In the end, we chose to fly into Luang Prabang, rather than the 2 day slow boat trip along the Mekong from the Thai border. Half the people will tell you that it’s a must-do backpacker experience and a great way to meet people, the other half will tell you about long days on overcrowded rust buckets, and scams from the cowboy drivers. It was a shame to miss travelling along the famous river, but having just booked our Christmas hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, we were on a tight schedule to get across Laos and south through Vietnam, so those odds weren’t enough to convince us.
The one hour turbo-prop flight from Chiang Mai was barely long enough to get above the clouds, giving us stunning views over forest-covered mountains and the Mekong. It was, however, deemed long enough for an in-flight meal. It was either the in-flight meal or the in-flight entertainment judging by the giggles through the cabin as people opened their lunch box to find one tiny shrink-wrapped satsuma and one bite-sized, shrink-wrapped bread roll.
Luang Prabang is a small city with both the grandeur of an ancient Royal capital and the romance of a sleepy, remote hideaway. From the water, the only clue of human civilisation is a short stretch of lights, lanterns and communist flags along the palm-fringed Mekong peninsula. It’s easy to get around on foot, or by hiring a vintage bike, to explore the quiet, pretty lanes lined with wooden houses, a mix of both French and Lao architecture. We had less than a week in Luang Prabang but settled into a low-key routine that we could easily have carried on for longer.
We first stayed in a hostel which wasn’t winning any awards for decor (unpainted concrete walls and floors, steel bed frames and strip-lighting), but did gain points for a pretty good free breakfast and a pool. After a couple of nights there we moved to a guesthouse where we paid not much more for a private room, ensuite and better location.
Eating well and cheaply in the old town also comes easily. Breakfasts are freshly baked baguettes with avocado and bacon, washed down with a freshly squeezed fruit juice. Lunch is served with a view, either overlooking the old town from Indigo’s roof terrace, or through palm trees down to the river from Utopia’s cushion-strewn bamboo deck. Dinner could mean diving into the £1 vegetarian buffets and meat skewer barbecues at the night market, or trying local dishes Beef Lap (minced beef salad) and Jewbong (steamed vegetables with chilli sauce) whilst watching the sunset over the river.
Sunsets are an activity in themselves in Luang Prabang. The restaurants on the western edge of the peninsula are a good spot, but not the best. In search of the best spot we tried a few options. For Sunset #1 we climbed to the top of Mount Phousi in the old town. So did everybody else. After parting with 20,000 Kip to climb the hill we reached the top to find a hundred other tourists and trees blocking most of the view.
Sunset #2 was much less crowded and a much better view. We crossed a bamboo bridge to a little rocky outcrop on the opposite shore, complete with its own drinks shack. We did have to pay a few Kip to cross, but this goes directly to the man who builds the bridge each year after the rainy season. We know this for a fact as he was still putting some finishing touches to it as we walked across!
Sunset #3 was the winner though. A boat trip on the Mekong costs a little more at $5, but was definitely worth it. Thankfully it was neither a teens’ booze cruise nor pensioners’ tour package. We sat back with freshly barbecued chicken kebabs and a couple of Beer Lao to enjoy the view of farms, moored boats, children playing on the opposite bank, the sun setting behind the mountains, and a few twinkling lights behind us along the peninsula.
Luang Prabang is home to 33 temples which means there’s a relatively high population of Buddhist monks. We’d learnt about the morning alms procession, Tak Bat, from Monk Chat in Chiang Mai and wanted to see it in action.
The alarm went off at 5:30am. Again at 5:40, 5:50 and 6am until Timian put some ear plugs in and Rebecca dragged herself from the duvet and threw on some clothes to make it over to the temple before sunrise. Which clothes to throw on does matter; people offering food, or just watching, should dress as though they were visiting a temple, with legs and shoulders covered. It’s disrespectful to be higher than a monk so the streets were lined with small stools for those (locals and tourists) offering sticky rice, fruit or packets of biscuits as alms.
A procession of monks came slowly through the streets as the sun came up. It was really interesting to see and well worth the early start, but we had mixed feelings about what a big tourist attraction it’s evidently become; most people behaved respectfully, but some got very close to the monks and used flash photography. On the other hand, with so many tourists joining in, so much more food is donated. So much, that there were baskets placed along parts of the route to allow monks to make space in their clay pots for more food! Monks can’t decline offerings, as accepting the food is considered a blessing. Around the corner, in a quieter lane, small boys waited with their own baskets, and the monks passed on what they didn’t need.
The large night market was another place where we saw the collision of tourism and traditional ways of life. On our first visit we saw the same things for sale again and again; the same elephant print trousers, the same stuffed toy elephants, the same bamboo iphone speakers, and wondered how connected, if at all, the vendors were to the people who’d made the items. But, after visiting the ethnology museum, we appreciated our second visit much more. As well as descriptions of Laos’ ethnic groups, their heritage and customs, there were exhibitions about traditional crafts like cotton weaving and basket weaving. One section showcased 8 women who made traditional handicrafts, and currently had stalls at the night market. Tuning out the endless parade of elephant trousers, we spotted some of these crafts at the market the next evening.
We’d read that it’s not common for Laotians to smile, but this didn’t mean they were unfriendly. The tuk tuk drivers were the most laid-back we’d come across in Asia. Some would make a vague attempt to get us into their tuk tuk, but a lot of others were busy taking naps in the midday sun. Probably because they’d been up late ferrying tourists back and forth to the only place open after midnight, a bowling alley bar. Walk anywhere in the old town after 9pm and you’ll be followed by shouts of “Bowling? You want to go bowling?” from the now wide awake, eager tuk tuk drivers.
Tearing ourselves away from laid-back Luang Prabang for a day, we took a tuk tuk to Kuang Si waterfalls. After debating whether to take scooters, a taxi, or join a tour group minivan, a tuk tuk shared between 4 people was the cheapest and most strategic option. It worked especially well as we’d bumped into Simon and Marilyne who we’d met when sharing a dorm in Moscow! Our routes had since completely diverged, but we realised from their blog that our paths were crossing again in Laos.
Leaving at 10:30 meant we had a good hour of exploring and swimming in the crystal blue cascades and pools before the tour groups arrived. Although their dives, bombs and leaps into the water did provide good entertainment as we dried off before heading back, via a quick stop for our driver to heave a few bags of chicken feed onto the tuk tuk roof, and give an old lady a lift a few hundred metres along the road.
Reluctantly, we left Luang Prabang for the airport and another one hour flight the next day. We were already missing the fresh baguettes and juices, but did have an in-flight feast of three grapes and mini sausage roll to console us.