Wander around Luang Prabang in Northern Laos and you soon find yourself immersed in a wonderful, almost collage of traditional Lao wooden houses contrasted by colonial architecture.
Our mystery transport in Nong Khiaw bound for Luang Prabang arrives a little late – reminiscent of the conversation when first landing in Laos and told transport is late as it runs on Laos’ “reset” time.
The ride in a Songthaew is crammed with about 16 passengers, a driver, luggage, and stuff in the middle on the floor and on the roof. The obligatory live chicken squawking in a sack is shoved under a seat.
All of this sets the scene for the duration of the trip. Similar to the trip around the mountainside from Luang Namtha, this road is also very pot-holed and continuously winds around numerous bends.
Inevitably, a puncture in the Songthaew’s tyre stops us, but only long enough for the driver to swap out the tyre taking only about twenty minutes. With military precision, the tyre is changed without unloading any goods but only passengers. Quite impressive that the driver actually has 2 spare tyres on board and so, we arrive in Luang Prabang in one piece, which is always a bonus.
A little on Luang Prabang
Arriving in Luang Prabang feels like landing closer to civilisation once more as this now popular city offers all the mod-cons, tourism, and badgering from touts, compared to spending time in Nong Khiaw.
Situated at the confluence of the peaceful Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this scene provides a gorgeous backdrop for any visit to Luang Prabang.
Having visited Luang Prabang briefly in 1989, the changes are quite noticeable during this visit in September 2014. One change is that the city has exploded in size but also more foreign tourists are in the city.
Hints of European architecture and many colonial buildings are a legacy of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochina.
Where to sleep
The Nam Khan Riverside Hotel along No. 20 Phousi Rd, Ban Aphay, offers great and comfortable accommodation with an amazing breakfast at a reasonable price, for this city.
Booked a cheaper room but as the hotel was busy, the hotel upgraded our room with a much flashier one with a balcony overlooking the very lovely and tranquil Nam Khan River. The hotel’s wi-fi router is actually on our balcony so this is another bonus.
The excellent breakfast offers nine meal choices to select from and good strong coffee, so we’re very spoilt at this hotel. Booked 3 nights, but decide to stay 5 nights instead as enjoyed this rest stop. Although, as the hotel is busy, we moved downstairs for the next 2 nights to another clean room. The bathroom could be a little cleaner.
Where to eat
Although these days Luang Prabang boasts a deluge of restaurants of which many are geared for a tourist’s taste – not so spicy. I much prefer to go authentic so typically, stick to smaller restaurants that are frequented by locals or buy food at the local markets.
Check the bustling lively night markets on Food street (off Sisavangvong Road), which starts at 5pm and closes around 11pm each evening, and is renowned as one of the biggest markets in the world – a food lover’s heaven! Make sure you go in amongst the thick of the markets as this is where you can buy ready-made food at 15,000K a plate (in 2014). Ordering meat on your meal sets you back an extra 10,000K for each type you select. I don’t advise the sausage as this is an awful offering of greasy fat and some sort of binding cereal with no meat to be found. There is a much better quality vegetarian stall for 10,000K a couple of lanes back.
The back of the markets offers many small stalls with fruit, crafts, groceries, toiletries, and practically everything, so this is a good place to stock up before you head off to your next exciting destination.
A local restaurant
As the recommended noodle shop nearby the hotel is closed for evening meals, we discover instead an excellent local cheap restaurant (off Phamghasam Street), but sadly, I don’t know the name. The only hint I have is that from the street, you can see a grand timber stairwell at the back of the restaurant and there are also a few tables and chairs outside. The big giveaway that you found the restaurant is that the restaurant’s name is in Lao and also that it is full of locals. At 15,000K for a generous freshly made delicious meal, this restaurant puts the night markets to shame. The fruit shakes are also amazing.
Luang Prabang is alive with many nightclubs and bars these days, another change from the sleepy Luang Prabang of decades ago. Actually, in 1989, nightclubs did not exist in Luang Prabang.
The Hive Bar & Smokehouse
This bar is okay for drinks, but understand that these are nothing like the cocktails you might be familiar with.
Although the bar advertises ‘real cocktails’, on tasting the drink, it is obvious that authentic spirit is not used. And more likely, the spirit is the local white meth-like type liquid aptly named Lao Lao. This is a little cheeky really as drinks are not cheap here or anywhere in Luang Prabang. The ambience is quiet tonight although I can imagine this place would ramp up and be pumping in the high season. To give you an idea of the price, the Happy Hour cocktails are 2 for 25,000K or 40,000K for 2 large cocktails.
If you want to experience what Laos is not and instead, feel just like you’re in a nightclub (meat market) in your own home town or anywhere in the world, then drag yourself to Utopia.
The drinks from the frosty staff are very expensive. Rammed and pumping with foreigners dancing to Reggae and foreign music amidst a smoke-filled haze, barely any locals come here as they can’t afford to buy the drinks. The food is also pricy. With large comfy cushions scattered around the floor, this seedy nightclub is a tad overrated, for me anyway, even though it gets rave reviews.
Utopia closes at 23:30pm, so, everyone then heads (or staggers) to the Bowling Alley for more partying as this venue is open until 04:30am.
Leaving Luang Prabang
Booking the minibus to Phonsavanh through the Nam Khan Riverside Hotel, the journey is scheduled to take around 6-hours (I hope) at a cost of 130,000K.
Check Laos: Around Luang Prabang for what to see on your visit to this lovely and relaxing city.