Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw

Luang Prabang Travel Blog

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Yes, this one is pretty long, but I refuse to take any more crap from you all about the length of these emails.  I'll have you know that my mother thinks they're too short.

So, I was scheduled to fly from Siem Reap to Bangkok on Saturday, July 17, and I was going to have to spend the night in Bangkok before catching a flight to Luang Prabang in Laos the next day-- but thanks to VIP treatment from Bangkok Airways, I made it to Laos that same day.  When I arrived at the airport in Siem Reap early, I saw that there was an earlier flight to Bangkok that might allow me to make the connection to Luang Prabang that day.  The agent checked, and there were seats available on both flights, but it would be tight: the first flight was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok at 10 am, and the flight to Luang Prabang departed at 10:40.

Bangkok Airways put priority and rush tags on my luggage, and they got me a seat at the very back of the plane (where you board).  When I got off the plane in Bangkok, there was a Bangkok Airways woman holding a sign with my name on it.  I boarded a special van (everyone else had to take a shuttle to the terminal) that took me to the terminal where my flight would depart from.  The rep took me straight to the head of the line for a new boarding pass, and then she walked me to my gate.  They had me off the plane and at my new gate in 8 minutes flat.  My bag made it also.

We landed at the tiny airport in Luang Prabang about noon.  Despite warnings in my guidebook, I had no problem getting a visa on arrival.  The officials even let me walk through customs without a passport or visa so that I could get money exchanged on the other side to use to pay for my visa.  I shared a tuk-tuk (advertised as “limousine service”) with some other Americans into town and found a play to stay.

I loved Luang Prabang from the start.  The town sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in a beautiful green mountainous area.  The oldest part of town is a thin peninsula of land between the two rivers.  Chickens and roosters (and even some baby chicks) roam the narrow streets, which are quiet, except for the occasional motorbike.  Many of the buildings are old French colonial style or traditional Buddhist, and even the shabbier ones make an effort to look nice.  There are colorful flowers everywhere, and every few blocks is another incredible temple.

The people there are friendly, but mellow.  They often say hello, or "sabaidee!" as you pass.  I walked around for at least an hour before anyone asked me to buy anything, and a polite “no thank you” was all that was needed to be left alone.  There are a ton of tourists in Luang Prabang, but unlike in many places, they don’t overpower the town.

I stayed at the Thavisouk Guesthouse a few minutes from the center of town.  The room was bare, but it had AC, hot water, and a Western toilet.  For $6, you can’t ask for more.  Like many other guesthouses in the region, it was home to a large number of lizards.  I counted 14 on the ceiling of the patio one night.  There was also one living in my room.  It’s a good thing I don’t mind lizards.  If they had been spiders, I might have flown myself right back to Bangkok.

On my first night in town, I discovered the food tables in an alleyway near the night market.  Dozens of tables, selling all sorts of traditional Lao food, lined both sides of the alley.  I wandered around trying different things until I was full, for a total cost of 60 cents.  There were so many things to try, all so cheap, that I saw no reason to eat dinner anywhere else for the rest of my time in Luang Prabang.  I could have eaten there for a month I think and never had the same thing twice.

After eating, I went back to a restaurant near my guesthouse and sat at a table outside.  I ordered a Beer Lao, which according to my guidebook is undeniably the best beer in Southeast Asia.  It comes in huge bottles (650 mL), and costs about 70 cents a bottle, which makes it cheaper than soda, by volume.  In 2002 Carlsberg bought a share of the company and sent in experts to improve the beer, but Beer Lao kept winning blind taste tests against foreign beers, so they left it alone.  Also according to my guidebook, it can be purchased in the US, but I’m skeptical.  I’m not much of a beer drinker, but even I have to say I thought it was pretty good.  I thought it was so good, actually, that I bought the t-shirt -- like every other Southeast Asian backpacker.

On Sunday, my first full day in Luang Prabang, I went out to see the wats (temples).  There were so many magnificent wats that many of them weren't even in my guidebook.  I always like them best from the outside, though.  The facades are shiny and ornate, but the insides are always a bit disappointing.  Here is a typical temple: there is a large statue of the Buddha, draped with an orange sash, at the back of the temple.  Around the large Buddha, there are several smaller statues of the Buddha and other figures.  Various objects (of prayer, I assume) are strewn around the Buddhas’ feet.  In addition there are many other things cluttered around the back of the temple.  It often reminds me of somebody’s attic.

Lao and Thai Buddhas, unlike the fat Buddha images you may have seen from India or China, are tall and slender.  They have long ears and spiky hair.  Many of them are androgynous in appearance, with narrow waists and small breasts.  They are shown in various positions: sitting, standing, taking a step forward.  These different positions mean something, but I couldn’t tell you what.

So I saw all the wats recommended by my book, as well as several others.  The first one I went to was located on the top of a large hill in the middle of town.  Though it was still early in the day and not yet as hot as it would become, it was a strenuous climb and by the time I reached the top I was dripping with sweat.  The view was worth it, though.  From there you could see all of Luang Prabang and its surroundings.  I probably took half a roll of film from that one spot.

After the wats, I went to the Red Cross “Income Generating Unit” for a massage.  It cost $3.20 for one hour, and the quality was just as good as you’d find in the US.  The woman giving the massage spoke some English.  She looked about 65 to me, but she told me that she said she’d married at 16, had had 7 kids over the next 13 years, and that the oldest one was 33, so I don’t think she could have been much older than 50.  One of her daughters married an American, and they now live in Connecticut.  The woman has never been to visit, and she asked me with considerable concern, “Connecticut very cold?”

On Monday I visited the Royal Palace, which has been turned into a museum.  Inside, a glass mosaic mural covered several of the walls, and the rooms were filled with intricate gilded objects.  On display were some of the possessions and clothing of the former royal family, including a pair of King Sisasavongvong’s pants, which I think may have inspired MC Hammer.  Also displayed were gifts given to Laos by other countries.  I found it interesting to see what kind of gifts each country gave: while most countries gave traditional works of art, the United States gave more functional objects, such a phonograph machine and a pen set.  There were also some small Lao flags that had apparently been flown to the moon by the US, along with some pieces of moon rock.

Coming out of the museum, I saw a sign advertising a traditional Lao dance show that night, so I went over to check out tickets.  I had a mixture of USD and kip (you can pay for anything with dollars, kip, or baht), so to make it easier for the ticket seller, an American girl in line behind me offered exchange some of my dollars for kip.  We started talking, and she introduced me to two guys she’d met earlier in Luang Prabang: Gary from New Zealand, and Ian from Australia.  A few minutes later we somehow picked up Martin, from Scotland.  I mentioned that I had been planning to go to visit some nearby waterfalls later that day, and they liked the idea, so we all went out for noodle soup together.  Later, we met up to arrange transportation to the falls.  In between Laura discovered that Martin had a second bed in his room, so she left her guesthouse and moved over to his.  I asked if she usually waited more than an hour before moving in with a man.  She said she prefers to wait at least a day, but she made a special exception for Martin given that his room was nicer and cheaper than hers.

Tour groups around town were charging $5 for the trip to the falls, which were an hour away, but I knew I could get a van for the five of us for $10 from my guesthouse.  Ian had already been traveling for a year and was a master negotiator, so we let him bargain with a minivan driver.  The guy was holding firm at $10 and said, “Maybe you get tuk-tuk cheap, but cannot sleep in tuk-tuk!”  Ian finally got him down to $8, but when we went to meet him to go to the falls, a different guy with a tuk-tuk showed up to take us.  He said that the other guy was too busy to take us (we figure he must have gotten a better deal) and that we could go with him instead.  “But cannot sleep in tuk-tuk!” we said.  I don't think he got it.

The ride to the waterfalls in the tuk-tuk was bumpy but was worth it for the scenery along the way.  Our driver let us off at the bottom of the hill below the waterfalls, and on the way up we passed a large fenced-in area.  We were wondering about the purpose of the fence when we noticed a sign that said "Tiger bites.  Keep fingers out."  Sure enough, the tiger soon came along to check us out.  We met the tiger's caretaker, who led us into the jail cell-like room where he feeds the tiger.  The tiger laid down by the bars and the keeper encouraged us to pet her on the back.  The tiger had been rescued from poaches as a cub, and she had become too accustomed to humans to be released back into the wild, so they kept her near the falls where tourists would pass by and give money.

We continued on to the falls.  We'd heard there was a nice view from the top, so we began to climb up.  We were almost there when the path became very muddy, and so Gary, Ian, and I turned back.  My two-dollar Target flip flops have held up admirably well, but I wasn't going to push them too far.  Back at the bottom, we decided to go for a dip in the lower pools.  The water was surprisingly cold, but it felt good to be cold.  Because the current was strong, we couldn't move around much, so we just stood in the pools until we were thoroughly chilled.

When we got back to town, Laura and I changed quickly into presentable clothing and went to see the Lao traditional "ballet."  I thought it was dull--and the room was so hot--but Laura seemed to like it.  Fortunately it was a short show.

Afterwards we met up again with Martin for dinner at the food stalls.  We sat at a buffet and chatted with some of the other travelers, including a Spanish couple and a French man.  Laura spoke Spanish and French, so she could talk to everybody; I spoke enough Spanish to talk to the Spanish couple and the French man spoke enough English to talk to me; but poor Martin was left out because he spoke neither French nor Spanish and none of them could understand his strong Scottish accent.  "I understand you because you speak slowly to me, but I don't understand your friend at all," the French man said.  "That's okay, I don't understand him either," I said.

Martin was a good sport about it, never complaining about having to repeat half the things he said (and sometimes spell things out) for Laura and me.  Later the three of us went for a Beer Lao by the river. Laura and I eventually got into a groove where we understood most of what he said.  When we were walking back to our guesthouses, however, he said something about his "guidebook" which Laura and I both heard as "gayfolk."

On Wednesday morning, I took a Lao cooking class at a restaurant in town with seven other travelers, including two older women who called themselves "the granny backpackers."  We each selected one recipe to make from the recipe book that we were all given.  I choose tofu curry with vegetables.  Our teacher and chef, Chandra, first gave us a lesson on Lao cooking and regional gastronomy.  I learned that much Thai food has its origins in Laos, and that many Thai restaurants in the US and elsewhere are actually owned by Laotians.  Also he says many Chinese restaurants are really run by Koreans.  I'll have to ask next time I eat Chinese or Thai back at home.

We went to the market (the Lao market, not the tourist market) to learn about Lao food and to buy some of the ingredients for our dishes.  Chandra took us around, pointing things out to us and answering all of our questions.  We were like small children, "What's that? What's that?"  Once I asked Chandra about some large bags of sugary looking powder; he identified them as MSG.  Other items of interest were the dried buffalo skins and animal stomachs.  Thankfully none of our recipes called for them.

After the market, we went back to the restaurant to learn how to prepare the ingredients.  I was reprimanded once for not cutting my galangal thin enough.  Many of the ingredients we used I have never heard of, though Chandra claims you can buy them at Asian grocery stores in the US.  Some of them had names that I recognized but looked nothing like their counterparts in the States--for instance, their eggplants are the size of peas.

So then we cooked our dishes, with a lot of guidance from Chandra.  It was sometimes frustrating because he often used different ingredients from the ones listed in our recipe book and because the recipe books seem to be missing crucial pieces of the instructions.  I tried to write as much down as I could.  I learned some important things about cooking Asian food, such as that the sides of a wok are hotter than the middle.  After we were all finished with our dishes, we sat down in the restaurant and ate them.  Everything--even the things I didn't think I would like--was amazing.  I hope to be able to make some of these dishes at home.  All in all, the cooking class was one of the best things I've done so far.

That night, I gave into temptation and went shopping at the night market.  I had told myself I was going to save all of my shopping for the end of Vietnam so that I wouldn't have to lug everything around for weeks.  But there were so many beautiful things at such good prices that I couldn't resist.  I bargained a bit for the items I wanted; I probably could have done better if I'd really tried, but I felt I got a good deal, and the sellers probably felt so too, so everybody was happy.

The plan for Thursday had been to take a boat up north to the town of Nong Khiaw, but either the boat was full or the boat man was telling us the boat was full so he could get us to take a pricey boat by ourselves.  We decided to take the bus instead and take a boat back down the next day.  Gary and Ian had gone their separate ways, but we had picked up a British kid from my guesthouse named Jonathan, who was also making the trip to Nong Khiaw.  Jonathan had made the three hour bus trip to Nong Khiaw the day before, but he'd had to return because he left his money and passport under the mattress in his room in Luang Prabang.

Jonathan had warned us that the bus was bad, so in my mind I was picturing something like a rickety school bus.  The bus turned out to be a pickup truck with two benches along the sides.  It was covered with a tarp, which was totally inadequate for keeping out the heavy rain that had started to come down.  We climbed in, putting our luggage in the middle between the benches.  When we had ten people inside, it was pretty tight, and I was sure that we were full and ready to go.  Before we left, 15 people were sitting on the two benches and another five were hanging off the back of the truck.  Bags were piled up to our shoulders in the center.  Fitting this many people was only possible because the Lao are generally small.  You can be sure that 20 Americans never would have fit (not that Americans at home would ever travel like this).  I once made the mistake of leaning forward, and I was never able to squeeze back in.  My feet were tucked under the bench in an awkward position, but there was no way to move them.  I was in agony for the 3 hour ride, but Laura was delighted with the trip, because she likes to be authentic.

The road up to Nong Khiaw was in surprisingly good shape.  It was paved the entire way, and potholes were scarce.  Once in a while the driver would lay on the horn, which made me nervous, because there was no way to see what we might be about to hit.  The only place to look out was through the back (and then, only through the five people hanging off the back).  Once after a long blowing of the horn, I felt a bump and looked out and saw that we had run over a chicken.  Livestock are not so good about responding to horns.

Nong Khiaw was stunning, with limestone cliffs and dark green mountains surrounding the village.  The Nam Ou river splits the town in two.  By the time we arrived, it had stopped raining, and the mountains were shrouded in mist.   The village is small, with only a few guesthouses and restaurants, and there isn't much to do except admire the gorgeous scenery.

We took a walk east of the town in search of some caves and a waterfall that were supposed to be close.  Along the way we passed rice paddies, cows, chickens, waterbuffalo, and several clusters of huts.  Kids were playing outside, and when we walked past they'd call "Sabaidee!" and wave wildly.  We also found a type of plant that folds in its leaves when you touch it.  When we reached the area where we thought the caves should be, it appeared that a very recent landslide had blocked the entrance.  We never found the waterfall, though there was a small dam near the caves that might have been it.

Along the way back I was shocked to find that Laura has never heard of Survivor, American Idol, The West Wing, Napster, or MP3s.  She's been traveling for the six months or so, and has spent maybe two of the past five years abroad, but I'm not sure that's an excuse.  I gave her a quick rundown of the important pop cultural trends, and told her she needs to take a little time off from living authentically whatever and catch up on things.  She's planning to go to France in the fall to teach English--but I think her French kids will know more about Americans than she does!

After some cold showers, we all met up again for dinner.  There was a large group of German tourists at the restaurant who we think were under the influence of something stronger than alcohol.  Every so often they would break out into song.  We ordered our food, and we waited.  And waited.  We were starving and thought about leaving, but where would we go?  Two hours after we ordered it, it arrived.  We burst out laughing when half an hour after that the waitress brought Jonathan's long forgotten coffee.

The next morning, Jonathan continued up the river, and I bargained for a boat back to Luang Prabang before Laura and Martin showed up.  The boat man's starting price was $90 for the boat, but I got him down to $60 quickly.  When Laura and Martin showed up, we had a conference about strategy.  The crucial piece of information we were missing was whether the boat man had to go back to Luang Prabang anyway to pick up passengers the next day there.  If he did, we should be able to get a pretty good deal.  We decided privately that $50 was our maximum price, but we started by offering $30 and settled with him at $40, so I think he probably did have to make the trip anyway.

The boat trip back took us about five hours, and the views the whole way were beautiful.  We passed many small fisherman boats, many of them attended by children who waved and called as we passed by.  We saw only one other motorized boat along the way--the other boat of tourists coming up from Luang Prabang.
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Luang Prabang
photo by: oxangu2