Hanging out in Luang Prabang

A long hot and slow ride back to Luang Prabang from Nong Kiow. It only took 5 hours but we needed a while just hanging out in Luang Prabang after what we had just accomplished.  The journey also felt like it took forever. We rocked up in the south bus station and headed into town on a songthew (10,000 kip each). We drove past the outskirts which seemed dusty and grubby, reminiscent of the road leading to the south bus station in Vientiane. It was also full of goat restaurants. We had regretted never trying out one of these very ‘Laos’ eateries in the past, so voed that Luang Prabang was the place to do it. As we continued over a river and winding into town, it felt very green and lush with colonial white buildings popping up from time to time on the road side. Luang Prabang has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and I was beginning to see why.

Jan suggested a few places to stay with a hand drawn map for us so we headed to the south part of town. It was really hot and humid and difficult to walk with our bags. Jan’s hand drawn map was a little confusing so we never did find the place he had suggested, but we did suspect it wouldn’t have been the most budget option. The quiet road we ended up going down had a back packers hostel (SPicey Backpackers Hostel) where they coaxed people in with an incentive of a free Lao Lao shot each day; so we weren’t sure if it was the atmosphere we were after. They didn’t have any double rooms so we doubled back on ourselves and found a guesthouse called Makasan with a double room for 60,000 kip with a shared bathroom. It wasn’t the cheapest in Laos for sure and perhaps not the best value of money we could have found, but for the second biggest town in the country and with the amount of tourists this price was aparently reasonable. We relaxed and had a needed cold shower. The building had a nice large communal balcony so we enjoyed watching the trough traffic of motorbikes, children and even some young monks. Tired and hot we didn’t walk far in search of some food. We were starving after the long hot journey. We found a roadside place for a cheap noodle soup (Pho) which was really delicious and not too filling so that we would spoil our dinner. Jan was due to take us out for a steak meal at his flatmates Belgium restaurant in the centre of town, so a little later we meandered to the his office a where we planned to meet. Finishing off a few bits of exenses and admin before we walked into the centre.

First impressions of the town, I was nicely surprised at the quaint architecture and winding small roads that dominated the centre. A really interesting combination with the Asian influence that also shines through. Lined with little cafes, restaurants and try hard bars with a definite french influence. Atleast 60% of the expats are apparently French, so this aspect wasn’t so surprising.

Jan was taking us out on company money to say ‘thank you’ for all the work we did in Hatsa. This was totally unexpected so a real treat. The restaurant was way out of our budget. To be eating steak after weeks of sticky rice and fish soup, we were really looking forward to it. ‘The House’ was the name of the upmarket restaurant. It had a cosy European interior and a shaded outside dining area where we based ourselves and tucked into some cold beers and bruscetta. A world away from the dining experience that we had endured in the village of Hatsa. It was interesting to learn from Jan about the expat lifestyle and about the types of oppertunities that he felt would go down well in Luang Prabang, a German bakery was one idea. He missed this and with all the French style bakeries around there was a niche market untouched. The meat that the expat community and The House bought their steak from was a German butcher that had recently started his business up. Before he came along the only cuts were from local farmers, ususally sat in the warm dirty markets. He told us a story about a lot of people who were taken to hospital from being extremely sick. It turned out after an investigation that the lady who had sold the meat at the local market had been spraying it with phamaldahphyte to keep it for longer. Not what we needed to hear as we munched down the delicious steak meal, but releived there was now a better option!
After the meal we went to Jan’s favourite drinking hole (Ice Bar); a cocktail and pool bar not far away. We enjoyed a few cocktails also paid for on the company. The bar played good music and was decorated nicely.It was owned by a Dutch guy and mostly expats who would drink there. There were many pool enthusiasts who played winner stays on. Al was in his element and out did the local pool shark; a strange French man who insisted on naming Al ‘Rosbif’. It was a good night and we enjoyed learning and getting a taste of the expat community rather than the backpackers scene.

Our first full day in Luang Prabang was a slow start. We were pretty exhausted from our time in Hatsa and really needed and some down time. We were certainly not going to start rushing around attempting to be ‘tourists’. We knew we had time to ‘do’ this town at a slow and steady pace. After being away from civilization for so long, we went to find an internet cafe. Inbetween our hostel and Jan’s office we found a place, and could not believe what we had stumbled across. The airconditioned cafe was vast with amazing lazyboy chairs for each and every computer. On our first visit here it was calm and we were in heaven. We had a lot of hot, noisy and uncomfortable internet cafes in our memory to compare to now. Hungry for lunch we discovered a magic place, a local lunchery around the corner. It was dirt cheap and great food. Different options of noodles or rice, they were cooked fresh on huge woks on the street. A veg fried rice with an egg sorted us out sufficiently for 15,000kip each. Our next stop was Jan’s office. We had promised him a written account about our experience volunteering for the Bamboo School at Hatsa. The aircon office was inviting in the heat of the day. Al typed away whilst I helped Jan fill in some gaps with the expenses and then went to buy some sugar cane juice for everyone. It was nice to be back to a place where a cold and tasty drink wasn’t just a  fantasy! Whilst I waited for the lady to squeezed the yellow-green juice I spoke with an old man from Trinidad and Tobago who had been living in NYC for most o his life. He confessed to me he was on his way to Vietnam, it will be the first time he has been there since the war. What a epic character to meet on a juice run. This instilled an energy in me, there is something so incredible about meeting people on extraordinary journeys. It is a continual inspiration when travelling.

That evening Jan was expecting to meet his predessesor, so we agreed to meet at the night market and go for a meal. A cool shower and a relax on the balcony at our place watching the evening activities of the locals take place. Our hostel, it turned out was where Lao people stayed, rather than backpackers. So we were the only ‘falang’ staying there. People were friendly and a bit curious of us. Since we had picked up a fair bit of Lao vocab in Hatsa, we enjoyed surprising the other guests by speaking their language. They would respond with a wide and happy smile and become less shy and actually start to chat to us like people rather than ‘falang’. Our experience of chilling on the balcony was becoming quite a cultural experience in its own right.

That evening we met with Jan and Henning, a 60 yr old Aussie who was going to take over from Jan. Jan recommended a restaurant on the river side (we were back on the Mekong once again!) The river was lined with restaurants, a picturesce place to watch the sunset. The prices were cheap which was hard to believe in such a prime spot. With so many places to choose from it is tricky. Some places were more bothered about getting business than others, so the clue was how quick a waitor came to the table. Our first attempt was met with nobody for at least 5 minutes so Jan rightfully said that this was what was to be expected of the service for the entire evening if we stuck with that place. Instead we moved on to another restaurant further along the river. This time the menu wasn’t falling appart, there were table cloths and candles, and we got served immediately. The food was divine. Traditional Lao food at extremely reasonable prices. Being Saturday we decided to go and shoot some pool at the Ice Bar and introduce Henning to the scene. The same faces were there and we enjoyed some happy hour Beer Lao.Once again Al ended up as the pool shark. This time people drifted off after happyhour though. The out of town bowling alley was the place to go on a Saturday. We had heard a lot about this venue from Lorenzo, our Swiss friend who we had met in Thakek, so we were eagre to check it out on the only weekend we expected to be around for. Jan was up for it, but had his bike with him so we agreed to keep it safe behind the gates of our hostel. Whilst a songthew waited patiently for us, Al and Jan had to lift the bike over the gate because it had been locked up for the night (11pm is late in Laos). Jan was acting like an old man and so Al tried to help him out by being the one to jump over the gate. On his way back to the Songthew he jumped off the fence and landed hard in his falling appart plimsoles. He landed funny, but with the beer flowing he didn’t realise what damage he had done to himself. The set price for a Songthew to the bowling alley is around 100,00kip. This was the most expensive aspect of the jaunt because to play bowling was only 15,000kip each, as was a bottle of Beer Lao. We had a merry night. Al and I were really bad at bowling and Jan thrashed us. Beer goggles does not help bowling skills we decided!

The next morning was even slower with painful heads. Beer Lao is not distilled very well and the percentage of alcohol can vary massively. Als foot was hurting him when he put weight on it. We decided it was just badly bruised and so rented out some push bikes (10,000kip per day) to take the weight off. It was definitley the way to get around Luang Prabang. It gave us mobility that otherwise would not have been possible with Als foot. A very slow day indeed, we mooched down to the riverside and picked up our usual iced coffee fix (5000kip if you buy it at the riverside) and a baguette sandwich (10,000kip-25,000kip depending on the filling). We sat on an unoccupied market stall in the shade and watched the world go by. The heat once again was stifling. Along with a hangover, it was difficult to do much. We went to Jan’s office to finish off the document for him and went for dinner on our own at the night market. It had an amazing selection of food and we opted for a selection of vegetables and noodles (as much as you can fit on a plate for 10,000kip). It was the cheap and quick food that we needed. Then to our bed for an early night. We felt drained from the late nights after the 3 weeks of hard labour in Hatsa.

With the well needed sleep we felt much better the following day. Having not really seen Luang Prabang yet, we set off on our bikes and had a lovely ride around the town. En route we picked up flyers advertising elephant ride packages to begin to understand what our options were. We cycled along the peaceful river and enjoyed the relaxed vibe on the streets of this chilled town. Stopping off for iced coffee and and baguette sandwiches we ate them on a bench overlooking the Mekong. At the river near the town centre we were handed a flyer advertising La Pistoche, a swimming pool and bar venture a bike ride away. Jan had told us that the French woman who owned the bussiness wasn’t a nice character, but despite this expat gossip that we didn’t really care about, we decided to check it out. We were hot and a cold pool was an inviting option for the remainder of the afternoon. On arrival (about 15mins ride from the centre) the first thing we saw was a sign saying ‘no food or drinks allowed’. We had to pay 20,000kip to use the pool which was fine, but didn’t appreciate that water and an apple could not be consumed. Such a transparent way to extract as much money as possible from customers. The area surrounding the pool was nicely done with plently of pillows and lounges in the shade. The pool itself looked a bit tacky with a concrete slide that looked painful rather than enjoyable. Around the pool there were all sorts of signs, including;’do not show signs of afftection’ referring to the general rules of Lao etiqette. This was a bit strange seeing as we were all travellers and expats in bikinis and swimming shorts at a pool! Nevertheless it was good to cool off and relax for the late afternoon. We did our finances and felt plush enough to fork out for a cocktail each. 2 for 1, but you had to buy 2 of the same for 40,000kip. They were ok and the gin had not been skimped, however they were small and I felt a bit cheated in all honesty. We moseyed on back to town and met up with Jan and Henning for another night market supper. The barbequed meats looked fantastic and lived up to expectation. Luang Prabang sausage (a herby black pudding) is worth trying here. All the meats ranged from 10,000 kip  to 30,000 kip. I opted for the Mekong fish that I had spotted on many road side cafes whilst cycling around. The fish is stuffed with lemon grass and heavily salted on the skin. It really was a delight and worth having. The night market is a vibrant and busy place to pick up good cheap and traditional food. Many travellers go there for a cheap eat and it can get crammed and hot in the narrow alleyways. It makes for a great atmosphere though, definitely worth trying. The night market also consists of things sold by tribe people and local people who are excellent at crafts. The clothes, Lao material, bags, blankets wooden sculptures were all beautiful and hard to resist. We scoped out what was on offer and what sort of prices things were. All very resonable. As this was coming to the end of our trip we decided that we would invest some money in buying presents for friends and family. Although we had heard a lot about Thai markets and Bangkok being good for cheap clothes, the quality was not meant to be as good. Also the unique hand made things that can be found in Luang Prabang are definitely worth picking up.

After the past few days taking things at a slow pace we were aware that our time was passing us by and it was already  midweek. We really wanted to go on an elephant trek before returning to the UK. Throughout India and Cambodia we had spoken about doing it but just hadn’t found a place that we were able to do it, nor wanted to because the conditions of the way the elephants were treated. Laos, ‘The Country of a Thousand Elephants’ was surely the place for us. With many different packages advertised in Luang Prabang we spent a lot of time understanding what each package actually involved. Initially we had thought of doing a trek in the Saobury region, famous for elephants, but we really could not find much information on treks there and did not want to risk going there and missing out on the trek of our dreams. Outside of Luang Prabang there is an elephant camp that has had a lot of good feedback froom people we spoke to. The choice was then between a 1 day or 2 day trek. When looking closer at the schedule, a 1 day actually means 1 day getting to the camp and back again, so the time of the trek is only about an hour in the end. So we opted for a 2 day trek which meant that we had more time to spend with and on the elephants. For us it was a lot of money, especially at the end of our trip where funds were short. Each person cost US$116 for a twin room at the camp for 1 night. We paid and stomached it. It was something we could not miss out on. A once in a life time oppertunity.

Another afternoon on the bikes we chose to visit some of the temples that dotted the maps of Luang Prabang. We stumbled upon a beautiful one ontop of a hill that overlooked the town. A quiet place wth a look out point. We were lucky enough to be blessed by an elderly woman monk, funnily the first time in all of our travels that it had actually happened. With blue skies and a blazing sun we enjoyed the view of the town full of trees it was hard to believe it was the second biggest town in the country. In the horizon other hills glistened with temple tops gleaming in the distance. After we sped down the smooth steep tarmac road shaded by broad old trees. We didn’t really have an aim or direction but found ourselves out of town at the Mekong on a dirt road. We could see where town was so chose to continue on the dirt road hoping to come out at a bridge. The dirt road got bumpier and bumpier, our bikes rattled and it became so hot and humid we were really hoping to reach a smoother road soon. The bridge we finally came to was being constructed so we were lucky that it was stable enough for us to walk across with our bikes. By this time we had mud all up our legs and we were feeling hot, sticky and rather tired from the heat. Just as we were preparing ourselves for the cycle back into town we noticed a sign to a riverside bar/restaurant that we had heard about. It was owned by the same lady as La Pistoche and we had heard that it was a nice place to lounge next to the river, on the otherside to the rest of Luang Prabang. We showered off in the toilet and enjoyed a lounge booth set on stilts amonst trees in a secluded river spot. The menu was expensive but it was an idyllic spot to relax, cool down and rest before going back to town. It was ‘our pick’ in Lonely Planet, which we were both shocked by considering how expensive it was.

Back in town we enjoyed speaking with our Lao friends on our hostel balcony under an electric fan to cool us from the persistent heat. Learning more about the culture and language. This was our last night in Luang Prabang before we went to the elephant camp so we had invited Jan an Henning out for dinner at one of the out of town goat restaurants. We hooked up with them at their office and all jumped in a Songthew to the outskirts of town. The typical style of restaurant is basic and felt similar to the boules place we had drank beer in Thakek. Plastic chairs and tables with Tiger Beer advertisements everywhere. The waitresses wore Tiger promo outfits, they would continue to top up our Tiger beer throughout our meal of bbq goat with a selection of delicious fresh leaves, cabbage and Jeow (chili dipping sauce). It was a fun experience. Not the most filling of dinners but a very Laos way to drink with friends and a very good way to end a week in Luang Prabang.

It had been a relaxing week in the beautiful town. Although it was touristy, there was a nice vibe and it was easy to explore at a slow pace in this UNESCO World Heritage site, which made it a timeless must see place.

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