8. Honey, I am home – Luang Prabang II

24/11 – 02/12

After the two days on the slow boat I was finally back in Luang Prabang, nearly 2 years after my first visit. And I must admit, I was smiling like a little child before they get presents for Christmas – I was happy to be back in this charming town.

Getting off the Tuk Tuk next to the tourist information, the first task was getting a room. I said bye for now from the other four who headed towards a backpacker hostel, and headed to one of the guesthouses that was recommended to me – Phousak. But it seems the prices got slightly higher, and I was staying for four nights I decided to check other places first. Well, I literally walked 2m when the owner of the guesthouses next door Souksavath (same building though) offered me a room for 100,000 Kip. Bit more than the 80,000 I was hoping for, but the room looked good, with a double and a single bed.

Besides, the location was good, situated in a little street off the main road, one minute away from the tourist information and the start of the night market. I realised later one how was lovely the location was, as you could see the locals sitting in the street having a chat, kids playing, and I saw some local celebrations. It felt not a very touristy street despite being full of guesthouses.
So this was a good place to stay for my planned 4 nights (oh – how naïve I was at that time!!!!).

Settled in my new home it was time to head to the nightmarket to meet the others for dinner. Again, I felt so happy to be back here, seeing all the stalls at the market. Ignoring the cheap food stalls for the first night, we headed to the tourist section of restaurants and bars at the end of the night market, and got a table in the Coconut Garden Restaurant – unfortunately not sitting in the garden, but on the first floor. As expected the prices are slightly higher here than in other parts of the town, but it is still cheap in comparison to restaurants in other places popular with tourists. Besides, the dishes on the menu were also quite interesting. I decided to go for Mok Pa, a Lao speciality of Fish steamed in Banana Leaf. Had this a few times before during my previous trips, and this one was very good. Everyone else was also very happy with their food. So overall a good place for dinner.

After dinner it was time to visit the one place where most backpackers head first after arriving in LP – Utopia. This is a bar at the Nam Khan river, slightly hidden from the main street (thankfully there are enough signs to find the place). This bar consist of several areas to sit down and enjoy a few drinks. One area next to the bar, an open air area in the middle of a garden that is filled with old bombs dropped on Laos, and one area overlooking the river, with some comfy pillows. It also has a beach volleyball field. It is a very popular place, and I think we met nearly everyone from the boat. It is very very touristy, bit loud with music, but overall the atmosphere was not bad. One warning though – you have to take your shoes off when getting in – and the shoes of an American were taken, so he left without shoes. So maybe put the shoes bit more on the side (on the gravels inside) to make sure no one take them by accident (or purpose). Also, walking barfeet on the stones in the garden are not pleasant as well….

As all other places in Luang Prabang Utopia closes at 11:30. If you want to go out afterwards, you only have two other options – a night club that closes at 00:30, or the bowling alley that closes at 02:00. We got ourselves a Tuk Tuk and headed to the bowling place. Cost is around 20,000 Kip per person for a return trip.
The alley is slightly out of town, and no chance to walk there. Being the last place to get beer, or some oberpriced pizza (cheese and tomato pizza for 50,000 Kip, which was more expensive than the pizza at the Coconut Garden – and it was not even that good) it was very busy – we got the second last lane available. Surprisingly the bowling was not of the highest quality after 0:30 – it was still a good laugh. In some lanes every single strike, spare or even a point at all was celebrated with big cheers. It seems enough beer make cheer you for anything. I think one trip to the bowling alley at the end of the night should be included in any itinerary – if you like beer and a good laugh. I have to admit though, one trip was enough for me…
For some reason we were all singing Viva Colonia during our Tuk Tuk ride back into town (including a Dutch version – I didn’t even know there was a Dutch version). After getting some food I said Goodbye to our Dutch and Austrian friends – I wouldn’t see them again. It seems Nils wasn’t that lucky…

 

After staying out late I decided not doing a lot during my first full day. One important part of my itinerary that day was getting my Vietnam Visa (will provide a seperate entry for the process). Unfortunately I realised being tired when exchanging money is not a good idea. As I needed US$ for the Visa I went to the same exchange booth I used the night before. However, this time I wanted Kip and US$ for my £. I was advised that this will incure a 100,000 Kip fee (~8% fee). In hindsight this was absolute nonsense, as you pay no fee when getting Kip, or exchanging Kip for US$. Unfortunately I paid the fee. So if you want to avoid getting scammed, do NOT use the LAO PARIS Exchange booth next to the Indigo cafe. There re enough honest exchange booth, so the one scamming tourist should be avoided.

Anyhow, I managed to apply for my 3 month Vietnam Visa (with a side trip to get passport pictures taken for 25,000 Kip – for 8 photos) in the morning. As I found out int he past, LP is a small place and I saw the two French girls I met in the public bus in Chiang Rai and on the boat, who were heading to the Vietnamese consulat as well for a Visa. We were wondering if we manage to meet in Hanoi as well – we didn’t…

The next important stop was for lunch, and I found a little place at the next to the Mekong at the end of the street passing the tourist information. Soup is good, and you could get some bbq meat as well from the place next to it.
Then I started my quest to find the best ice coffee in LP, while enjoying a break from the hard work done so far. Unfortunately, the two places I tried one I left a bit disappointed. None were near the great ones I got served in southern Laos last year.
The day was over too soon, and I decided to enjoy the sunset. And one of the best option is to find a seat in one of the many river side restaurants at the Mekong and enjoy a cold Beer Lao and one of the great little snacks in Laos – deep fried river weed – served with a nice dipping sauce. Get your camera ready for a nice time.

For dinner I headed the night food market that is located at fhe beginning of the night market. Here you can get some street food. Personally I don’t think Lao street food is as good as in Thailand, but you can get some good food here. This section offers the usual bbq meat, but also some buffet style offers. Get a plate and fill it with as much food you can – and get it heated up in a Wok. It included a variety of vegetarian food, ranging from springrolls, morning glory, tofu to noodles and rice and eggs. The price at all these stalls is only 15,000 Kip, but the selection and size of plate vary from stall to stall. If you want some meat or fish, you can buy it seperate from other stalls.
While it is cheap, I would only head there once. The food in the restaurant is not expensive, but better.

As LP is not the biggest place, you will always see people you have met before. This time it was a couple from Austria who also took the slow boat. After dinner we decided to head to a bar on the Nam Khan River I wanted to visit during my last trip, but didn’t – Hive Bar. It has a lovely beer garden in the back, nicely decorated, and they offer some shows some nights (we missed the one that night).
The beer garden was relative empty (as I found LP the first few days surprisingly empty despite being high season). I assumed that most backpackers would be back in Utopia. It is a bit of a shame that most people head there every night, as you find so many nice places to have a beer. Well, saying that I might be seen as a hypocrat later on when I talk about my remaining nights. Still, it is good to say it…
Anyhow, it was a nice evening, and a good end for a relaxing day.

 

After being a bit lazy the day before I decided to be more active, and got a bicycle for day 2. No need to explore the old town again, I just follow one of the roads out of town. No idea where to go, I just turned into roads that looked interesting, and after going up a hill (and thankfully down again – reminding me I need more exercise….) I found myself next to the football stadium. I had no idea there was one in LP. And more importantly, I had no idea where I was. So obviously I turned into a little side street and cycled towards a mountain I saw (with no intention to go up any mountain – I am not that crazy). While looking around I saw an option if I get too tired kater on. One local decided he had enough with his bike, waved down a scooter, and was sitting on the back of it, holding his bike between him and the driver. I was impressed about this creativity…

I ended up in a little village, where some people were looking at me a bit surprised. It seems I was a bit out of the touristy bit. Well done me!!!!
To make sure I don’t get lost I followed a little road that I thought would be a parallel one of the main street I saw earlier. While taking some pictures from the first cementary I have seen in Laos, a monk approached me and had a little conversation. He actually invited me to join a ceremony in their temple the next morning at 7am. It sounded very tempting, and I should have gone, but didn’t in the end.
I had lunch in a driveway with some chairs and tables, and my strategy of eating where Locals are sill works – even though you have to point at someone elses food as the owner speaks no English. Thankfully body language works everywhere….

After lunch I somehow managed to be back in the middle of LP. I decided to cross the Nam Khan River via the wooden motorbike bridge. The concept is similar too the ones I used in the south last year – you drive carefully over one of the wooden planks – using the bits beside them, wouldn’t be a good idea for the tyres… I also realised having a few motorbikes behind you, hoping to overtake you as soon you are off the bridge doesn’t help. I was actually wondering what their reaction would have been if I would have stopped in the middle of the bridge to take a photo off the surrounding. I decided that my health would be too valuable to find out…
You can actually walk cross that bridge, as there is a sidewalk of both side of the bridge. But not sure it is for the faint hearted – some wooden planks were already missing, amd it didn’t look to stable….

 

On the other side off the bridge you can turn let to get to a nice little temple, but also find some nice spots to see the Old Town from the other side of the river.
If you continue cycling the dirt road along the river you will arrive in a well known weaving village. But once again, I didn’t fancy the chances off my tyres on that road. As it turned out, I arrived at the same village a different way.

Instead I returned to the Old Town, and at the top of the peninsular I saw a Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River. I decided to cross it – and it turned out to be a great decision. On the other side off the little bridge (7,000 Kip fee to cross it) you can see e little Wat, and at the crossing of the two rivers you will find a view point, and a place to sit down and enjoy the scenery and a drink.
Before I did that though I was advised to follow the path to get to a weaving village. So I followed the little path, but then spotted a second path. Not sure which one was the right one I turned left and stopped in front of a tiny wall to the village – surely that’s not the place. Just when I wanted to turn back a elderly man came towards me and asked me where I want to go. As assumed he advised me that this is not the weaving village, but I should follow him to this place. Well, I did that, and a minute later I was sitting on a chair in a middle of the collection of 4 houses, surrounded by a few other locals living there. I never heard about human sacrifices in Laos, so I thought I should be safe.
I started to have a chat with them, and suddenly I had glass in my hand, and someone turned up with a little bottle. I knew what was in it – their local Lao Lao whisky. One should be fine. Unfortunately they have a saying there that meant that one drink wasn’t enough – ‘One glass for every limp’. I counted my limps, and I realised four glasses were coming my way – and as polite as I am, I followed their rule.
I was then asked if I want to stay for dinner. I could even choose the animal for dinner. To show me the option he took me to the animal enclosure, where chickens and ducks were running around like crazy. He also opened a cage where a rabbit was looking at me with his big eyes. Cute – and wonder if it would look as good on my plate….

I declined the offer for now, and after promising my host a beer later on, I continued my walk to the weaving village. I think it is worthwhile to go there just to see how some high quality silk items are produced. If you want a scarf, table runner or other items, bring a credit card with you – the items are not cheap as on the night market – as they are hand made and with quality material.

I walked back to the view point to have a drink there. I started to talk to the family selling drinks there. The mother, Mei, loves talking to tourist to improve her English (which she taught herself with some books) and her daughter Lena loves running around. I also met her husband Air later on as well, who offers boat tours as well. I had a great time there, and it turned out that the man, who invited me for Lao Lao whisky, was her father. After watching the sunset there (stayed much longer than planned), which looks fantastic here and only a handful tourist come here in the evening, Mei invited me for lunch the next day. I had such a good time there that I couldn’t but accept the invite.

In the evening I headed to a place that reminds me a bit of street food stalls in Thailand, which plastic chairs in a little courtyard selling cheap but good food. It is on the main tourist road where lots of restaurants are based at the end of the night market on the left side.

I had a quick drink at one of the bars, I looked at the beautiful buildings, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, and I instantly decided that 4 nights is not enough. I wanted to stay longer in this wonderful place. If I cut my time in the north I could easily manage it.

Then it was time to visit one of my favourite bars in the world: Icon Klub. I stumbled upon the bar two years ago, and spent some evenings there. It is a rather informal place, with a great interior and a nice selction of cocktails. And the owner, Liza, really makes it a special place.

So after two years it was good to be back, and to catch up with Liza. The good thing is, it is not full of backpackers who want to get wasted. More for people for want to relax, and have a chat with other guests. Maybe I getting too old for that whole getting drunk thing every single night? Well, at some point I had to grow up.
I mentioned earlier I don’t understand why people go to Utopia every single night. Maybe I am not allowed to judge, as I went to Icon Klub every single evening until I left. I met some very interesting people there, had a god laugh, and enjoyed the peaceful walk back to my guesthouse when the roads where nearly empty.

Yes – empty. Despite being THE main tourist attraction LP kept a rather low key profile, and as all bars closes at 11:30, you had no drunken people running around shouting, but a walk back after midnight was actually nice to enjoy a quiet LP.

 

On day three I headed back to the viewing point to have lunch with Mei, Lena and Air. I was greeted with a big smile, and joined them in their bamboo terrace to get some delicious papaya salad, bamboo snacks and vegetables, while greeting other tourists walking past to the village or stopping for a drink. You cannot beat home made food.
During the afternoon more and more people came down from the village – some relatives and friends of Mei and Air. It was a great afternoon to get to know everyone, have a beer (I bought a few rounds…) and enjoy a chat with everyone. Days like this are the reason why Laos is still my favourite country I have visited so far. Besides great scenery it is full of great people.


After watching another beautiful sunset there I headed and followed my usual procedure: dinner (a fine duck dish at Khmu), and drinks at Icon Klub.

 

Over the next four days (yes – I extended my stay by 4 nights…) I just spend my days walking a bit around Luang Prabang – exploring the little side streets where you can see little shops or watch locals producing some items like cips or table runners, sitting down for one, two or three Ice coffees (I found a place which finally served a really good one – I was there 5 days in a row, so they knew my order as soon I arrived. It is called Thaheuame Restaurant and is located at the Mekong when coming down from the Tourist Information), have dinner (tried some other restaurants…., and even had one dinner sitting behind of the food stalls at the side of the square at the beginning of the night market) and some drinks. I really enjoyed the atmosphere.

I had some nice additions though. Breakfast with Liza who showed me a very good noodle soup place that adds poached eggs in the soup. Watching the sunset from Mount Phousi (obviously I decided to climb the hill on the hottest day of my stay there!!!). I also went to a new show called Garavek Mekon – traditional Lao Storytelling and Music, where one person tells some stories about Luang Prabang, supported by an person playing a bamboo flute. They usually give out flyers at the night market. I would recommend going there to learn a bit about the legends around LP (i.e. where the name of the river Nam Khan comes from). The cost was 50,000 Kip.
The same evening Nils and I found a stall selling Gluehwein (mulled wine). As I always have one back home, and it was 1. Advent, we obviously had one. Of course just for the sake of tradition!!! Sometimes these little things reminding you of home are actually very nice.

One morning I also found a little street stall (next to the entrance to the morning market – the road down the tourist information) that offered a Khao Soi dish. It sounded like the great dish I had in Chiang Mai, but it wasn’t. It was a Pho soup with kind of minced meat that gave the soup a red colour. Never had it before, but it was nice. Unfortunately when I went there again on my last day they already run out of it. Well, you cannot always win I guess….

During two of the evenings I stayed in LP there was kind if ceremony of an award for Luang Prabang (I guess that it was), and in the square at the night market you could watch kids and teenagers performing traditional dances. It was actually njce to watch for a bit. Felt a bit sorry for the younger kids when the sound suddenly died when they were dancing, and the whole routine had to start again. But they didn’t let that incident ruin their great performance.

However, spending a bit more time sitting around you also see how badly some tourists behave. I had a lunch on one fo the little places at the Mekong, and a French family of five were sitting there. It took me all my control not get up. I have hardly ever seen such rude behaviour before. To get constant attention from the staff they waved, shouted, whistled (yes, two of the kids whistled at them like they are dogs…I would have give them a slap if they would be my kids…) and spoke in an arrogant way to them, i.e. Told them to clean up properly (like their are idiots). The manager just ignored them after a while, and it was actually funny to see them all getting a bit upset. I walked up to pay, and even while the staff was talking to me they just shouted to get their bill (well, get the hell up like everyone else to pay – you are not in bloody Europe!?!?!)  It seems some people must have missed the queue when manners were given out. But seeing how the parents behaved, I understand where the kids got their manners. Well, there is a reason I do not like other tourists….

I also nearly become victim of a very popular scam at exchange boothes. I needed some more money, and was a bit surprised that the woman starting to give me quite a few 20,000 Kip notes, as they usually give you 50,000 notes. She counted them quickly in front of me, but as usual I double checked, and saw the woman starting to get 50,000 Kip notes out. She must have realised that I find out that instead of 720,000 Kip I only received 520,000. She quickly took the money back, and gave me the correct amount (with 50,000 notes). So be careful when you see them giving you small notes. The name of the booth was HUNGCHARLEUN Exchange and was on the left hand side before the first Wat when coming from the Tourist Information. Again, it would be great if this one wouldn’t be used as much. Support the honest people of Laos, not those who think it is ok to cheat on others…

On my last eveing I went a third time to the viewing point to say goobye to Mei, Lena and Air. I arrived and I only heard ‘Stefan, are you hungry?’, and suddenly I got a bowl of noodles in front of me – as they just finished cooking dinner when I arived. It was another lovely afternoon, and they were happy when I gave them some of the photos I took of them during my previous visit. I thought that’s the least I can do.

But unfortunatrly all good things come to an end, and after extending my stay quite a bit, I had to cancel my plan to travel to Vietnam overland to ensure I do not loose any time in Vietnam. So I went to one of the travel agencies, and booked a flight to Hanoi. I was happy to spend a bit more money to avoid a 24 hour journey in a bus without a toilet. Surprisingly the flight was cheaper going through an agency than using the Lao Airline website, so all was sorted to leave Luang Prabang after a fantastic long stay.

For me it is a special place. The relaxing vibe, the beautiful architecture and the friemdly people makes it one of my favourite towns, and one place I think I could easily live.

But for now I can only plan a third trip to LP at some point – and I am sure I will do so hopefully sooner than later.

 

Accommodation:
Souksavath is a decent guesthouse for the money you pay. For a large room (consisting a double and single bed), bathroom, A/C (not needed though) 100,000 Kip a night was good, especially with the good central location in a nice little street. The owner is friendly, and you can come home at any time (owner sleeps on the floor next to the entrance – front door is unlocked though). I smelled a bit mouldy after 3 days, but it might have been the water of the bamboo. One negative side was that the room wasn’t cleaned once. I guess you have to ask. They also offer a laundry service as well. For the price I would stay again…

Recommendation:
Food & Drinks: For dinner Luang Prabang has lots of places to offer – and for all budget. The all you can eat buffets offers value for little money, but going to the restaurants at the end of the night market, or the restaurants along the Mekong (and to some extend at the Nam Khan River (though I found the pricier restaurants there) do not break the bank. There are even several all-you-can-eat BBQ places. I was rather lazy and visited some of the restaurants – the Coconut Garden which is very good and has a nice little garden setting (great Mok Pa) – Khmu which I enjoyed again after visiting it two years ago, Coconut restaurant which offers a delicious bbq fish, and the Garden restaurant which was a bit disappointing to me as the curry was actually a soup (didn’t fancy soup that night, hence my disappointment).
For lunch just head to the restaurants at the Mekong for a Papaya salad or a Laap. At the square at the Tourist Information you can get baguettes for lunch and dinner, unfortunately none of them offered a special Lao filling of a pork filling which I loved in the south last year. Got it at the pancake stall that opens next to the square in the evening. Both pancake and baguettes there I can highly recommend. Much better than what you get at the stalls during the day.
I can not recommend the Icon Klub high enough – even only for one drink. But I might be biased, who knows (disclaimer: I have not received any free drinks to say that…)
Near my guesthouse was one of the Joma bakeries. I went there twice for a coffee. Mot impressed by the coffee, but the breakfast wrap I highly recommend. Nice way to start the day…
Sights: A visit to the nightmarket should also be included in any itinerary. The quality of some of the items might not be the best, but I like the atmosphere there. Also try to get to the morning market in the old town. It is full of the usual smell and colourful view of Asian markets. And always nice to try some of the little snacks there.
I didn’t do any tours except of hiring a bycycle, but lots to do. Worthwhile to get to the Kung Si waterfalls. I loved it last time, and everyone I met this time around loved it too.
And go to Garavek show. It is something different, and is a very enjoyable hour.

Do NOT use the LAO PARIS Exchange booth next to the Indigo café and HUNGCHARLOIN before you reach the first Wat. They will try to scam you.

And my last advise – take your time in Luang Prabang. Enjoy the atmosphere, and explore the little streets and alleys. It is one of the most beautiful towns I have been to…

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