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We ended up planning our trip to Laos partly because of course we wanted to go there but also because we needed to fly back into Thailand from somewhere to get the month’s tourist visa. That was proving trickier than I’d predicted, I really should have looked in more detail about how few international flights went from Chiang Mai before we made our way up there. At a 10 or 12 hour bus or train ride or a pricey flight back down to Bangkok it’s not easy to get down there to fly in and out somewhere. And the visa runs to the border which, because you’re coming in overland means you only get 14 days visa anyhow, didn’t seem worth it as they were gonna take up a good chunk of a day with unpleasant travelling. So in the end we decided to fly to Luang Prabang which is the destination we most wanted to go to in Laos. However, as time went on, we realised it would make more sense to get a ‘proper’ 2 month Thai visa which you can only get in a few destinations, outside of Thailand of course. So, for Laos, you could only get these in the capital, Vientiane. This is a 10 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang so in the short time we were booked to be in Laos didn’t seem very feasible so I went against my usual rule of not booking connecting flights on the same day and booked flight down to Vientiane from Luang Prabang a couple of hours after our first plane was due to arrive. We then had to get to the Thai embassy between 8.30 and midday the next morning to then pickup our passports/visas the next day between 1 and 3pm before then getting a 5pm flight back up to Luang Prabang. What could go wrong? Well, lot’s but happy days, not one thing did but the potential disaster and loss of money gave for some worrying moments! We only took hand luggage, so that baggage reclaim couldn’t cause any potential delays, leaving nearly all our worldly possessions in a room in a country we only hoped would let us back in! So, that explains our slightly strange Laos itinerary but I’m actually really pleased we took the detour, staying in a capital city I think is good for an understanding of a place.
So, we flew with Laos airlines – this is a fairly new airline and it being from the developing country of Laos I think it’s tended to have a bad rep of beaten up old planes and disorganisation. I felt it was best not to mention this to Mark as he’s not the happiest flyer at the best of times. But it’s all nonsense anyhow, Laos airlines were excellent – I can heartily recommend them. I did all the booking online which was fine. I even emailed them to ask about moving a flight to a day later and they just did if for me – NO CHARGE – can you imagine?
Luang Prabang airport is the quaintest little airport – it’s like coming into a small, remote island. The added bonus of this is that everything is really simple. We got our visas really quickly and had plenty of time to spare between our connecting flight. My favourite thing about Laos airlines – our plane left early. We were on, all sorted, and off we went. That’s definitely a first!!
It was dark by the time we got to Vientiane and the trip from the airport to our hotel was made delightful by the reams of fairylights that were up everywhere. There was a festival period going on and I’m still not sure now if they were because of that or if it’s just a thing they like in Laos.
Our hotel was not in a great place as I’d picked it for the practical reason that it was smack bang opposite the Thai embassy.
There were some places to eat around there but not much and it was late so to my horror we went to a pizza place – not ideal but it did the job.
Something that was a little bit odd about an otherwise nice and simple hotel, was the 3d pictures they had in our room and the dining room. Check this bad boy out:
Next morning we were up early to get in line for our visas. It was super hot queuing outside the embassy, even though it was only 8.30am. We’d heard it was a bit of a pushy/shovey situation but although there was a fair amount of people there and some did indeed queue jump, the whole thing was all pretty easy and much quicker than we had expected. So with that all done we headed off into the centre of the city.
We got dropped at the museum which was in a nice colonial style old building and just headed off from there to find something to eat.
We couldn’t find the place I was looking for so we carried on and went to another suggestion – Makphet which was a charity restaurant employing street kids. This was the best decision that we could have made. This place was utterly fantastic. I have to admit, Mark was not as happy with his meal as I was with mine but he conceded he hadn’t ordered that well and he devoured any titbits of mine I sent his way.
I got to try buffalo for the first time with the buffalo fillet rolls, stuffed with pumpkin and herbs with a fruity dip. It was soooo good. I kind of expected buffalo to be tough and certainly not great for chomping into but it really did melt in your mouth and worked gorgeously with the other flavours.
My pudding was Coconut & Lime cake with hibiscus syrup and coconut ice cream. This was sublime. Not sure I’ve ever used that word before but this was the kind of dish which has you staring off into the distance dreamily just reliving eating it. Sent down from Angels – that’s the only answer. And remember I’m not a dessert person!!!
We headed on down to our old friend the Mekong river, who we’d met in Vietnam and Cambodia – blimey that’s a long river isn’t it? The first part of it was a bit bland. Nice to see our old friend the cauldron, as we’d found in Cambodia, though. As we headed up to the park area we found an interesting statue set in a nice parkland area. It’s pretty quiet in the day but comes into it’s own late evening – more of that later. We did notice, though it was still light that there were fairy lights everywhere in this park, even on the smaller bushes.
In the centre of town we found a young soldier or policeman with a machine gun sat at a quiet crossroads. As we crossed the road, our heads were in direct line with the barrel (is it still called that on a machine gun). Do they not teach the young lads to point the guns down when not in use. I’d much prefer it if they did. We were a little surprised as Vientiane is very quite and pretty small and it seemed overkill for a road with so few cars on but we soon learned that there were big things going on in town. The 7th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting was taking place and there were lots of important diplomats in town to protect. In fact they were just up the road and we enjoyed, while sitting in a cafe, watching all the diplomatic cars driving off with their police escorts. FYI Vietnam left early – not sure if they had a falling out This was also why, when we took a taxi back to the airport, they checked the boot of the taxi and looked under the car with mirrors on sticks. Not the most sophisticated security but I’m not going to be condescending about this proud, developing country. It was a big thing that they are able to hold this kind of thing.
We went back to the park as the sun started to set and it became, as parks so often do in South East Asia, a hive of activity. The open air aerobics, which again we have seen elsewhere, were really popular here. There were two sections of the park where tons of people could join in/stop as they liked. I think with the one session we were watching there must have been a couple of hundred people doing it at one point.
The fairylights had now kicked in and with the music from the aerobics and the groups of families and friends enjoying themselves, this turned into a really great place to chill-out and people watch.
Highlights and oddities
Different again from where we’ve been before. Similar but different.
I thought this building was an interesting mix. A Laos building of a Chinese institution with the sign written in French.
The next day we picked up our passports and Thai visas (yey!) and caught our flight back up to Luang Prabang. We hadn’t spent a lot of time in Vientiane but despite being a charming place and a nice introduction to Laos, there isn’t a lot going on there so I think the couple of days were just fine.
We were super early for the flight but luckily the international airport terminal is pretty good. The domestic terminal next door (if you are there it is not sign posted anywhere you just have to get out and find it) is not quite as sophisticated. I likened it to a tube station for an outer London suburb (the one’s that haven’t been done up). A one-eyed kitten playing under the waiting area seats in the hot waiting area with the flight numbers and times are up on a hand labelled board. It’s air conditioned when you go through thank god. Laos is pretty god damned hot!
Flying into Luang Prabang, we had this time, a clear view beneath us. The jungle was just amazing and the areas around Luang Prabang are a patchwork of greens – like the green character in the annoying Comfort Fabric Softener ads.
At the little airport they don’t mind anyone snapping away so Mark took some picks of or plane and the guy bringing over a new wheel.
They needed a new tyre so the man wheeled it out all the way across the tarmac!!
Our taxi ride to our hotel, by now getting dark, was lovely due to ….. oh happy, happy me… more fairy lights. All the restaurants and cafe’s seemed to have pretty lighting and just drew you in. We dumped our stuff in the hotel and headed out to explore as much in the dark as we could.
The first thing that strikes you is the peace. There is the predominant one sound – a bird or a frog, and not an annoying one at that. It’s a Unesco world heritage site so traffic is restricted – there are lots of people on bikes. There are beautiful shop houses and colonial buildings. The old town has two rivers flowing on either side with places to eat and drink down the sides that are open air, not buildings, keeping the ascetic – and of course with pretty lighting. It really is ridiculously idyllic. Add to that the beautiful, orange clad monks which are pottering about everywhere.
The next day was hot, hot, hot. We did some exploring, stopping often for shade and a drink. We went to the former royal palace from which the royals were kicked out by the communists in 1975. Luang Prabang was one of the few places not bombed in the Vietnam war because the royals kept on good terms with the US – as you can tell by the couple of huge, Lincoln cars they were gifted and are on display. I can’t imagine these ginormous vehicles rolling down the quiet streets of Luang Prabang but then saying that, I’ve seen an even bigger Hummer in the streets of Ubud, Bali, which I presumed could only be one of their still existing, known to be flash and lavish, young Royals. Had a bit of a nose around the palace, I was mainly interested as they’d been kicked out in the mid 70s, thought there might be some interesting decor. I rather liked the description of this artefact, that it was created to be puzzling!
We weren’t allowed to photograph the royal cars but next to the garage was this old banger, which looked like it had been there from about the time the royals were kicked out.
We watched a boat that would take customers (in this case monks) over to a restaurant on the other side of the river and were amazed at how strong the current looked.
We then watched some kids playing noisily over on a sandback on that side of the river. Seemed to like some kind of youth club. They were having a blast. Then we notice a lone kid in the water, seemingly swimming across the river. This is the river with the really strong current remember. This kid can’t have been older than 9. My heart was in my throat – he seemed to be heading for some boats and but had gone a little past them. He slowed down a little. Was he getting tired?
What the hell would I do if he was? Then he reached the boat, popped up and started playing with a cage next to it and was quickly joined by another boy who also swam across the river. So I’m having kitten’s but it’s clearly all in a days work for these tough little ones to swim across this strong current.
The beautiful weather broke that night and was replaced by a feisty lightening storm which went on for ages. In the end we had to venture out in it (I’d forgotten to bring the ponchos!). We were going to a river restaurant close by and we were pretty lucky to get a table as it proved to be crazy popular. This is because they do a great Laos food taster menu that’s good value and recommended in a few guide books. We got a table at the front that due to the intense rain was being dripped on somewhat but we were happy enough.
The menu was really quite amazing with some unique ingredients including some more buffalo, river weed and sweet sticky purple rice with tamarind. We also had some biscuity sweets known as ‘cat’s droppings’.
Next day with the rain finally stopped we took a boat up the river Mekong (yep, that one again!) to some caves.
It was a good 2 hours there in a rickety long boat (it’s ok, there were 4 life jackets for a boat of 8). I’m not a water lover but pretty quickly I realised that it was a fairly busy stretch of river so we had plenty of people who could pick us up if it all went awry. The seats in our longboat were old car seats which were actually lovely and comfy. I particularly liked the floating petrol station!
There were quite a lot of plots on the muddy banks of the river where they were growing something. I can’t imagine how much hard work goes into that and how often it simply just slips away.
We stopped off at a village on the way which sold silks and special Laos whiskey. Didn’t quite fancy trying that so early in the morning before getting on a boat. It broke the journey up nicely and meant a fun obstacle course of wooden planks up a muddy slope.
We saw goats on the riverside – one was balanced on a branch to get some tasty higher leaves. I realised I shouldn’t worry about the wobbly planks we had to cross. We also saw a dog walking along practically vertical rocks. Amazing how all animals adapt to their environment.
As we neared the caves the scenery got more stunning with some craggy mountains in the distance and some elephants bathing on the river shore.
Not to shabby for Katie!
The caves themselves were set just off the river and are famous for not only being impressive caves but because have been used for centuries for religious purposes. They are full of Buddha figurines. Some incomprehensibly ancient and others, to my delight, brand new, sparkly and kitsch!! It was a real sight and quite fascinating.
The upper cave was up a heck of a lot of steep stairs. I felt better about the fact it nearly killed me by the fact that a group of teenage visitors also ended up dead on their feet. The steps crept up through the jungle and there were so many butterflies about which was happily distracting.
The journey back only took an hour and a bit. The sun had come out fighting, the sky was a beautiful blue and it was the most relaxing trip back ever. I may have had an old lady snooze – sshhh.
The next morning I woke up crazy early, 5.30ish, as I wanted to see something of the morning alms. Locals giving food as alms to the monks goes on all over South East Asia, but for some reason it’s a big thing in Luang Prabang. I think because the place is small and quiet and there are a lot of monks who walk the streets each morning. I’d heard some real horror stories about the baddie tourists behaviour. You’re asked that if you watch you abide by some simple rules such as women sitting and being careful not to touch the monks, staying quiet, no flash photography, if you must take photos then do so at a discreet distance and BE discreet. Apparently though some tourist either don’t get the memo or if they do, they choose to ignore it. I’ve seen photos online of people posing right in front of the monks (my god, the Asian tourist obsession with having your photo taken in front of ANYTHING is really beginning to grate!). I’ve even heard about the monks being jostled. To be honest I didn’t much fancy seeing that going on and even being a part of it. Kind of thinking that being there is being a part of it no matter how innocent. This kind of thing is becoming a real tourism quandry. There are things you want to see but the nature of everyone wanting to see them is ruining it. There is talk about stopping the alms giving on the street in Luang Prabang, an age old tradition, as there are these disrespectful incidents.
So I cheated. There was a Wat opposite us and more up the road so as our room was at the front of the hotel I figured I’d just watch the monks, in their glowing orange lines, making their way up the street. After almost an hour of quietly watching them appear in bunches, I realised a couple of ladies were sat opposite the hotel with their rice. So I was then able to witness the giving itself too. Mark was asleep for much of it but woke up at about 6.15 with enough time to watch a little bit of it going and then persuaded me to get the camera out. So we did take some photos but unseen from behind a half opened window. It was all very simple but special and I can understand the appeal of watching it and why it is recommended but it is one of those things that’s just grown bigger than it can handle I guess.
We had to leave at lunchtime but we managed to squeeze in a lovely breakfast at the french cafe down the road.
Highlights and oddities
No idea where this came from historically but in Vientiane, Ovaltine is big – hot or iced – they sell it everywhere. Old fella Mark was happy about that obviously!
Laos people as an obviously sweeping generalisation tended to be a little quiet and reserved. I say this as a good thing. No-one was ever in your face. It added to the laid back vibe of the place.
There were some great vintage cars in Luang Prabang, attached I think to some of the swankier, restored hotels. I’m a sucker for a vintage ride!
Monks playing hide and seek
On our way back from dinner one night Mark was on the edge of one of the Wats trying to capture on video the quietness – if that makes sense. He’d just switched off the camera and was walking back towards me when a god almighty (no pun intended) ruckus broke out and some young monks appeared from around the corner and crouched in various hiding positions, only to be caught pretty quickly by an older, probably only teenage himself, monk. Lots of giggling ensued. It was a surprisingly and sweet sight to see.
Ice cream, you scream
There is an ice cream shop in town which does the most amazing coconut sherbet ice-cream.
Their artwork was a little disturbing though: