One American traveler we spoke to quipped that Luang Prabang actually felt like Sante Fe, New Mexico. A fair comparison, we suppose, given its café-equipped, mid-mountain artsy demeanor and copious artsy shopping opportunities. These features ensure that tourists will keep ‘a coming to this quaint yet polished French colonial outpost on the Mekong. But if you are looking for a deeper cut of authenticity, catch yourself a water taxi to Ban Xieng Maen, a peaceful village just across the river, but half a planet away. Its simplicity and low-key temples belie the fact that we were only minutes from well-traveled Luang Prabang.
When we arrived on this literal “other side”, we were welcomed by a village girl holding a duck in her arms, fresh from the market perhaps. Villagers were extraordinarily friendly – kids ran up waving excitedly and adults smiled as we passed by. People here were happy to interact with us, but busy with their Sunday program of eating, drinking and singing.
Apparently, most tourists aren’t aware of this opportunity or couldn’t be troubled to make the trip. We were among only a small scattering of tourists we saw on our hike. Though the temples are pleasant enough, there are no spectacular sites to see. Here, the people are the main draw.
A hop across the Mekong makes for an easy way to witness authentic Laos so close to Luang Prabang. And if you are concerned about boat safety, choose the one with expensive electronic goods in it. The locals know that’s the safest of the bunch. Watch the video below for a how-to.