Luang Prabang – The Jewel of The Mekong

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Old Bridge- Luang Prabang

Walking Lesser Traveled Roads

 

The roadtrip to Luang Prabang was surprisingly a quick and easy one. We had expected another full day of twists and turns along a not so traveled road. It turned out to be the exact opposite. The road we traveled was probably in the best condition of all the roads we had taken thus far, and the majority of the journey was relatively flat following the coastline of the Nam Ou river. Even with a quick roadside ‘pee break’ we made it to Luang Prabang in less than four hours. We were impressed, and also happy to be arriving mid-day which would give us plenty of time to both find the hostel we had booked and still see a bit of the town.

With the extra time and sunshine we figured we would walk into town rather than take a tuk-tuk. Sure walking a couple kilometers with a 14 kilo bag on your back isn’t ideal, but we were used to it and there was no better way to get the lay of the land then by jumping into it feet first–literally– by walking. We used our handy-dandy iPhone GPS tools to make sure we were walking in the correct direction and headed into the untraveled (to us) territory of Luang Prabang. Roughly mid-way we made a pit stop for lunch and beer, refreshing ourselves for the other half of our journey. It was already apparent that this town was much larger than any of the others we had visited so far in Laos, which we were expecting. Even so the walk wasn’t too far and we got to see some cool parts of the town outside the main central area. To get to central Luang Prabang we had chosen to cross the Old Bridge since it was the shortest way.  This bridge is actually named the Old Bridge, which was aptly named.  Once the new bridge was built vehicles were no longer allowed to use this old one.  Pedistrians and scooters however are free to continue to cross.  We could see why the bridge is now off-limits to cars when we crossed, as it felt like it may collapse at any moment below our feet as we walked along the loosely-laid planks of wood with our heavy bags.

 

Once across the bridge and into the ‘heart’ of the town we did get lost a couple of times but with the help of both locals and friendly foreigners we arrived at Central Backpackers Hostel without too much trouble. We had pre-booked a couple of hostel beds, worried that spaces would be limited due to the Chinese New Year (which happened to be that very day). As an added bonus at the end of all our work (being the long walk to get there) we were told that we had been ‘upgraded’ at no additional cost to a private room. The room looked brand new and was by far the nicest room of all the hotels/guesthouses we’d had staying in Laos.  We took some time to do a happy dance in our private room before heading out into what is known as the capital of Northern Laos.

 

Exploring the Central Streets

Luang Prabang is a larger but still quaint city that marks the start to the northern part of the country. Many people who cross into Laos via Chiang Khong opt to take the two day slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Doing the boat trip would have been a lovely but also would have had us missing out on the northern Laos experience we’d enjoyed so much. Sometimes it is hard to choose what direction to go – but this was the choice we had made and for this trip it seemed to work for us. As the second most visited town in Laos (following the capital city of Vientiane), Luang Prabang has almost anything a traveler or vacationer would need or want. Even with the ever-increasing numbers of tourists over the past decade, the city itself still has remained charming and less developed than any of the large cities in the neighboring countries, yet it had adapted to it’s many visitors with a wide variety of funky and privately owned bookstores, restaurants, bars, gift shops, guesthouses and more. The city itself is surround by the amazing natural beauty of the north – green all year round and right on the edge of the Mekong. And even with it’s slightly larger size, exploring the nooks and crannies of Luang Prabang via foot is still very manageable. This was exactly what we did on our first day. We took some time to walk the perimeter of the ‘heart of the town.’ The central town is bordered by the river on one side and by the Nam Khan river on the other. The town was different from the other with less of the ‘village’ feeling, but the beauty was still stunning in it’s own way. When we didn’t have a destination in mind for the morning or evening we would let ourselves get lost in the beautiful city. After a few days in the more rural north it did feel a bit crowded to us. But we took it as it was and enjoyed the city for what it had to offer.

 

Night Market

The night market of Luang Prabang is something that is hard to miss, even if you tried (given you visit the town in the evening). It isn’t huge, but it is located conveniently on Sisavangvong Road, only a couple blocks inland from the road that runs along the Mekong and it tends to draw a large crowd. There are three main reasons people visit the night market: to eat, to buy things, or to look around and people watch. We visited the night market on two occasions – one willingly and another not so willingly.

Night Market Smoothies - Luang Prabang

Our first visit was on our first night in town. Unfortunately we had already eaten dinner, so by the time we ventured into the market all those tasty looking shakes and baguettes weren’t quite as appealing due to our already satisfied bellies. We noted that unlike the other markets we had visited in the country this one didn’t have as many ‘local’ options and instead had more of the treats that westerns would jump on. I won’t lie – the minute I saw a real baguette I was excited. The only breads we had found previously in southeast Asia were loaded with sugar, making them more like a dessert than something you would include in a meal or make a sandwich with.  Often, these sweet breads were even topped with a sweet sticky sauce, just in case the sugar baked into the bread wasn’t enough for you. We were a little disappointed to find out the cheese they were using was the soft Laughing Cow style cheese, though. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers. In addition to food, the market sold most of the items people bought as gifts or mementos. The shopping part didn’t appeal to us as much since we were limited to what we could carry. By this point in our travels, as cool as some items were, we were pretty immune to any urge to want to buy things. Even so, we took some time to stroll down the streets of the market and observe what people were selling as well as the foreigners that were walking around.

Our second visit to the market was after a nice day out with rented bicycles. This wasn’t as pleasant of a visit for us. As we were trying to return the bikes (which happened to be on the same street as the market only on the opposite end) we got stuck walking through the area where vendors would lay out their items in the streets. There was barely enough room for one person to walk along each side of the street as the vendor blankets covered most the area. Trying to maneuver bikes through these one-way narrow paths was already difficult. Now add increasing numbers of people trying to shop for trinkets and souvenirs (meaning walking three steps, stopping, and so on) and let’s just say it made the task much more challenging (we were seeing it as frustrating or even impossible). It took almost fourty minutes (and that was cutting into the street half-way) but we made it to the shop and returned the bikes without a problem. For our return back to the hostel we decided to take a different road, one that was perhaps a bit less congested.

Night Market - Luang Prabang

Conveniently, the morning market (which was usually only some food stands) was located on the same street as the ‘food area’ of the night market. Being a well-known spot to grab your morning baguette sandwich, many of the locals had caught on and placed their food carts and sandwich stands along the roads leading to the market area, making for a mini overspill of the food area onto the connecting streets. This was when we took our chance to grab some baguettes one morning. It is amazing how you can take things that you aren’t super fond of but just generally like, remove them from your life for a given period of time, and then reintroduce them and all of a sudden have a hidden passion that had emerged for that same item.  The baguettes and baguette sandwiches the Luang Prabang markets offered were that one itch we had been looking to scratch for a while.  That was our reason enough to visit the market on more than one occasion.

Utopia

While eating dinner at some local, no thrills, (but super tasty) restaurant we ran into the Dutch guys that we had spent a good portion of our evening in Chiang Khong conversing with.  After a quick chat and catch up on where our paths had led us, we agreed to meet-up with them later that night at a Luang Prabang hot-spot, Utopia. They would be meeting up with a German couple that they had crossed travel paths with in the past as well, and as such, the ripples in the travel community continue to expand.

Mellow low light ambiance of the hidden but well known Utopia.
Mellow low light ambiance of the hidden but well known Utopia.

Wine - Utopia

Finding Utopia isn’t very obvious, as many philosophers have told us throughout the years. But the directional signs found as you near the location and the help of any local (and a good handful of foreigners) who all know the spot will point you in the right direction. Utopia goes by the motto “zen by day, groovy by night.”  The space was  ‘grooving’ pretty well by the time we arrived at 9pm.  It was packed full of what appeared to be mostly younger (early 20’s to mid-30’s) backpackers crowd. The Utopia ‘compound’ was huge, with a couple of outdoor seating areas that extended over the Mekong, a bar area complete with a long high table, and an indoor lounge area with a projector playing random video clips, a volleyball court, and extra spaces between all of these. We did a quick walk around to confirm our friends had not yet arrived and then managed to find a small table with some pillows in the lounge area. The drinks here (and the food) weren’t particularly cheap by Laos standards, but there was one thing on the menu that attracted our eye pretty quickly – a carafe of red wine for $8. We relaxed into our pillows and ‘un-wined’ into our surrounding atmosphere. The music wasn’t bad (although a strange mix) and the space was comfortable. The crowd was an interesting one to watch and this spot seemed to be ‘the place’ to be.

Volleyball Utopia -- Luang Prabang

When the Dutch guys arrived with the German couple we all moved out onto a patio over the river which had more space. This also distanced us from the noise of the music and the crowds of people (that was continuing to grow) in the indoor areas. The Dutch guys were clever and had brought their own full sized bottle of whisky with them, which they garnished with a smidgen of a Utopia’s CocaCola. At 10:30pm we were surprised to have a staff person coming around to push people indoors. This apparently was the beginning of their closing process. Laos had a curfew of 11pm, which basically means that most businesses stop serving alcohol, food, or entertainment. This by no means meant the partying stopped. On the occasions that people still wanted to continue their conversing and drinking it was usually done behind closed doors of businesses (for locals) or in homes and guesthouses (for foreigners). But overall our experience with this curfew thus far was simply that after 11pm most people were heading to bed (if they weren’t already there).  This rule was 100% a-ok with us and we were loving the tame (and relaxing) nights along with refreshing and early mornings to follow.  We soon learned that now that we were in a ‘city’, the drive for later nights was much higher.

The hot-spot for those wishing to continue their drinking after 11pm here is Luang Prabang was at the local bowling alley located a few kilometers from the center of town.  After we were pushed out at 11pm with the rest of the patrons of Utopia, we strolled down the narrow pathway that connected the entrance (or exit at this time of night)of Utopia to the main road. About ten meters from the main road a posse of tuk-tuks were waiting for those wishing to go to the bowling ally. We were asked a couple times if we were ‘going bowling’ to which we all responded ‘no we go to bed’. Deciding to have one more night cap before calling it a night we stopped in at a market to grab another bottle of whiskey. Ben was blown away to see the cost of a 750ml bottle was a whopping $1. The Dutch guys laughed a bit and commented that this was why they had chosen to carry one with them to the bar. How had Ben missed this before?

Tad Thong Park and Waterfall

On our second day in Luang Prabang we decided to explore some outside of the city limits. One of the reasons that Luang Prabang is a highlight on most visitors list of places in Laos to visit includes the activities and nature surrounding the quaint town.  There are a total of five waterfalls Even though we had already completely immersed ourselves in the natural beauty of northern Laos we felt like that paying a visit to one of these waterfalls would round out our entire experience of Luang Prabang.  The Dutch guys had invited us to join them on a bike ride to the lesser visited Tad Thong Park.  Kuang Si Falls would have been an alternative choice for us to visit. This waterfall is the most popular waterfall to visit outside of Luang Prabang. Much like Erawan Falls in Thailand it has seven tiers of falls with turquoise/crystal waters along with bus loads of tourists arriving every day to visit the falls. For our excursion we made the choice of peace over beauty.  And with the invitation from other down to earth people the choice wasn’t hard for us to make.

Tad Thong Park - Luang Prabang

The advantage to all being up late together the night before was that we all wanted a little more time to sleep in the following morning. We took our time relaxing the extra few moments in bed and enjoying the complimentary coffee and breakfast included at our hostel. When we arrived at the guesthouse of the Dutch guys, they seemed to be doing the same thing. At roughly 10am we headed out, picked up a map from the tourist office, rented ourselves some bikes, and peddled in the direction of the park. Believe it or not these bikes were actually crappier than those we had rented in Luang Namtha (the smaller more rural town, especially in comparison to Luang Prabang). And the kicker was they cost more to rent (only by $0.50, but still). Each of us had our own unique bike flaw (squeaky breaks, rattling chain, etc.) on top of the overall rundown state of the bikes. Yet with positive attitudes we pressed onward and managed to make the 6km ride without any breakdowns. We did have to walk small stretches of the dirt road when the elevation got to be too much for our clunkers to handle, but even with the walking we made it to the park in under an hour. We were amazed to see when we arrived that there was only one other couple who appeared to be there at the park, and it turned out the Dutch guys knew them from the slow boat. This couple happened to be Dutch as well. We parked our bikes and headed over to the lake area.

Jungle Leaf at Tad Thong - Luang Prabang

 

The space was huge giving it an abandoned feel. There was a main restaurant/bar area next to some bathrooms and a bocce ball court, which in Laos is called Patang, and played with slightly different rules. Along the lake there was a spot with some lounge chairs and then multiple mini lakeside cabanas. The Dutch posse went for the lounge chairs while we opted for a cabana since it offered both shaded and sunned areas to sit. Unfortunately the water of the lake wasn’t the clearest (in fact it was pretty mucky looking) but that didn’t keep everyone from taking a dip in it later in the day when the temperatures were hot.  We couldn’t believe that there was virtually nobody at the park the entire day – maybe four or five other people that passed through. We took full advantage of the peace the space offered. After chilling in our cabana for a while our entire group of six decided to do the hike to the waterfall. According to the map the full loop was roughly an hour hike. The trails weren’t obvious and sometimes we would find ourselves at a junction not knowing which way to go. Our hike did last roughly an hour but we think somewhere at one of the junctions we made a wrong turn, as our hike loop didn’t seem to pass the landmarks mentioned on the large wooden painted map next to the restaurant area. We did however find a nice waterfall (which was a surprise since it was dry season) and got to tromp through the lush tropical jungle. As usual the waters of the falls were freezing cold making it not so appealing for us, especially in the middle of a long jungle hike with no sunny spots to warm up in afterwards. A couple of the Dutch guys braved the icy waters before we tromped up the lush mountain in hopes of finding another higher waterfall somewhere above. It felt like we were in a scene from Jarassic Park as we passed by plants with leaves as large as our bodies. The hike was a nice workout with lush tropical forest to take in from all around us, even if we never did find the other waterfall.

 

Afterwards we shared a pork salad for lunch at the small restaurant nearby the lake and then played a few games of bocce ball. The Dutch crew had also discovered a pile of intertubes that were available to use (free of charge) and had formed a mini flotopia out in the middle of the lake. The day passed by leisurly and as always it was nice to get away from busy streets and crowds of people. Sure, the surroundings weren’t anything too stunning, especially in comparison to those spaces we had been in further north. But we accepted the space for what it did offer us and those elements of beauty it did have.

Table-Top BBQ

On our first night in Luang Prabang we noticed many restaurants in the area advertising ‘Traditional Laos BBQ’. It didn’t take long for us to see exactly what this was, as it was a popular meal option, especially for dinner. On our first night walking along Manthatoulat Road (which runs along the banks of the Mekong) Ben’s attention was drawn in by a large and rowdy crowd of people eating a buffet. It turned out this was one of these Traditional Laos BBQ restaurants. This particular one was buffet style.  Long tables were set up with seating for roughly ten people on each side. The tables had about three large holes each where the pots of coal topped with a metal hubcap like device that covered the coals (which was the BBQ ‘grill’) were placed. The metal part was designed in a way where the center of the metal was risen and around this middle part was a sort of trough. The purpose of the trough was to heat broth and veggies in the broth while meats would be cooked on the top dry-heated middle portion. You could either order a pre-set amount of mixed items to BBQ or (as in the case of this restaurant we spotted along the Mekong) you would pay a set price for a buffet style, all you can eat. In those cases there would be huge tables set up with all sorts of broths, veggies, meats, eggs, and other items in which you would collect on a plate and then return to your table to commence the BBQ’ing.

We came to learn that this was not just a Laoiatian tradition. This style of BBQ was known as sin dat and it is found throughout many regions of Asia. It just happened that Luang Prabang was the place that we discovered this popular Asian cooking tradition. We felt that since we had discovered it in this town we should also give Luang Prabang the credit for our first time experiencing a sin dat dinner. On our final night in town we treated ourselves to a ‘hot pot’ feast ourselves. This restaurant didn’t have a buffet option, but that was fine with us. Instead, for $5, we got a plate of various meats, eggs, veggies and broth. It was enough food to fill two people without a problem. Since we were virgins at the whole process the kid running the floor of the restaurant kindly showed us how it was done.  It didn’t take long to catch on to the whole BBQ process and soon we were filling our BBQ with all kinds of goodies before they were transferred (fully cooked) over to our bowls.  We now understood why this was a popular dish among the foreigners and locals alike.  Not only was the food delicious and fresh but it was fun to do and the heat from the BBQ kept you roasty and toasty after the sun had set.

Our fun and delicious "indulgence meal" lasted almost 2 hours and ended up costing $6 with a drink!
Our fun and delicious “indulgence meal” lasted almost 2 hours and ended up costing $6 with a drink!

So there you have it, our couple of days in Luang Prabang.  A couple of days is only really a teeny tiny taste of what the this jewel on the Mekong has to offer.  There is an abundance of temples, villages, waterfalls, treks, shops, restaurants, and more that the town and area could offer day after day.  Originally we had thought about staying one extra day to hang out at L’etranger Books and Tea (a comfy little spot we quite liked), enjoy on last herbal sauna (before we departed the Northern region of the country), watch another sunset, and soak in the charm of the town for one final day.  But as most things in our travels our plans were somewhat decided for us by the availability (or lack of availability) of accommodation/transportation/fill in other small detail here.  In this case the hostel we were staying in happened to be booked full.  And while we could have switched to a new guesthouse or hostel we decided to take it as a sign to just continue onward.

Goodbye Northern Laos.  You will forever remain in our hearts.  Until next time….

 

A full look at our Luang Prabang photos are HERE