Saturday, 24 December 2016

Luang Prabang

We had a really easy border crossing from Thailand into Laos, the officials were friendly and the border police even asked the bus driver to take a selfie with us after asking where we’re from! 

With some time to kill at the bus station, we stopped for some food on the Laos side of the border – we had a choice of noodle soup or noodle soup: presumably it’s the only dish on the menu that the staff know how to say in English (and our Laos language is limited to three words at present) – so two noodle soups it was, with a can of the local Beer Lao. The soup itself was a lot like Vietnamese pho: a thin broth with thin rice noodles, beansprouts, spring onions, meatballs, tripe (or at least I think that’s what it was – I didn’t eat that bit!) and a wedge of lime to squeeze over the top.

On the whole, Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand, despite being poorer and less developed. The currency (Kip) is 10,000 to the Pound, so we are enjoying being millionaires every time we go to the cash point!

From the border, we took an overnight bus into Luang Prabang, which took fourteen hours. Believe it or not this was the quickest option, with most tourists opting for the two-day slow boat up the Mekong. With hindsight, we wish we had also taken this option as the entire fourteen hours was on winding, pot-holed, mountainous roads. We had bunks on the bus, so lying down it felt even more precarious! 

If I thought the journey to Pai in Thailand was bad, it turns out most of Laos’ roads are like an extreme version of this – with sections of unpaved road, lots of pot-holes for good measure and many trucks driving through the night.

Night buses in Asia are also famous for having freezing cold air conditioning blasting out all night – we had on all our clothes, including fleeces, scarves and woolly hats and we were still cold! Arriving into Luang Prabang at five am, we were certainly pleased to get off, but we then had to wait until we could check in at our guesthouse. The caf├ęs didn’t even open until 6.30 so it was a long and tired wait, but it is at least the only night bus we have planned to take on this trip. 

Luang Prabang has a big French influence. There are bilingual schools and all the cafes serve baguettes and crepes. After our time in Thailand, it was lovely to have fresh baguettes again, instead of the usual sliced, white loaf.
It’s a beautiful, well-preserved city. All the shop fronts have the same style wooden signs with lettering and there are lots of golden temples, but the buildings also have a colonial French style to them.

The coffee here is also excellent, grown locally and served Vietnamese-style with condensed milk in the bottom of the cup. It’s very sweet but very strong and delicious. 

The local-style cafes light two fires in the morning and keep them burning all day. On one fire, there’s a big pot for brewing the coffee and on the other is the stock for the noodle soup. In contrast, there are also lots of more western-style restaurants and cafes – all charging western prices.

One day we took a minivan to Keung Si waterfall, twenty kilometres out of town and which apparently, cannot be missed. The main waterfall is spectacular and cascades from a great height.

The water then continues downstream into turquoise pools and further falls. We started with a walk to the top of the falls and ended the day with a swim in one of the pools at the bottom.

Another afternoon we did a boat trip on the Mekong – a local man took us out in his boat (something like a house boat, but adapted with additional seats to take out passengers and living quarters at the back).

We cruised upstream for thirty minutes, then he cut the engines and let the current take us back downstream, whilst he did some fishing. We were lucky enough to have the boat to ourselves – it does seem to be really quiet here at the moment, despite being peak season.

On our last day, we took a walk up the steps to Mount Phousi – a mountain viewpoint with a temple at the top and great views out over the city, the river and the mountains beyond. If I thought before that it was quiet on the river, then it must be because all the tourists were at the top of Mount Phousi – all there to see the sunset! It was so busy it was almost impossible to take a photo without someone’s selfie stick in the way, so we decided not to stay for the sunset and to head somewhere a little quieter…

Luang Prabang is a small, but picturesque city and after three days here we feel like we’ve got a good feel for it. Our next stop will be Vang Vieng, where we’ll be for Christmas. I’ll write again once there.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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