|Laotian paddles traditional boat on Mekong River at Luang Prabang|
This afternoon I'm strolling through the historical neighborhood of Luang Prabang, in the old capital of Laos. Walking downhill, I arrive at the famed Mekong River. Having been on it before, it's as though I’m reunited with an old friend. It doesn’t disappoint; I’m treated to another fantastic view. The majestic Mekong flows before me, and beyond it are ancient forest covered mountains. Since the sun has returned the colors are bright, and the intense green colors of the jungle blanketed hills really stand out.
There are no tourists around this serene scene, so I find a walkway down from Khem Khong Street to the riverbank. There are no speedboats here, like everything else in Laos, movement on the river is slow. There’s no bridge either, any one crossing uses their own small boats, or takes the ferry. With the ferries docked, river traffic is light. The only sound is the putt-putt of one longtail boat chugging upriver.
|Buddhist monk by Mekong River, opposite Luang Prabang. This side of river was once part of Thailand.|
I head further down the Khem Kong river road, behind the royal palace. This was once the royal pier, a miniature port where the world’s dignitaries arrived by boat for official visits with the king. Back before there was a decent road between here and Vientiane, the Mekong was the main highway of Laos.
|Long houseboats lined up on the riverbank|
“It was so crowded, full of cargo and passengers, there was little room to spare,” a young lady complained. “We only slept a little, and that was in hammocks.” Well, when those backpackers travel, they like the true local experience. They certainly got one.
I look down towards the river bank now, and there some passenger boats, but they are outnumbered by much larger craft. There are more than 20 blue houseboats, all lined up on the bank, one right after
|A family lives on this houseboat|
Still, this isn’t a very sanitary lifestyle. I see a few children playing about, and laundry is drying in the windows. The laundry water and the bath water both come from the river. Unfortunately the river is also the neighborhood toilet.
Leaving the river I go to check out more of the town’s commerce, so I walk up the hill into the heart of this historic town. I notice Laotians walking into a market resembling a barn, and I follow them in. Inside is a market not for tourists, but for local folk. Booth after booth is selling cheap clothes, costume jewelry and pirated DVDs.
|Old basketball court is now a market|
Leaving the market, I turn onto the main street of the town’s old part, Sisavangvong. Passing the palace I visited earlier, I reach the best preserved section of town. There are French shophouses, cafés, popular restaurants, and stores selling works of local artisans. And yet, there is a distinct, un-Laotian feel to this street. Also occupying these old buildings are travel companies and internet cafés. The foreigners have invaded.
Looking around, I see Laotians on Sisavangvong have been outnumbered by white foreigner tourists. Walking down the busy street, I hear German, French, Swedish, and various English accents. In 1995 Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, which helped to preserve the old French colonial houses. After the war Laos was a forbidden land for foreigners, but they have come back to Luang Prabang in droves.
Passing one tour company, I pause to read the elaborate placard out front. It advertises elephant rides in the countryside, a favorite of foreign visitors. Ride an elephant for a couple hours, or all day. For those who want to spend even more time with the great Asian elephants, they advertise a mahout school for $140. In learning the mahouts ways, you are taught the basics to be an elephant driver, or handler. The introductory course takes three days.
|Local vendors set up for Night Market in Old Town Luang Prabang|
Walking on, another elephant tour company advertises this: “Three days trek to visit old opium fields”. 'Old' opium fields? Really? Are they saying that there aren’t any more new ones?
I head back to the guest house to rest, but there's more coming in the evening. Sisavangvong is known for its night market, and I return later to check it out.
This is actually my second time to the night market; I had seen it five years before. It was a unique night market back then, the street was closed to traffic, and each vendor had their wares laying out in the open on the roadside. There were no tables, their goods were laid out on the ground on top of colorful woven blankets. Each lady vendor had only a small light bulb to brighten their merchandise beneath the moonlight.
|Lady vendor smiles at customers in Luang Prabang Night Market|
In the years since my last visit, I return to the night market to find it has expanded exponentially! There are now so many vendors here that they don’t just line the roadsides, they are crowded together out in the street. It'ss no longer open to the skies either, most vendors have erected pop-ups for the rainy season. They're all packed so tightly together on the road, that there isn’t much space to walk through. To make my way down the street through the pop-ups, I'm forced to duck up and down repeatedly like a target in an arcade game!
|2005: The Night Market before it became swamped with tourists|
Having Luang Prabang declared a world heritage site has been a mixed blessing here. The old buildings have been preserved, that’s true, and business is booming.
But I fear Luang Prabang’s old district has become a victim of its own success; its romantic allure is fading. The high season now has mobs of tourists here, with most businesses catering solely to foreigners.
This historic street is losing the old world charm that made Luang Prabang a world heritage site in the first place.