Laos: Luang Prabang

From green Vang Vieng, I hopped on a bus north to Luang Prabang. I’m glad I’d been pre-warned to get up early in time to take a Stugeron, as boy was it windy. There are two routes from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang; the ‘old road’ which is exceedingly windy and longer, and the ‘new road’ which is shorter and straighter, but still unfinished in parts which makes for a bumpy ride. So, neither an ideal option. Turns out the bus I was on took the old road, which was a bit hairy, but at least it was tarmac all the way. Luckily, the Stugeron did its thing and we arrived 7 hours later in one piece with an intact stomach. Take heed if you get travel sick…

After a short tuk-tuk ride from the bus station into the centre, I found my hostel. It was in a really great location on the road of the morning market (where the locals do their daily shopping) and just round the corner from the food market and the night market. I joined some people from the hostel we headed for the food market. It’s a tiny alley that links the morning and night market roads, lined with food stalls. They do a ‘buffet’ which I would highly recommend for cheap but good local food. For 15,000₭ they give you a bowl to fill up with titbits from the spread: fritters, vegetables, noodles, rice, salads, sauces, spring rolls etc. There’s also an amazing bakery stall at the end of the alley, so in the spirit of Christmas, I managed to squeeze in a mango and passion fruit cake after my smörgas-bowl of dinner.

Getting stuck into the buffet at the night food market

After dinner, we walked round the corner to the night market. I liked that it’s put on largely for the benefit of tourists, but the offerings were really different to other markets I’ve seen, in that it wasn’t tourist crap. They did have the odd magnet and beer vest, but also some lovely scarves, handmade wooden homeware, leather bags, tea and coffee etc. I bought a little canvas drawstring rucksack, for use at the beach and on day trips where I don’t want to empty my daypack.

The night market

Market needs fulfilled, we met some other people from the hostel at a popular traveller bar down by the river, Utopia. It’s a great little place with cushions on the floor, tables outside and a sandy area where they have a fire pit for people to sit around when it gets cooler in the evenings. The food there is quite expensive but drinks are fairly standard prices for the nicer bars here. We nestled onto a mat by the fire and chatted to the group until the bar closed.

The firepit at Utopia

The next day I headed out to explore the town with a German girl I’d met in Vang Vieng. We wandered through the morning market on our doorstep (decidedly pungent thanks to the whole raw fish they have laying out – the catfish are truly hideous. My fish eye fear was on high alert) and climbed up the hill in the middle of the town to the Phu Si temple. The temple itself is quite modest in size and in decoration compared to some others I’ve seen, but it was the 360 degree view over the city which was the most impressive. It was turning into a lovely hot day with a clear blue sky, and though it was a little hazy, you could see miles over to mountains in one direction, and down the Mekong in the other. Many people climb the hill to watch the sunset which is supposed to be beautiful – I didn’t do this as I was told it gets ridiculously busy up there, but it might be worth it for more of a sunset enthusiast than myself! 

The view from the top of Phu Si

After taking some snaps we started the stairs back down, past some golden Buddha statues and a little cave shrine. My Belgian friend in Vang Vieng had recommended to me a really good coffee place by the river, Saffron, so we perused some of the artisan craft shops on the way down there. We arrived, swiftly decided we were both in need of a cheesecake brownie to accompany our coffee, and took a seat along the high stool bench they have which overlooks the river. It’s a bit pricey, but delicious if you’re in the mood to treat yourself. We sipped, nibbled and watched as boats came to and fro.

Snack time over, Jule wanted to visit some other shops so I walked back to the hostel and wrote some postcards whilst I chatted to some other people sat in the communal area. There was an Aussie couple who’ve just come from Myanmar so it was useful getting the lowdown on their visit before I go there in January. I headed back out, via the post office, to Utopia. Bar by night, it’s something of a ‘bistro’ or chill zone during the day, which made it a great spot to go and sit on one of the beds by the river and catch up on a bit of writing.

Utopia by day

When the sun went down I went back to the hostel to change, scooped up a Dutch girl and German girl who’d just checked into my dorm and steered them towards the buffet. Bowls emptied, we wandered back round the night market and bumped into a group from the hostel who were on their way to Utopia, so we joined them. I perhaps should have asked for a loyalty card at this point, given that the visits were to continue…

The next day was Christmas Eve! I got up, had breakfast, and started the day by visiting the Royal Palace museum which was just down the road from my hostel. You’re not allowed to take photos in there but it was quite an interesting, if relatively small, place. Some rooms are incredibly ornate, with gems and murals all over the walls, and golden thrones on display. Others, such as the dining room and bedroom, are small and painted plain white, with few furnishings. I found this contrast quite interesting, in that you could see the difference between the private parts of the home and those that would be seen by outsiders – in a way I don’t remember seeing in other palaces I’ve visited. The palace was in use by the royal family until 1975 when the king was captured and mysteriously disappeared. It became a museum in 1976. Part of the palace visit includes the royal cars which were quite cool. They had a Jeep gifted to them by the Japanese government, a series of old American Fords gifted by the US government, and a modest little Citroen that was formerly used for personal visits. It’s not one of the best museums I’ve ever visited, but I’d say it’s worth an hour of your time in Luang Prabang. 

Statue of King Sisavangvong outside the Royal Palace

Royal facts absorbed, I went back to the hostel to change and a group of us headed to the Kuang Si waterfall – a visit I’d definitely recommend. Either hire a scooter, or some hostels will do a shuttle for 35,000₭ return, which is reasonable given the distance from the town. It’s about 30km southwest of Luang Prabang, and something of a hairy minibus ride… We arrived (just about in one piece which was good going, as they’d squeezed a few more of us into the van than there were seats), paid our admission and started the short walk through the jungle to the falls. A very random and unexpected stop on the way to the waterfall was a bear rescue centre – who knew that there were bears in Laos! They’re Asiatic black bears, small(ish) animals, who have been rescued from poachers and illegal owners. They were quite cool to see, just basking in the sun and play-fighting – a little bonus to the waterfall trip.

Kuang Si waterfall

Bear snaps taken, we continued on to the waterfall. There are a series of pools and smaller falls along a trail of about 500m. We walked past the bottom ones up to the top to see the waterfall at its most impressive, and it really is lovely. Despite the hoards of tourists with their selfie sticks we managed to elbow our way onto the bridge where you get the best view of the main waterfall. We then wandered back down the trail to one of the middle pools, and psyched ourselves up for a dip. The water was a beautiful aquamarine colour, probably the nicest I have seen on my travels so far, but much like the cave tubing, it was very cold. However, the main difference here was that the pool was in the sun, so we scrambled in and swam to a spot where we could bask in the light rather than shivering in the shade!

We managed about 15 minutes in the water before we started to feel a little chilly, so we got out, dried off, and made our way back to the entrance area for some lunch before the minivan picked us up for the crazy drive back to town.

A chillier swim than it looks!

In the evening, we fancied getting festive. Noodled-out, the Aussie couple and I walked out to a highly rated Indian (Chennai, for anyone interested) and grabbed a few bits to share, bringing the food back to the hostel to eat in front of a film. One of them had Love Actually on her hard drive (which is a relief, as I was starting to panic I wouldn’t be able to carry out my annual tradition of watching it before Christmas), so we ladled out the daal and got stuck in. We paused it half way through to head down to the Utopia Christmas party. It wasn’t as busy as we were expecting, but we sat by the fire pit and watched a guy do some fire twirling as we chatted to some others.

The next morning, we donned our Santa hats and sat down to some Christmas morning eggs whilst we finished off Love Actually. With the film finished, Christmas could take place after all! The three of us walked down to a place called La Pistoche; a public swimming pool complex with a bar, restaurant, some sun lounger decking and a soft chair area. Another girl from the hostel had gone on Christmas Eve and said it was really nice, so we thought it’d be a good place to spend Christmas Day! I’d highly recommend it for a chill day, it’s 30,000₭ admission but they have reasonably priced drinks, some good food, and a 12-7pm happy hour on cocktails… We settled into some loungers, the Aussies getting started on the all-afternoon rum cocktail happy hour, whilst I treated myself to a pretty wild mixed fruit smoothie. The weather was beautiful, lovely and warm without being roasting, and a cloudless blue sky. We read, chatted and attempted some family FaceTimes home on the slightly temperamental WiFi. It felt like quite an odd way to be spending Christmas, but it could certainly have been worse!

Jumping into Christmas at La Pistoche

Mid-afternoon we were joined by a couple more people from the hostel, and we basked in the last hour or so of sun. With sunset approaching we headed back to shower and change, before embarking on a mission to find Christmas dinner. There was an Australian sports bar doing a roast, but another couple from the hostel warned us off that saying it wasn’t good, so we dropped the idea of finding a roast and went for pizza instead. The food was a bit average, and made me very jealous of the goose (no, we don’t have turkey…) on the dinner table back home! We treated ourselves to some Christmas pudding (peanut and Nutella cake) from my pal the cake man in the night food market, and strolled down to Utopia. It was quite quiet again, and we sat chatting to some people we recognised from our hostel until it closed.

On Boxing Day, my morning activity of choice was the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre. It was a small but slick and really informative exhibition. For travellers like me catapulted into a culture very different to our own, it was a useful and fascinating insight into the Lao people. There are four broad ethnolinguistic groups in Laos, each with different subcultures within them. They’re distinguished by dress, skills and trade (weaving, basketry etc.) and rituals, such as New Year courtship and traditional music. For an ignoramus like moi, it was interesting to understand what sets different peoples here apart, and what they share – the groups all have some ancestry from China and Tibet. I’d recommend it for a museum day in Luang Prabang; similarly to the Women’s Museum in Hanoi I enjoyed learning more about the culture I’m currently embedded in. 

Entering the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre

In the afternoon, I went to a place called Big Brother Mouse, a publisher and educational centre. According to their introduction board, their mission is to turn Laos from a country where ‘people don’t read’ into one that loves books. Although the number of children here attending school is slowly increasing, many of them have never read a book that isn’t a textbook. With BBM, you can join day trips to villages outside of Luang Prabang to take books and read to the local kids, or you can take part in their daily English conversation lessons at the centre in the city. I was too late for the day trip, but went along for the afternoon conversation session. I sat with a couple of local teenagers and we talked about London, about British culture and travel, and they told me about Lao festivals, their university courses – and the life of one of them as a monk, until July this year! Their English was pretty good, and I really enjoyed chatting to them and learning about an upbringing very different to my own. They had little exercise books where I wrote a few definitions and spellings when they got stuck, and we had a dictionary on hand for new references and ideas. I was joined by another English girl for a bit too, and one of the boys asked at the end how we thought he could make some money in Luang Prabang whilst he’s studying. We did our best with a couple of tourist business ideas and sent him on his way, hopefully with a bit of inspiration and a few new words! I used to volunteer at an educational charity in London and the cause of improving literacy and opportunity is something important to me, so even a couple of hours spent with locals looking to learn was really great. I’d definitely recommend going to at least one session whilst you’re in Luang Prabang. 

My freebie telling the story behind the Big Brother Mouse project

I ate at the night market buffet again, then settled down with some Netflix before bed, pleased that a loudly-snoring Brazilian had checked out that day, so I was in for an improved night’s sleep…

My last day in Luang Prabang was spent holed up in Saffron Coffee reading and writing, sheltering from the rain and waiting for my sleeper bus. I was a bit worried before I arrived that 5 days in Luang Prabang might be far too much, but I really enjoyed it as a place to relax and just be, and there is so much more to do here than I expected. I definitely left having not done everything. I abstained from the famous boozy bowling given my continued embargo on booze, I didn’t go to the UXO Centre as I’d been to the similar COPE Centre in Vientiane, and I didn’t do a 5am wake-up call to go and see the daily alms-giving ceremony with the monks. There are also some highly recommended yoga classes and massage spas. It was a great city to spend Christmas in, and I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Laos as I move onto Thailand. I would have liked to spend a little more time here, exploring the South, so perhaps that’s something to earmark for another trip!

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 9, including my favourite of the Lao students I spoke to at Big Brother Mouse. Having been a monk until this summer, he had little experience of the ‘outside world’, and was fascinated by the concept of relationships. He was making notes as he asked me whether or not a man had to pay for everything if he had a girlfriend (I firmly told him no, for the record). Bless him.
Interaction was: heart-warming and very memorable.

One Woman and her Backpack x

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