Start walking around Luang Prabang in Northen Laos and you’ll soon find yourself immersed in a wonderful almost collage of traditional Lao wooden houses. Hints of European architecture and many colonial buildings are a legacy of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochina.
Our mystery transport in Nong Khiaw bound for Luang Prabang, arrived a little late (Laos “reset” time). The ride ended up being a Songthaew crammed with about 16 passengers, the driver, luggage, stuff in the middle and on the roof; and the obligatory chicken squawking in a sack shoved under a seat, for the duration of the trip.
As with the trip from Luang Namtha, the road was very pot-holed and windy. Inevitably, there was also a puncture, which only took the driver about 20 minutes to change, without unloading goods, just passengers – very impressed that the driver had 2 spares on board and we arrived in one piece!
Arriving in Luang Prabang felt like getting closer to civilisation, mod-cons, tourism, and badgering from touts. Having visited this city in 1989, the changes are quite noticeable and inevitably, the city has exploded in size.
Apart from caves, waterfalls, sanctuaries, and much more around the Luang Prabang area, I’ve listed a few things here:
- Read much on the Alms Ceremony at 05:30 every morning and decided not at attend one of these as apart from mainly being a tourist spectacle, the government forces the monks to continue this tradition. Apparently, the reason for the monks resistance is that they sometimes became ill from the food offerings bought from local merchants taking advantage of tourists. The government threatened to replace monks with lay people clothed in saffron robes, just to keep this lucrative tourist attraction going!
- From Th Sisavangvong (opposite the Museum), walk up the many stairs that take you 100 metres up the Phu Si hill to the That Phu si and Wat Tham Phu Si (20,000K), where a 24-metre gilded stupa awaits. The city views from here ensure that the hoards of local and falang tourists hang around for the sunset or up early, for sunrise. The view over Luang Prabang is worth the stairs up or if you go the back way (not so steep) is an easier way up.
- Walking along the riverfront is very pleasant and there’s an abundance of cheaper restaurants overlooking the water if you’re in need of a sit and meal.
- Many boat drivers approach you (as do the Tuk Tuk drivers) offering return trips of hour-long rides up the Mekong to various Wats and tourist villages. It’s just enjoyable doing the peaceful boat trip, without all the bells, whistles, and hard sells. The boat for 2 people cost 90,000K, while others started at 180,000K for 2, so bargain hard!
- Night markets – great for souvenirs but beware these have become tourist traps and sadly, many of the items for sale are from China. Check any labels/tags before buying, unless you’ve fallen in love with a must-have!
- Book Exchange – pop into this lovely house and speak with Ruth whom has been living in Laos for 16 years and has many stories and facts to share about changes in Laos. The proceeds from 2nd hand books go to helping local children learn how to read.
- UXO Laos Information Centre – (admission by donations) is a must to learn about the perils and legacy of the 2nd Indochina war and how Laos is trying to clear UXOs from this legacy.
The Nam Khan Riverside Hotel (No. 20 Phousi Rd, Ban Aphay) offers great accommodation with an amazing breakfast at reasonable prices, for this city. Booked a cheaper room but as the hotel was busy, got upgraded to a balcony flashier room balcony room overlooking the Nam Khan River, which was very lovely; and the wi-fi router was on our balcony. Breakfast was excellent with 9 choices on offer and good strong coffee – very spoilt! Booked for 3 nights, stayed 5. However, as the hotel was busy, the next 2 nights were downstairs and although the room was clean, the bathroom could have been a little cleaner.
Night Markets – Food street (off Th Sisavangvong) in amongst the thick of the markets is where you can buy ready-made food at 15,000K a plate – the meats are extra (10,000 kip each and the sausage was an awful offering of fat and no meat to be found). There’s a much better quality vegetarian stall for 10,000K a couple of lanes back.
The back of the markets had many small stalls with fruit, groceries, toiletries, and much more; a good place to stock up.
Discovered an excellent local cheap restaurant (off Phamghasam) as the recommended Noodle shop near here was closed for evening meals. Not sure of the name, but from the street, you can see a grand timber stairwell at the back of the restaurant and it’s full of locals – at 15,000K for a generous freshly made delicious meal, it puts the markets to shame!
- The Hive Bar & Smokehouse – okay for drinks but note that these are nothing like the cocktails you might be familiar with! Although the bar advertises ‘real cocktails’, when you taste the drink, it’s obvious it’s not an authentic spirit, but the local white meth-like type spirit aptly named Lao Lao…a bit cheeky really as drinks are not cheap anywhere in Luang Prabang. The ambiance here was quiet on this particular night but can imagine this place would be pumping in high season. Happy Hour cocktails for 25,000K for 2, or 40,000K for 2 large cocktails.
- Utopia – if you want to experience what Laos is not but feel like you’re in a night club (meat market) in your own home town or anywhere in the world, then drag yourself to Utopia. The drinks are very expensive, the service is frosty, the place is pumping with falangs; and barely any locals to be found as they can’t afford the drinks! As Utopia closes at 23:30, everyone then heads or staggers to the bowling alley after Utopia’s closing as this is open until 04:30am.
Leaving Luang Prabang
Booked the minibus to Phonsavanh through the Nam Khan Riverside Hotel, which is scheduled to take about 6-hours (I hope) at a cost of 130,000K.