanker with ur comments here. I too have travelled extensively for a number of years, and have done it all from the 20 bucks a day style with my thumb out, sleeping in the cheapest of backpacker joints, to the glam super pricey resorts with beautiful stilt-houses over the water on that exclusive patch of unspoilt beach. No matter where and how, it never ceases to amaze me that I always come across a certain type of ‘traveller’, a category I think you might fall in. You can recognise them from their air of superiority, the way they sneer at someone reading a guidebook or who isnt wearing an appropriately baggy enough pair of fisherman’s pants (how original and earthy!), the ones with the lloudest voices saying that Yeah…this place is oh-kaaay but you shoulda been here 5 years ago maaaaaan…you know the type, (keep ur eyes peeled for an ‘edgy’ top-knot or a big ‘ive dropped out’ beard …which also seems strangely well groomed) that says ‘im SEASONED!’….but i digress and am probably just being snide…in short, LP is, as u mentioned, is a beautiful place…like many beautiful places – including Florence where, gasp! , you STUDIED! – it draws people. All types. People who live there..or even study!…try to make money from these visitors. Sometimes they do it well, other times they do it hideously tacky. Thats life. But it doesn’t devalue a whole place or a whole local community. If u truly were the ‘world nomad’ u like to portray, you’d realise this. However I suspect ur too busy blogging or tweeting or posting selfies about how much cooler/edgier/worldier/adventurous/etc you are to notice.
    Enjoy ur travels…maybe ill run into you somewhere and we can discuss it…you know, somewhere where only the cool cats go, like the heart of the amazon, the bottom of the mariana trench or maybe the rim of Olympus Mons on Mars…but I doubt it. My pants aren’t floppy enough.

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