We may have saved the best of Laos for last. Everyone we met while traveling seemed to have strong feelings about Luang Prabang, however they differed greatly. Several travelers told us they loved Luang Prabang, it was beautiful and relaxing, others told us it was filled with tourists and didn’t feel authentic. We found it charming with lovely people and cuisine.
DAY 1 – Sunday, January 25, 2015
When we stepped off of the bus, tuk tuks waited. Luckily two other travelers from our bus were headed to the same hotel and the drivers organized us into a shuttle together. When we arrived at the Vangsavath Inn we were greeted by the owner’s charismatic son. After checking us in, he sat us down for a brief introduction to Luang Prabang over an orange drink. The Vangsavath Inn is located about 2 kilometers from the western end of town, so the hotel provides a shuttle bus and bikes for the guests free of charge. Even though we had missed the 7pm shuttle into town, the manager arranged an 8pm extra ride for us and the other guests.
The shuttle dropped us off at the end of the nightly night market. Although we’ve been to other night markets, I think we were a bit more taken by this one. The night market isn’t in a separate market space. It is set up each day at 5pm along the main road into town. Red and blue canopies are erected creating a roof over the street several blocks long, Several feet into the market we noticed that it seemed to offer more unique goods than the others we’d been to. Less t-shirts, magnets, postcards, and sunglasses were being sold and instead the stalls peddled silk scarfs, quilts, and aluminum trinkets made from bomb casings. We entered the market planning to get to one of the streets beyond where the restaurants are, but found ourselves in what seemed like a never ending market. There was one alleyway in the market with street food, but more about that on day 2.
Beyond the market was a cute town which seemed to be the cleanest and most modern we had visited in Laos. Like Vientiane, Luang Prabang was french influenced and there were cafes and bakeries. However, gone were the street carts and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops. Instead there were open air restaurants decorated to suit western travelers. We ate dinner that night at Khmu Restaurant. We both had curries and found them to be very good.
DAY 2 – Monday, January 26, 2015
We got to enjoy sleeping in a little and then complimentary breakfast at the hotel (the first of the trip). We had good first impressions of Luang Prabang the evening before, so we wanted to spend more time in the city. We borrowed two bikes from the hotel and rode into town. The bikes were great for free bikes, but were a bit rickety. They even got out a few extra bikes trying to find one big enough for Jon although his knees still hit the handle bars.
In town we went first to the Royal Palace Museum, only to discover that it closes for 2 hours midday. We switched gears and decided first to tackle the hike to the top of Mount Phousi and Wat Chom Si. Wat Chom Si is seated on top of the 100 meter tall Mt. Phousi hill overlooking Luang Prabang. The climb to Wat Chom Si is up 329 stairs from the street. About 20 stairs into the climb is a terrace that provides a great view of the Royal Palace Museum. Also on the terrace is the small temple of That Phu Si. That Phu Si was free to enter and more interesting than we expected.
We continued up the hill to Wat Phu Si. When you are 190 stairs away from the top, there is a 20,000K fee ($2.50) to continue. The climb to the top wasn’t nearly as difficult as 329 stairs sounds. The temple at the top was nice, but the real payoff was the view. Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula formed by the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. From Mt Phousi you can see both rivers as well as the town, countryside, and distant mountains.
I think that at this point, most people take their photographs and leave the way they come. This would be a mistake. If you continue back down the other side of the hill, there is a monastery (I think that it is called Wat Phra Buddabhat). Around the monastery are a large number of Buddha statues placed in nooks and on platforms across the hill side. Go a little further and there is a small cave you can enter with another Buddha. Go even further and there is a Footprint of Buddha. After a bit of exploring we finally climbed back down the hill and found ourselves not very far from where we started. By this time the Royal Palace Museum was open.
The Royal Palace Museum (30,000K or $3.75) was once the house of the royal family and has since been turned into a museum of antiquities, including a display of Royal cars from the 1960’s and 70’s. For me the most interesting part were the 16 paintings depicting the legend of Prince Wetsantara and the cabinets of gifts from other countries to Laos. Most gifts were silver or China, however America had given Laos moon rocks and a Laos flag which had been on the Apollo missions.
Before the day got too late we wanted to see Wat Xieng Thong, so we rode our bikes to the other end of the 1 mile peninsula. On the way we passed Ashley and Dominic, the friends we made in Vang Vieng. We also happened to be passing by a small temple around 4pm when we noticed the monks gathering. They climbed into a tower with a drum and started to play some music. We enjoyed the music for a while and then continued on. On the way we heard wisps of similar rhythms coming from other temples.
When we reached the end of the peninsula there was a small park which overlooks the convergence of the rivers and a wooden pedestrian bridge. I understand that the bridge is only useable in the dry season. After the park we back tracked to Wat Xieng Thong. Wat Xieng Thong cost 20,000K ($2.50) to enter. The wat was decorated in shiny mosaic titles. The item in the wat that drew the largest crowd was a gong. As we entered a man was rubbing the gong making it sing. No one else was able to repeat the performance when we were there although many people tried.
We rode our bikes back to the hotel in time to get off the roads before sundown. After cleaning up for a while we jumped on the shuttle back to the night market. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to eat, in the small alley we had seen the night before which is lined with street food. We started out small sharing some fried egg rolls. The most impressive displays were grilled meats on wooden skewers; whole fish, quarters of chicken, pork, and beef. We started with a pork skewer. Also in the alley were buffet style stands. For 15,000K ($2.00) you were given one bowl which could be filled with heaping portions of premade noodles and vegetable salads. We split one bowl which we filled with as many types of food as we could. Before calling it quits for the night, Jon went back for one more meat skewer.
DAY 3 – Tuesday, January 27, 2015
We woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel. At 9:30 Ashely and Dominic arrived in a tuk tuk to take us to Kuang Si Waterfall. Kuang Si was a bit of a drive. When we arrived there was an entrance fee of 20,000K ($2.50). Just a few meters into the hike, on the other side of a fence, we were greeted by two black bears playing with a tire swing. The walk to the waterfall included walking past the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center bear sanctuary. There were quite a few bears in several different large pens.
Back to the waterfall hike, which wasn’t very long. We came to a pool of beautiful green water with a small wooden bridge over it. It was very picturesque. We had heard that the best pools are at the top of the fall, so we kept walking. We came to pool after pool, each was better than the last. At each pool we stopped for pictures and took many. We were very glad to have come early in the morning because there were not many people there, and there was no one in the water. Eventually we came to the main waterfall which was tall, powerful, and beautiful. Another wooden bridge across the bottom of the falls made for an excellent vantage point.
We decided we had to keep going to the top of the waterfall. A steep dirt path went up alongside of the falls. It wasn’t an easy hike but we went to the top. At the top is a shallow pool, but really there isn’t much of a view. To cross the pool at the top you can wade into the water or try to balance on some bamboo bridges. On the other side of the falls was a similar path back down.
Back at the bottom there was only one thing we wanted to do, and that was go for a swim. We walked down a few pools to one that had a large tree branch to jump off of. The water was very cold and the bottom of the pool was rocky. Even though the water had a beautiful color, it wasn’t clear at all. We carefully got into the water, but once we were in it was fun to play around. We swam to some small falls and climbed around taking pictures. Before we knew it we had to go back to the tuk tuk and leave.
While cleaning up at the hotel after our swim, we had a startle when our window shattered! The neighbor had been hitting golf balls and one went right at our window. Luckily, there was a screen on the inside of the window so that the ball and large shards of glass didn’t fall into the room. Unluckily, some of the glass shattered so finely that we could see sand size sparkles on the floor, bed, and clothes I had laid out to dry. We told the front desk and after a bit of explaining we were moved to a different room.
For our last night in Luang Prabang we took the shuttle into town again. Being our last night, it was a tough decision where to eat. We started by getting a drink along the river and walking around town for a while. We had seen some hot pot restaurants that looked good, we had heard a few restaurant recommendations, and while walking around we passed a BBQ restaurant along the river where you grill the food at your table. After several changes of mind, we ended up at the BBQ place. We were seated at a table with a clay pot in the middle. The clay pot was filled with hot coals and a grill placed on top. Lard was placed on top of the grill and broth poured into the bottom of it. In the center of the restaurant was a table with meat, seafood, noodles, and vegetables. We filled up bowls and took them back to our table to cook. The meats when on the grill while the vegetables went into the broth. The meal also included desserts.
- Coconut Garden – A popular and highly recommended restaurant. We wanted to eat here because it looked really nice, but were turned off by the price for small portion sizes. The restaurant’s menu recommends ordering more dishes than people at each table plus rice, vegetables, and desserts.
- Khaiphaen Restaurant – Khaiphaen restaurant is a part of the Friends International charity which helps at risk children. Plus our friends ate there and said it was fantastic.
- Manhut Training – One of the most popular actives in Luang Prabang is to take a Manhut (elephant) training course. Basically for 3-4 days you feed, bathe, and ride an elephant. Manhut courses are advertised throughout town by many tour agencies. If you do this, please so some research to pick one that practices humane treatment. I haven’t done any research which is why I’m not going to recommend one here.
Travel throughout country: Laos does not have trains, so buses are the way to travel the country. The roads are in poor condition and land travel takes time. Luang Prabang is typically reached by bus or slow boat. Bus tickets are widely sold throughout each town in Laos. We purchased tickets from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang on the ‘VIP’ bus. The bus took over 6 hour to reach Luang Prabang and stopped twice at rest stops.
Transportation within cities: Tuk tuks seem to be the best transportation for tourists within Laos cities and they are plentiful. You can usually negotiate a lower price than they will offer, so don’t be scared to try. If you are going to or from a large tourist attraction, finding other tourists to share a tuk tuk with will also reduce the cost.
Money: The Laos currency is the Kip which has an exchange ratio of $1= 8,025K (as of January 2015). We found that most establishments will except Kip, US dollars, and the Thai Baht. Modernized restaurants and hotels accept Mastercard and Visa, however they often applied a 3-5% surcharge to use a credit card instead of cash. ATM’s were widely available.
Visa Information: For Americans, most major entry points into Laos will offer a visa on arrival; including airports, train stations, and some land crossings. A visa is good for 30 days and costs 1500B ($45) for Americans. You will need one passport type photograph.
Water: Don’t drink it. Bottled water is widely available and most of our hotel rooms included either a water cooler in the lobby or two bottles in the room daily.
Malaria: Malaria exists in Laos, although if you are in cities, the risk is low. We took malaria pills (Doxycycline), which we purchased cheaply from a pharmacy in Thailand. MAKE SURE YOU TALK TO A DOCTOR BEFORE DOING THIS as there are a number of possible side effects and the pills must be continued for 30 days after leaving an at risk area.