Visit to Luang Prabang, Laos

My youngest brother once remarked to me when I complained about how slow he drove that “The enjoyment is in the journey.” Of course, he was talking about getting a short distance in his car. I would not normally rate international travel as enjoyable.

The effort to get to inner Laos for a week, is an example.


Waiting for the airport VIP bus

First, there was the hours of planning. Bus seats had to be reserved for the trip to  Bangkok’s Suvarnabhomi Airport (31/2 hours, $10 per person). Tickets with Bangkok Air to Luang Prabang reserved. Air tickets from Luang Prabang to Laos’ capital Vientiane next. Air tickets back to Bangkok. And finally, a private car pickup at Don Muang airport to return to Hua Hin.

Oh, and there was all the time looking for just the right hotels at the right prices. And the travel itself is not enjoyable – waiting at airports and bus terminals, hours in buses and planes, immigration and security checkpoints, airport food. It’s all a hassle.

But we made it.

Here I’m going to borrow from TripAdvisor:

“The ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Considered by many travelers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is 700 meters above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers.

“Here visitors are subjected to an inflamed economic bubble that does not apply to the rest of the country. Being Laos’ premier tourist destination and (arguably) Southeast Asia’s most beautiful spot, ironically tourists will pay more for the innate pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping than they would in the country’s capital city Vientiane.

“Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545. Regardless, it has continued to overlook Vientiane as the destination of choice with its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. Even the hardest of hearts would have a struggle not to warm to the place. The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples), on the tourist trail.

“This former Royal capital still remains the main center for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation. Cascading waterfalls, scaling peaks and the milky-brown waters of the Mekong River provide ample opportunity to swim, climb and sail your way through Luang Prabang.

“This small and gentle town where most locals are asleep by 22:00 is now one of the richest and most visited provinces in Laos. It’s one of the few places where you feel that this is the genuine article and one that retains its unique ambiance.”

All the trip planning went off without a hitch on day 1, although, as always, there were some hiccups. Nan’s friends picked us up to take us to the VIP bus terminal outside of Hua Hin. These are very nice buses and less than $10 a seat for the 31/3-hour journey direct to the airport.

There, we checked in with Bangkok Air and asked where to get a VAT refund (I had purchased a camera some time ago and had a $25 VAT refund due. Unfortunately, however, after much airport walking and waiting in the queue, I was informed the refund had to be within 60 days of purchase.

Then it was time to pass through security and immigration. They have changed the rules for Thais, who no longer have to fill out a departure form, and I didn’t realize I needed one until I was almost at the front of one of several immigration queues. After leaving the line and finding the form, I got in line again. There were many foreigners confused by the departure form necessity, causing delays in the lines.

Then there was security – the usual undressing to get through, the electron scan and the hand scanner, while trying to hold onto my falling trousers after having to take off my belt to scan. It’s definitely not the journey, little brother!

After an airport meal of chicken/noodle soup and a mild Tom Yun with ground pork ($20 – why I hate airport food), we boarded a 64-seat turbo-prop for the 2-hour, 20-minute trip to Luang Prabang.

In the U.S., you generally don’t get a meal on such a short flight, but we were served something with shrimp in it that we both disliked. Airplane food – usually ugh!

The flight into LP settles through a low-slung mountain area, with peaks on both sides as we descended. Reminded me of the old Hong Kong airport, where you could virtually look inside people’s windows as you landed.

Immigration was well organized inside the LP terminal, but slow, as they photographed every foreigner entering. Thais and Laotians had separate lines, and Thais do not need to pay for a visa. My visa on arrival cost $36.

Before leaving the airport, we bought two 7-day SIM crds – $5 each installed.

To get a taxi, you first go to the taxi desk, where they ask your destination, give you a price ($6.50) and fill out a slip for you to give to a driver as you exit the terminal. The driver spoke some English and successfully campaigned to take us on a tour to the Tad Sae waterfall south of town ($40 for both of us).

I can’t say much positive about LP’s roads, many mostly dirt or with multiple potholes. The buildings, however, were much different than Hua Hin, and there was definitely a small town feel as we rode to the Merry Riverside Hotel (Merry 1 to the locals).

You actually have to walk about 150 yards to the hotel entrance, located on a cobblestone street lined with homes and guesthouses. Merry is a boutique hotel with maybe a dozen rooms on two floors, some with balconies overlooking the river. When we saw those I tried to make a change, but they were occupied.

The hotel staff could not be more attentive. The front desk man took us to our small but well appointed room on the first floor. There is a small garden sitting area outside, a good-sized bath, A/C, wifi, even an air purifier. Free morning coffee or tea included, as well as free bicycles.

Once we cleaned up, we hailed a tuk-tuk from the street and headed for the night market, where we thought we would be able to sample local street food. Had to negotiate from 30,000 kip ($3.75) to 20,000 kip but ended up giving him the 30,000. This is when I began to realize the money was going to be a problem.

Why? Because they use three currencies here – the Lao kip (8,000 = $1), Thai baht (32 = $1) and U.S. dollars. At one place, you might be given change in USD, and the next in kip and the next in baht, or a combination of any two.

The market turned out to be all clothing, pottery and other goods, not food, and stretched out forever. To be honest, it was something of a nightmare – a narrow path for people to walk between vendors, all who had overhead canvas coverings that you had to duck under and poles holding the canvas that you had to get around while others were coming at you from the opposite direction.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, although we will be going back our last night for souvenirs.

I was determined that there had to be an end to the stalls and was finally rewarded when we emerged on Sisavangvong Road, which turned out to be restaurant central. When I finally recognized a restaurant name I had found on the internet, we stopped for dinner. It was late for dinner and we were hungry.

The Coconut Garden turned out to be an excellent accident – nice ambiance and excellent food and service. We sat in the front section, near the street, but there was also a huge back room with a bar.


A large Lao beer cost less than a small Chang in Thailand

As I watched Nan look at the menu, I realized there might be a problem. The menu was in Lao and English, and all she had to go by was pictures. When she asked about several mundane dishes because of the pictures, I offered to order for both of us. We could have had several hand-picked dishes but they offered a sampler of five different Lao dishes, plus rice and a mixed fruit dessert. An excellent choice and only about $21 for the two of us. We finished it all off. Surprisingly, Nan, who prefers very spicy Thai food, absolutely loved the mild Lao creations, as did I. The tastes were surprising and unusual.


Clockwise from left: Mildly spicey beef and onions, a chicken and vegetable dish, Luang Prabang salad (excellent), steamed chicken in bamboo leaf, and, center clear soup with vegetables and chicken.

An early bedtime with full stomachs after another tuk-tuk ride back to Merry 1. Tomorrow – touring.

About 2bagsandapack

Lifetime journalist, author, magazine editor and publisher, now semi-retired and traveling the world. My plan, after living in Costa Rica for 14 months, was to visit a new country in southern Europe every three months to experience the culture and the challenge of adapting to a new environment, while on a fixed income. That plan was sidetracked when I was offered a job in Indonesia, providing an opportunity to explore Asia. Indonesia lasted for a 4 wonderful years but I have now moved on to Hua Hin, Thailand.
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