Two Falangs in Luang Prabang

After two weeks in the country, we are still unsure whether the proper pronunciation is Lao or Laos. We have confirmed, however, that this often-overlooked nation belongs on the itinerary of not only a Southeast Asia backpacker, but anyone looking to relax and savor Frasian (that’s French influenced Asian) culture and cuisine. It’s touted as the land of the friendliest people on earth, which in our opinion may be a slight stretch, but it sure does have some of the smiliest and happiest children on earth. And there seems to always be the sound of laughter in Laos. While this landlocked country is lacking in ocean-front views, there are green mountains and rivers running throughout, with the heart and soul of Luang Prabang existing on a tiny peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Kahn rivers. Sisavangvong Road is the main artery of the four-street-wide peninsula, and restaurants, guesthouses, wats and massage parlors are sprinkled throughout the city.

In Luang Prabang, especially, the vibe is decidedly mellow and laid-back (as is the case in much of the country, though Vientiane, the capital, is by comparison a bit busier). The population of Luang Prabang is around 50,000, or just a bit bigger than Walla Walla, so perhaps this is the ideal size for a chilled out but not too sleepy vacation spot with a strong food and wine scene. Expect very limited aggressiveness and bargaining from touts (if any at all), a welcome respite from the questionable sales tactics employed by many Southeast Asian street vendors. Instead, you can lazily meander the palm-tree dotted streets and mingle among the monks, who are plentiful! Probably because there are dozens of wats in Luang Prabang and every Lao man is expected to be a monk at some point in his life (we were told the minimum is seven days).

The wats are beautiful. One of the most famous sits atop Mount Phousi, about 300 steps above the street and popular among hoards of tourists at sunset. We enjoyed the views one evening for coucher de soleil, and also squeezed in a little workout walking up and down those steps another afternoon (gotta work off that French food somehow). Luang Prabang meets two of Alan’s requirements for a place to live: good food and wine and stairs or easy hiking for exercise. Is a life in Luang Prabang in our future?? It’s certainly far from a travel hub that lends itself to frequent and easy jaunts, so that’s unlikely.

We popped our heads into one or two other temples, and you’ll find them throughout the peninsula. You could spend the better part of a day exploring these, if wats are your thing (and if you aren’t quite as temple-d out as we were by this point). There is also a night market on Sisavangvong Road near the Royal Palace Museum where you can buy Lao souvenirs and partake of a street food buffet for just over $1.

Oh, and it’s the first place on our Asian tour in which they drive on the right. Of course due to the size and slow pace of this city you can cross the streets with ease regardless of which way you’re looking. In fact, there might actually be more people biking than driving.

Not for lack of a better word, Luang Prabang just is so nice. It’s one of the most pleasant places we’ve visited so far in all of Asia, and that’s part of the reason we ended up spending seven nights here. Not to mention the Beerlao – the beer of the wholehearted people – is tasty and copious.

The French influence in Luang Prabang (and much of Laos, for that matter) is palpable. This UNESCO World Heritage city was part of the French colony of Indochine, and you often hear people speaking French. Not surprisingly it seems to be a very popular destination among French tourists. In addition, a number of the older locals speak better French than English. In fact, Jenni had to reserve a room en français one night from the kindest Lao lady whose English was lacking. And oh, the food and wine. First, there is freshly baked crusty French bread served practically everywhere. Gone are the toast and cold butter breakfasts of most Southeast Asian hotels. Expect instead a warm, crunchy on the outside, airy on the inside mini-loaf with practically every meal. You can also find a number of “fancy” (though were you to lose consciousness, upon reawakening you would be unlikely to mistake your surroundings for Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée) French restaurants and some Frasian fusion menus. In Jenni’s humble opinion, the Asian spin on French food often just meant destroying perfectly delicious French foods with the addition of cilantro (coriander in these parts). (I’m looking at you, Tangor – your goat cheese salad and duck breast would be delicious if you just didn’t ruin them with that dreadful herb). You can also find decent cheese here. We had hardly seen a menu with goat cheese, feta, or brie anywhere on this now six-country tour, until Laos. And we were possibly happier than Liz Lemon with her night cheese to be reveling in these rich and indulgent treats.

Restaurants are everywhere, particularly on the river side of the road along the Mekong, where they also seem to be on the cheaper side (especially compared to the main street restaurants), albeit not as nice.

The accommodation options in Luang Prabang are abundant and we tried out quite a few. Due to a combination of extending our stay, returning to the city for a night after our hill tribe trek (more on that coming soon!), and leaving fully open our itinerary for the first time which coincided with the Chinese New Year in a popular Asian destination, we ended up staying in four hotels over the course of seven nights in Luang Prabang. While we met lots of people who told us they found nice accommodation for around $10 a night, we stayed in places ranging from $45 to $80. Our consensus is that $60 is the sweet spot.

And, lest we miss out on the long-term traveler’s quintessential experience of searching fruitlessly for a bed to lay one’s head for the night, we got our fill, jumping for joy when the 28th place we asked had one room left, for one night only. “We’ll take it!”

We arrived in Luang Prabang on Jenni’s birthday and so started the visit off with a delicious dinner at Apsara to celebrate (after a little bubbly and FaceTime with the family in the hotel room, of course). We highly recommend the starter taste plate with dried buffalo and the slow cooked buffalo cheeks entree. By the way, “buffalo” in Laos always refers to water buffalo, not bison as back home in the US. The chef and his wife who waitresses were very friendly and even created a special dessert concoction for us when we couldn’t decide between two options. Oh, and we had a Côtes du Rhône. How I missed you, delicious fine wine.

We actually ended up returning to Apsara on our last night, this time seated in the garden perched above the Nam Khan river, and shared a meal with a lovely couple from Australia whom we were put in touch with when researching our travel options for Papua New Guinea. They just happened to be on a holiday in Laos at the same time. Love the small world feelings when you travel! The buffalo cheeks were so good that both of us ordered it again on our second visit.

Other dining highlights included a small lunch at 3 Nagas (try the lemongrass iced tea and the spicy eggplant dip) and L’Elephant with its fantastic eggplant feta dish, wild boar pate, and pork and herb stuffed fish cooked in a banana leaf (though skip the buffalo steak here and head on over to Apsara). They also sell seasonings, including bee pollen, which they recommend you sprinkle over cereal or fruit salad. We had never seen that before, but it sounds like something people in Los Angeles would buy ☺. While we didn’t taste the food, the view at the Mekong Riverview Hotel restaurant is hard to beat. It’s situated at the tip of the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, and marks a perfect spot to enjoy lime mint shakes.

You can also try your hand at cooking Lao dishes, and we did so by taking a class at Tamnak Lao.  We might have been better at watching the Lao chefs make the four dishes than we were at preparing them at our own workstation.  We whipped up the chicken and pork with coconut milk and cooked veggies with a spicy tomato dip. We also tasted jeow bong here for the first time – a spicy chili paste that’s used to add heat and flavor to many Lao dishes. Good stuff.

Some of our classmates amused us with a great illustration of how everything is relative.  They are Brits and Aussies living and teaching in Vietnam and half-jokingly spoke of fabricating alternate identities because teaching is so common and they want to seem exotic.  We think most of us would view moving to Vietnam to teach as a rather exciting and adventurous life and career path!  No matter what you are doing in life, someone will always be going bigger.

While out searching for a hotel one night the city had a short-lived but full on blackout. We pulled out the iPhone torch and made our way to the nearest stop selling Beerlao, where we got excited about the prospect of drinking in the candlelight all evening. The lights came back on, but it didn’t stop the fun. And just because we’re grown-ups now and we can, we ordered nutella-banana pancakes for dinner. Well, Alan ate his meat before his pudding, but Jenni couldn’t be stopped from pancakes and beer.

The backpacker scene is in full force in Luang Prabang (and much of Laos). We made many new friends here, and it seemed as if we bumped into someone we’d met at least once a day. To be sure, we were a bit taken back by how many tourists there are in town, but the city is so small you begin to recognize everyone and it feels more home-y than tourist-y. The bar scene is more than adequate considering that local laws require bars to close around 11:30 pm. Probably the most popular watering hole is Utopia, which true to its name, offers a really cool place to drink your Beerlao. Note: if it seems like we mention “Beerlao” a lot, don’t judge until you’ve been to Laos. Utopia is located down a side road, there is a large open-air room with seats on the floor and videos of what looks like Youtube’s best-of-random-shit-drunk-people-like-to-watch playing in the background. There is also a variety of seating in the riverside garden area, and a full beach volleyball court. It’s backpacker’s paradise. And it was here we met the crazy firefighter from New York who regaled us with some seriously impressive stories, including one in which he literally impaled himself on a metal rod while trying to catch a Frisbee. And then he bought us beers. Huge props to you, man. (See, we told you we’d mention you!). To Jenni’s delight, a group of backpackers we met also referred to Alan as ALAN! ALAN! ALAN!  And a Swiss couple said they used to call an Irish exit a French exit, but now they just call it an Alan exit in honor of their routinely disappearing friend.

There are a handful of other bars near Utopia, though none seemed quite as happening. We also popped into Icon Klub just up the peninsula, which had a very chill vibe and a slightly older, more wine-and-cocktails, less beer-and-well-drinks, crowd. For the true backpacker’s party experience, head to the bowling alley after the bars close. It’s the only place allowed to continue serving. We never did make it, but heard it’s quite the scene. Aussie Bar is supposed to be the place to watch sports, and we postponed our trek so that we could come at 6am local time to catch the Super Bowl here. Unfortunately, a combination of too much Beerlao and/or some bad street food meant we couldn’t force ourselves over there in the wee hours and completely missed the game. We heard from others it was packed and a great time, despite the game being a complete blowout.

While recovering from the party scene, we highly recommend you take advantage of the cheap massages on offer. We tried L’Hibiscus, which as one of the fancier places in town still cost less than $15 for a one-hour aromatherapy massage. Great. And Le Banneton, a café next door that we’d read is owned by the same Lao-Frenchman, offers lots of great pastries, quiche, salads and paninis. The food is good, the service lacking. Maybe they are serious about emulating the French? 😉

Practical Info

Luang Prabang is fairly condensed and easy to get around, though it is not easy to understand the names of streets, which at times change midway.  Most of the action for tourists is on the peninsula, and that is where we slept…in four different places over seven nights!  The northern end is quieter.  Sisavangvong (or Sakkaline) is the main road and much of it is jam-packed with restaurants, boutiques, travel agencies and massage parlors, plus the Royal Palace Museum and several temples.

Transportation: We flew on Lao Airlines from Chiang Mai.  Air connections with Laos are limited, and Vientiane has more options.  The airport is just north of town, a 5-10 minute van or tuk-tuk ride away.  A pre-paid shared van costs ~$6 total for 1-3 persons.  There are also international buses, and a somewhat popular option is the slow boat from Huay Xai at the Thai border.  The slow boat down the Mekong takes two days, with a night in Pak Beng.  Reviews are mixed.  There is at least one luxury boat option now.  There is also a one-day speedboat with a much maligned safety profile.

Walking all around the peninsula is very easy.  Tuk tuks are available for longer trips, as are bicycle and moped rentals.  Boats can take you to certain destinations up or down river.

For onward travel to Vang Vieng, we booked a VIP bus through Ms. Teep at All Lao Travel Service on Sisavangvong Road.  She came correct.  They accept credit cards with a 3% surcharge.  We also bought our air tickets from Vientiane to Singapore through Ms. Teep and she beat everyone else’s price.  The bus cost 130k Kip each (including transfer at 8:40 am from our hotel to the bus station) and took six hours (9:30 am to 3:30 pm).  The road is hilly and windy but not in bad condition for a developing country.  Ms. Teep got us seats 1&2, and our front-row view made it easier to avoid any motion sickness.  The bus was pretty nice, the driver was unimpeachable and the scenery varied from good to excellent with stretches of dramatic jagged peaks.  We broke for toilets (2k Kip to use) and snacks at 11:15 am and then stopped at 2:15 pm for the included lunch of hot noodle soup.

There are several options each day between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.  Mini-buses/vans sound nice but we hear they are crowded and less comfortable than the VIP buses.  There are also non-VIP buses and sleeper buses.  The sleeper bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng sounds terrible as it arrives around 2 am, thus offering the chance to see none of the countryside, be on the road when it’s more dangerous and still need a hotel on arrival.  But the sleeper from Luang Prabang to Vientiane would be a time- and cost-effective option, albeit you would miss the scenery.  We inquired only once and did not try to bargain, and we were told a private car from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng would cost 1MM Kip, which is surprisingly expensive.

Accommodation: There is an impressive array of lodging options, from $5 hostel rooms to $800+ at Amantaka.  We stayed our first three nights at Villa Somphong, across from the Nam Khan river on Kingkitsarath Road near the northern tip of the peninsula.  The room was nice enough and staff were very friendly.  It cost ~$45/night with good breakfast above the Nam Khan included and AC.  The WiFi was spotty.  Unfortunately, we cannot recommend Villa Somphong because the bathroom smelled so foul, so often.  We came to realize that wafts of sewage are all too common in this otherwise delightful town, but still the odor at Villa Somphong was next-level.

Our fourth night we stayed in the Issada building which is part of the Sala Prabang family.  Our room was good-sized, the shower was enclosed, AC and WiFi worked well and there was a huge balcony.  We liked the location, on a quieter street one block off the Mekong and near the Royal Palace Museum and main street action.  We can recommend this place at $65/night.

Our fifth and sixth nights we stayed at Villa Chitdara 2 Guesthouse on the Mekong.  It cost $45/night with a decent included breakfast and was perfectly fine if uninspiring.  Our seventh night we stayed at Villa Laodeum Nam Khan, pretty near Villa Somphong. If you stay here, beware the original Villa Laodeum is located across town and folks may try to direct you there. The WiFi was good, it had an enclosed shower and a nice large balcony (in the back with no view).  But at $80 there is better value elsewhere.

Though we did not see the interior of Mekong Riverview Hotel, the location is great at the tip of the peninsula, and the restaurant where we had shakes one day would be a splendid place for breakfast each morning.  It is also #1 on TripAdvisor.

We looked at a room at Burasari Heritage but passed due to budgetary constraints.  The room and lobby area were very well-decorated in the boutique style.  We walked into Amantaka to inquire about last-minute discounted rates.  While we did not see much of the property and there appeared to be an inviting pool, we were not blown away by what we did see.  The rooms would have to be extraordinary to justify a quoted price of $800++, considering there seem to be very stylish options on the peninsula for less than one-third that price.

I would probably opt to stay on the peninsula but there are also a couple places just across the Nam Khan river that could be nice.  And well-reviewed spots like La Residence Phou Vao that are off the peninsula. We preferred the Nam Khan river side to the Mekong side, but there are so many lodging options around Luang Prabang and the peninsula is so small that it’s nearly impossible to pick a place with a “bad” location.

Food: There is quite a bit of high quality food on offer here, plus good wine and omnipresent Beerlao.  As noted above, we really enjoyed Apsara and some of the dishes at L’Elephant were very good.  3 Nagas has a good reputation (and our lunch there was fine), as does Tamarind (which also offers a cooking class). Tangor has good food and an ideal location for people-watching on Sisavangvong Road.  We spent the better part of a day working at Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, where the food is OK and the WiFi works well.

Drinks: Utopia is the spot, at least for the under-50 crowd.  We covered it above.  Hive Bar gets good press but it seemed a bit slow compared to neighboring options.  There are several bars in the small area around Hive, Aussie Bar, Utopia, etc.  Icon Klub is closer to Sisavangvong Road and featured a more mature crowd.

As noted, late-night bowling is a rite of passage for the backpacker crowd.  It is outside of town and requires transport.  We hear it goes very late and involves very large quantities of cheap whiskey and beer.

Activities: We found Luang Prabang a great place to relax and just walk around (aside from our two-night hill tribe trek), but there are plenty of things to do. Visiting wats (including Mount Phousi for sunrise or sunset) and the night market are popular in-town options. One of the most famous activities is early-morning alms giving to passing monks, though we did not partake. There are countless places to get a massage, and classes for massage and cooking are available. Re cooking classes, they seem to be unavailable on Sundays, and other days some offer a choice between a longer morning class that includes a visit to the market or a shorter afternoon/evening class.  And I believe Tamarind’s class takes place outside of town, but the price includes return transport.

We very briefly saw part of the Royal Palace Museum complex, which may have operatic performances on certain nights. It also houses the revered Buddha image for which the city is named. There is a bit of beach area on the Mekong near the tip of the peninsula, as well as a footbridge there that goes somewhere…we didn’t check it out, but you might.

We will cover hill tribe trekking in our next post.  Other activities outside town include the Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si waterfalls. This visit to a nearby rice farm gets great reviews: livinglandlao.com.

January 29 – February 4, 2014 (Wednesday-Tuesday) and February 6-7, 2014 (Thursday-Friday)

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