Luang Prabang: Bikes, Camera, No Action...

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July 2nd 2012
Published: July 3rd 2012
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Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos and is steeped with French history which has an exciting effect of the way of life here. Cafes adorn the streets and the architecture of the buildings is colonial French, with quaint shutters on the windows. It is a very peaceful and quiet town despite its status as one of the main places to visit in Laos, if not THE place to visit. It's not hard to see why, beyond the fascinating architecture of every building possible, from nothing more than a wooden hut on stilts, to brick monstrosities, to more humbling concrete building finished with paint and blue shutters. There is also the stunning mountainous jungle backdrop that we were privileged to peek at coming in on the short flight.

As such a short flight we were not expecting any frills so were very pleasantly surprised to be given two complimentary drinks, Ben taking his first refreshing sips of BeerLao the locally brewed drink, and a ham sandwich plus jam swiss roll! The mountains are fascinating and the clouds and mist rise up within them creating an eerie feel which is complimented with the two rivers of the Mekong and Nam Khan. The two meet at the peninsular of the town and create spectacular scenes of beauty. Even amongst the rain which we experienced twice the place was stunning.

Our guesthouse was down a little road just outside the main town road and we were lucky enough to have air con and a fan plus a nice king size bed, cable tv and a decent en suite. We did feel we were perhaps overpaying though as it was $18 a night but included breakfast and the family who owned it were lovely. Lauren had a cold for most of the stay probably from the waterfalls in Chiang Mai and the mother kindly gave her some tablets to help which really worked!

Each night the town's main road is closed to traffic and a huge night bazaar is erected selling all kinds of textiles, locally made pottery and food stalls. Each night we did venture through but didn't buy anything. Not that we couldn't afford to or didn't see anything, it really comes down to a question of space and then posting things home, you begin to wonder how reliable the postal service is, especially when you can't rely on it in England! We were pleased to know that Ben's headphones we posted back in Singapore due to the fact we didn't pack the necessary cable(!) had landed back home, but Laos did not strike us as efficient. The scarfs were of silk or cotton and in every colour imaginable and we could easily have been carried away buying Christmas presents but we walked on through and each evening had dinner just down the end of the market. We could have braved the market food but both being weary of fish and this being a town on two rivers we didn't want to take our chances! The local cuisine is water buffalo and sausage but again these items did not appeal to us, mainly to their cost but also as everywhere served sticky rice which we loved in Chiang Mai. On the whole we did note with the food it was more expensive than our previous home and did ensure we watched our spending.

On Saturday we rented bicycles to fully explore our home for the next two days and very gingerly Lauren climbed on, the last time she rode a bike she fell off about six years ago, even Ben was cautious. We couldn't help but think of the expression, "it's like riding a bike" and wondered if there would be other instances where we should just remember how to do it and can't! With an agreement that there would be no issues between us(!) we set out and had a great day, Lauren set the pace and Ben secretly was quite impressed, thank god to all the training at the gym over the last year! We saw many temples and enjoyed cycling watching young children play in the Mekong. We passed so many different styles of houses and were astonished to see endless guest houses having seen so few on the Internet. As we had not booked accommodation in the next two places we were only to happy to see they overflowed here in abundance giving us hope of finding somewhere decent, but hopefully cheaper with an option to barter. We stopped a few times for fruit shakes, which were in plastic containers with fruit all ready cut up then they blitzed it up fresh for you, at 10,000kip roughly 80p. They were very refreshing and we would be off again.

For lunch we found the Utopia bar raved about by everyone we met and in the trusted Lonely Planet guide. It did not disappoint, a relaxing zen garden with a large bamboo terrace overlooking the river, it was very peaceful not at all like what we encountered when we returned for a drink that evening, it became a loud bar with many people sat around in groups attempting to talk, and full only of travellers, no real culture if we are honest. The food was ok, some chips and spring rolls, but we experienced better in the Lao owned restaurants.

We had planned on going to the top of Phou Si, a small hill with steps leading up to a wat and spectacular 360 degree views of the town and jungle like countryside however the torrential rain that started after the extremely hot day had other ideas! Instead we snoozed watching Lord of the Rings on cable and then went to dinner with a lovely Canadian lady we met at the guesthouse and we agreed we would meet up when we land in her home town of Toronto! Rain again halted play the next morning as we planned on going to watch the monks procession, where the poor people of Laos give alms to the monks every morning around 5.30am. We slept through and although it was still a bit wet decided we would visit the highly anticipated Kuang Si waterfalls. We were going to ask a few other travellers if they wanted to share a tuk tuk to make cheaper but a girl told us last night to rent motorbikes as cheaper and only $7. Brilliant, except she meant each and if you could get for $14 you could only get them at 1pm for half a day, so feeling inspired from yesterday we thought- 26km straight road- let's bike!

1 hour 30 mins later we practically collapsed, straight road- yes. Uphill- yes. Extreme heat- yes. Water-no. Bad. Idea. We had made it half way but knew we would have to come back albeit downhill but we just couldn't do it, after several failed attempts we grudgingly turned round and coasted most of the way back! We returned and changed fully sweaty from our ride, grabbed some lunch and ended up getting a mini van at 1.30pm, later than if we had gone with the bikes and now with more of an expense! Life can be a bitch! It was without doubt the best decision though the road got worse after we had admitted defeat, but when we got there, wow.

There was a bear sanctuary with cute black bears rescued from poachers just chilling in tyres and hammocks and one even bathed! It was then through the wooded jungle to the main event. The falls were over three levels and the water was a milky green blue and stunning. You could swim at the levels but we got in at the what we thought, was top level were most people were. The water was cold and refreshing, but had those little fishes in that we use as a spa treatment now- fishy feet! Except they weren't babies and they actually nipped! It caused a lot of humour though! We swam to the back and laid back on the rocks watching macho men jump off the tree on swing rope and crazy men jumping from the higher falls! We thought this was it but our driver said to change and make our way north, eh? Well are we glad we got this driver! We walked a few more minutes into swampy areas and came across another level that was undisturbed but then across a bridge we were faced with the most picturesque sight we had seen so far. A huge waterfall with water cascading at different levels into a blue pool. Simply stunning.

We headed back as the heavens opened again and saw a huge crab just wondering which when not near the rivers or sea perplexed us! We were so glad we didn't miss this, some people we met did due to the weather but it was still warm and brightened up, enough for us both to get burnt! During the return trip we stopped to visit a Hmong tribe but we chatted to the two other female travellers who were from California and swapped contacts again with promises we would look them up when we arrive.we find the idea very exciting that along our travels we will meet up again and discover just how far we have come and the adventure we have in front of us, whilst these people will have been working for several months as we swan about the world! We called it a night after dinner over the Mekong and grabbed some water in anticipation for Monday's next adventure.

And that is where we are now driving along the windiest uphill road in northern Laos heading to Vang Vieng known for its river where people go tubing, paying to put their lives in danger as the current is so fast and they have ridiculous man built slides. Lauren is pretty uncertain about the prospect but so many people come to Laos just to do this we didn't want to miss it! We have no accommodation booked and unsure what to find except several people in slings, those that overdid it with whiskey buckets and attempt the fast current. So tune in next time to see if we braved it!

The roads we are travelling are crazy! We are right up in the jungle mountains almost driving through the clouds, it's pretty hard going, no one said they got motion sickness in previous travels, but we all feel sick! We stopped for a comfort break and it was just a hole in the ground- what are we doing!!! Our group is 5 English (2 live in Australia), 2 Aussies, 3 Irish, 1 Spaniard and 1 Chinese lady, all in their 20's. They tried to make the Chinese lady sit on a seat in the very front basically on the gear stick not even designed for a child (except there is a child on it, who wasn't there when we started...) just so they could fit a German guy in who was having a raging fit that he had been moved from the front seat. We all joked gladly that he wasn't coming and laughing what his new van would be subjected to! The Aussies it seemed liked poking fun at the Germans!

Things to note:

As in Dubai when construction took place it was sand underfoot, here in Laos it's a red clay, still no soil!

The Mekong river is brown, like really dirty brown but is still stunning!

tuks have 5 seats across two benches with a motorbike to drive whereas Thailand it was a seat for 2 people and moped.

Everything in Laos has one gear- the push bikes, motorbikes, the people, they are so chilled out its almost as though they can fall into reverse

The French influence means baquettes are the norm and cakes are a plenty (Lauren only had one though, trying to kick the sweet tooth still!)

There are no fast food outlets as yet, and no seven elevens, shops are basically open front huts off the main road with no refrigerators. Some on the main road do have but cost more.

We eventually went up Phou Si and it was 328 steps to the top (we counted before we saw the sign!)

The night markets all have plastic sheets on top creating a roof of sorts in case it rains, but they are only 5 feet high meaning most Westerners are ducking!

You can ride elephants here too, but we decided not to Lauren didn't want to see them with chains round their feet, but Ben had a good analogy, "just as dogs where collars."

Guesthouses/hotels range from $3 to $1500 a night

Aussies do say "no dramas" and to hear it feels like being transported to a Fosters advert!

What would we do differently:Our guesthouse was great but we overpaid, we shouldn't have booked online but seen the choice when we arrived.


Near misses:0

Fallouts:0 despite the 25km bike ride in extreme heat, we were both pretty understanding! We also had an incident with a cockroach where Ben was too slow to kill it but he got it eventually and resolved he would move faster!

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