Although getting to Luang Prabang with a slow boat was an experience in itself, once I got there, I was pleasantly surprised by the discrete waterside town.
It could be because I had no expectations about the place.
It could be because the attitude of the people was spot on – letting you get about your business but happy to serve if you need it.
It could be because the scenery was more unspoilt than I had seen until now.
Either way, my three days in Luang Prabang was a warming one. Here’s what I did…
Coming off the slow boat, I was told in my reviews that the Khammany Inn Hostel was too far to walk. I think the people who wrote the reviews were used to red carpet treatment, because the walk was no more than 15 mins and you got to take in some of the beautiful Mekong riverside views.
No tuktuk drivers harassing you for a ride.
No guesthouse owners shoving photo boards of their rooms in your face either.
Just a pleasurable walk with a backpack.
Arriving early evening, meant using what was left of the night relaxing in a riverside bar. Utopia bar is a place mentioned in some guide books and again by the hostel receptionist, so without expectations, I went to check it out. Finding it in the dark can be a little tricky. Once you come off the main road, it’s a little confusing which of the many minor path junctions lead to the bar. Once I found it though, I felt it was well worth it.
Pillows, cushions and ambient lighting are there to greet you, after which you gaze over the Nam Khan river with a cool drink. It was a pleasant surprise, because the closest thing I could think of in London to this place, would cost the world for a seat with a view like that. It made me think of the warped sense of value we’re given for riverside views in a big city.
A Day Around Town
I spent the first full day walking through town for a bit of sightseeing. A simplification of the sights can be described as two groups either side of the main road West to East through town. The Palace grounds to the North of the road and the hill to the South. The main road transforms into a night market every evening. The morning was spent climbing the hill. Flip-flops are fine for it, because well made steps line all the paths up and down.
At the top of the hill, there are various paths off to the Buddha Footprint and That Chomsi. The view at the top gives you a view of both the Mekong and the Nam Khan river with the mountains behind it. Other than a few groups of monks, there thankfully weren’t many tourists at all.
The path up the hill is lined with great Buddha statues and flowers. Turning corners and noticing these tucked into the hillside was incredibly pretty.
The Buddha Footprint turned into a bit of a comical treasure hunt. Handmade signs in various shapes and sizes were leading you to a small enclosure. The footprint itself wasn’t spectacular, but the fun was in finding it and the views from the shelter next to it.
Luang Prabang is well known for its Buddhist monks. Whilst at first, I was keen to get a scenic photo of them, by late morning I began to realise how conscious they were of the camera. If you walk past a monk, there’s a good chance they’d look over their shoulder to make sure you’re not sneaking a photo without them knowing. I felt I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable to be in any photos. At the top of the hill, talking to one of the monks I noticed he kept a close eye on my hand and the camera that was in it. Without an intention of taking a photo of him, I felt sorry for his need to be alert to it. Recalling stories about tourists thrusting cameras in the faces of the monks in the early morning food alms-giving ceremony, I decided that if I were to see that, it would be a camera-less affair.
That afternoon, I strolled around the palace grounds. Whilst, I have no interest in seeing the inside of the home where the King once lived, the grounds themselves were beautiful. Pristinely cut grass, palm trees and ponds filled with hungry koi carp.
Inside the grounds was an exhibition called ‘Floating Buddha’ Photographs, which was a large room with amazing photos hung up on the wall. Mostly in monochrome colours, there were some great shots of monks practicing Buddhism. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in the room.
On the Eastern end of the hill lies a Bamboo Footbridge that crosses the Nam Khan river. You can see from the pictures, that the bridge is pretty rustic and held together by magic in my opinion. If you wait for a little while, you’ll see school children and monks crossing the bridge. Tourists get charged 5000Kip by some entrepreneurial school kids to cross the bridge.
I heard from another tourist, that crowds were starting to gather at the top of the hill. The reason? Sunset.
It explained why the hill was so empty during the morning. They were all visiting the Palace grounds, ready for the hill in the afternoon for the sunset. I raced up the hill, dodging the ticket queue that had formed by thankfully keeping the ticket from the morning. At the top of the hill were a couple of hundred people ready for the shot of the day.
Good, Cheap Food
Finding good, cheap food in Luang Prabang is easy. During the day, little side allies have Lao, Thai and French (crepes) food for around 10,000-15,000 Kip per meal. That’s about Â£1 for you Brits. Fresh fruit shakes are the same cost too. For beer drinkers, you can get Beer Lao for 10,000 Kip.
For the evenings, a side street off the main market road through town is converted into a food street. Amongst the smaller snack stalls are two buffet style tables, offering an all-you-can-fit-on-one-plate style vegetarian buffet for 10,000 Kip (less than Â£1). Meat and fish eaters can spend a little more for the luxury of grilled skewers. If anyone’s worried about food poisoning, I had this on two evenings and didn’t get sick. Of course, having only vegetarian food helps a lot.
I’ve come to learn that with all small towns in Asia, you can usually find a night market. Luang Prabang is no exception, selling clothes and crafts. The difference with the Luang Prabang market however, is kids can run stallsâ€¦. and run them well. All items are expected to be bargained for, so when a friend asked for the best price for a piece of jewellery, the “boss” was called over. The boss, however, was the youngest of the three kids manning the stall. Armed with an amazing grasp of the English language and a calculator the size of her head, she managed to keep the prices high on her stall. Her smile was simply irresistible to discounts.
Kouang Si Waterfall
The hostel I was staying at put people together into morning tuktuks for a return trip to the Kouang Si Waterfall. Unlike the expensive tours being sold on the street, the simplicity of a tuktuk just taking you to the waterfall and picking you up three hours later was tempting. At only 30,000 Kip per person, it was an absolute bargain.
The waterfall is about 45 mins away and shares the grounds with a bear enclosure. After a brief stop to look at the bears lazing in purpose-built swings, you can walk into the forest for the waterfall.
The waterfall is made up by four levels, with the best at the top. On the first level, you can bath in the water and swing from a rope hanging from a tree. At the top, it’s pretty amazing.
Mandatory pose necessary at the top of course…
Practicing English is something that seems ingrained into the culture of Laos. Whether it’s a buddhist monk, a child or a university student, I came to love the attitude of learning. On my way back to my hostel, after a day touring the town, I wandered into the local library. in the library were a handful of young monks and a university student by the name of Touy. Along with the other monks, he was at the library to use the computers for his studies and practice his English with anyone that came by. His story was a warming one.
Touy, grew up in a small village of 300 people, away from Luang Prabang. He described that with only one primary school in the town, everyone he had ever known from his town had only ever had a primary school education. Determined to learn English and ultimately work in tourism, he managed to get a scholarship at the university of Luang Prabang, moved to the town and is part way through his studies as an English teacher. I can’t imagine being the first person in his village to make the move was easy and convincing the university for one of the few scholarships comes with the pressure to succeed. Living a dorm of eight whilst he studies means whatever few possessions he has, he has to be careful of losing to others. Although those were the rougher details about how his life came to be as it is now, the way he views it was supremely positive. He didn’t linger on the fact he hadn’t used a computer before he started his degree, he spoke about the opportunity the library gave him to learn. Although the Lao translation of his name meant “fat”, he joked how it was far from the truth.
Whilst we spoke, you could feel his eagerness to practice, love his studies and be completely devoted to them. It made me think about many of the youngsters in more privileged societies today who aren’t sure what they want to do before, during and after university and end up acting like driftwood. He described how he wanted to learn English to teach others the language back in his village and anyone he met about his village’s culture. Learning and sharing is a great principle.
Touy spoke about how he regularly spent time in Big Brother Mouse. Big Brother Mouse is an organisation dedicated to promoting literacy in Laos by providing a centre for locals to practice English with foreigners and schemes to send donated books to children in rural Laos. It was somewhere I already had to visit on my list, so on the afternoon before I left town, I dropped in. Whilst Touy was impressively proficient with English, I spent my time with three students who were getting to grips with the language. Armed with English learning books, I helped them practice what they already knew and how to pronounce new words.
Whilst they practiced the difference between “F” and “Th”, “Sh” and “Ch” with me, I got flashbacks of learning Mandarin and humbly wanted to help as much as I could. I remembered how even with recalling the correct Mandarin words I wanted to say and seeing them spelt in English letters, learning to pronounce the words without hearing the word first said by a fluent speaker was an uphill struggle. “F” and “Th” were sounds they struggled to pronounce, but by hearing me say the words again and again, I could see it really helping. It was clear how important places like Big Brother Mouse was to these students who were all hungry to learn. After spending a couple of hours with the students, the organiser called time on the session. I donated some books and decided in my mind that it’s certainly something I want to do again.