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Published: November 14th 2009
Luang Prabang town.
Luang Prabang is a small city. Our Lonely Planet guide estimates the population at 26,000 but we'd guesstimate about 50,000 in and around the downtown. The entire population of Laos is only 5-6 million and many people live in rural areas and grow crops or breed livestock. Interesting note: there are approximately 130 different ethnic groups in Laos.
Luang Prabang is the jewel of Laos. A sleepy French colonial town in the middle of the jungle with numerous temples and very friendly locals. The French influence is most evident in the architecture, lots of run down but still charming colonial buildings with second story balconies and shuttered windows. It feels a bit like New Orleans' French Quarter minus the drunk fraternity crowd and Pat O'Briens.
Our favorite part about town is the food - also influenced by the many years of French occupation. Luang Prabang has many bakeries that produce lovely croissants, muffins, cinnamon rolls, etc. The coffee (grown here in Laos) is absolutely excellent. There is also an abundance of freshly baked baguettes and even a "baguette corner" in town where ladies sell them stuffed with veggies, chicken, etc. French-Lao fusion restaurants abound and it is a good
Luang Prabang town.
combination. There are even a few wine bars.
So we are very happy travelers at the moment.
We woke up really early this morning. The local roosters decided we should get going around 3:30am. By 6 am we had a full avian symphony (with a supporting ensemble of frogs and cicadas). After taking long, hot (finally!) showers, we dropped off our laundry with the wonderful, smiling ladies at the front desk and then walked into town. It's not a long walk - about a 10 minutes - and begins with the crossing of the "old bridge". This old bridge is now restricted to scooters, bikes and pedestrians and there is a special pedestrian lane on either side of the roadbed. The pedestrian bridge is very convenient, but it is also a bit scary because there are wide gaps in between the planks and when you look down you can see the fast moving river some 50 feet below.
As mentioned above, the town is very cute. It's definitely a small village, dusty and slightly shabby in spots, but extremely charming and laid back. The people here are very laid back and seem more interested in falang (foreigners)
Chili peppers at the vegetable market in Luang Prabang.
than the Thai were. Locals generally respond to our "saibaidee"s with the same and a big smile.
Our first stop was the Scandanavian Bakery for excellent lattes, cinnamon buns and chocolate croissants. We then spent the next few hours just wandering around town.
The town is easily navigated. There is one main street which runs north/south. The Mekong River borders the town to the west; the Nam Khan River to the east. Basicall the downtown area is on a peninsula of land between the two rivers. In the middle of the town is a large hill, Mount Phousi, which is about 500 feet tall. A large shiny gold wat sits atop it and can be seen from miles around. Luang Prabang is surrounded by higher mountains, about 3,000 feet tall and in the mornings they are shrouded in mist which makes them look very mysterious and beautiful. In the surrounding region there are waterfalls, caves, and hilltribe villages. Numerous travel agencies on the main street offer tours to see the sites. There are tuk-tuk drivers here too but they're much more pleasant and less aggressive than those in Thailand and Cambodia.
The town seems to be booming
Tuk-tuk in Luang Prabang.
(lots of new hotels and restaurants) in response to the ever increasing numbers of tourists. New buildings sit beside old ones and we've seen a lot of construction. There are a lot of tourists here and we have heard a lot of French being spoken.
We wandered the streets, peeked in at a few wats (there are 32 of them in this tiny town), and went by two used book stores. The book selection isn't great here; Angelique has been looking for some good brainless chicklit and has not had much luck.
The morning here was much cooler than the mornings in Thailand but by the afternoon the temperature hovered in the 90s so we just relaxed in the shade at the hotel. In the evening, we took the hotel's minivan back into town and explored the night market. Very different than the markets in Thailand and Cambodia. Half of the main street is shut down every night from 5pm - 11pm for the night market. Vendors set up their tents on the street and lay out their wares on red blankets. The market is quiet and orderly. No agressive "Madam! Madam! You buy scarf? Madam! Good price!
You can buy pretty much anything at the markets in Luang Prabang.
You buy TWO!". Best of all the market is unbelievably inexpensive. The currency in Laos is the kip (prounced "keep"); there are 8,500 kip per dollar. The average purchase at the night market is between 1,000 and 20,000 kip ($0.16 and $2.50). They sell silk scarves (hand woven in the hilltribe villages), silver (a speciality of the Hmong people up north), and the usual T-shirts, jewelry, wood carvings, etc. Elephants are popular here and several women were selling fuzzy elephant slippers.
Our dinner reservations were for 7pm at L'Elephant, supposedly the best (and most expensive) French restaurant in town. It's a beautiful place and the food and service were wonderful. We both had the Lao tasting menu ($12) which included:
- Chicken laab (a salad of diced chicken mixed in mint leaves, lime juice, onion, and chilies - it is delicious!!)
- Fish cooked in a banana leaf with Kaffir lime
- Sauteed mixed veggies
- Fresh tropical fruit salad in a light mint sauce served with cookies
We also had wine with dinner (rare in SE Asia and also expensive at 60,000 kip - or $4.50- per glass). The restaurant had bottles that went into the millions of kip.
The restaurant was packed with Europeans when we left at 8:30p. Our hotel guys had forgotten to pick us up so the very sweet guys at the restaurant called them for us. We made it back by 9pm and crawled into our super comfy bed.
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