So, having just returned from my favourite LP, was it as good as the first time?
My first visit was a nine-day sojourn in February 2010. My travel buddy Hamish and I arrived in LP via the overnight train from Bangkok, followed by a ten-hour bus ride from the Laos capital of Vientiane.
So struck were we with the place that we abandoned all thoughts of travelling further afield or reversing the bus and train journey back to Bangkok, instead staying put and booking a flight back to the Thai capital.
Could the magic be repeated when I returned with Mrs Wilbur nearly six years later?
The main two things that remain to inspire you and cleanse your mind and spirit, are first of all the twin rivers that flow through LP – the mighty Mekong and the less well known Nam Khan.
These are living-working rivers, not just for ferrying about travellers & tourists, but also to fish in, to farm beside, to bathe in, to irrigate from, to play in. A Mekong sunset remains as my favourite anywhere in the world.
The second thing that remains is the spirituality. LP is possibly only behind Myanmar in the sacred Buddhist sanctuary stakes. There are over eighty wats dedicated to Buddha in LP and every morning at daybreak, hundreds upon hundreds of monks snake their way into the centre of town to receive alms (gifts of rice, fruit, bread and flowers), which form the staple of their diet. Finding a place away from the tour groups is a must to appreciate this ritual properly in respectful silence.
We experienced both – Japanese and Chinese tour groups with noisy guides, irreverent tourists and intrusive long lenses, but also happily a back street where the alms givers were genuine Buddhists themselves who had been doing the same thing for decades, whilst the foreigners amongst us were respectful clusters of ones and twos retaining silence and an acceptable distance from the monks.
The other truly spiritual side to LP is to witness the monks inside their temples doing their twice-daily chants of Buddhist verses. We were actively encouraged by a thirteen year-old novice monk named Nosnoy to attend his wat’s sunset chant at the intimate Wat Sop Sickharam in the centre of LP. This was after he first admitted that he did not like rice!
Click MONKS to hear the guys chanting……..
All of the above resonated with me as much in 2015 as it had in 2010 and had the same effect on Mrs Wilbur.
So has anything changed for the worse? Inevitably yes.
We travelled in what was still deemed the low season, but there were many more tour groups than last time. This is partially down to the Chinese having greater wealth and and a desire to travel, but is as much down to LP’s growing reputation as a must visit place. I was reliably informed that in high season the tour groups can be pretty unbearable. Yuk!
The second thing was the locals seeing foreigners through $ sign eyes. In 2010 we were barely ever approached by boat owners, tuk tuk drivers and the like. They waited to be approached back then and gave you a fair price for their services.
Now you face a constant barrage of requests for business and their opening quote is invariably an inflated figure at about double the reasonable rate. Never before had I heard the question, “how much will you pay me?” This is what I have come to expect in Bangkok or Cairo, but never before in LP.
Prices have inevitably gone up, but you can still get a lovely meal for two for $10, an expertly executed one-hour massage for about the same price and some wonderful bargain souvenirs from the night market, as long as you are prepared to haggle.
So should you make the effort to venture to Luang Prabang? Of course you should and sooner rather than later. The tour groups are not going away and as long as there are tour groups, locals will try and extract maximum dollars from them.
My advice would be:
Pick your time to visit carefully. Early Spring or late Autumn are best times. You may get a little rain, but the upsides massively outweigh the need to pack a light coat.
Ask the locals where and when to go to avoid the pack. It is still possible to get very popular places virtually to yourself with a little planning.
Mix with the monks – they are extremely keen to practice their English and like nothing more than explaining every detail of how they live and what their aspirations are. They loved being photographed with you too as long as you ask politely. They are after all people, not zoo animals.
Some tourists clearly think otherwise!
LP rated ten out of ten for me in 2010. It still rates at least nine and a half in 2015.