I spent a total of eight nights in Luang Prabang in three different stretches and four separate hotels–as such I think I got a pretty good feel for the city. It was also my first foray into Lao, so I spent my first four Lao nights in the city. This is where I made my initial observations that tuk tuks are ridiculously and unavoidably expensive in the country. So much so that people rarely take tuk tuks on their own, and the pricing even in groups, worked out to about the same as I would have paid for hiring a tuk tuk on my own in India and Sri Lanka. However, food is fairly reasonably priced for such a big city, and given the French history you can find tasty places with a touch of that influence.
My favourite restaurant in the city was Utopia, a brilliant relaxed place with excellent food at reasonable prices, overlooking one of the rivers. During they day people play on the full sized sand volleybal court, and use the terrace for yoga lessons. And when the lessons are over you can sit there for hours reading a book. At night, it is the liveliest place in the city to eat and have some drinks, meeting interesting people along the way.
In my time at Utopia I met a cool Franco-Asian lawyer from Lyon, on another night I met some some Germans and Canadians which led to some tipsy ten-pin bowling at the only place in the city open past 11:00 pm, and I had some dinners and drinks there with Adam who was visiting from Toronto in my last three day stretch in the city.
The most colourful encounter however, was with a fellow in his late 40’s who claimed that his boyfriend was an enforcer for the Mafia back in the States. Now, I mostly doubt his story because I imagine that if one’s partner is involved in such a high-degree of illicit activity, one does not talk about it, not to mention the fact that I imagine the mob to be too homophobic to take on an openly gay enforcer. On the other hand, if one is going to be indiscrete it would be under the influence of alcohol in a foreign country. Furthermore, as a pick-up technique I imagine that telling you that their partner is a dangerous gangster is not the best approach (and he did not actually try to hit on me). Anyways, I played along, listened to his stories and I ensured that I did not learn any identifying information from him, nor he from me. At the end of our conversation I told him with a smile that he should tell his partner that he just had drinks with a prosecutor, which he found hilarious–he clearly thought I was joking.
On to some photos from Luang Prabang. As you’ll be able to tell from the shots below, even though the city is quite large it has a charming small town feel. A number of small rivers intersect the city and it is surrounded by lush jungle greenery.
They build a gorgeous bamboo bridge every year over a section of the river during the dry season:
If you look to the top left on the picture above, you can barely make out a structure between the trees. Although it looks like you’re just walking into jungle when you cross the bridge, there are a number of hotels, shops and most notably a lovely riverside bar on the other side:
A tuk tuk ride, you’ll note again that these are enormous versions of tuk tuks found in other countries:
There is a brilliant night market in Luang Prabang that is worth a visit. Adam didn’t love the artisinal goods sold there, but in my experience it was actually one of the better markets I have so far encountered in my travels. And the market is HUGE, it appeared to go on for at least 6-7 blocks, packed full of some pretty high quality stuff.
Adam was itching to try the famous vegetarian buffets in the night market so we ended up there for dinner. A picture of the start of the market. The major food portion of the market is accessible only through a narrow alley:
I am a soup aficionado, so I opted for a soup instead of the buffet. I wish I could say it was good, but even adding a ton of the supplied condiments it was just OK, though the best that I ended up having in Lao:
On the other hand the vegetarian buffet did look pretty awesome, and it was dirt cheap. For a couple of bucks, you can load up a bowl as high as you can possibly stack it. However, what freaked out Adam as a vegetarian was that these specifically veggie buffets all offered skewers of meat at the edge of the buffet. Once he determined that the buffets were in fact strictly vegetarian notwithstanding the meat option, he went with the buffet.
Now, once you select your stuff from the buffet, you’re supposed to hand it over to the proprietor who then chucks it in a pan and heats it up for you. But that then means that you’re essentially just mixing up everything that you’ve picked into a massive stir-fry, and most of the food is prepared, not raw vegetables so that’s just weird. Option B is to just take the food cold, the route Adam picked, but then you’re eating cooked food which has sat out unrefrigerated for who knows how long. And for $3 a bowl, I’m guessing the answer is … a very long time. I’m pretty sure Adam got the runs for the next two days from that buffet.
Regardless, no denying that the food portion of the market is a lovely sight:
The next day we went on an organized tour which was frankly a crazy bargain. For all of $24 CDN we got a full day tour that took us to a paper-producing village and got us on a long-boat which took us to Whisky Village and the Buddha Cave. We were then picked up by a van to hit a nearby waterfall and lunch was also included. Shamefully it also involved some elephant ridding. I was essentially scammed into the elephant ridding bit (long-story) so I have not included shots of that because the practice is always injurious to elephants and I don’t want to encourage it. That being said, I’ve never encountered a domesticated animal, other than cats, which gives less of a damn about the tasks requested by its human trainers. As far as I could tell, the elephants would just stop and eat anywhere and anytime they pleased and they sure as hell dictated the pace of the journey.
A temple in the paper-producing village:
The paper-production process.
I bought my niece a cool elephant card made from the handmade paper here which was roughly the size of a post-card so with some creative cutting I was able to turn it into a card that miraculously made it to Vancouver intact. However, I couldn’t help myself from thinking about how absurd it would seem to someone in the 16th century that we seek out horribly rough homemade paper which is almost impossible to write on when we can make uniform paper surfaces that are perfect for writing on for pennies on dozens of sheets:
The path down to the boats from the village:
The lovely river and scenery from the long-boat (this time with a better camera):
Some kids going fishing with a net by the side of the river:
This is my return to Whisky Village, aptly named for their whisky production in basic stills. But the town gets under appreciated, they also have some pretty decent hand-woven goods and a nice temple:
Two more shots from the long-boat:
Kouangxi Waterfall. There are spots where you can swim, it’s a tad cold and some small fish nip at your knees occasionally, but it’s otherwise amazing to swim at such a picturesque place:
We spent the following day exploring some of the major sights in Luang Prabang. The temples were nice, but it was so bloody hot that they were difficult to appreciate. Shots of the more impressive Buddhist temples in town:
I’ll leave you with shots from the temple on top of Phu Si Hill in the middle of the city, the best place to really get a feel for the town: