Geographically, Luang Prabang’s isolation has largely defended it from the forces of mass tourism. The city spreads out from a peninsula located where the Mekong River merges with the Khan River and the region is a rare find, preserved by its authentic heritage and culture.
Ancient attributes and buildings confirmed Luang Prabang's UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995 and since opening its doors to the rest of the world, international attention has increased significantly in this relatively undiscovered region. Since 1989, the number of tourist arrivals has risen from a several hundred intrepid backpackers to more than 800,000 foreign visitors in 2009.
Of course, with growing popularity, constant push-pulling forces create a balancing act to achieve equilibrium between commercialism and tourism in Luang Prabang. The more traditional Laotian and French colonial architecture draws international tourists and there are 41 hotels, two resorts and over 200 guesthouses now available to visitors that suit all budgets. Prices range from US$5 to several hundred a night, with vast colonial mansions like Luangsay Residence offering the best in hospitality and comfort, while more modest guesthouses still cater to backpackers and younger travellers.
Guests in Luang Prabang’s Old Town find themselves on the cusp of two worlds: in awe of the ancient city landscape, whilst simultaneously syncing their Macbook and checking their emails in a street side cafe. If you’re in Luang Prabang in April then head to the streets to join in with the processions of people, celebrating Pi Mai Laos (Laos New Year). Officially, the holiday lasts three days, but in reality, the parties carry on all week long. Be prepared to soak up the festival in more than one way, staying dry is not an option during the New Year celebrations, which are characterised by mass water throwing.
Another interesting, if not obscure festival in Luang Prabang is the Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) during the month of May. Boun Bang Fai is a rain-making and fertility festival and locals build rockets to fertilise the clouds and bring rain, which in turn feeds the rivers and fertilises the fields. This festival certainly goes off with a bang, providing a great source of entertainment. Colourful town and village processions only enhance the experience and you can round off an entertaining evening with fine meal at one of the city's many bistros.
For visitors looking to get in touch with their wild side. The Nam Ha national protected area is a stunning unspoilt region close to Luang Prabang and also an ASEAN Natural Heritage Site. Adventurers can spend two nights at the bamboo jungle forest camp, where senses are awakened with the sound and sight of monkeys, barking dear, gibbon, wild pigs, jungle fowl and an array of exotic birds.
Luang Prabang is an authentic alternative to the surplus of tourist-spoilt traps across Asia. A wealth of culture and close proximity to nature give the city a special allure, and its strong French influence can be likened to Chanel: original, sophisticated, rich, and complex.