Luang Prabang in Loas – Why I Left Disappointed

Luang Prabang in Loas – Why I Left Disappointed

Luang Prabang was the final stop on our adventure through Laos. I’d been looking forward to it for years. There were promises of ‘the old Laos’. A whimsical world away from anywhere else. Gorgeous scenery and temples, monks walking the streets at dawn accepting alms from the locals. What I got was tourist hell.

Whilst not an unpleasant town, Luang Prabang didn’t offer the experience which guide books and blogs sell

Luang Prabang Panoramic View
The view looking over Luang Prabang

A UNESCO Heritage City since 1995, Luang Prabang received the award for it’s well preserved colonial buildings and Wats (temples). Departing the bus and walking through town, it was clear this place was different to the other Laos cities we visited. There was an air of charm and grandeur and for the most part, the streets were generally free from litter.



 

Phou Si Mountain

So when did things start going wrong? After a hearty meal in the shadow of Phou Si Mountain, we noted that sunset was only a couple of hours away. It was the perfect time to make the ascent. At the Phou Si ticket office we paid our 20,000 kip ($2.5 USD) entrance fee and were mocked by some rude locals (people in Laos are usually very friendly). 

Golden Reclining Buddha
One of the many Buddhas you’ll see ascending Phou Si Mountain

On the way up Phou Si Mountain, there’s some attractive Buddhist statues, so we stopped to admire them and the jaw dropping views across the Nam Khan River. At its peak sits the golden Stupa of That Chomsi. It felt like a very peaceful place to watch the sun set…at least for a while.

Phou Si Mountain Sunset Luang Prabang
Watching the sunset from Phou Si Mountain

After sitting for 20 minutes I stood up to look around. What was an initial gathering of around 15 people had suddenly become a tight squeeze of white flesh. A feeling akin to being down the front of a festival, rather than at a religious site.

Now before I go on, I must make a self disclaimer. It would be naive and stupid for me to bemoan an influx of tourists. Any way you look at it, I am a tourist too!

Tourists taking pictures
Tourists getting ‘the shot’ at Phou Si Mountain

 Of course, no one can expect a sunset to themselves (and why should they?). It was the carnage that ensued which ruined the atmosphere. The mob seemed to lack respect for each other and the surroundings. Selfie sticks filled the air. Shoulders pushed one another. Feet were stepped on. Big guys stood in front of little people. You get the idea. Many wanted to get ‘the shot’. Few seemed to have a desire to enjoy ‘the view’.

Luang Prabang Night Market

Descending Phou Si Mountain we entered the Luang Prabang Night Market. A famous landmark in the town and place I was led to believe offered an authentic and local experience. It offered nothing but souvenirs and there was nothing local or authentic about it. This one is purely for tourists.

Luang Prabang Night Market Vegan Food
This vegan food at the night market was a tasty treat

Strolling further up the street we were greeted by a string of overpriced restaurants, money exchanges, travel companies and tuk tuk drivers. Of particular surprise was that these all sat between the Wats (temples). I started to wonder how the monks got any peace from the rawkus hustle and bustle. 

I was sold an image of an authentic UNESCO Heritage City and it felt like part of the  Epcot World Showcase.



Getting out of Luang Prabang

Feeling a little confused, we awoke the next day and headed out of Luang Prabang town. No particular plan, other than to head in a direction and pick up the scent of anything interesting. As we sighted orange robed Buddhist Monks coming down the road, we followed where they had come from. This led to Wat Phouk Way Phokharam. A temple painted in bold reds, adorned with intricate gold patterns. Such a beautiful pattern must have taken a painstaking effort to complete. Monks swept the courtyards and walked the complex under their umbrellas. We were greeted with smiles and were the only other people there.

Decorated Golden Buddha in Laos Temple
A Golden Buddha in Wat Phouk Way Phokharam

The previous day from the summit of Phou Si Mountain I had seen a golden temple in the distance. This was Phra That Khong Santi Chedi and as we were now nearby, decided to head over. Just a short walk from Wat Phouk Way Phokharam, it was again vacant of tourists. The only other visitors were local school children, eager to practice their English with us. Even they seemed surprised we had bothered to leave the main town of Luang Prabang.

Temple in Laos
Phra That Khong Santi Chedi

If you visit Luang Prabang, Phra That Khong Santi Chedi is worth the effort. Its five floors are decorated with intricate paintings. The lower levels depict Buddhist Hell, reaching up to Buddha’s Enlightenment on the top floor. The views are to die for too. Looking out from the balcony I could see That Chomsi at the peak of Phou Si Mountain on the horizon, mirroring the previous ascent.

UXO Visitor Centre

UXO means Unexploded Ordinance. When considering wars in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the country most people would associate with conflict. Yet Laos is ‘the most bombed country in the world’, meaning there’s sadly a lot of undiscovered UXO. This seems hard to imagine, but much of the conflict took place in the border regions of Laos and Vietnam. Laos is still suffering to this day.

War remnants in the UXO Museum Laos
UXO Museum Luang Prabang

During the Vietnam War , over the course of nine years (1964 – 1973) (called the ‘American War’ in Asia), America spent an average of $2 million USD per day bombing Laos. Over 500,000 bombing runs took place over Laos, but for a long time, America denied ever being there. There’s still a staggering 80 million unexploded bombies (submunitions) throughout the land.

Unexploded Bombies (submunitions)
Unexploded Bombies (submunitions)

Obviously this is a huge problem. The people of Laos rely on farming and millions of UXO lie in their farmland. In the 50 years since the conflict ended, Laos residents are still killed and injured every day by American bombs.

Child's injury from unexploded munitions in Laos
Children are often the victims of unexploded munitions

Luag Prabang’s UXO Visitor Centre is an essential part of a visit to the town. There’s remnants of war, informative historical displays and videos telling survivors’ stories. I’d say this is probably the best experience to have in Luang Prabang. Entrance is free, but donations are appreciated. There’s also crafts for sale, such as key rings made out of bomb shell cases!

The Wats of Luang Prabang

Returning to the main part of town, we walked Sakkaline Road to see the numerous wats such as Wat Sensoukharam, Wat Sop Sickharam and Wat Sene. The road leads down to the riverbank where you can admire peaceful views across the Nam Khan River.

Wat Pa Phai Buddhist Temple
Wat Pa Phai

Here you can also observe the infamous Bamboo Bridge. Laos suffers from monsoons and the bridge can’t withstand such heavy rains. Therefore it is rebuilt every year and allows locals took take a shortcut in to the town. Otherwise it’s a crazy detour to get there!

Bamboo Bridge Luang Prabang
The half finished Bamb Bridge

Boatman will quickly pounce on you at the viewpoint and all the way down Khem Kong Street. We didn’t go on a boat trip with them, but the sheer frustration of being heckled every few steps was enough to put us off spending a couple of hours with them in the close confines of a boat.

Sai Bat – Monks Alms Giving

Luang Prabang is renowned for the ‘Sai Bat‘, a giving of alms to Monks at dawn. Locals buy sticky rice, cover their left shoulder with a garment (a sash for women and blue checked scarf for men) and sit on stools awaiting the line of monks to pass. As they do, one reaches out their right hand with an offering of sticky rice which is then taken by the passing monk.

Signs in Luang Prabang ask tourists to respect the Sai Bat alms giving tradition and advise how to behave. A request is made to respectfully observe and only take part if the ceremony has personal significant meaning to you. One thing not to do is walk up to the monks and take photos. Nor should you use a camera flash if taking photos from afar.

Tourists disrespect the Monks in Luang Prabang by flashing cameras in their faces
Tourists disrespect the Monks in Luang Prabang by flashing cameras in their faces

What I witnessed was a complete tourist shambles. People walk up to the monks and wave cameras in their faces, flash guns blazing. Other tourists would sit on the stools, but instead of holding sticky rice, their hands held a camera. Ready to get ‘the shot’ as monks passed by, offering nothing but disrespect.

I felt awful. Watching the carnage unfold from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but feel for the Monks. They’re undertaking their daily ritual and get hounded by the tourist paparazzi. At that moment I was unsure what to do. Should I go and call these people out? As Luang Prabang is a UNESCO Heritage city, shouldn’t this actually be overlooked to keep misbehaving tourists in check?

I don’t have the answer, but I know it left a sour taste. Combined with aforementioned never ending tourist shops, travel agents and overpriced restaurants, Luang Prabang is not the place it perhaps once was. This was nothing like the sleepy, peaceful and tranquil Laos I’d experienced in the weeks prior. Nor did it come anywhere close to my expectations.

Luang Prabang Monks walking down the street receiving alms Sai Bat
The Sai Bat Monks Alms Giving – stay on the other side of the street

Final Thoughts on Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang isn’t without its charms. There’s certainly a pleasant feel to the city. However tourism has clearly killed off what may have once been an authentic Laos town. Perhaps its location to the international airport is what brings so many people here. For many, it is the only part of Laos they see. One thing is for sure, it doesn’t represent the rest of Laos by a long shot.

I wouldn’t say don’t visit Luang Prabang. I think that most people who go have a wonderful time, but this isn’t the ‘real Loas’. Just set yourself realistic expectations beforehand. Whatever you do, don’t be ‘that’ tourist disrespecting the monks at the Sai Bat alms giving.

Essential Items for Your Trip to Laos

A travel guide is really useful to help you learn all about a country and decide on the best places to visit. This Lonely Planet Guide to Laos is ideal and also available on Kindle.

The Rough Guide to Laos is another great choice to help you through Laos. Also on Kindle.

You’ll need sun cream to fight against Loas scorching sun. I recommend an eco friendly reef sun cream. This means if you also use it to go swimming, you won’t be harming the underwater environment and animals. You won’t get burned either!

Save the environment and stay hydrated with a bottle that filters your water. This is ideal for travelling overseas where people don’t have the luxury of potable tap water. It will mean you don’t get sick or use a lot of non-recyclable plastic.

Get the best value accommodation in Luang Prabang here:

Booking.com

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