Luang Prabang is by far the most touristy place I have been yet. I thought Hanoi was full of foreigners but it is at least balanced by hundreds more locals living in the city. In contrast, Luang Prabang seemed to contain as many foreigners as locals.
I suppose, being Laos’ only UNESCO site, it is going to be inevitably popular with tourists. I knew nothing about Luang Prabang until I arrived so I was simply not prepared for the tourism I would find there. All I knew is that from there I could get a boat along the Mekong to the Thai border.
It is still a beautiful place and the Lao people are unbelievably friendly to tourists, despite being inundated with them! However there is a darker side to the tourism there.
I was told about a Buddhist ceremony every morning called the Alms that was worth visiting. Knowing nothing about it I turned up at 5.30am to see crowds of tourists waiting for the monks to parade past. Traditionally the monks from the 33 Buddhist temples in the town would collect food offerings from the locals every morning for their meals. Today, it is nothing more than a gross tourist attraction and I was horrified to see some of the behaviour. Westerners standing so close to the monks they could shake hands, but instead of greeting the monks, holding up an expensive camera and snapping “a good portrait” at the expense of treating the Monk as a fellow human being. Food offered by tourists is mostly chocolate bars and sweets bought from street vendors who have capitalised on the tradition, rather than the wholesome food the monks would prefer.
I found out later the monks wanted to stop the ritual, but the government refused to allow it due to its huge tourist draw and even threatened to replace the monks with lookalikes if they refused. Had I known what a circus it would be I would not have gone.
I am glad to say it is not all bad. The chocolate is given to poor locals in the town and the original tradition in which people give proper food offerings does still exist in more hidden places around town and in the temples themselves. Even better, the Lonely Planet, seems to have removed it from their guide. Though they are very informative books I cannot help but wonder how responsible they are.
My original plan had been to stay just one night in Luang Prabang and continue my journey to Chiang Mai but I missed the boat…not realising it no longer left from the pier in the town centre but from one 10km away. Unable to face another 20 hour bus journey I decided to enjoy my extra day in Laos and continue a day later.
I went to visit the local limestone waterfalls with Svetla, which were absolutely stunning. We walked to the top of the largest waterfall and swam in the turquoise pools at the top….and then again lower down. Though it is a popular spot, I was in my element and so glad I had missed the boat (literally) that morning.
I had watched sunrise and decided that it would be the perfect way to complete the day if I watched the sunset from the hill in the centre of town. Unfortunately this too is a huge tourist attraction and I was overwhelmed by the crowds at the top. I can understand why though, the sunset over the mountains in the distance was stunning.
Svetla and I spent the evening in the night market eating delicious local food from the market and browsing the variety of handmade and Chinese-made souvenirs. Though a lovely place, Luang Prabang seemed to be defined now by tourism rather than the tradition it was famous for.
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I am so sad to hear how touristy Luang Prabang has gotten. It was one of my favorite memories of SE Asia, but I have often wondered if it is still as magical.
I’m so sad to hear how touristy Luang Prabang has become. And the story about the monks and alms is terrible. It was one of my favorite places when I traveled to SE Asia in 2008, and at that time they were building so many new guest houses. I knew it would probably be very different if I ever returned.