Luang Prabang recommended

If this town is not on your list yet: put it on there NOW!
It’s friendly, cute, sweet, just homely atmosphere draws in many backpackers, yet it doesn’t feel touristy.

Luang Prabang Unesco World Herritage, Laos

That should say enough. You’ll love this place from the moment you arrive and it will capture an eternal spot in your heart as it did in mine.

– Transportation:
In the city you won’t need more than your two feet to carry you.
To go out of town just take a tuktuk. Renting a bike would be another option.
– Do:
Kuang Si waterfalls: the most beautiful water you’ll ever see! Though the main pool might be crowded, take a hike off the beaten path and find a universe all to yourself in no time. There is no end to the explorings you can do in this huge playground of falls.
It’s a 45 minute tuktukdrive out of the city, which will cost you, and the five others it takes to fill up the ride, just 30.000 kip each. The entrance fee is 20.000 kip. Rounds up to a $5 well spend.
Right before the gate you’ll find a market where you can get your cooled beers and snacks to take up into the park.

Alms giving is another big thing in LPB. I didn’t go to see it; I never pulled an all nighter or got up at 6am.
That’s as early as it happens. Locals line up along the main road with a prepared dish to hand out to the monks that parade with big bowls to collect food for their community.

Big Brother Mouse is a book club, teaching English and inviting foreigners to help in doing so. Class starts at 9am. It’s a great way to give back to your hosts.
To find a volunteering job you could also raid the schools and hostels for adds or just ask around. Plenty of help wanted anywhere and plenty to do!

The Doughnut Factory, in the alley between the nightmarket and Daramarket, likes to show you around in their making of sweet treats in the homelike ‘factory’. At the end of their day they take their goods to Kitsalat Road to have the young ones sell from their little cart.

Go down to the river at the end of Sakkaline Road to swim in the Nam Khan with the local kids and enjoy a beautiful sunset, finding utter inner peace at the beach.
Girls: be sure to wear your sarongs, or be stared at in a not-too-friendly manner. Buddhist culture prescribes women to dress shoulders to knees at all times.
(Wearing just a bikini is accepted at Kuang Si though.)

Climb up to the temples is another I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, but didn’t. They’re hard to miss, making up the center of town upon Mount Phu Si.

– Eat:
In the late morning, have breakfast on the market where those sweet ladies will make you any kind of sandwich -5.000 to 10.000 kip- and all kinds of delicious shakes -5.000 kip- Be sure to try an oreo- and a lemon-mint shake!

For breaky or an afternoon bagel go to Joma’s Bakery. Good sweets too. More expensive though, as might be expected of this more western orrientated chain, also housing a branch in Vientiane (Laos) and Hanoi (Vietnam).

For dinner, take the first alley on you left, coming from the square where the market starts. Too much choice, all the tastiest food and just for 10.000 kip a plate; unbelievable!
The way you’re put at a table is the best way to meet new friends to spend the rest of your night with – or have a great conversation and then to never meet again.

The Lao Garden has a nice terras. Their prices were a bit of a shocker to a budget traveler like me. But if you like to really go out for dinner it’s a fine place to do so.
They offer a free welcome shot of laolao to all their guests.
And that I got a foodpoisoning after eating there doesn’t mean this was the place I got it.

– Drink:
Utopia was where I spend my nights, as do many of the backpackers that wash up in this town. Their drinks are priced reasonably, their service is great, and the volleyball court gives opportunity to meet and play with some locals.
It’s ran by a friendly Aussie dude who likes to come over and check if his guests are enjoying themselves.

The beach just down the left of Kingkitsarath Road is a good hangout any night. Be a good guest though; don’t disturb the locals, keep it down, and clean up your mess.

Bowling Alley is the one place open after midnight. I haven’t been though and would imagine it to be a bit of a part-party place with lots of drunk folks.
Outside of any bar you’ll find tuktuks more than willing to take you there.

– Sleep:
I wouldn’t send you anywhere else than Spicy Laos Hostel! The friendly family running it, the homely vibe, the cozy balcony, the comfortable hammocks, the roomy dorms; it’s all great! Plus there’s grandma’s stand to fix you up with any meal or drink at any time of day, there’s a good laundry service, a movie room, free wifi and a computer at your disposal.
A night won’t cost you more than 30.000 kip. It’ll be a fanned night, but who wants AC anyway? That’ll just get you a cold.

[Here are a few shots I took when in April 2012]

Lull in Luang Prabang

Day XIX – April 6

Today everybody who hasn’t left yesterday is going. I still have to wait another day for that pre-booked Straybus I’m stuck with, and am still not too happy about.
I paid way too much for a bus that leaves only on set days, has no more comfort than the local ones, and can’t change anything about the quality of the roads. Nice thing they offer is this accommodation-booking. But the places they propose are, in my oppinion, not in the budget or style most backpackers travel in.

We have a big brunch at the market with the last of us. Eli [USA] who’s been here for a month doing voluntary work, has a big goodbyehug with the sandwichladies: such a heartwarming sight.
I have my first oreoshake, and that stuff is the bomb! Be sure to try it.
More goodbyes at the tuktukstop, and with Per [17, Fin] and Oli (the other Oli) [22, UK] I head back to Spicy to doze the day away. With the balcony being such a great hangout I’ve finally picked up one of the three books I brought: The Bookthief.
Young Per is getting on a bus straight to Pakse later this afternoon. Tomorrow morning Oli is catching a flight back to Chaing Mai, his last stop. He’ll be getting home soon, and is making plans for when he get’s there; a whole different mindset.
Home finally starts sounding like a far away place to me, and I’ve left all thought of studies and what I’m to do when I get back for what they are.

Today would’ve been my last chance to do the Big Mouse; a book club where they teach English and invite foreigners to come in and help out. Class starts at 9am though, and I didn’t make it again. Too bad: it would have been nice to actually do something useful for a change.

We make an attempt to visit The Doughnut Factory, but when we get there at 4pm they’re already closed.
It’s another Laotian home in a little alley -you can actually find it on google maps- where they show you the producing of those sweet treats and make a sort of attration out of it to draw attention. We’re told to walk down the street to find the cart they’re being sold at. And they are truly tasty.

Tonight is full moon, and I’m wondering if Luang Prabang has anything special planned.
Buddhist new years is in a few days, lasting a few days and celebrated with a lot of waterthrowing. I widness a headstart of that when taking a walk about in the afternoon. A few local boys were thowing buckets full on passing traffic.
Stupid that I booked my flight to Hanoi when I was still at home and didn’t take this into account. This holiday should be an absolutely must-experience! And now I’m going to miss it, as Vietnam is not a Buddhist country.

This evening I find a companion in the French –I honestly don’t know his name- a guy who’s been in the bed next to mine all this time, but spend all his time sleeping. He was sick, he explains.
Together we go over to Utopia for a drink, but like Spicy, it’s very quiet tonight. I run into some old acquaintances though: Veronica and Devon, who I met on the Gibbon Experience.
We say goodbye with “See you in Vang Vieng!”

Kuang Si waterfall captured

Rob made some more amazing photos I just can’t keep from you!


[all credits go to Robert Graham]

Yesterday was the best. Day. Ever!

Day XVIII – April 5

In the early afternoon, as I was slowly recovering, some people opted to go to the falls. Nothing cures a hangover like a cold dive so I tag along. I’m glad I didn’t do that bike thing I was thinking of before; it really is quite far out of the city, no less than 45min at a steady tuktuk speed.
I like to mention that our driver was having a little trouble with his gears, which he fixed by opening up the gearbox, taking a sodabottle with some yellowish fluid and pouring it in – all the while driving.

Kuang Si falls
This water! Wow! I’ve never seen this bright a shade of turquoise.
We went in by climbing up a slippery tree and swinging out from a rope with everyone watching. Hate to admit it, but again I was shaking just the tiniest bit – but it’s that thrill that makes it fun, right.
You grab the rope, take off and float free, until suddenly you hit the water, which is as cold as it is beautiful. It’s nice to be cold every now and then though, remember where you come from and stuff.

The others had already been and know this secret spot, so up we go, crossing a bridge, up a little mountaintrail, crossing a higher basin by walking the legde, followed a wooden walkway, but quickly left it to climb up some wet rocks, covered with some magical moss that, despite the water, gave supersticky grip. We got to the third level and dove in. Not as turquoise up here, less cold and less crowded; sweet! We splash around a bit and discover a cave behind the fall we all fit in. The perfect place to share a first beer, perfect place to declare our new home, perfect place to never want to leave.
But we can go higher. So after we’ve finished the can we go out and up more of those non-slip rocks and get to a fourth level basin and some showers –best ever, undoubtedly!- and we just hang around up there in our own little universe for a while; so nice!

We’re all lost souls on the road.
I was telling of how back home I am the stupid one, always getting myself in trouble, always doing silly things, always getting too drunk and needing my dear friends to be there to guard over me. But, we concluded, out here we’re all that same person.
This came to mind when we were climbing up that impossible rocky road. I thought to myself “Should we really be doing this? We’re never going to get back down.” Something I normally wouldn’t worry about. Don’t think; just do. And out here there’s nobody worrying about it. Means you get to live all these adventures and get a million more adrenaline rushes though.
And I guess this also helps to bond more easily with these people you’re spending only a few days with.

Our driver said he’d meet us again at 5pm. They take a nap in the hammock in the back of their tuktuk while waiting for you, when they take you out to places this far, where you can’t just catch a tuktuk at random.
At 5.30pm we rush down. Not as easy as going up on these rocks, but all goes fast and smooth enough. Once down, a few of the boys have to have one last attempt at a backflip, that only one actually makes. When we get to the parkinglot our tuktuk’s still there.

After showers at the hostel everybody is a bit weary. I leave for dinner with the other three ready to go when I am, and find out only half way there, they intend to go to a restaurant named Lao Garden instead of the market. Well, why not. So I end up eating just some fried rice at 19.000k.
Oh, and I got my first food poisoning today. So yeah, that’s why not.

Later, back to the hostel, we all chill out at the balcony.
At 10pm someone gets up and suggests a game of volleyball. Incredible; you know how hard it is to get going with these big groups, but within 10 minutes everybody is moving. Still it takes half an hour before we’re on our way of course.
So another night at Utopia, where we rotate in playing against a team of locals; good fun! Who won, you ask? No one was keeping score.

Instead of bowling alley, everyone comes along to that beach, where we hang out in some deserted fisherboats, have heavy conversations, music, the laolao Levi [23, USA] and Oli [UK] picked up, pass down a spliff, and Dave and Loes [19, NL] even go in for a midnight dip.

Eventually it gets cold, a strong wind comes up and we go back home. Again, the balcony is hid away behind the safety of the blinds. On the other side lighting begins to strike, right before it start pouring those huge, big, fat drops that splash down with a thump. I cannot resist the urge to dance in it and find a companion in Levi. Together we run down the stairs.
Once soaked through we find a big white tuktuk in the enclosure to hide out in for a while. And suddenly we’re making out. I’ve been feeling myself drawn to him, nothing big, just like being good friends – or, well, more maybe? I don’t know yet how these things should work out here… I just know I find him a really cool guy, with good lips too.
We start making our way back, running from the tuktuk to a shed and after some more kisses back up the balcony and soon enough he leads me to his dorm. I’m a little uncomfortable with other people in the room, so we just cuddle and kiss until we fall asleep to the sound of the drops splashing on the roof, very sweet and soft.

Unfortunately this morning I am woken by my stomach and that poisoning I mentioned before. Well shit!
I have to get out and move, or something. I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep but nothing feels comfortable. I try a mangoshake from grandma and find myself some pillows on the balcony, but that doesn’t make anything better. Levi asks a subtle collective “Who wants to join me out for breakfast?” I’m too embarrassed to explain I couldn’t be any further away from the toilet for the time being, so just sit there quietly…

Over the day most of our group will be leaving for Vang Vieng, and I think I’ll just continue sitting here quietly.

Eventually I do tire of that. So in the afternoon when Lara and Cain and the other 2 new UK’s head out to where the Nam Khan river flows into the Mekong, creating a current that’s fun to swim in, I join them. It’s especially fun with all the local kids splashing around.
Lara warned me where to be careful and pointed out where you HAVE to get to shore, not to be sucked out there and get lost in the mighty Mekong. But I didn’t see well, and went too far that first go. Made it out in time though.
But the second round, when we all went together, we were all sucked down with such violence! I’ve never been this close to drowning! It took a whole minute before I surfaced again. Lucky I didn’t panic, and we all made it out with just a slight fright.

Lara isn’t feeling too great either, so on our way back to Spicy we pick up a snack at the nightmarket and settle in the movieroom for a quiet evening.

Lesson learned: Plan things when you get out here, not from back home; you’ll save money and gain adventure, and locals are always willing to help you out. I’m so sorry to be stuck waiting on that Stray bus.

[Credit for the Kuang Si photos goes to Robert Graham. Thanks my friend!]

Payday

Day XVII – April 4

I just dragged myself out of bed as late as 11am, but I think I’ll try to catch a few more in the hammock; there’s something wrong with my head.

So yesterday I had a big stroll around town. I just ment for it to be a morning walk, but wandered all the way until 3 o’clock, getting lost every now and then in LPB’s cozy streets.
I guess this was my first all alone adventure, and a very comfortable one at that. I mentioned this town’s sweetness. It’s inhabitants are just as friendly. I felt in no way scared to be leaving all my posessions at Spicy, or to be walking around in strange surroundings with noone to guard me and my 600-euro camera, or to loose my way.

When I came back I just hung out at the Spicy balcony, reading my book, chatting with some new friends, until we left for the market to have dinner.
People had been talking about this ’10.000k to fill your plate’ deal, and Dave [27, USA] showed me to this alley where you’ve got lots of different tables -or stalles- to choose between. Each table is run by a lady and her –guessing- daughter, and is laden with all sorts of super tasty looking goods; fresh, steamed, cooked or fried vegetables, noodles, rices, meats and fruits. And all smelling like a million!
You pick one of these tables, take the plate she persistently hands you and start piling. When you’re done she’ll charge you 10.000k for the plate -extra for meat- and another 10.000 should get you a large beer, or 8.000k for cans.
Then each ‘shop’ has their own set of picknick tables, 4 or so, on which you have to find a seat, and sitting with another is not allowed. So some are rather empty, and others are completely stacked. Cramming in next to a stranger gives another opportunity to hear more of the world.
I Love this alley and I’m definitely going back tonight!

After stuffing our bellies we walked down the market, a little further down the street and sort of got lost, when we found a bridge crossing the river and leading to a very adequate beach. We sat for a while, talking, concluding place this needed a beer and a spliff.
A few hours later we found ourselves outside of Utopia again after closing time.

Sidenote on closing time: it’s at 11.30pm. Laos law dictates a curfew, so staff has to get hom before midnight. It doesn’t apply to tourists though…
Just outside of Luang Prabang there is a bowling alley that stays open until late; staff ‘lives’ there. I haven’t been there yet so I can’t tell you much about it. And I guess the tuktuk drivers who make their money off drunken tourists that do go, take the money in with the risk.
Anyway, they’re not shy at taking risk; the rest of their money they make by selling all kinds of drugs, which are highly forbidden in Buddhist countries. The ambush of drivers outside of the bars, all go: “Boling alley? Marihuana? Opium? Cocaine?”

A few of the guys got it in their heads they want to buy a tuktuk, so they engage most of the drivers. But Dave and I start our own negotiations with one of them.
I pose as the grass-expert-Dutch and tell him his askingprice is way too high for this sht, and we talk him down to 50.000k, doing the whole “no nevermind, we’re not taking it” walking away and back again haggling dance.
No tuktuk was bought, but back at Spicy the nightguard lowered the balconyblinds so to allow us smoking all the stacks that were laid out on the table. Most of it sht, except for the quite supreme weed Dave got. I rolled a small one for the two of us with no more in quantity than I’d put in a hash joint; the haze-like smell warned me it might be strong stuff. And no doubt 20 minutes later we were both high as a kite.
The perfect state to be in when watching Junglebook. Another night in the movieroom but with a much more fun bunch this time.

So I assume today’s payday…
Time to treat myself on an expensive breakfast at Joma’s Bakery. Although my stomach doesn’t seem to agree at the sight of the counter. I’ll go for safe and just order some oat cookies and a chocolate muffin, and make my way back to crash on the balcony and just listen to the sounds of the hostel.
I had plans to go to the waterfall, but I don’t think I have the strength in me today…

Just another day in Luang Prabang

Day XVI – April 3

Spicy Laos Hostel is housed in a traditional Laos home. The rooms downstairs are paved with stone tiles, the floors upstairs of creaking wood, the main construction of concrete, with a bamboo roof. The dorms are filled with wooden bunkbeds and thin mattresses.
Downstairs there’s a movieroom with a TV, a DVD-player that seldom works and a cupboard filled with DVDs; the weirdest movies people probably left here. Upstairs there’s a computerroom with slow internet and a computer that crashes every 5 minutes or so, and the balcony, with a low table and many cushions around it.
In the courtyard there’s Grandma’s shakes- and sandwich stand, from where she can also fix you up with any delicious local plate in her big wok. There’s the laundryroom in which I might imagine one of the families live.
It’s great to be in this everyday life like this!

Yesterday, after a first night on town, in this hip and happening club named Utopia, where of course I did run in to Daniel and met his new buddy Cain –26, UK- we went back here because there was supposed to be a party.
It’s much too quiet to be considered party, but I’m having another beerlao large and another hiccaugh.

It ended in the movieroom, with Paranormal II. What a sucky movie. And they told me to watch it all the way till the end “cause that where the cool bit happens” but most of them had left for bed before then, except for Lara –19, UK- who’d fallen asleep on the couch.

Oh and I suppose this is another thing that’s just bound to happen in Asia – where you take of your shoes before entering.
I took off the very cheap but very comfortable flipflops I’d just bought in Chiang Mai and was very happy with, at Utopia. But they left without me.
I found a pair that looked alike to take – not very karma proof I suppose, or maybe very much so indeed… But instead of leather these have plastic bands and instead a jute sole these are synthetic, and they’re not comfortable at all.
Lucky I still have my old worn-off pair, and hopefully I’ll find the same jute ones again, as these nightmarkets are all so alike.

Today I take the time to get to know this town and stroll about with my cam. After an hour I sit down for a bite at a sweet little terras in front of a livingroom.
And here’s my breakfast: a nice thick fluffy pancake with chunks of mango and honey seaping over it, and a side of pineapple. Coffee here in Laos is, much like the stuff I got in Thailand, is not very satisfying to a selfrespecting coffeelover.
While I’m sitting there the kids come back from scool in their adorable uniforms, run into the back and come out again a few minutes later in simple clothing with a big glass of lemonade at their mouths.
When I ask if I can use their bathroom I’m directed into the back of their home, into their family bathroom, where they have a western toilet installed, and a big bucket of water to flush with.

Halfway Stray
Stray is a hop-on-hop-off bus organisation I travel Laos with.
I hopped on in Huay Xai and saw two cities I´d otherwise missed.
Nam Tha wouldn´t have mattered much.
But Nong Khiaw I´m so glad I got to see! Hidden deep in a forest of huge limestone hills with their viels of mist.
We stopped to visit a Hmong-tribe village but they had no idea what to do with these white giants and were very scared of cameras.
These things made me feel like a stupid tourist again. And I´m sure these people are all very nice – and I love the Kiwi-family for traveling this way – but it´s just not really for me.
Again, lesson learned.

Anyway, three and a half more days of lovely LPB before I Stray on to Vang Vieng, tubing capital.