Luang Prabang

Let’s cut to the chase , Luang Prabang is amazing. Everything about the town comes together perfectly. From the old wooden Lao traditional structures to the colonial mansions , the French food influences to the Lao style sticky rice and fish, the Laotian culture to the influx of foreign cultures all around the world. Hell , the entire town is classified as a UNESCO world heritage zone. I did not want to leave.

Hard to believe that this sleepy village was once the capital of the first Lao kingdom and more recently the seat of the once ruling Kingdom of Laos.  However, after the communist takeover in 1975 it lost this title. Now it’s all about tourism, tourism and Buddhism. Guesthouses , travel agencies, restaurants , and cafes all cram the streets. In between all those are many little Buddhist Wats , or temples. There are a huge number of practicing monks living and studying in the temples. Walking around on the streets it’s a common sight to see 4 or 5 orange robed monks walking amongst the hippie-type travelers dressed in similarly odd fashions. Bright colors, fisherman pants, beads , jewelery, and a smattering of dreadlocks are everywhere. There are even a good amount of foreign travelers who have settled down in Luang Prabang and now operate their own guesthouses and restaurants. Close work with UNESCO and keeping out large corporations have done this place well. Pretty much every store is locally owned and operated, there are no corporate hotels, no McDonald’s , and no resort developments.

Luang Prabang , like Laos , is all about taking it easy. No fast pace of life , no jammed packed subways , no rush hour, and no stress. The electric system will suffer brown-outs from time to time and when this occurs joyful shouts ring and then candles are lit. A further testament to the chillness of the people is that one time the little family run convenient shop had the little 5-year-old girl cash me out on a beer while her mother was gone. Another time the mother calmly stopped breast-feeding her baby , slowly covered herself , and helped me!  Looking for something to do? Grab a big bottle of ice-cold Beer Lao and watch the Mekong River flow by. Grab a cup of coffee and watch a film screening in a little cafe. Peruse the used bookstore for books left behind by fellow travels. In short , RELAX!

Physically Luang Prabang is located in between the mighty Mekong River , and the slightly less magnificent Nam Khan while spiritually it’s located somewhere on the way to nirvana. There are 4 main roads , count them , yes 1,2,3,4 main roads , on the little peninsula between the rivers. Outside the town proper are opportunities for hiking , kayaking , swimming in waterfalls , and cave exploring. The main water attractions are the Kuang Si Falls , a multi-level waterfall with natural pools for swimming , the amazing Tad Sae waterfalls also with swimming, a rope swing, and elephant rides!, and just taking a boat down the rivers. I went to the Tad Sae waterfalls , hiked in the surrounding jungle , swam in the pools afterwards to cool off , and then relaxed with a big bottle of Beer Lao. Oh yea and this waterfall is accessible by boat! So we had to take a low-lying long fisherman style boat just to get there! Other natural options include hikes/treks to neighboring traditional Lao villages ,and the Pak Ou caves. The main non-natural sights include the various Wats(Buddhist temples) ,the Royal Palace museum , the Wat Xieng temple , and don’t forget to climb the main hill in town to check out the temple and more importantly the view from the top.

The night market is also an integral part of the experience. Before sundown part of the main road in town gets shut down to traffic (which there isn’t much of anyways) and vendors slowly start to set up for night. Foldable tent like structures are pitched, blankets are set on the road, and all the goodies come out! Vendors sell all sorts of handmade arts and crafts, t-shirts , jewelery , local coffee , local clothing , Lao firewater(conveniently named Lao-Lao so you won’t forget the name after no matter how many shots) , medicinal liquors with bottled reptiles inside , and all sorts of other things. Unlike other parts of Asia where the vendors can be loud , obnoxious , pushy , prone to rip foreigners off , and overall not pleasant , the Lao chilled out mindset prevails and one of the most pleasant street bartering experiences around. I got to try several shots of the snake whiskey before I bought it , people helped out with t-shirt sizes ,and everything was conducted with a smile! It’s amazing the amount of space that the market takes up. There are just tents after tents after tents all lit by single hanging incandescent bulbs and in the middle of it all – food!

Finally on to the food! All types of food can purchased here . There are Indian restaurants , pizzas , Swiss fondue , Chinese , traditional Laos food , pretty much everything you could want. Due to French colonization you can find amazing fresh-baked loaves of bread , and there are street stands with griddles that pump out crepes like you wouldn’t believe. In between all that eating enjoy French coffee , local coffee , bottles of Beer Lao (which you can walk around with in the street due to the whole no open container laws thing) , and fruit shakes. There are also tons of stands that have plastic cups with different combinations  of fruit sitting out. Choose between mangos , apple with lemon , dragonfruit with papaya , banana , and more. Then watch as they take the cup , pop the contents in the blender , add some ice , and WRHRHRHRH your smoothie is ready!

I did find some really cool restaurants/bars/lounges that I loved but mostly my food came from the local market. Off the main road (in the middle of the night market if the time is right) is an alley with the local foods. Walk down the narrow alley and observe the tables entirely covered with giant bowls of goodies , choose hunks of meat and entire fish on sticks and watch as they are grilled to perfection right in front of you. Pop down onto the crowded soup table and eat a 10,000 Kip ($1.80) bowl of steaming noodles with veggies elbow to elbow with travelers and locals alike. Season that soup with fish sauce , squeeze fresh lime for that extra zing , pop in fresh chilies for that extra kick , add crisp crunchy beans, oh my god the food is good. Come back later and pay another 10,000 Kip for a plate that you can load as much food as humanly possible onto and then get a fresh bag of sliced pineapple chunks and mango for dessert. I’m seriously making myself a little depressed, my mouth is watering ahhhh!

My favorite nicer sit down restaurants/bars I went to where Dyen Sabai and Utopia. It’s fun to reach Dyen Sabai. In the summer when the Nam Khan is running high you may notice a guy standing next to the store handing out flyers on Kingkitsarath Rd. He will take you in his boat across to the other side for free. From here you have to walk up a staircase carved from dirt. It was rainy when I was there so that dirt path became a pure mud slide mess. Very fun for coming down in the dark after a few tall brews. This beautiful restaurant has many different areas for eating. There are several larger open air thatched roof structures and a few smaller ones that more secluded for some more intimate moments. The eating areas have very low tables and one sits cross-legged on scatter cushions , there are even mats so you can lay down , prop your head up , and enjoy the food while looking out at the muddy river. The owner is a very friendly French woman who speaks excellent English as well as Lao!  Like pretty much everywhere in Laos you must take your shoes off before entering and pop a pair of their plastic slippers. If you go you must eat the eggplant dip with sticky rice!

Utopia is another fantastic place. It is also located by the water and also is fun to reach. You must follow many signs down several long and winding alleyways trying to find it. The inside is also similarly adorned with cushions and low tables. However, this place features a huge hut with a large projector screen and a HD projector! One night they played the movie Baraka , which is an amazing video showing various scenes around Asia , cities , landscapes, and rituals. The movie has no dialogue and is stunningly beautiful. Often it goes in slow motion , or quick time-lapse , which provides some surreal views of the rush of cities, the mourning of death in India , etc. Go check this movie out! They also had a huge folder full of random YouTube videos that would play at random. Watch a 5 minute skateboard clip , followed by some Parkour , followed by little children getting attacked by house cats. This made for some hilarity after drinking. This place also has a fully decked outdoor sand volleyball court , and there was an intense game going on while I watched. Bars in Luang Prabang promptly finish taking orders at 11pm and are fully shut down by 11:30. The owners of Utopia said the police are pretty strict on this and come around to check some nights. This makes for a funny scene at night when everyone is trying to leave and find their shoes ,which are left by the door , all at the same time.

If you find yourself still trying to party the only place still open late at night is oddly enough the local bowling alley. It’s a short tuk-tuk ride from town and a bit weird but you can keep going there! I myself was sound asleep midnight or before everyday. If you can wake up at the crack of down it’s well worth it to watch the monks walk through town asking for the daily alms of food from the villagers.

Another great thing about this place is all the cool people and friends you can meet. I ended up spending some time with South African musicians , a middle-aged South Korean artist, as well as a British girl who lived in Singapore traveling with her Danish ( I think it was , I really need to write these posts right after the fact) boyfriend. One of my favorite experiences was hanging out with Mr.Kim by the river drinking brew and then ending up lost wandering around at night trying to find our guesthouse and hoping that it wouldn’t be locked (some places shut their gates at midnight). We ended up going through an alley and meeting a group of Lao guys eating a late meal. They invited us to sit down try some food and drink . This is where I ended up eating some spicy dog. Yum dog meat is good. Don’t knock it if ya haven’t tried it. We all tried to communicate in a broken down version of pidgin English utilizing hand motions. The whole group burst out laughing when they called Mr.Kim , Kim Jong-Il. Hahahaha.

Other good times involved talking politics with the South Africans and watching as some drunk French made buffoons of themselves. Which reminds me , due to previous French imperialist efforts , there are many signs that have French underneath the Lao script, many businesses boast of French-speaking capabilities , and there was a bounty of French vacationers everywhere! I love knowing Spanish but I swear it seems like I hear French more than any other language when I travel.

When it finally comes time to go there are a variety of options. Buses leave to go to Thailand , Vietnam , Cambodia , you can take a boat downriver , buses to the capital ,Vientiane, and there is an airport in Luang Prabang as well . I love having the option of being able to choose between several different countries. Next stop for me however was a 6 hour windy road trip to the party town of Vang Vieng.

Observations from the Real Ride to Luang Prabang

So the bus ride from Kunming, China down to Luang Prabang , Laos didn’t have any improvised mines , rebel attacks, malarial outbreaks, or even monkeys flinging poo. Merely a small child with a plastic automatic rifle that shoots out pure annoyance and irritation instead of bullets. But hey it was alright , I made it!

A couple of observations on the way down:

China has an excellent road (G213) paved from Kunming down to the border, once you cross the border the road loses the fancy G2 and is merely called 13. Along with the prefix the road also loses quality and gains potholes (craters), dirt, and mud. The roads also now are very windy and the bus is constantly turning on its way through the mountains. Dense , lush , and verdant foliage also now surrounds the roads. It’s a bumpy ride.

After we crossed into the tropical district of Xishuangbanna , China, which borders Laos, at every parking lot/rest stop we stopped at you can count on money changers being there. They will come up onto the bus and in chinese say “huan qian” (换钱)followed by a “change money” in English. While it may seem shady to do trade with these random strangers and their thick wads of (kip) Laotian currency and calculators , I recommend it. The rates they offered were very close to the official rate encountered on the internet and much to much better than any rate I encountered while actually in Laos. I figured I would get a better rate in Laos so I only exchanged a little bit . Next time I know what to do. The rates are so close its hard to figure how these traders even make money. I wish I would have made a note of it but the profit margin for them was tiny.Now be smart and make sure you know the rate and make sure the math is correct and inspect and count the bills but don’t be afraid of this transaction.

1RMB = 1,257 Kip , $1USD = 7,980 Kip. This was the first time I’ve been a millionaire! The largest Lao note is the 50,000 Kip bill , so its only worth about $7USD. I thought having the 100RMB ($15) note in China was bad enough. So if you are changing lots of money be prepared to have a fat wad of notes.

At one stop a gambler came up to the bus with three small round covers and a coin. The coin was placed under one of the covers and they were all scrambled around. Two people gamble and try to find the coin. One of the Chinese guys on the bus pulled out a stack of 100RMB notes and ended up winning a couple hundred. High-roller!

As you go further south down into Xishuangbanna, signs in towns and on roads start having Laos script written underneath the Chinese. In stores there are more and more Laotian groceries and in the cooler next to the Dali beer Beer Lao starts making appearances as well!

The further down south the more palm trees. The more palm trees the more appearance of a laid-back calm environment.

Once you make it to the border you have to get on and off the bus a maddening number of times. First to go through Chinese customs and get your exit stamps then on the bus for 30 seconds , then off again ( I don’t even remember why) , then on and off again to pass through Laos customs and get your Laos visa.

At the Laotian customs there is a large book full of prices for visas on arrival. Every nationality has a different price. There are also different prices marked for different currencies. Americans are supposed to pay ~$35 USD but I had only Chinese RMB and after I did the conversion I had ended up paying $50 USD.

Bring two small photos with you to the border , fill out a small application , hand over the application with photos, cash ,  and passport, two minutes later receive your passport with a new visa stuck in it! Walk ahead and get your passport stamped and then its back on the bus.

The Lao Visa is a very cool and psychedelic with purple and pink hues , with a trippy silver holograph seal.

The Chinese customs looks all hi-tech and futuristic and bids goodbye  , while in Laos a big old-looking golden temple is the first thing that says hello.

After crossing the border the toilets in rest stops are more expensive to use  , 2 RMB versus 1 RMB (but in Kip).  I had to pay 2,500 Kip to piss. Hahahahahaha two thousand five hundred to pee.

New varieties of snack foods , (lays squid potato chips) , more variety of energy drinks. Lots of dried fruits. A snack station making sandwhichs out of loaves of bread. First real sandwhiches I’ve seen in Asia. Thanks French influence!

Finally , after 28 hours , my bus finally pulled into Luang Prabang. This was the first semblance of any large center of civilization. Up until now we had only passed through a few small villages and encountered little huts on the side of the road. Wow, it felt great to be done with the bus! I hopped off the bus and onto a Tuk-Tuk and it was off to the center of town to try and find a guesthouse……