Luang Prabang possesses a charm that outshines excessive tourism

loading Kamu Lodge

It’s boom time in Luang Prabang. Tourism figures have been rising after it was included on the Unesco World Heritage Listing, and after the New York Times ranked Laos number one on its “Places to Go” list for 2008.

I checked into the Villa Maly, a lovely boutique hotel a short walking distance away from the centre of town. This establishment shows perfectly why Unesco decided that Luang Prabang’s art deco architecture is a heritage worth preserving; the building is a gorgeous and successful fusion of traditional Lao architecture and colonial French influences.

In spite of extensive renovations, Villa Maly, once home to the local royalty, still manages to feel like an authentic part of Luang Prabang. The place offers, among other things, a spa, free (if spotty) WiFi service and a swimming pool that is almost too pretty to jump in. Upon request the staff can provide you with a map of the town, with the route to the centre of town helpfully highlighted. Throughout Villa Maly, traditional Lao furniture and art are incorporated to give the visitor the sense that they’ve just tiptoed into the past, less as re-creation but more as an emotional echo.

Sisavangvong Street, Luang Prabang’s main road, features a lot of shops. Everything from bakeries to restaurants to spas to souvenir shops, all to cater to tourists. Sometimes it felt as though there are more tourists in Luang Prabang than there are Laotians. Locals call out repeatedly, offering a tuk-tuk or boat ride. Even the town’s monks feel more like part of a scenery constructed for tourists to gawk at.

Luang Prabang’s famed morning alms ceremony encapsulates this. Every morning, dozens of monks would walk through town carrying little containers, and people would offer them food. It is an old, solemn tradition that has turned into one of Luang Prabang’s biggest tourist draws, with schools of tourists looking for photo opportunities, while opportunistic locals sell you sticky rice and green bananas to offer the monks. (This can go as high as US$151 if you’re not careful, so if you really want to take part in the ceremony you’re better off buying something from the local morning market instead2.) The monks silently, sometimes sullenly, play along.

Ms Poong and her sister, who run a little silk shop in the village of Ban Xang Khong, about five minutes from Luang Prabang by boat.

This is a theme park. I didn’t know what the “real” Luang Prabang was, but this can’t be it. (Draw your own parallels with George Town.)

Mount Phousi, located at the heart of Luang Prabang, was a welcome temporary respite. Some 350 stone steps will take you to the top of Phousi, where a breathtaking view of Luang Prabang and its neighbouring green, massive rolling hills and valleys awaits. This is Laos’s quiet natural beauty at its most dignified, especially when the sun’s coming down, and all you do is stand there and stare and take it all in, and feel blessed that you have this opportunity.

Sunset at Phousi.

At least you would if half of Luang Prabang’s tourist population didn’t have the same idea. I’m not saying the view isn’t worth it, but if you’re going up there for the sunset, it’s going to get pretty crowded.

The further you get away from Sisavangvong, the fewer obviously touristy shops you find. You’ll find more and more locals, and fewer tuk-tuks. The tourism industry is much less obtrusive, and searching for little gems off the beaten path can be an adventure in itself. L’etranger Books and Tea is a personal favourite: a small, quiet little café that doubles as a mini-library, with shelves of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction in English and French. It’s a nice place to just sit down and have a quiet couple of hours to read to yourself over iced tea.

The Hive Bar just next door is a fun place to chill out at night to some decent, contemporary music. The main attraction is the Ethnik Fashion Show, which features a parade of young women wearing the traditional clothing of 15 of Laos’s ethnic groups. Celine, the proprietor of both L’etranger and Hive, proudly claims that all the clothes are handmade, and that the show is an attempt to preserve what is otherwise a dying heritage. “No one wears these types of clothes anymore,” she said.

The tents of Kamu Lodge.

After the fashion show the break-dancers come on stage, because why not.

Kuang Si Waterfalls is an hour away by tuk-tuk, taking you past the poverty-stricken outskirts of town and deep into the farmlands. A short hike past the bears (yes, there are bears) will take you to a multi-tiered, cascading waterfall. The waterfalls are a spectacular sight, a far cry from the disappointing gentrification of Luang Prabang. There are signs warning visitors not to go bare-chested or wear bikinis when swimming, but no one pays attention to that.

The boat ride up the Mekong to Kamu Lodge lasts about three hours, taking you past the region’s natural beauty, relatively untouched by civilisation. The long but serene boat ride is the only way to truly appreciate the majesty of the Mekong River. Other than a side trip to Pak Ou Caves, where some 4,000 Buddhist sculptures are kept, I literally had nothing to do but stare out at the gushing brown waters and the now familiar hills and valleys, and it was still a memorable experience.

Kamu Village.

Kamu Lodge is a small, gorgeous ecotourism resort deep in the Laotian jungle, accessible only by boat. The first thing you’ll see as you walk in, and probably the thing that will stay with you for a good long while after, is the vast, verdant paddy field right in the middle of the lodge3. Everything, from the air to the food, simply feels fresher, cleaner, here. You sleep in large canvas tents with thatched roofs, powered by solar panels. Fun group activities here include rice planting, gold panning, crossbow shooting (yes) and a tour through the neighbouring Kamu Village.

There are 320 people in Kamu Village. The lodge, we were told, pays the village depending on how many people visit it. It also employs locals, and at night, children serenade visitors with traditional songs and dances (including a genuinely badass bamboo dance, which is kind of like skipping rope, if you replace the rope with bamboos). It’s a lovely showcase of how tourism can coexist with the local community.

Luang Prabang is a quiet little town where time has slowed to a crawl and you can just kick back and chill. It’s also a pure tourist town, the embodiment of what Penang’s heritage activists are fighting against. It has its little charms, and you can do worse than take a long walk through town under a clear blue sky and just take your time exploring every nook and cranny. But step outside town into the lush greenery around you, with the mighty Mekong roaring nearby, and that’s easily what will stick with you long after you come home.

Locals generally accept the US dollar, but using the local currency kip will be cheaper in the long run.

2 Do check out the morning market. It’s quite the experience, and you’ll never forget the first time you see a little old lady selling a netted bag of desperate frogs trying to hop free.

3 As someone with parents from Kedah, this is the closest I’ve ever come to a paddy field. I am deeply ashamed.

In the three years he’s worked for this magazine, this is the closest Jeffrey Hardy Quah has ever come to a real vacation.

Related Articles

Mar 2011

Malaysia needs an equitable healthcare system

Toh Kin Woon talks about whether the increasing privatisation of health services is desirable, and how Malaysia’s healthcare system can be made more equitable.

Aug 2017

Chance Decides at The Italian Restaurant

Mark your calendars for a play like no other.

Jun 2013

An independent music scene for Penang

IndiePG looks to create new platforms for creative music here in Penang.

Sep 2017

Why Do Films Fail in Depicting Malaysian Life?

Restrictions, red tape, production costs – Malaysia's mainstream films are gelded.