LUANG PRABANG, LAOS - Is it still worth a visit?
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
When people used to ask us what our favorite country was from our travels, we often answered LAOS. More than a decade ago, this landlocked country in South East Asia took us completely by surprise. Compared to its neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam, the pace was slower, the weather was cooler, and there was a unique warmth and gentleness to the Lao people, who hadn't yet been exposed to mass tourism, that had us captivated. For all these reasons and more, we did not hesitate to return to Laos, with kids this time, starting with the ancient capital of Luang Prabang.
As a city with a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that boasts beautiful colonial architecture, a lively night market, ornate temples and pristine nature close by, it marks all the boxes for the perfect destination. There is a lot to love about this town, especially for families. With a population of 47,000, it is not overwhelmingly big or busy, the traffic is light, and the sidewalks are wide, which is all too rare in South East Asia. It is often ranked among one of the top places to visit in the world by big names like the New York Times, Forbes and Lonely Planet. It is no wonder Luang Prabang has become a popular destination in recent years, especially with a massive airport upgrade in 2013, attracting tourists by the plane loads.
The truth is, returning to a place we were once so fond of, started off with the dreaded "D" word... DISAPPOINTMENT. A lot has changed over the years. For one, every single business on the main drag now caters to tourists. What once used to be a quiet walk down the main drag, is now full of tuk tuk touts, mammoth tour buses and selfie-posing couples wearing matching elephant pants.
There is no denying the downtown core looks better than it did 12 years ago, as seen by the many buildings renovated and restored to preserve the charm of this historic city. With all the ongoing aesthetic improvements, there is a greater number of upscale restaurants, cafes, spas, hotels and shops than there used to be, attracting more than just frugal backpackers. For instance, one of the cheap guesthouses we stayed at last time, has since received a major facelift and is now priced out of our budget. Even one of the local street markets we remember getting our sandwiches from is long gone and replaced with fancier food stalls. Tourism is clearly booming in Luang Prabang. However, one can't help but miss the quieter old days, when the main tourist street blended a bit more seamlessly with the rest of the town.
To be fair, there were a few things WE could have done differently. Here are THREE MISTAKES we made when we came back to Luang Prabang:
1) VISITING DURING PEAK SEASON
We arrived just days before Christmas. Being in a touristy town during one of the busiest times of the year is only going to magnify all that is undesirable about traveling: crowds, expensive accommodation, and the much higher likelihood of encountering jaded locals and entitled tourists. We overheard people rudely complaining about their $1.50 CAD sandwich not being made exactly to their liking (it's NOT SUBWAY people!), getting off their tuk tuks without a smile or a thank you, and haggling over a mere 50 cents for a handmade souvenir. It's no wonder the Lao people were at times unfriendly in return.
2) STAYING IN THE TOURIST CENTRE
Those old colonial buildings on the main street may be cool to look at, but not so great to stay in. Our guesthouse, Croissant D'Or, was $42 CAD a night with breakfast included, situated right in the old town. Unfortunately, our room was directly above their restaurant. You could see light peeking through the cracks of the old wooden floors and hear everything from clanging dishes to muffled conversations. On the second night, there was a Christmas Eve party at a tourist bar across the street. The blaring base made the walls tremble as we were putting the kids to sleep. The third night was even worse, with locals next door drinking and partying until nearly six in the morning. It was so loud that ear plugs were useless and our kids awoke during the night. Our request to turn down the music at 4 am was met with mocking laughter. We booked for 10 nights but left after 3.
3) GREAT EXPECTATIONS
We knew that returning to any place has its perks and its downsides. On the one hand, it is comforting knowing what to expect and also fun to get all nostalgic reminiscing about the past. On the other hand, it takes away that element of intrigue, that excitement of sinking your teeth into a place for the first time. That initial dive into a country will always have an advantage that subsequent visits cannot compete with.
What we learned from returning to Luang Prabang, after all these years, is that so much of what makes you fall in love with a city or town is in the collective details unique to that place at that moment in time...like the people you meet, where you eat and stay, the time of the year and even the weather. A humbling lesson was learned. Don't assume you will love a place the same way you loved it the first time. It's important to be mindful of what your expectations are and be open to fact that it may not meet the current reality, which is not always a bad thing.
So is it still worth it?
DEFINITELY! This may all sound like we hated Luang Prabang, but in fact, we didn't. It took us a few days to get over our sleepless nights, let go of expectations, and reconnect with present Luang Prabang. It was easy to do with such a beautiful town, full of charm and character, and LOTS TO SEE AND DO.
What helped was exploring parts of Luang Prabang we didn't get to the first time we visited. It also made a huge difference leaving town and returning after almost 2 weeks in MUANG NGOI and Nong Khiaw. By the time we came back, the Christmas holidays were long past and the streets, though still lively, were much less saturated with tourists.
Over time, we got to meet some wonderful locals, like the family at a place where we often went for their cheap smoothies and sandwiches. They were so kind and friendly, once even giving the kids a chocolate crepe on the house!
After our unpleasant stay at Croissant D'Or, we found a hotel a bit farther from the old centre. Although it was nothing fancy, it was significantly quieter, with a more local neighbourhood vibe than our last guesthouse.
HIGHLIGHTS of LUANG PRABANG
1) KUANG SI WATERFALLS
This may be the single most popular tourist site in all of Laos, and arguably the most impressive. It is a busy place, but seeing these series of cascading waterfalls up close, flowing over smooth limestone amidst a lush green backdrop, is breathtakingly beautiful. We missed out on this excursion on our last visit, but we were sure glad to go see it this time.
2) NIGHT MARKET
Every night, Sisavangvong Road (the main tourist street) gets closed off to traffic, locals set up their tents and carefully display their goods for sale. For price, quality and selection, the tourist friendly night market in Luang Prabang is, dare we say, one of the BEST in South East Asia, especially for gifts and souvenirs.
3) MOUNT PHOUSI
Hardly a mountain at just 100m, it is a lovely 355 steps up towards a viewpoint of Luang Prabang, while passing various buddhist statues, shrines and even a small temple cave along the way. It is a popular walk up the hill at sunset, conveniently located right in the old town, and very easy to do with kids.
4) BAMBOO BRIDGE at SUNSET
While the more popular thing to do is go on a boat tour on the Nam Khan river at sunset, we skipped this knowing we would be going on more boat rides up north in Muang Ngoi. Instead, we walked over one of the two bamboo bridges and enjoyed the sunset on the other side of the river.
5) UXO VISITOR'S CENTRE
Many people may not know that Laos is the MOST HEAVILY BOMBED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. The USA dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, than all the bombs combined during World War II. It will take many years before the millions of unexploded bombs are safely removed, a disturbing reality that the people in Lao still have to live with even 40 plus years after the fact. It is a small, yet informative museum well worth a visit AND a donation.
Our time in Luang Prabang started off a little rough, some through fault of our own. The reality is, not every place is going to be amazing, at least not right away. Even though we had been here before, it was Molly and Owen's first time. Through their eyes, their excitement and curiosity we learned to appreciate Luang Prabang in a whole new way, making it a very worthwhile visit for us as a family.