Why no one really knows what ‘authentic’ travel is

We should not feel guilty for being typical tourists

Luang Prabang – Laos’ tourist Mecca

I recently realised that I always hear variations of the same complaint when I meet people somewhere exotic. “It’s too touristy here”, bemoans the Dutch backpacker, latte in hand. “It’s so fake.” “This is definitely not authentic”.

I had this very conversation in Luang Prabang, a sleepy riverine town in Laos. It’s one of my favourite places and I’ve visited four times now. But not everyone feels the same way about it.

Some travellers don’t like the markets that sell kitsch trinkets, the packed Mekong cruise barges, or the pizza and burger joints. They didn’t expect the supposed highlight of Laos to be like this.

This is an understandable reaction. Laos gets fewer than a tenth of the visitors Thailand does and is the poorest country in South East Asia. You would be forgiven for anticipating something that feels less familiar.

But when someone tells you how fashionably displeased they are with ‘inauthenticity’ brought on by tourism, you should remember that, aside from being tourists themselves, they probably have no more of an idea of what ‘authentic’ looks like than you.

‘Authenticity’ is little more than a feeling and it can unhelpfully mean whatever you want it to.

It’s probably touristy for a reason

Firstly, you should ignore the naysayers. Luang Prabang has a lot to offer.

It is a fantastic UNESCO town with a relaxed atmosphere, some temples dating back to the 16th century and a lot of French colonial architecture. It is also a stone’s throw from Kuang Si, one of the most impressive waterfalls in South East Asia.

Not bad for a ‘fake’ town.

Kuang Si – worth a quick dip

It shouldn’t be surprising that Luang Prabang province welcomes well over half a million visitors a year and boasts a relatively high standard of infrastructure.

There is even a late-night bowling alley selling bottles of Lao whisky for a pound next to a modern western medical clinic you can visit after drinking it.

The streets are also spotlessly clean, which you definitely can’t take for granted in Laos.

But if Luang Prabang, with its developed infrastructure and clean streets, is inauthentic, then what is authentic Laos?

We have romanticised the quest for authentic travel

Luang Prabang is nothing like Champassak, a province in the south of the country that sees few tourists. 

Champassak hosts the annual Wat Phu festival, where locals gather around a Khmer temple during a 3-day Buddhist celebration.

I drove there on a hot day in February. It didn’t start well. At the temple entrance, an impatient parking attendant waved an AK-47 at me when I couldn’t understand his directions.

I found no ‘I heart Laos’ t-shirts or pizza restaurants. In fact, there was not a great deal there at all, other than piles of rubbish, food waste rotting in the sun, some poorly treated elephants and a few stalls selling tacky plastic children’s toys.

Though there were very few tourists and no western restaurants, this is probably not the sort of ‘authentic’ experience my Dutch backpacker friend had in mind.

Appetising dinner in Champassak

Travel company Virtuoso claimed in its 2019 report that tourists consider ‘authentic experiences’ the third most important motivation for travel.

But few visitors to Laos would have put ‘gain an appreciation for Laos’ poor waste management system’, or ‘witness animal cruelty first hand’ on their bucket list of authentic experiences.

Not that you could call these issues inauthentic. Laos’s rubbish problem is especially well-documented.

Innovative Lao waste management solutions

So if neither Luang Prabang nor my experience of Champassak is the right sort of authentic, then what authenticity do tourists really want?

We want the brief illusion of harmony with our surroundings

Someone will have pitched an ‘authentic’ travel experience to you at some point. It probably involved all the right buzzwords:  visiting a ‘local village’, learning how to cook some ‘traditional’ dishes, trekking ‘off the beaten track’.

We like to feel that we are engaging with the places we visit on their own terms to understand a new culture, trying something that might be slightly out of our comfort zone.

But only slightly.

And that’s what paid tours and experiences aim to cash in on- a feeling of ‘authenticity’, glossing over the sketchy bits to provide something that is informative, novel but mostly pleasant.

We like taking nice photos of rice farmers living in quaint bamboo huts, and learning about cute local craft villages in the mountains. In Laos, we might also like the idea of staying with locals, if we are feeling adventurous.

But even homestays are marketed as an ‘experience’ for only ‘a night or two’.  Because oddly enough, our desire to travel ‘authentically’ is quickly trumped by our desire for flushing toilets, a shower and a comfortable bed.  

This should come as no surprise.

We want this sort of stuff. Better if she could wear the hat, though

Complaining about ‘inauthenticity’ can be hypocritical

So I was quite cynical when my Dutch backpacker friend complained about the inauthenticity of Luang Prabang. He was staying in a pleasant hostel full of westerners, with English-speaking Lao staff and solid scores on Booking.com and Hostelworld.

And he was not about to set off on a trail-blazing odyssey through the jungle like Dora the Explorer, in his quest for authenticity.

We all like nice things

You can of course have a great time in places that are not ‘touristy’. Some of my best memories of Asia have been simply driving around the countryside, exploring small towns and camping. I have enjoyed the odd homestay, too.

But I’d be lying if I said I have not also spent plenty of time relaxing in well-reviewed accommodation, eating good restaurant food and sipping cocktails, like most tourists do. People as hardy as Bear Grylls still stay in hotels after a day of exploring, after all.

So be sceptical when told somewhere like Luang Prabang is ‘inauthentic’. It’s a baseless complaint and you shouldn’t let it spoil your holiday. You should also ask yourself: who is anyone to judge your trip?

You could argue endlessly with a compatriot about authentic holiday destinations in your own country, let alone a country you have spent a matter of days or weeks in. I suggest you don’t worry about any of it and get another cocktail instead.

Utopia Bar in Luang Prabang – cheers!

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