Tourist Mecca & Tourist Rip Off
The former royal capital without doubt must have put an irresistible spell on foreigners arriving here 10 to 15 years ago. The lush exotic vegetation, a small city wedged between the Mekong & the tiny Khan River with green hills all around it, this image itself is already idyllic. Now add about 30 “wats” and the countless monks that come with them and you have a very special place.
So the word was out, the city was classified UNESCO World Heritage in 1995. With travelers pouring into Luang Prabang in such numbers, it consequently took the same path with all it ailments like so many other hyped-up traveler destinations before it!
All the beauty mentioned before is visible, but overshadowed by an in-your-face dominance of western style restaurants, spa & massage parlors, travel agencies, Internet cafés and shops selling crafts on Sisvangvong Road. The guesthouses are more decently tucked away in the small side streets. The nightly craft market runs in four lanes the entire length of the former royal palace with some artwork being truly tasteful and still rather cheap. In order to give more business to the tour operators and tuk tuk drivers, foreigners are not allowed to rent a motorbike. The official version is “because there would be too many accidents”. Why bikes for rent are also hard to find and ridiculously expensive is not explained though. As a consequence, tuk tuks ask for outrageous prices.
Some elegant restaurants charge prices pretty close to European levels, but on the other end of the spectrum you can still find a good meal for 0.5 to 2 Euros at the night market. The fun part there is that you shop around at various vendors and finally drop with all your goodies at a table and savor them in the company of other travelers, who strayed away the 200 meters from the main drag.
We did not do any of the tours to the waterfalls, caves or elephant parks, but simply walked around and rested a lot. After traveling so much, lately especially on long-distance bus rides, we were in for some quiet life. The high temperature also took its toll and our little excursions on foot were limited to the morning and evening hours. But above all, we are experiencing a bit of a fatigue or disinterest in all those activities we so often joined in over the last 10 months, like visiting ethnic villages, trekking, kayaking, boat rides etc…
What helped us relax was our extremely comfortable room at Villa Phatana, opposite the Royal Palace Museum, the best and coziest place in 10 months, with perfect service, superb breakfast, all for only 25 USD a night!
To sum it up, there are some nice spots in Luang Prabang, but we think it is not so hot either. Luckily things wrap up early here, so no thumping discos. Also busses and trucks are banned due to the city’s World Heritage status.
The Lonely Planet’s description of Luang Prabang is cooked up travel brochure language: “It is thick with the perfume of pearly frangipanis (…) the burnt siena robes and bare-foot silence of Buddhist monks…”. The monks here are probably the most photographed monks in the world, since when they leave their wats at six o’clock in the morning to receive alms, they are eagerly awaited by camera swinging tourists. Of course, they wear flip-flops like everybody else, walk the streets with a mobile phone snug to their ear and most likely sit next to you in the Internet café.
The most exciting part here was that we met friends from Vienna who have been traveling through Asia for the last 10 months. Irene and Herbert left one day before us, but chose a very different route. They took the train through Russia to Mongolia, visited eastern China, Tibet, Nepal and northern India, before they joined the tourist trail through Laos and Cambodia.
So after 3 days of well-needed rest, we moved on to Phongsavanh and the “Plain of Jars”, another 8 hour bus ride on a very small, windy mountain road for only 320 kilometers.