It was with some reservations, I looked forward to the reunion with Luang Prabang, a city I had not visited in nearly 10 years, knowing that the city’s visitor numbers have increased from about 70,000 to about 250,000 since my last visit. Would the city be transformed into a true tourist hell and the charming old buildings, which at the time stamp on the scene, they had to make way for modern architecture? In this context it should be mentioned that Luang Prabang has a population a little of over 96,000 and that results in almost 3 times as many visitors as residents.

Right...looks more like a bicycle....

Fortunately, my worst fears proved wrong!

The city stands still like when I left it at the last visit. The township of Luang Prabang sits on a peninsular at the confluence of two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong. It still manages to maintain its charming combination of timber Lao houses and European colonial architecture. The town’s low-rise buildings and numerous temples are all intact and, thank God for that, the city’s charm and soul are intact. However, there are clear signs of tourism affecting the city. Not many of the old Mom & Pop shops have survived the arrival of tourism and most are now converted to restaurants, travel shops and guesthouses, which probably account for 80% of the cityscape.

Since becoming a World Heritage site in 1995, the town has followed UNESCO’s guidance on the development of the town’s building appearance. The organization has a say in the construction of new buildings and hotels to preserve traditional architecture.

A bridge over troubled waters

You may have doubts about the change tourism brought to Luang Prabang but this town is definitely worth a visit. One of the ways to visit the town is to start with a stay at Lanjia Lodge, which is located in Thailand-Laos border. It gives you easy access Laos’ border, where you can take the Luang Say Cruise down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. Not only can you enjoy a quiet and relaxing ride down the river but also arrive in the right way to the city, approaching it from the river. 

Key Facts

In 1989 Laos opened its doors to tourism, stimulating economic growth with only 14,400 tourist arrivals and a revitalization of Luang Prabang. Laos received 2.7 million visitors in 2012 but almost 900,000 of them are tourists from its neighboring countries. A total numbers of tourists around 250,000 visited Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is situated in the centre of northern Laos on a peninsular at the confluence of two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong, bordering the provinces of Oudomxay, Phongsaly and Houaphanh to the north, Vientiane and Sayabouly to the south and southwest and Xiengkhouang to the east. It has a total area of 19,714 square kilometers.

Downtown

The province has a total population of just over 452,900 (96,000 in the city area) which include 12 distinct ethnic groups. The Khamu are the largest ethnic group in the province and make up the majority (about 44%) of the provincial population. 

They are Mon-Khmer speaking people, known for their knowledge of the forest, who are believed to be the original inhabitants of Laos. The Hmong are the second most populous ethnic minority (16%). Lowland Lao comprises 39% of the population that live mostly in lowland valleys and Luang Prabang Town.

The author of this article, Soeren Wettendorf, is the Director of Sales for Asian Oasis company and living in Thailand for over 20 years.