It’s the most popular destination in Laos, but the first I’d heard of it was when a cockney mate said it’s a must do! Having received other good tips from him expectations were initially high! A compact quaint town located on the Mekong and Nam Khan River’s – the golden city of Luang Prabang.
During the course of our the trip it soon became the place we were most excited to visit having only heard positivity about the town. At the small, but international airport in Pakse we pick up a copy of the groovy map which conveniently has Vientiane on the reverse for later use. The Groovy map is a special bit of cartography. Basically it’s a wear and weather proof map, with easy to follow icons, very helpful when your a bit drunk and without too much of plan. There is also background info & recommendations for everything in the city and surrounding areas. More useful and convenient than a 1000 page guide-less book for sure. The Bangkok version has done me proud a number of times, it may help you groovymaps.com
I scan the map during the hour forty flight enjoying the leg room afforded by aircraft. The background on the town we’ve been most interested in visiting has a line which includes “you either love it, or you hate it!” This gives me some concern as that’s the type of guy I am. Love things or Hate them, usually disliking the things which are main stream popular: Films, books, music and even places. You need make your own mind up anyways, and sometimes we all love something popular. More than willing to give it a chance for sure. The reason the guide mentions this is big parts of the city are newly constructed or refurbished. A vast amount of Laos got bombed during the secret war, but here lots of the colonial and traditional structures still exist. Thankfully the new builds are in the traditional design including the material and construction methods. Planning permission is obviously strictly controlled even the signs for everything are Olde Worlde in style. Some visitors though feel it’s been over-fabricated with the tourist in mind. Well it’s certainly a tourist hot spot, let’s hope it’s not fucked up like so many others.
We arrive at the hotel in a shared van and following a small detour on foot, check in and get ready for the night ahead. It’s gone 6 and well dark already. We head down our small street lined with many wooden framed guest houses, towards the river. I know it’s a running theme but the mighty Mekong is never far away so as good a place as any to start. We choose one of the many similar looking eateries lining the bank and what we notice more than anything else is the bastard cold, it’s freezing. Tintiernet says it 14deg Celsius, we reckon it must be touching 8 or actually fucking less. Nobody mentioned the weather and December is peak season? It would be the first thing I’d say – Luang Prabang, fucking freezing butt! All the guide-less book says is that during December you may need a light jacket. Ha ha no chance mate everyone’s almost in full winter gear. Following food and beer too cold to properly enjoy. We don a few more layers whilst agreeing that shopping is a priority tomorrow before we head back out, toward an area of town where a few bars are located in search of Irish coffee. They prove elusive even tho’ we check five places, all of which seem as tacky as each other. Nearby a Belgian bar, as always is appreciated but surprisingly now, not for the beer but the roasting log fire. Fuck me we are in Asia in December sitting in front of a smoky fire trying to keep warm? Not my idea of a holiday for sure, it’s not the KP’s either! A waiter confirms its always cold at this time of year! If we knew so we’d have come in November. We check the weather in Vientiane, it’s the same. We check Cambodia and it’s warm 🙂 fuck it, if it’s the same tomorrow we’ll leave the day after and go to Battambang early.
The open fire is a relief as the cold is not helping our aching limbs. Legs are killing see from the previous day’s incline. The KP especially is whinging, so I’m helping her descend any steps encountered. We move to another bar have one cheap cocktail and leave. She half joking beckons help and I carry her down the first set of four steps, then to the next twenty paces away and miss the first step or something, resulting in us crumbling down the remaining steps and into the paving beyond, lucky not to knock our swedes. My ankle is like fattie’s leg, but it don’t feel broken. I’m able to put pressure on it and can hobble, I’ve only had two beers and a cocktail so not being drunk I can feel the pain, so stupidly I do so, hobble all the way home, being aided along the way whilst we are searching for somewhere to buy whisky before sleeping. Everywhere is closed, it’s like eleven thirty! WTF! It’s far from a good day which is sadly rounded off with very rare bad feeling between us, due to a mis-understanding of the nursing requirements :-).
The following day we were planning to walk the city and check various other digs for a move. That plan would probably have changed as we would likely be making potential travel plans south. Instead it involved a few beers brekkie for the foot and a laze about. We finally got moving to the clinic about 2 in the afternoon. An arranged Tuk-Tuk driver who right royally ripped us off, twice actually! Dropped us to the hospital for one of the most pleasant health care experiences I’ve had – X-rayed, diagnosed, treated for a sprained ankle, settled up and back in the bar in 40mins. The service in the UK is now horrendously inadequate, in Russia however it really is something else! All I will say is the hospital where I had a broken finger treated, would have been closed down by Florence Nightingale. A totally crazy experience, unlike today!
It cost about £40, the vast majority of the outlay being the X-ray. The diagnosis was excellent, the quack estimated it’d swollen for a week minimum and not 100% until two to three weeks (he was bang on). Need rest for a week, mobility granted but not to over do it, being silly. Hey – We could do with a laze about, having been flat out for a while doing stuff. Luckily it’s meant to be just that sort of place, to just be, chill. Here’s hoping it’ll get effin warmer then!
We had good food on a street with quite a selection of nice looking places. As requested the Tuk-Tuk thief returned and we go on a city tour of five pre-selected digs for a look. We finished but have only seen four, all either lacking in availability, quality or cost. Ahhhhh he forgot one, back there we go – Bingo, $40 a night and nice it is too, with special comfy seating and matching foot rest for the newly acquired minor injury. We make a verbal agreement with the guy in charge and will be back tomorrow to Sala Prabang, the one we asked first to see but was delivered at the end.
We get dropped at a town market – we need warmer gear, jumpers mainly. We can’t both be Superman in a small town with fancy wine bars. The KP is dressed in her’s tho’ plus her Kazakh winter boots, bonkers! No joy at the town market, so we head onwards grab some street food then the KP reckons she knows the way, no it’s not, this is a night market! Yes she is. It’s a different time of day and the night market is actually on the street where we ate today. It’s not like an Asian market though! It’s chilled, relaxed, polite. No hassle being dished out from the vendors. Whilst we are taking in this surreal atmosphere, there’s a pop up bar, a coffee shop supplied by the place we stayed in Paksong. They bloody do, do Irish Coffee 🙂 we partake. Lovely too freshly made. Our hotel is beyond the market but it’s a pleasure to amble along through it. The atmosphere so polite it’s almost impossible to barter, it would be too rude. I love a good barter, the bargains that can be achieved in major tourist destinations can feel good at the time, especially when you’ve negotiated something close to 15% of the original asking price in Patpong. They never turn out to be a bargain in the end tho’ do they? It’s all Tat whatever you think! Here tho’ the items do actually seem unique and handmade. In addition to getting some Beer Laos warm pull overs a particular stall caught my eye, it was the second occasion on the market where I noticed a dull silver coloured array of utensils, jewellery & gadgets. The neatly hand written sign in basic english described that all the items were recreated from unexploded aluminium bombs recovered in the area. Laos is actually the most bombed country in the world, quick research confirms that during the secret war between 1964 & 73 the Yanks dropped more than two million tonnes of bombs during 580,000 missions. I understand it was designed to stop people leaving Vietnam, Cambo got it’s fair share too. Many of these bombs remain un-detonated today as 80 million of the 270 did not go off!! See here the secret war. No doubt as always the great US of A is very sorry for it’s actions no doubt.
We bought a simple bottle opener, as I had my eye on some other jewellery for her Chrimbo prezzie, and soon we were back on the street. Just next door to where we were this afternoon and right in time for happy hour. I clocked it this afternoon, but we’ve arrived totally by chance. We make the most of it, not the happy hour but the fact we’re in a nice wine bar with a good selection of oldie music and lush wine in a very comfortable setting. We order a red for me and a white for the KP, a nice big bottle each, both South African’s reasonably priced. We are now starting to think we might well bloody enjoy ourselves here after all.
Regardless that we were really pissed we don’t sleep too well as the room is bastard freezing with no warm setting on the Air con. It’s a chore to get up to go to the bog. All you want to do is wrap yourself feet’n’all into the duvet. Well you would if it wasn’t a 6 tog summer version. Plus the internet is totally pants running at point two of a meg, bloody useless. The KP as can be expected is worse for wear, so I leave her in bed and head off on a moto taxi keen to reserve the hotel we seen yesterday. The driver cannot find it, as apparently there are 4 or more Sala Prabang’s in town, typical. We go to the main reception and even they can’t tell me which building the room is in?? I do find another suitable room in their numerous hotel set up. $55 as we are now staying a while, we want a bit more comfort. The $20 rooms in this tourist town are not so good, there are cells for $10 or less if you want them tho’
So relocated in a nice room with separate shower meaning the whole bathroom doesn’t get soaked each time you use it, quite a treat on these travels. Now planning to stay another week we relax together devising our new plan for the town which is best navigated on pushbike or foot. Cycling is out of the question so we’ll have a gander on foot, it soon becomes apparent that is also a bloody silly idea. Sensibly we get drunk on the main street with a large selection of eateries and drinking venues all in hobbling distance along it. The chosen hotel being just around the corner, perfect!
There’s nothing really major to see in Luang Prabang, it’s just a lovely place all over. There’s waterfalls 30 clicks out of town, interesting caves also the same distance in the opposite direction. The town itself has a very high number of Vat’s most of them in splendid gold, lots of bakeries, coffee shops restaurants and bars plus the already mentioned traditional style dwellings. It’s really bloody nice we even start to forget about the chill, well when your in the direct rays of the sun that is. There’s plenty of activities available also – cooking classes, river cruises, elephant riding, kayaking, mountain biking and most interesting visiting the Muong tribe people in their own habitat. I say most interesting as smoking opium is actually part of their religion, could teach others a thing or two. During the majority of the Ten days we stay we do virtually fuck all, we liked the idea of the cooking classes and the tribe people but we just don’t get around to it. The ankle an excuse for us both to become lethargic to a point beyond where we thought possible. We both enjoy a swig sometimes so that becomes the general idea most days just get slowly drunk whilst seeing little extra bits of town, including a few of the Vats, well the ones close to any bars or french patisseries we were at! It’s very similar to my usual holiday plan when with the boys, I’m in my element.
The ankle is not so bad, the key is just not to do anything to it again before it’s fully recovered. This shouldn’t include ten pin bowling which we play one drunken evening, my damaged middle finger suffering more than the ankle. The whole of Laos has a curfew at midnight, the out of town bowling venue one such place which defies the law and stays open till about one!
On about the fifth day which is Xmas eve, for additional mobility we rent a motor bike and like everything else here it’s more costly $20 a day! It was $10 in Pakse, $5 in Cambo. The big beers are regularly 20,000 not 10, restaurant bills often three times the usual. The ATM is visited almost as often as if we are in Cardiff.
We vary the venues for food some cheap and cheerful, others more fancy, it’s mostly good only the most expensive a let down. One night our best meal is discovered over the river accessed by a bamboo foot bridge – The traditional Laos fondue. A secret recess is revealed in the table which is soon filled with a bucket of hot coals used to heat an upside wok type cooking pot. It’s great fun, they show us how it’s done and we are left to our own devices, spread the fat put the buffalo meat on with the noodles and veggies in the coconut soup around the edge, delicious and all for 80K 🙂
We try other traditional dishes, but not so many as an assortment green vegetables like weeds are always used in abundance, fifty percent of them not being to our taste. The most traditional dish of Laos Lapp, raved about by many, we are not keen on at all! Heavily spiced minced meat mixed finely with a variety of rabbit food served cold was not for us. It may just have been a badly made one, we are not sure as to date it’s the only one we’ve tried.
We have a special Christmas Eve dinner put together by an extravagant Aussie, followed by the find of the town so far – a super cool cocktail bar run by a female French artist, who could knock together a more than decent cocktail. The four we both try are super all eight of them, the majority of which are unique.
Continuing the Christmas spirit with another beer fuelled brekkie this time with proper fat chips. The big days dinner is at the Aussie sports bar, aided with lots of wine and beer we have a cracking time. Later we are to discover more disappointment when the cool cocktail bar is shut until the 27th, gutted!
Boxing Day the KP is booked in for a hair cut at a very smart looking salon ran by a very lovely Belgian boy and his ‘friend’. She looks great, but that’s only my opinion, she’s not happy at all with the short style. Mainly coz she’s not used to it, it’s the shortest it may have ever been! Bless her I hate it when she’s down and not so much fun, grumpy cow!
The following day two significant things happen, firstly we discover that the air con unit actually has a warm function. Having daftly assumed it wouldn’t as the three previous did not. So there you have it rule for the day, as in engineering never ever assume, as you will make an ASS out of U and ME. The asses being both of us, better late than never it is a most welcome discovery, we’ve both got slight colds as it’s still freezing late at night and early in the mornings. Secondly we actually fucking do something of note – A venture to the waterfalls on the bike, choosing it in preference over the caves as we are told that involves a steep mountain climb. The waterfalls are splendid in colour, bright turquoise, there are many people jumping from tree branches having fun. I don’t want to risk the foot and the KP has also become boring, wallowing in hair cut blues.
The falls themselves tho’ are not as spectacular as we’ve seen. That combined with the sheer volume of people we soon depart, agreeing the time would have been better spent remaining on the piss. The highlight of the trip was the group of brown bears they have captive near the entrance, it’s another debut for the KP. Now I don’t like seeing animals held captive, with an especially strong dislike to Sea Parks and how they capture the dolphins and other sea creatures. These bears tho’ have supposedly been captured to save them from being hunted for trade. I’m not sure if they are happy, but they look chilled enough and not overly restricted like they would be in a zoo. The chains are only part of the construction so they do have a certain amount of freedom, i think ?
Our departure is booked for two days time heading south. The initial plan of doing a Northern loop will need to be for another time when the weather allows it. Now we are heading to Vang Vieng, Laos party town where the curfew is ignored with abandon, dance venues are meant to go until sunrise. It’s a convenient stop off on the way to the capital. Anyway we could bloody well do with a right old rave for the new year, the ankle is almost up for a bop.
On the final day we test the sprainage by climbing the 328 steps to the shrine on top of Mount Phousi. If it was called something else I most probably wouldn’t have wanted to make the effort. The climb is worth it and not just for the great views but also the much needed physio required to make the soon to arrive dancing more possible. We end our last day with a super massage and not so clever manicure.
Luang Prabang continued the theme of the incredibly enjoyable time we are indeed spending in Laos. The people always so polite and respectful 🙂 all the places yet visited so clean and well kept. It’s quite extraordinary comparing what we’ve seen to some areas of Thailand and Cambo, now seemingly cesspits. Not that I mean any offence I have much love for all three destinations. The Laos tho’ are definitely a step or two ahead, the poorest country of all it’s neighbours, yet the education level I believe is better than most. The small wealth there is also seems to be distributed more fairly to the people. Unlike for example in Kazakhstan where the rich just get richer, and the roads just continue to deteriorate. It’s something the KP is having trouble understanding, myself also. Laos is most definitely a very special country, unique in many little ways. Defo worth a visit even if you don’t like beer :-).
The thoughts I’m thinking of as we are leaving – Groovy maps are good, but sometimes they print pure shite. It’s not possible to not love Luang Prabang it’s just too like-ably a lovely little town. Just make sure you bring your woolies.