Start walking around Luang Prabang in Northern Laos and you will 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.
Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this provides a gorgeous backdrop for any visit to Luang Prabang.
Our mystery transport in Nong Khiaw bound for Luang Prabang, arrived a little late (Laos “reset” time). The ride in a Songthaew is crammed with about 16 passengers, driver, luggage, stuff in the middle and on the roof, and the obligatory chicken squawking in a sack shoved under a seat. All of this sets the scene for the duration of the trip.
Similar to the trip from Luang Namtha, this road is also very pot-holed and winding.
Inevitably, a puncture in the Songthaew’s tyre stopped us, but only for about 20 minutes for the driver to change the tyre. With military precision, the tyre is changed without unloading any goods, only us passengers. Quite impressed that the driver actually has 2 spares on board and so, we arrived in one piece – always a bonus.
Arriving in Luang Prabang feels like landing closer in civilisation once more: mod-cons, tourism, and badgering from touts.
Having visited this city in 1989, the changes are quite noticeable. The city has exploded in size.
The surrounding area holds mysterious caves, sparkling waterfalls, sanctuaries, and many more sites to explore but this also depends on the time you spend in this ancient capital of the Luang Prabang Province.
Reading a lot about the Alms Ceremony, which occurs at 05:30 every morning, decided not to attend as apart from mainly being a tourist spectacle, the government forces the monks to continue this tradition.
Apparently, the reason for the monks resistance to the ceremony is that they sometimes became ill from the food offerings bought from local merchants taking advantage of tourists. Ruthlessly, the government threatened to replace monks with lay-people clothed in saffron robes, just to keep this lucrative tourist attraction going.
Phu Si hill
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 spectacular and serene 24-metre gilded stupa awaits.
The city vistas from this vantage point ensures that the hordes of local and foreign tourists hang around for the sunset or up early, for a sunrise peek.
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.
A stroll along the riverfront is very pleasant and relaxing. And, a stop at one of the plethora of cheaper restaurants overlooking the water is a definite must.
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. If you are interested, it it just as enjoyable doing a 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. Bargain hard.
Great for souvenirs and wandering around, although beware that these markets have become tourist traps. Sadly, many of the items for sale are from China and not local. Check any labels before buying, unless you have fallen in love with a must-have item.
Pop into this lovely colonial 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 second-hand books go to helping local children learn how to read.
UXO Laos Information Centre
Admission by donations, this centre is a must to learn about the perils and legacy of the second Indochina war. Also explained is 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 overlooking the Nam Khan River, which is very lovely. The wi-fi router is actually on our balcony – bonus.
The excellent breakfast offers nine meal choices and good strong coffee – very spoilt. Booked 3 nights, but stayed 5. Although as the hotel is busy, the next 2 nights we moved downstairs and although the room is clean, the bathroom could be 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. Meats are an extra 10,000 kip for each type with the sausage an awful offering of fat and 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 has many small stalls with fruit, groceries, toiletries, and much more; and is a good place to stock up.
As the recommended noodle shop close to the hotel is closed for evening meals, discovered an excellent local cheap restaurant (off Phamghasam). Not sure of the name, but from the street, you can see a grand timber stairwell at the back of the restaurant and it is full of locals. At 15,000K for a generous freshly made delicious meal, this restaurant puts the markets to shame.
Luang Prabang is graced with many night clubs and bars these days, another change from decades ago.
The Hive Bar & Smokehouse
Okay for drinks but understand that these are nothing like the cocktails you might be familiar with.
Although the bar advertises ‘real cocktails’, when you taste 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. A bit cheeky really as drinks are not cheap anywhere in Luang Prabang. The ambiance here is quiet tonight although I 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.
If you want to experience what Laos is not and instead, feel just 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 from the frosty staff. Rammed and pumping with foreigners dancing to Reggae and foreign music amongst a smoke-filled haze, barely any locals come here as they can’t afford the drinks. With large cushions are scattered around the floor, this seedy night club is a tad overrated.
Utopia closes at 23:30pm, so, everyone then heads or staggers to the Bowling Alley as this venue 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.