Jewel of the Mekong!

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, November 26, 2011

When planning our trip we knew we would definitely go to Vietnam and Cambodia but weren't sure if we would have enough time left to visit Laos. Having done all the main things we wanted to do in Vietnam we decided that 6 days was enough to at least see Luang Prabang province which is an area we have both heard great things about. So we booked our flights and got set for a trip to Laos, however it got off to a bit of a stressful start...

We arrived at the airport way too early and had some disgusting and over-priced breakfast from one of the cafes in the airport and then sat near a board so that we could see when a check-in desk for our flight would open. We waited and waited getting increasingly worried that our flight might be canceled and eventually the desk was announced. We immediately got into the long queue which barely moved as there were 3 flights all going to the only 3 open desks. When we got near the front and told them where we were going we were then moved to another queue. By this time there's only 40 minutes until the flight was due to leave. Eventually we get to the front and the girl looked at me anxiously "Why you come so late?" We didn't know whether to laugh or cry and told them we'd been in the airport for 2 hours and our desk has only just been announced. She called her supervisor who was on the radio looking panicked and we started thinking we would miss this flight. The only thing giving us hope was that the girl kept checking us in and there were other people in the queue for Luang Prabang.

When we got to security it was announced that our flight was delayed due to bad weather at Luang Prabang! PHEW!!! We have a feeling we weren't the only ones and the delayed flight was because they couldn't understand why everyone was checking in so late. Next time we fly we're just going to ignore the boards, head straight for the nearest desk and demand that someone checks us in.

We then arrived into Luang Prabang airport, got our visas and got a taxi to a guesthouse we had looked up in the Lonely Planet, called Mano Guesthouse. Our taxi driver was told the name 3 times by the taxi company (like he was  bit special) and we set off. He dropped all of us off in one place and pointed to a hotel "This one you!" It was an amazing hotel and looked like some sort of resort, surely this isn't ours? We went in, immediately knew it wasn't ours when we saw a load of suitcases lined up outside (everywhere we go has backpacks) and left to see that the taxi driver had buggered off. We tried to get some directions and found our way to the right spot eventually and were relieved that the journey was over. The guesthouse was quite nice other than a constant smell of rice in the room but we did struggle as the ladies running the place didn't speak a word of English. I asked for a map, and they looked at me blankly. I asked what was the "checkout time" and they started writing a bill. It just didn't work so we decided we'd only go there to sleep and spend the rest of the time in the city.
Despite the stressful morning, by the middle of the afternoon we were already so happy that we had decided to come to Laos. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city (although it's tiny and more like a small town) with quaint shops and restaurants and stunning temples dotted all over the city. Given that I love food (obviously, it's the best thing ever) I was especially happy that the food in Luang Prabang is awesome. Laos have really embraced their colonial french past and still sell baguettes on the side of the road and croissants for breakfast. My new favourite place is the Swedish bakery where they have a breakfast special for $3 where you get 2 eggs on a bagel, a croissant with butter and jam, coffee and fruit juice, Amazing! It was especially welcome after having a fair few noodle soup breakfasts in Vietnam. 

In the evening we found some hawker style food near the night market where you buy a plate for just over a dollar and you can just fill it with as much food as you can, and it was really nice food too. The trick was to go early though, firstly because its quieter and you can actually get a table and secondly because then the food you eat won't have been sat out with the flies for hours and hours. We also enjoyed a fair few Beer Lao's which were just over a dollar for a massive bottle. However the best dining experience came on our last day in Luang Prabang when we found a hidden gem of a restaurant across the river. We went for lunch with a couple we met along our trip in Vietnam and we shared a Beef fondue where we could cook the food at the table. Kind of a strange concept to pay to cook your own food but basically we cooked the noodles veg and beef and then at the end you're left with the most amazing tasting soup. It was so good! It was a really cool restaurant overlooking the Mekong river and we sat on a platform on stilts with amazing views while we cooked our lunch.

The night market is fantastic, it lines nearly the entire length of the main road in Luang Prabang where the locals can sell their hand-made gifts. It's a really nice market to go to because the people selling are mostly really friendly and nowhere near as pushy as the market sellers in everywhere else we've been to in South East Asia. They say "Sabaidee" (hello) and show you what they're selling but if you say no thanks they just let you go past whereas in Vietnam they chase you down the street shouting at you. We read in the lonely planet that they don't really negotiate in Laos, they offer you a fair price but things must have changed because we bought things for a quarter of their initial price at some places. Laotian's have definitely caught on to the fact that they have a fair few tourists and we found that the prices (food and drink excepted) were quite expensive compared with their neighbouring countries.
So, enough about food and shopping. The first day we went to see some of the main temples and then climbed the 330 steps up to a hilltop called Phu Si where there is a temple and a good spot to watch the sun setting. We then wandered around the site and down to another temple on the other side where we saw a small cave (with a temple inside) and a site where you can see Buddha's footprint. We also had our first and only conversation with a monk. He was quite young and relaxed unlike an hour later when a monk walked past us and there was a guy behind him holding a big stick between him and any women. It was quite a busy market so not the easiest job! The monk taught us to say 'hello' and 'thank you very much' in Lao which we used a lot, especially at the market!

The next day we got up at 5.30 (again!) so that we could get into town just after 6 to see the monks collecting alms at sunrise. We stood at the side of the street trying not to be those annoying intruding tourists taking photos (this is just them going about their daily life) and watched the rows of monks walking past. However, there were quite a few tourists who were less respectful and pushed their SLR camera's right into the monks faces as they were going through their rituals. What we wanted to know is what they do with the food that is given by everyone. Most people were giving a small amount of cooked sticky rice to each monk. Do they eat that? 
It was interesting to see them all in their orange robes making their way through the town and the streets were lined with people making their contributions. Luang Prabang is also a great place to watch them collecting alms because there are several temples along the main road where the monks live and you could really get a feel for how the monks interact with the community.

A couple of hours later it was adventure time as we were headed out on a day of exercise. First, a 22 km cycle to a waterfall then a couple of hours for lunch and swimming followed by a 10km kayak back to the city. Our guide gave us a quick safety briefing for how to use our bikes which was very enlightening. My favourite piece of advice was... "When you cycle, you must cycle forwards, not backwards. Better for you!" And we were off. Aside from the dusty roads it was a beautiful cycle into the countryside. Luang Prabang is set in an amazing location right on the Mekong river and surrounded by mountains covered in trees, really beautiful! 

Along the way we stopped at a small village where we could see the locals making all sorts of gifts to sell at the night market. One of the ladies was weaving a scarf and said it takes around 2 days because it is all being done manually! We got a bit of a shock when we first came into the village because there were dozens of people walking down the road, every one of them carrying an enormous machete and walking in our direction. It felt a bit like we had entered a place where we weren't welcome but our guide said they were all out cleaning. I know I always grab my machete when it's time to clean, don't we all! Actually, they have a festival coming up so they were cleaning up the village, trimming grass etc but seeing a wall of people wielding machete's was a bit of a surprise to say the least. Then it was back on our bikes followed by a 20 minute kayak to the Tat Kuang Si waterfall where we stopped for lunch.

You can only get there by boat and it's one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. The waterfall isn't big but it's wide and has multi-tiered limestone formations where the extremely clean water flows through into the river. The water is turquoise and at the bottom level people can ride the elephants through the waterfall whilst others fly over on zip wires. It was just such a beautiful place and we spent some time feeding the elephants, eating and relaxing in the crystal clear water. A well needed rest because next was a 10km kayak back towards the city.

Although there was a bit of a current, we didn't find it helped much so it was pretty good exercise and the views from the river are amazing. We kayaked past a number of locals fishing from their boats and kayaked past a few elephants reserves where they walk the elephants into the river and across to the other side, so we were literally kayaking with them. The other couple on our tour nearly crashed into two elephants because they couldn't stop quickly enough. Katy risked taking the camera out of the dry bag because we really wanted to get some photos of the elephants in the river. However it had to go back in because towards the end of the route we kayaked through a series of rapids to our finish. we had been warned that we could fall off our kayaks in the rapids but it was fine and just a lot of fun! It was such a great day, one of the best since we've been traveling.

Luang Prabang is somewhere we would love to come back to, beautiful location, friendly people and loads of things to do. Plus the temples are beautiful, beer is cheap and the food is delicious, what more could you want?  

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Phil on

Fantastic place and what great memories you will have. You'll be back in Oz by the time you read this. Only 12 days to go at the college and there is not enough time to get everything done to my satisfaction. Spose they'll manage without me.

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