Friday, July 1, 2016

Laos - Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the small city in northern Laos has, on paper at least, a lot to offer. It's been declared a Unesco World Heritage Centre due to its 'outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities'... Eeeh? I'm not making this up! This is actually how Unesco describes the town on their website. Who comes up with that? But perhaps more to the point, what does it mean if I'd visit Luang Prabang today? To be honest? Absolutely nothing. You'll notice plenty of other things before you'd worry about what Unesco wrote. Not only did we have the privilege to see it with our own eyes, we also had the good fortune to be able to compare notes with a person who has been here 4 years ago and noticed a lot of changes. His first reaction was: 'Compared with 4 years ago this town has certainly gone to shits'... Not a good start then...

It didn't come as a complete surprise to be honest. The Laos we had found in the north so far was distinctly different from where we were now. Gradually we had seen a change from friendly and caring people of the far north to the indifferent and at times downright rude ones we found here, which all seemed to come to a climax here in Luang Prabang. It already started on the road leading towards Luang Prabang, where we found a level of aggressive driving we hadn't seen before in Laos and which became worse and worse the closer we got to what Unesco describes as 'an outstanding example'.

Once in Luang Prabang we found the guesthouses we looked at for accommodation not only poor in service but also expensive compared to what we had found before. The owners didn't care and made every effort to let us know they didn't care. In town it wasn't any different... if anything it was even worse. Prices were 3 times higher for virtually everything from a can of coke to a bite to eat. The once good accommodation Vince had found 4 years ago was now US$35,- per night for a box with nothing but a mattress on the floor... We also had the distinct impression they didn't like foreigners much, which we had later confirmed by other visitors we met.

The locals' demeanour is rude, they run you off your feet if they can and don't give a toss about anything. Even a tourism orientated place like the Royal Palace, had guards which selected who could exit based on skin colour... yes you read it right, they select who can exit where on skin colour...! It is 2016 right? Asian people were allowed to leave through the main gate while the 'whites' had to leave via the gate at the back. 

Still it wasn't all bad. There is after all so much to see in cultural heritage here, some of which you can see on these pages. Most of the buildings are beautiful to look at. You'll notice that we're only showing the outside, as every building was firmly closed... One of the things listed as a must do by Luang Prabang tourism is a walk along the Mekong river. We were really looking forward to that. It's total length is some 4,000 km, so there are plenty of places to walk alongside it in the 6 countries which it crosses. Unfortunately Luang Prabang isn't the best place to see it though. The river side is one continuous chain of shabby looking restaurants, literally one after another, with in some cases a huge garbage dump right next to it! When I say next to it I mean literally against it! The smell is terrible and we won't even think about hygiene I suppose... They're using the romance of the Mekong river to extract money from tourists, while at the same time dumping their household waste in it by the truck load. Nice. There is no real walk along the banks either as you can hardly see it. The only place to see it that we found was right at the top of the peninsula where there is a little park and the option to walk a bamboo bridge. That little park is actually quite nice.

As is the norm with overcrowded touristy places, restaurants are expensive and not that good. But there are exceptions! We opted for the Nisha Indian Restaurant which is very good and reasonably priced. We were warned the owner was a grumpy old fart but we must have found him in a good mood :-) We stayed in the Jing Long guesthouse which offers secure parking and a decent room. It's a little bit out of town which isn't that bad if you prefer to sleep at night. Later that evening the plumbing started making weird whooping noises... gaining in strength until it became a fog horn(!) The owners of the guesthouse tried to get the plumber in, which didn't happen because he was drunk... In a way it was hilarious as it made us think about all the crappy accommodation and crappy towns we had stayed at over the last months. Even the one we are in as I'm writing this, which is quite good compared to others, has beds which you can't sleep on as the metal springs are sticking out everywhere, has a toilet which doesn't flush as it leaks so badly that they simply switched off the water mains to it, there is mould up the walls everywhere, has just one huge fluorescent as all the other lights don't work and has a front door which doesn't lock. Still, we reckon it's a good one compared to others as there is warmish water in the shower and the sink even has a drain pipe! 

As we prefer to see the real Laos over yuppie tourist parts like this, we didn't enjoy Luang Prabang all that much. I guess if you're a party animal which likes to get drunk and enjoy the night life then Luang Prabang might be your cup of tea but there are probably still much better places to get drunk too. A bit of a negative post then? Yes, but as always, we write it as we found it, good and bad. Luang Prabang has a lot of unfilled potential, but I'm not going to romanticise it and at the moment it's a bit of a nasty place to be honest. There's a fork in the road before you enter Luang Prabang, one takes you to Luang Prabang, the other leads you towards the Kacham Waterfall, which is just 40 km further south and a beautiful place... I know which one I would take. In the next post it all comes good again when we take you with us on the most beautiful ride of Laos!