Category Archives: Laos

Vientiane

Sure it’s not the most exciting city we’ve visited, but we felt that Vientiane was rather excessively hated on by other travelers we met. We’re not advising anyone with limited time to spend a large chunk of their trip in Vientiane, but it’s a perfectly pleasant place to pass a day or so. That said, we didn’t do all that much here. Vientiane is just across the Mekong River from Thailand, but the view is less than inspiring. And there’s not really any one thing that you could label as the main attraction or reason to visit, but like much of Laos there are a handful of beautiful wats, good French eats, and lovely people.  As the capital and largest city by far, Vientiane also houses the Lao National Museum.

We checked out a few temples (it’s Southeast Asia, after all), and we discovered Wat Ong Teu: the wat for monks on mushrooms. Seriously, look at the psychedelic lights in there.

We also arrived at Wat Haysoke just in time to catch the monks sitting down for their final meal of the day (they shall not eat after noon).

Of course, we sought out some good eats of our own. We were pleased with the fruit shakes and Greek salad at Noy’s Fruit Heaven. Benoni Café offered a tasty brie sandwich and solid coffees. Still loving that French influence and the great baguettes. While the service was atrocious, the sushi at Tokyo Sushi Bar (at Mix) was good, and the live music was lovely. You can order from a handful of restaurants surrounding the outdoor seating area, including sushi, Indian, Lao and Thai food. Jazzy Brick’s happy hour underwhelmed with the wine selection, but the half-priced cocktails, agreeable soundtrack and mid-century modern furnishings made up for it. We also enjoyed a nice Italian meal at Lao Luna D’oro.

We were weirdly most excited by the grocery stores we popped into. Phon Phet grocery had lots of imported goods, and we even found Ziploc bags! We of course re-upped. Another market near our hotel had first-rate snacks, including Funfetti mix!  But it is remarkably difficult to find lotion or face wash or practically any beauty product that does not “whiten.” It’s a fascinating cultural difference (in most Asian countries, actually) from the West, where tall, dark and handsome rules. You can be sure there are no tanning salons in Laos.

Having now spent two weeks in Laos, we can share some parting thoughts.  It has the horrible distinction of being the most heavily bombed (by the US) country, per capita, in history.  Unexploded ordnance remain a problem, though not really for tourists.  Laos became independent in the mid 1950s, but not long after a lengthy civil war ended the monarchy and the communists took over in 1975.  Efforts began in the 1990s to normalize relations with other nations.  Laos remains a very poor country and is one of five worldwide still considered to be communist.

Despite its troubled past and present-day poverty, we observed a peaceful and seemingly happy population that displays no outward resentment whatsoever towards Americans.  We have not been to Cuba, but those who have tell us the communist ideology is palpable to say the least.  Not so in Laos.  Tourism is on the rise, and we read that Laos expects to join the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2014.

If we had more time here, these are a few places or activities that sounded interesting:

  • The Nam Ha National Protected Area
  • The Bolaven Plateau with its coffee plantations
  • Si Phan Don, aka the Four Thousand Islands (said to be a nice place to mellow out, with a chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin)
  • The Gibbon Experience
  • Nong Khiaw and the surrounding mountains

As a final reminder of how awesome the people in Laos are, at the airport Alan forgot to check his Leatherman pocket knife.  Rather than making him throw it out, airport personnel at security, immigration and ticketing all helped us retrieve our checked bags and get the Leatherman on the plane. Everyone was so helpful and friendly. A great send off from this hospitable nation!

Practical Info

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and sits on the Mekong River, directly across from Thailand.  Most tourist wants and needs are found within a compact downtown area.  ATMs are everywhere.  We stumbled upon a couple grocery/multipurpose stores (Phon Phet, and Phimphone on the main drag) with many imported items in case you need something. It is not so easy to find Ziploc bags in developing countries, so…

Transportation: We took a “VIP” bus from Vang Vieng.  It cost 50k Kip each.  You are dropped at the north bus station from where a shared tuk tuk to city center costs 10k Kip each.  This bus was a bit less “VIP” feeling than the one from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, but it was fine.  The scheduled departure was 10 am with arrival around 2-2:30 pm.  We were picked up at our guesthouse in Vang Vieng by a mini-bus after 10 am, then we made some loops picking up other passengers, and the actual bus didn’t leave until 11 am.  Even with a toilet (1k Kip) and lunch (sandwiches 10-20k Kip) stop, we still arrived at the Vientiane bus station at 2:15 pm.

This bus ride was less hilly, windy and scenic than from Luang Prabang, but we passed more villages.

Note that one may kayak from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, but be sure to inquire about details.  We met someone who did this and it sounded like a few hours of kayaking came with a lot of driving in less comfortable vehicles…like more combined driving hours than the whole bus ride.

Vientiane is the main international air hub for Laos (which isn’t saying much) and we flew from here direct to Singapore on Lao Airlines.  We purchased air tickets from All Lao Travel Service on the main street in Luang Prabang.  Ms. Teep beat everyone else’s price, and was far cheaper than what we found on Kayak.

A taxi from downtown to the diminutive airport at 6:15 am took less than 15 minutes and cost 60k Kip.

Accommodation: We stayed at Ibis, which is an Accor hotel.  At ~$60/night, you can find cheaper, but the room is nice, the WiFi works well and the location is excellent.  Street names are confusing but it seems to be on Rue Setthathilath.  It is close to several well-reviewed bars and restaurants like Joma, Benino, Amphone, Jazz Bricks, etc.

While searching online we also considered Dhavara and Avilla Phasouk.  These are all very near each other, and I would try to stay in this zone.  The downtown is small and easily walkable so a couple blocks this way or that shouldn’t matter too much.

Food and Drinks: We dined at Tokyo Sushi Bar, which I guess is part of Mix at Nam Phou Fountain Square, next door to our hotel.  The food was good but pricy and the service was poor.  The atmosphere was lovely, many tables outdoors with a fountain and live music.  Our brie baguette at Benino Cafe was OK, the coffee was great.  Noy’s Fruit Heaven comes recommended.  A tasty Greek salad cost 40k Kip and you can choose any combo for your 10k Kip fruit shake.  Friendly service.  Dinner at Lao Luna d’Oro was great.  My lasagna was richly delectable and the crust on Jenni’s pizza was superb…thin and doughy yet crispy.  We did not eat there but the owner of Le cafe de Paris in Vang Vieng recommended Chokdee Cafe Belgian Beer Bar.

Our viognier at Wine ’95 was OK but could’ve been chilled more. The service was good, though, and they agreed to happy hour prices before the official 6 pm start. Jazzy Brick’s happy hour cocktails for 20k Kip were solid, and the inside space is cozy and well-decorated with classy and comfy mid-century modern chairs.

Activities: There isn’t so much to do in Vientiane.  There are some temples and museums, we mainly walked around and stopped briefly at Wat Ong Teu and Wat Haysoke.  I believe the night market takes place in or around Chao Anouvong Park by the Mekong, itself something of a sight.  Naturally, there are plentiful massage parlors.  Last but not least, I believe there is a bowling alley, though we did not hear tales of late-night debauchery as in Luang Prabang.

February 10-12, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)

“In The Tubing Vang Vieng”

It’s easy to see why Vang Vieng went from an undiscovered paradise to a hedonistic party pit-stop on the Banana-Pancake Trail. Luckily, it’s been cleaned up quite a bit (including, for example, by removing the zip lines and rope swings that used to exist), and what you’ll find now is a nice mix of adventure tourism in a karst-studded landscape and (mostly) good-natured fun.

Vang Vieng is best known for its popular tubing activity, where tourists rent inner tubes and use them as transportation to bar hop among the aptly named Bar One, Bar Two and Bar Three along the Nam Song river. This is a backpacker rite of passage we are very glad not to have missed.

You rent your tube in town, and then a tuk-tuk takes you about three or four kilometers up the river. There is a bar set-up just beside the Organic Farm (which we had heard is good and has delicious mulberry shakes, but unfortunately we couldn’t peel ourselves away from the fun zone) where people hang out drinking alcoholic slushies, cheap whiskey shots (free at the door!) and Beerlao. There is a table set up for playing beerpong, blankets laid out on the ground, little cabanas with shaded seating and of course good tunes. This is technically Bar Zero, just getting you warmed up for the long ride down to Bar One. It takes about five minutes. If you’re noticing that the focus is on drinking rather than tubing, you’re very perceptive. Our only complaint with the tubing is there is not enough tubing!

Bar One had a little dirt soccer pitch where Alan played with a veritable United Colors of Benetton group: an American, two Brits, an Indian, a Spaniard and a guy from Brussels. OK, maybe it’s a highly European group but it’s still a diverse crowd. If you had any doubt that the alcohol imbibing was taking effect, know that Alan essentially dove into a brick sidewalk to try to save the ball and barely flinched. Not that he isn’t always this manly and macho 😉 There was also a spirited game of Polish Horseshoes taking place. We played this at Kenny’s birthday bash in Longmeadow years ago. Apparently it’s also known as Frisbeener or Beersbee, among other names.

Another five-minute tube ride takes you to Bar Two, where there is a volleyball court, lots of drunk men in mank tops with necklaces made of beer can tabs (when exactly did the mank top trend explode?), girls in neon bikinis, and some cheap eats.

There are guys standing at the water’s edge at each bar who throw out ropes with water bottles attached to the end to pull you in. They keep your tubes stacked by the river while you get your drink on.

The Vang Vieng locals are smart with their pricing policies, maximizing their chances of capitalizing on drunken tourists’ inability to return the tubes before the six o’clock cutoff when part of your deposit is forfeited (or all of it if you can’t manage to get back before eight). Not to mention it’s nearly impossible to make it back to town before sunset if (read: when) you lose track of time at Bar One, Two or Three. We’re told it takes about three hours without stopping to float from the drop-off point all the way back to town. We’ll never know. We didn’t even make it to Bar Three, as we wanted more tubing during our tubing. And we kicked with fervor trying to make it back from Bar Two via the river before six. We got picked up by a tuk-tuk driver with over a kilometer to go, and still didn’t make it back before six.

We’d heard rumors of how crazy this place used to be. While we can’t compare the present situation to what it used to be, we thought it a healthy mix of non-drinking kayakers and other adventure seekers and partiers who were more or less in control of themselves.

Our second day in town we checked out the next most popular tourist attraction around: the Blue Lagoon and Poukham Cave. It’s about thirty minutes away via tuk-tuk on a rough dirt road (including a stop to pick up a monk we passed along the way), though some people do bike or walk it (we got too late a start in the day for this). The Blue Lagoon is a really cool spot where you can swim and rope-swing or jump off a big tree into the water. There are ladders leading up to limbs about 8 and 20 feet above the water. We watched some impressive and far more brave people doing backflips and the like for a while. For those on the spectator side there are tables and shaded cabanas, a volleyball court, and a little restaurant where you can get beers and pretty cheap Asian noodle and rice dishes. All in all it’s a very chill scene and much more mellow (and sober) than the tubing, but if you have only one day in Vang Vieng we’d definitely say you should opt for the tubing.

The cave is also pretty impressive. It’s a steep, 5-10 minute hike up the hill. You can hire headlamps (torches) or bring your own, and we recommend doing this. For some foolish reason we brought only one and quickly discovered that one torch does not suffice for two people. There is a reclining Buddha near the entrance of the cave, and you can explore deep inside. We didn’t make it too far given the lighting issue, but what we did see was pretty impressive, this coming from two people who visited Carlsbad Caverns only a few months ago.

Lest you think every spot in Vang Vieng is filled with people wearing an “In the Tubing” tank top, we can confirm that there are again lovely French and other restaurants to dine in. Highlights for us were pizza at Luka (looks like a backyard, with a handmade clay pizza oven and a tiny bar. Order the eponymous pizza), and Le café de Paris (a fantastic bistro with jazz playing and a more mature crowd. The duck terrine is wonderful. And the French owner is quite friendly, lending Alan his bike to visit the ATM when we realized we didn’t have enough cash to pay).

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Of course, there are also solid cheaper eats around town. Our favorite find was Phonepadis’ breakfast. They take pride in their work. And Jenni ordered the mango with sticky rice, which came in a portion large enough to feed a small Lao family (Lao families have on average 3-7 children).

We felt that the locals were noticeably less friendly here, but you can’t exactly blame them when it’s necessary to have signs imploring tourists to respect the Lao people for their efforts to be properly dressed and follow their example and warning that your hosts can’t be blamed if some crazy farang comes and steals your shoes. Even the bus station had a sign requesting that people wear shirts. We were surprised that signage to this effect was necessary. We were even more surprised that it didn’t work. It’s easy to see how drunk and drugged tourists dressed immodestly and counter to local culture invading the Laotians’ slice of paradise could have a jading effect. That said, the meatheads on our bus ride to Vang Vieng and the girls wearing no pants in the center of town were among the minority, and in our experience we met a lot of really cool, friendly and interesting people while in Vang Vieng. And given what we’d heard about the town’s former reputation, it seems to have been cleaned up well. We didn’t notice any drug use on the tubing (and were very surprised by this), and the vibe was fun, not seedy or belligerent. This is part of a larger theme we’ve been noticing through Laos. It’s so backpacker and traveler friendly with the cheap and convenient transport, accommodation and food options. This was the first country on our trip where we’ve left our plans so open-ended and we’ve been really pleased with the ease with which we could get around and fill our time. And to top it off, we’ve met many great people during our time here.

We decided to see what all the fuss was about with the bargain hotels, and so we stayed at the deluxe room at BeeBee Guesthouse. For $15 a night we got this view from bed:

Best hotel room view for $15? We think so. Show us a better one. We had only a few complaints. One: it’s clear that someone punched through the panel in the door next to the handle to break into the room. They barely tried to disguise this, as the panel was actually taped to the door. So, not exactly an inviting place to store all of your valuables, but alas we had nothing stolen. Second: there’s no way to know if this is par for the course or an unfortunate coincidence, but we were staying just down from the main strip of the town where the loud, late-night parties are. In fact, we’d read that this hotel is a good option because it’s a bit quieter at this end. Well, our first night there happened to be what looked like a Lao high school graduation party with blaring cheesy Lao music and a DJ who could at best be described as abrasive. And our last night, there happened to be what looked like a Lao wedding across the street with blaring horrible karaoke style singing of, wait for it, cheesy Lao music. Actually, this might have just been drunken yelling. It’s hard to tell. I’m fairly certain you are required to be tone-deaf to obtain a job with a microphone in this country. It doesn’t help when the door is secured by masking tape. Alas, this is part of the experience, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset, drinking some Beerlao and listening to the world’s worst concert from our balcony.

That said, we’d probably recommend spending a few extra bucks to stay at one of the river view guesthouses like Elephant Crossing. Before arriving we’d thought the hotels on the opposite side of the river would be inconvenient, but there is a footbridge you can cross that makes them closer to some of the action than even our hotel was.

Practical Info

Transportation: We took a VIP bus from Luang Prabang that departed on time at 9:30 am and arrived at 3:30 pm, also on time.  It cost 130k Kip each and included transfer from our hotel at 8:40 am to the bus station.  We bought our tickets from Ms. Teep at All Lao Travel Service on the main road in Luang Prabang.  They accept credit cards with a 3% surcharge.  The road is hilly and windy but not in bad condition for a developing country.  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.

On arrival at the north bus station in Vang Vieng, you can grab a tuk tuk for the 2 km ride into town or to your hotel for about 10-20k Kip each.

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.  It is even possible to arrange a kayak trip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, but be sure to inquire about details.  We met someone who did this and it sounded like a few hours of kayaking came with a lot of driving in less comfortable vehicles…like more combined driving hours than the whole bus ride from Vang Vieng to Vientiane.

Accommodation: We stayed at BeeBee Guesthouse on the main street but a little south of the action.  Once we got past the blaring music the first night it wasn’t so bad.  Until the blaring music on the third night.  In fairness, the music seemed to be from specific Lao events and not from a touristy bar that would be loud every night.  There is WiFi downstairs but not in the rooms.  For $15/night it’s a decent choice.  We requested a front-facing room (got #12) and the view of the karsts out the window and from the shared balcony is superb.  We met backpackers staying at Pan’s Place and at Nana, both near BeeBee, and they had nothing bad to say.

I would recommend staying closer to the river or even across the footbridge that is near Roung Nakhon Vang Vieng Palace hotel because you can walk the whole town area easily.  Chez Mango across the river is well-reviewed.  Riverside Boutique Resort on the town side is #1 on TripAdvisor.  We did not see the interior but from a drive-by the location and pool area look great.  Elephant Crossing is well-reviewed and conveniently located, if unimpressive-looking from the road.  We met a couple who stayed there and they said the WiFi did not work well but otherwise the property was nice.

Food: There are street carts everywhere serving Thai-style pancakes, sandwiches and more.  Fresh baguettes are ubiquitous in Laos.  Pancakes from these carts cost ~10k Kip and sandwiches usually are 15-25k Kip.  Pizza Luka has a handful of outdoor tables and thin crust pies.  Jenni’s goat cheese pizza was OK while my Pizza Luka was great.  Proving yet again that it’s usually advisable to order the namesake item.  Each pizza cost 60k Kip.

Another night we dined at Le cafe de Paris, a bistro with an affable owner and jazz soundtrack.  The goat cheese salad was OK, the duck terrine was great, the duck breast was good but quite gamy, and the Philly cheesesteak was very good.  It is a classier joint with nary an “In the Tubing” tank-top in sight (practically the uniform of tubers), but that didn’t stop Jenni from plopping her Beerlao roadie on the table to avoid littering outside.  And the owner lent me his pink bicycle for an ATM run when I realized I didn’t have enough cash.

Bamboo Tree had pretty good WiFi but mediocre service.  Luang Prabang Bakery is popular though we were underwhelmed at breakfast, especially for the price.  Phonepadis has no sign yet but is on the main street just north of Molina Bungalows on the same/east side of the road…a few spots up from Pan’s Place.  It is basic but the breakfast was very good.  They take pride in their craft.

The Organic Farm and its mulberry shakes come recommended, but we couldn’t tell if the in-town cafe is permanently closed or not.  The farm itself seems to be a few km north, where tubing begins.

Drinks: Tubing without drinking is like Sasquatch. Allegedly it exists, but there is no documented evidence. We covered the tubing bars above.

In keeping with our M.O. of straddling both the backpack and champagne scenes, we never went out after dinner so cannot really comment from personal experience on the nightlife.  But a couple places that seemed popular based on conversation include Fat Monkey’s, Milan Pizza and Kangaroo Sunset.

Activities: Drinking and tubing clearly rank one and two.  There is only one place in town that rents tubes.  I’m pretty sure this stems from the recent clean-up of what had become a legendarily raucous and dangerous scene, and that now it is regulated and communally owned.  Tube rental costs 55k Kip and you must leave a 60k deposit, of which you lose 20k if you return the tube after 6 pm and you lose the full 60k after 8 pm.  I believe you can only commence rental of a tube between 9 am and 4 pm.  Dry bags can be rented for 15k.  With at least a couple other passengers (and in the high season I think that will always happen), the rental fee includes the 10-minute tuk tuk ride a few km up the river to the starting point.

There is also mountain biking, kayaking, caving, go-karting and more.  You could take a hot air balloon ride.  Sunset motorized dugout canoe rides are popular; it appeared these leave from just the other side of the driving bridge, and we could not tell whether the main appeal is viewing the karsts or the drunken tubers trying to return by 6 pm.

February 7-10, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

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)

Naked Pirates of the Nam Ou

Two nights and three days of trekking and kayaking among hill tribes in the Lao countryside was a highlight of our trip. There are many minority ethnic groups in Laos, including the Khmu (of the same origin as Khmer) and Hmong hill tribes we encountered on our trek.  Each speaks a distinct language, so even the handful of Lao words we had learned were not particularly useful.  Despite our inability to communicate with the locals, we got an inside glimpse into a very different lifestyle. Our guide, Mung, was fabulous, and tirelessly led us through the mountains all the while answering our thousands of questions about life in Laos. And he just about always had a smile on his face. That man was a laughing machine, and we truly enjoyed it. Our group was a great size too – we had two other trekkers join us (Matthias from Germany and Jolene from Quebec), which was perfect as we could share the experience and meet new and interesting people without having to stop every five minutes for someone to tie his shoelaces.

The trek began about an hour’s drive outside of Luang Prabang, and we hiked a very hot couple of hours before arriving at the first village for lunch. We were surprised to learn that tour companies do not necessarily plan in advance where we’ll go or stay, but simply show up and ask (and pay, of course, but Mung claims you will always find someone willing to host you and/or feed you). We adored this hospitable aspect of Lao culture.

While the food was not the most gourmet that we ate in Laos, it was probably the most authentic. And by authentic I mean we were served enough sticky rice for a small army with every meal. Every single meal. If there’s one thing we learned about Lao food, it’s sticky rice. Sticky rice with chicken. Sticky rice with pork. Sticky rice with fish, and salad. Sticky rice with cabbage. And sticky rice with your omelets in the morning, which actually functions quite well as a toast substitute. I’m pretty sure Mung claimed that Laotians eat on average a couple kilos of sticky rice a day. And these are not large people! The highlight of the food was probably the crispy, salty riverweed with sesame seeds and the buffalo meat with rice noodles (the Lao take on spaghetti Bolognese?). One cute anecdote that Mung shared with us – he claims Lao people are lazy, and this is why they eat with their fingers: one less utensil to wash! He added also that Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) actually stands for People Don’t Rush and joked that one Lao worker is equivalent to three Vietnamese.

I have to say, it is a whole lot easier to eat Lao food with your fingers than Indian. The sticky rice makes all the difference, it’s practically a magnetic spoon.

The children were a major highlight of our trek. We remember thinking on our Cambodia trip a few years ago that Cambodian children seem like the happiest in the world. Well, the Lao kids might have them beat. There is constant, I mean literally constant, laughter. And not just little giggles, but riotous laughter, like they’re having the most fun they’ve ever had. And it looks like they are! We even witnessed a Lao food fight and Alan and Matthias joined in on their soccer/volleyball-esque juggling game (played with a bamboo ball a bit larger than a softball). Even bath/washing time was a cause for celebration. The kids run around and jump in and out of the water like gleeful little maniacs. They sure are cute.

After another strenuous stretch of hiking we arrived at our home for the night. We had been briefed on proper etiquette: no touching heads, wear clothes, do not hang underwear or bathing suits above head level. Easy enough.

This village is still fairly remote, but already signs of development are cropping up: there were a handful of homes built from concrete and satellite dishes were affixed to nearly all the bamboo homes. That said, you still feel pretty far removed from the Western world, watching the children, adults and farm animals buzz about, the scenery framed in the background by a beautiful rock mountain that reminded us of Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya.

We stayed in what is essentially a bamboo shed, with a raised bamboo platform on one side where there were mats and blankets laid out for us to sleep. While it wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleep we’d ever had, it was certainly an experience. The beds and pillow are so hard you have to roll over every twenty minutes when an ear, arm or leg falls asleep. We woke feeling like rotisserie chickens that’d been spinning all night. And don’t expect the peace and quiet you get on a camping trip – it’s almost as if the villages get louder at night. Kids laughing, kids crying (I swear they only cry at night here. Too busy having fun with their friends during the day I suppose!), roosters crowing (I thought they were only supposed to do this as the sun comes up!)…

We’re both very proud of Jenni’s minimal freak-out in response to a hairy, jointed spider spotted near the “shower.”

And this place is the clear winner of the award for strangest experience brushing our teeth. The running water comes from a spout out behind the house. If I had any plumbing skills I would have installed a knob for them so the water flow could be turned on or off by a method other than sticking a round, wooden stick into the opening. Anyway, while brushing our teeth here we were accompanied by a local village boy, a puppy, a pig, and a duck drinking the runoff water.

The villages are full of animals, as the locals farm the land and the livestock for subsistence. Cows, big fat pigs and cute little piglets. Jenni tried her hardest to touch a piglet, to no avail. But we did witness a rather impressive cow brawl. Allegedly there are monkeys in the hills, but you don’t see any in the villages. Mung says this is because in Laos they eat everything that moves, and if monkeys came to village they’d end up in the frying pan. Of course, Jenni spent a good amount of time cuddling with puppies. Lao puppies have the most adorable little folded ears. Can you even resist? Although the puppy that belonged to the family we stayed with the second night was definitely psycho. He liked to bite (playfully, but still), and he spent about 20 minutes hurling himself into our mosquito net again and again in an attempt to bite  – err, play with – Alan.

The house construction styles differ by tribe, but are all built primarily with bamboo, which requires rebuilding every so many years.

The trekking itself was a bit tougher than we’d anticipated (or is it just all that food we ate in Chiang Mai and Penang slowing us down 😉 ), including some areas with difficult footing, steep passes, and muddy areas that required the assistance of bamboo poles both underfoot to keep us from sinking and used as walking sticks. Not to mention it is HOT in the sun. It was impressively beautiful though. Up high you get fantastic views of the lush mountains continuing forever, and down through the valleys you pass through both a bamboo forest and a banana forest at one point.

After lunch on our second day, an older Lao villager joined up with our group and walked behind us, whistling and chanting a bit as we went. He spoke no English, but communicated with Mung at each of our rest stops. And then at one stop he pulled out a hand-fashioned bamboo bong from behind the tree and proceeded to rip bingers (tobacco, take it easy) out of it. We were intrigued to say the least. Apparently this is a communal bong, and there are several along the walking paths that villagers use at their leisure.

Our second night we stayed in a more traditional homestay, sleeping in the ground floor living area of a local family’s home while they slept upstairs. This brick structure was more substantial than many others we saw. The family had a television (on which they watched Thai soaps) and a refrigerator, but the kitchen is still basically a wood fire outside. And the bathroom is a stone hole in the ground enclosed in bamboo (with a door that neither locks nor shuts completely. Privacy was lacking here, and I still don’t understand how women “shower” as they aren’t allowed to be naked outside and the running water is not enclosed at all). The family did not sit outside to eat dinner with us, but Alan dropped in while they were eating their meal and tried some of the buffalo blood with peanuts and buffalo meat. They were very friendly. In fact, the father used to be the chief of the village, which is a government salaried position in which you are essentially the mayor of a small town, and must know the goings-on of all the folks in your village. Mung also brought out a water bottle filled with Lao-Lao (rice whiskey) that the men tried. It tasted like a mix of sake and jet fuel. Jenni and Jolene took their word for it.

While the first night’s village was in the mountains, this second one was along the road and next to the Nam Ou river. A refreshing dip and mild body washing was most welcome after the sweaty haul to get here.

The last day Alan and the others went kayaking. Jenni, upon hearing the words “Class II rapids” had flashbacks to this rafting trip, and decided to opt out.

Alan’s kayak experience: This was a delightful way to spend several hours, and one of the interactions with Lao kids was a real highlight of this whole journey.  The Nam Ou river is an attractive blue/green, unlike the brown Mekong.  The scenery was beautiful with green mountains and dense jungle.  There were multiple stretches of rapids, but none was more than Class I or II so it was barely exciting, let alone frightening.  Midway through we stopped for swimming and lunch on a beach on the non-road side of the river.

Each time we passed a village, several naked kids would run to the riverbank, wave frantically and shout out some combination of sabaidee (hello in Lao), goodbye and I love you.  Not to harp on it, but the kids here really are extraordinarily friendly and happy.  We also observed some men fishing by laying out a circular net and then slapping the water with a bamboo pole to scare the fish into the net where they get stuck.

The climax, for sure, was when Matthias and I decided to paddle closer to shore to interact a bit with a particularly energetic group of youngsters.  One kept doing back flips into a shallow water belly flop, it was hilarious.  As we approached, several swam out and decided to climb aboard our little ship…naked, of course.  A couple began walking along the edge of the kayak and pretty soon we capsized.  I will savor a long time these moments of pure, innocent joy.  Note that I am hoping to get some video from Mathias of the kids to embed here, but he hasn’t been able to send it yet as he is currently in Myanmar.

While Alan was off having adventures with the Nam Ou Naked Pirates, Jenni had an unexpected adventure of her own. When the rest of the group hit the river, I joined Phoo, a guide-in-training and student with very basic English skills, and Sing, our driver who spoke no English whatsoever, and we all hung out in a local villager’s house with a young married couple and their one and a half year old baby. Now remember what we said earlier about how happy the Lao kids are? Not this one, at least not with me. Her face turned angry every time she looked at me. Everyone laughed and talked in Lao about how the baby would giggle and then when she looked at me she stopped and got very stern-faced. With nothing else to do for the next several hours, Phoo stepped out and returned with a case of maybe 18 large Beerlaos, and a water bottle full of Lao-Lao. I was unable to communicate verbally with anyone but Phoo, and even communicating with him was a stretch, especially as his Beerlao consumption increased. People kept coming over to hang out and drink with us. They taught me how to open the bottles with another bottle, and to drink the “Lao” way – in a glass, with ice, and a big “sip” at a time (a small glass each time). In other words, you don’t sip, you guzzle shots. We taught each other how to say such important words as cheers (“tom” in Lao), papaya and sticky rice. And we clinked glasses, cheers-ed and tom-ed for a lot of rounds. The couple living there brought out tons of food and encouraged me continuously to eat everything again and again, regularly asking “is it delicious?” (in Lao, Phoo translated). The fried bamboo shoots, yes. Very delicious (and especially with sticky rice). The buffalo skin – I must have had more Beerlao than I realized, because I can’t believe I tried that. I wholeheartedly advise against ever trying buffalo skin. It was so chewy, I seriously gnawed on it for like 20 minutes, trying to smile and figure out if I could somehow discreetly spit it out (I couldn’t). They also provided rice crackers, beef with a spicy chive sauce, and papaya salad that was impressively spicy.

I got another glimpse into a couple of fascinating cultural differences in Laos. First, kids are trusted to be so independent from a young age. The little girl was literally one and a half years old and she would pick up sunflower seeds, crack the shell off herself and eat them. How many American parents can you imagine giving their children sunflower seeds that haven’t been de-shelled? But even though she could do it on her own, Sing started cracking them for her, which solidified our earlier observations that people tend to work like a team here. Though Sing had just met this family today, he was welcomed with open arms and reciprocated by contributing to the communal efforts.

We did not see a single other tourist during our three day trip, and it was fascinating to learn about Lao culture. While each tribe is culturally independent and speaks a different language, one might find a Khmu village just a few minutes’ walk from a Hmong village. It is now acceptable to marry between tribes, and the Khmu enclave where we ate lunch the first day shares a school with the nearby Hmong people.

Many of the villages have no mainline electricity and instead use generators or car batteries that charge by hydro rig. This appears to be rapidly changing as power lines and concrete buildings existed in both villages where we stayed. Still, it feels like remote village life for sure. I’d like to see an episode of Wife Swap where a New York or Los Angeles woman swaps places with a Lao villager. The ensuing culture shock (on both sides) is hard to fathom, as was reinforced when Mung told us his own story. He grew up in a small mountain village and was shocked and scared when he first saw Luang Prabang at 20 years old. Imagine how he would have felt dropped into midtown Manhattan.

We were impressed by the emphasis on hygiene, given the lack of convenient running water in each home. It felt like each time we looked we saw people washing themselves or something else, and kids even scrub their feet and sandals, no adult supervision required. We were also struck by the seemingly admirable distribution of workload among men and women. Everyone shares in the task of caring for children, including the older kids and the men. And above all, Laos is a happy, smiley nation. For this, it is impossible not to love.

Practical Info

Which Operator + Costs: We considered White Elephant, Tiger Travel and Green Discovery before settling on Green Discovery.  Each of these companies has an office within about a block on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang, and each gets pretty good reviews.  White Elephant seemed a little less flexible in terms of departure dates so we ruled them out.  It was a tough choice between the remaining two, but Green Discovery’s operation/office presented as slightly more polished.  I believe the cost for a similar package (i.e. two nights, with two days of trekking and one kayaking) at White Elephant or Tiger Travel was ~$150/person.  When we signed up with Green Discovery, they said it would cost $161/person for just the two of us, but they would put up a sidewalk display advertising our trek and if others joined the price would drop.  Thankfully, Matthias and Jolene joined us, which meant great company and a greatly reduced price of $118/person.  Green Discovery takes credit cards with a 3.1% surcharge.

We found the operation to be quite professional.  Mung was a great guide, and for the kayaking they provided nice double Tri-Yaks, life jackets, helmets, dry bags and a brief lecture on safety/instructions.

Packing: Since of course you will not get a neatly presented packing list when you book your trek in this developing country, we figured some recommendations might be helpful.  Here is what we would bring:

Day pack, headlamp, toothbrush and paste, medication, bathing suit (not a bikini), sunglasses, sun block, insect repellant (though we were pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of bugs), hat, soap, towel of some sort, hiking shoes/boots and socks, flip flops, a dry bag if you have a lightweight one (better to double-protect, only necessary if kayaking), a fleece/jacket for late at night and early in the morning, zip-off pants would be ideal though all of us wore long pants the whole time despite the heat, maybe a rain jacket, hand sanitizer if you’re into that…

February 4-6, 2014 (Tuesday-Thursday)