Luang Prabang is now the crown jewel in a $513 million annual tourism industry that has become the second-largest industry in Laos, behind mining and ahead of electric power. However, the town’s shaded streets, glittering temples and French-colonial ambience still offer a less-developed alternative to many of Southeast Asia’s glitzier destinations.
“It still is, really, a bit of a land that time forgot,” said David Johnson, managing director at Delivering Asia Communications, a Bangkok-based public relations company specializing in hospitality consulting. It will change eventually, but Luang Prabang and Laos develop at their own speed, he added.
Hundreds of foreign tourists were among the thousands watching the parade of “fire boats” that followed the races in Luang Prabang. The nighttime event is a highlight of the three-day race weekend: Handcrafted bamboo boats adorned with fruit, candles and paper serpents are carried to a Buddhist temple and then floated on the nearby Mekong as a way of honoring ancestors and empowering the Naga, a serpentlike deity in Buddhist and Hindu mythology.
The event began at dusk as more than a dozen fire boats were pulled on trailers through the town’s main thoroughfare. Thousands of candles flickered in a light breeze as musical troupes marched along, playing traditional instruments.