The Luang Prabang Files

It’s funny how ones thoughts on a locale are defined by what came before and after. As we sit in sprawling, hectic Chiang Mai, I am wishing for the peaceful calm of Luang Prabang.

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It’s true that it took us a while to love Luang Prabang. But in the end, we fell for the town and we fell for Lao. And here’s why:

DO:

Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfall leads the pack: Its true…it is simply stunning. So what if hordes of tourists arrive by minivan loads in the afternoon…go in the morning, swim through that robin egg blue water, swing from the tree rope, climb up the stairs as water cascades over you, and take a ton of pictures because it doesn’t get more beautiful than this. Takes about an hour in a tuk tuk, 160,000 kip (US$20) for a “private” tuk tuk (just our family of four). You’ll see the bears of Free the Bears on the walk in. Rescued from poachers, they recline on tree trunks and watch you as you watch them.

Tad Sae Waterfall: Most take a longboat to Tad Sae…we hiked in on day two of a trek. It’s a bit bizarre to emerge from the quiet jungle, muddy and sweaty, into a sea of tourists enjoying BeerLao and elephant rides. Nevertheless, Tad Sae is gorgeous…an oasis in the jungle complete with swimming, elephants and zip lining. Bring plenty of kip…we didn’t have enough on us to all zipline…the boys went while the girls swam. We had made the conscious decision before going to SE Asia not to ride elephants and simply watched…more on that in a future post.

Tad Thong: hmmm…the brochure looks so promising. We hiked there from Hillside Resort — I think if we’d taken a tuk tuk all the way from the city, it would have been a disappointment. What it has going for it: it’s tourist-free. And a series of concrete steps have been built meandering for some time from waterfall to waterfall which makes for a lovely walk. However the waterfalls themselves are no comparison to Kuang Si and Tad Sae and there is trash in the water.

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Ways to Engage in the History & People

Jungle Trek & Kamu Village Homestay: This will be one of my best memories of our trip period. I love a good messy hike where my job is to simply put one foot in front of the other. The jungle and mountain views were incredible, the guides lovely, the homestay eye opening. We used White Elephant Adventures. More on that here: http://www.greenleycoffeebreak.com/2013/10/24/a-trek-beyond-our-comfort-zone/

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UXO (Landmine Museum): A five minute tuk tuk ride from the peninsula, this is a must do. While not as large as the Siem Reap Landmine museum, it is more direct to the issue and has a striking video explaining the history and state today. I frankly wasn’t understanding cluster bombs until seeing on film a huge capsule open with hundreds of “baby bombs” being dropped from the sky. The stories of children discovering and being injured by bombs while playing hit a chord with the kids. This is a must do. And make a large donation while you’re there — we saw at least a dozen people during our time in Lao missing limbs due to U.S. bombs and financial support is still needed to clear landmines.

Movie Night at L’Estrange Cafe: Funny how being abroad for long periods of time makes one crave the comforts of home…a book in English, a BLT for lunch, a movie we can understand. L’Estrange provides all that and is an oasis for English speakers in LP. Downstairs are used books for sale and a cafe. Upstairs is a small museum on the ethnic tribes of Lao and a movie room. Every night an English movie is shown at 7PM. And you can go during the day and pick a movie to watch if anyone else lounging there agrees. The kids spent an afternoon watching Ice Age while an obliging Brit, Aussie and Indian giggled with us.

Tamarind Cooking Class: Kyle took this all day class (lucky me that he is the chef in our family) and highly recommends it. He paid 270,000 kip (US$34) and was able to sign up two days in advance — during busy season, I’d get a reservation sooner. The site of the course is different than the restaurant, out of town on the river and beautiful! You cook up a storm with an engaging instructor, eat, and start again. The class also toured the Phousi market — if you’re a vegetarian, you might want to sit out the meat portion of the tour…yech.

Big Brother Mouse: From 9-11AM and 5-7PM every weekday, students come to Big Brother Mouse to improve their language skills with native English speakers. This was a great way to learn more about the culture while adding value. You can just show up and chat but it helps to have a few lessons up your sleeve, e.g. have them pick a noun and describe it using the five senses. We were impressed to see students go to school all day and then spend each evening at BBM improving their English skills. You can also purchase books from BBM to either donate or take to villages on treks. BBM is easy to find behind 3 Nagas Restaurant.

Palace Museum: Ok, the boys went here so I don’t have a first hand view. However they thought it was worthwhile — shares the history of the Lao royal family who was there one day and gone the next. It’s right at the beginning of the peninsula across from the library and Mt Phousi.

Ock Pok Textiles: Julia, my mother and I spent half a day at Ock Pok learning Lao natural dying techniques. The setting is outside of town on the riverbanks — there’s a cafe for a welcome beverage and post class lunch or drink. I really enjoyed picking and digging my dye ingredients from the garden…tamarind, beets, indigo. This was a fun, educational activity for three generations to do together. We walked away with a silk scarf and two silk samples — all that we dyed ourselves. Highly recommend.

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STAY

We stayed in five different places in LP. Most were great. The one we stayed in the longest was not.

Thongbay Guesthouse: There’s a reason Thongbay is highly rated on TA. There’s just a wonderfully chill feeling there. The staff are so kind. The bungalows along the river are a must…eating breakfast each morning on your veranda watching the river life is a great way to get to know Lao. The food was delicious, the setting beautiful. We paid $75/night for a family bungalow. I’d call Thongbay more of an Eco-lodge. I think because of its rating on TA, people expect luxury, which Thongbay is not. It’s also a ten minute ride from the center however there are minibuses that go in regularly and a tuk tuk ride back runs 30,000 kip ($4). We’d go back there in a heartbeat.

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Private Home Rental: We had assumed we could meander into town and find a cheap, charming home rental for a month. Wrong. LP is bursting at the seams and in town home rentals are tough to find. Especially for only a month. We felt a little desperate and landed a house about a 20 minute walk from the peninsula. The price was right…$35/nt, and the space was good (3 bedrooms), but that was about it. The place just had a bad vibe, was not cleaned before we moved in and we had a constant feeling of “yuck” during our time there. The owners were very lovely people and apparently its not the norm to clean homes before renting them…so one learns along the way.

Hillside Lifestyle Resort: To escape our city rat poop abode, we spent a weekend at this resort, about a 45 minute bumpy ride outside the city. I have alternating views of this place as either heaven or apocalyptic. The setting is gorgeous, the bungalows sweet. A Frenchman runs the place with an interesting staff — at times smoking, drinking BeerLeo and listening to jazz music because what else was there to do? We were the only guests during our stay — this is clearly an unfound gem. The food was quite good — a large and growing organic garden is on site. There are treks that can done from the resort. The pool is an interesting shade of green…slightly off putting but we enjoyed our swim, lounge and beverages everyday nevertheless!

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Lotus Villa Laos: Ahhh, to throw budget to the wind. We needed to be out of our rental by Oct 31st and had a few more nights in LP, so we splurged and moved to the peninsula. We stayed in one of the Orchid Suites, which are set up wonderfully for families. Our veranda was a perfect place to quietly watch the morning alms procession. The hotel also very carefully leads guests through the alms ceremony — we personally didn’t participate but I saw others doing so and it was clear the hotel took care in doing it right. The included breakfast each morning was very good and the location is as good as it gets — on a quiet street at the far end of the peninsula close to some of the best bakeries in town and riverfront restaurants. We paid $226/nt and at some point will need to not eat for a week to make up for that decadence.

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Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi Neua: I’ve reviewed the hotels we stayed at in these towns here: http://www.greenleycoffeebreak.com/2013/11/10/moments-in-muang-ngoi-neua/

EAT

This is tough — we had some great meals in LP and spent a lot of time in the bathroom afterwards. I’m not going to call out which places made us sick because its always hard to really know where to attribute it. We enjoyed: L’Estrange, Tamarind, Le Banneton, Joma, Blue Lagoon, Dyen Sabai and Coconut Garden. Coconut Garden was a good find….clean food in a nice environment at a reasonable price. Dyen Sabai is a short boat ride across the river if the bamboo bridge isn’t up. It was a nice place to spend a few hours in a beautiful environment, sipping a beverage and playing board games. We did not eat there however the reviews of the food are quite good. If you know LP, you can tell by this list that we weren’t too adventurous. We didn’t enjoy the street baguettes and fruit smoothies as much as we hoped…so cheap but kind of tasteless.

TIPS

Shopping for essentials can be tough in LP. Set up your phone at Dara Market. The young women at the cellphone stalls all work together so it really doesn’t matter which you pick…they’ll happily take your phone and input the details so the data package gets loaded correctly. Sometimes you will need to reset the language on your phone to Lao so they can follow the prompts, then set it back. I paid under $10 for 1GB of data for my iPhone…when it ran out, I’d simply pop back and buy more.

Across from Dara Market is the one grocery store that has cheese. Check the expiration date. This grocery also has wine and there is also a wine shop now on the peninsula.

Yes, data, cheese and wine…these are my essentials for a month in the wonderful Luang Prabang.

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Moments in Muang Ngoi Neua

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After a month in Lao, our last foray was six hours north of Luang Prabang by boat to the sleepy town of Muang Ngoi Neua with my parents. This is where I fell in love with Lao.

The village sits on one short dusty road surrounded by thick green mountains — baby sisters to Rio’s sugarloaf — while the Nam Ou river flows by. We spent two nights there and it was snapshots of memorable moments, beginning to end.

I watched two boys, about nine, run to the river edge at dawn, strip to their underwear, soap up and scrub down before turning their attention to washing their clothes.

We scrambled up a mountain to a vast cave, stunned silent by the size of it and the thought of hundreds of villagers hiding there huddled together while listening to the bombing of their village as the Vietnam war bled into Lao.

Meals were leisurely as single proprietors greeted, cooked and served the tourist crowd. We learned to bring cards, books and a chill attitude to any meal. A few BeerLaos helped too.

A highlight was to simply sit and watch life along with river. Children hopping from longboat to longboat before jumping into the water. Local commerce unfolding before us in the form of bamboo and rice bundles being transported up and down river. Boats of new tourists arriving twice daily…and the locals who still had a room to rent meeting them at the dock, presenting their accommodations “river view, hammock, no hot shower, $15 dollar.”

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We met a most mellow couple from Denver…on the road for 17 months and not planning to leave it anytime soon. I could tell they had their travel rhythm…the ability to just BE in your surroundings vs our continued itch “What’s next? Do we like this?” In the end this couple also became our benefactors as there is no ATM in Muang Ngoi Neua and despite knowing this, we somehow did not travel up river with enough kip. Phyllis and Jared lent us enough money to eat in style and get home safely. When we returned to Luang Prabang, mom left reimbursement for them and they left inspiration for us.

The river. Oh the river. We returned to Luang Prabang by a five hour trip in a longboat down the river. I could not get enough of the rich colors — the longboats painted primary colors, the bursting greenery traveling up the mountain ranges, the silk browns of the river and dusty browns of the shores. The river life in full display — the water buffalo escaping the sun, the villagers fishing, the children playing — one even taking time to wave hello and then bend over in full moon position until we passed (we debated a bit whether one could be mooned if the mooner was naked to begin with). The many garden patches along the shore — so neat, so newly green, so virgin.

Having three generations on this trip made it even more special and as we merged from the Nam Ou River to the impressively big Mekong, I thought about what an incredible memory this was for my children…to sail down the Mekong River with their grandma and papa. Who does that?  Well…besides the locals.

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Sleep

We stayed at Lerdkeo Sunset Guesthouse. It’s the newest group of standalone bungalows (five total) along the river and one of the last accommodation options if you turn right on the main road. It’s also the most expensive and you can book it on Agoda, which was helpful as we needed three rooms. If you plan to take the early boat up, there’s little reason to book ahead except in the busy season (Dec-Mar). If you take the later boat, it would be wise to book in advance. Lerdkeo lacks the must have hammock and hot water was infrequent but the room was nice, views beautiful, and pancake and fruit breakfast on our balcony each morning just right.

Eat

We ate almost exclusively at the Riverside. The proprietor speaks a little English and had helped me through a language barrier dance with the guesthouse staff (“I paid online…Agoda? You know? Internet?” Blank stares.) The food was good, not great but satisfying and the atmosphere was the best of all of the riverside restaurants we tried. Ask for the pumpkin curry and request that they amp up the spice.

Tips

To get to Muang Ngoi Neua, we rented a minivan from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. I was quoted 800,000 kip for six people from one of the many travel agencies in LP. We ended up paying more booking through my mom’s hotel as we wanted to be sure we had a good driver and seat belts. Of course in the end we had neither. Whiplash and barf bags a plenty. Once in Nong Khiaw, we took the 11AM boat — it took 1-1/2 hours and cost 25,000 kip per person. We heard there is a road now to Muang Ngoi Neua but why miss the beautiful river journey?

After seeing many a weary passenger disembark the boat from Luang Prabang, we decided to arrange for a private boat with minibus seats back versus sitting on a wooden bench for six hours with twelve new friends. We had been quoted 1,500,000 kip in Nong Khiaw. In Muang Ngoi Neua, we arranged a boat for 1,800,000 kip, all in all 150,000 kip (or $19) more than if we’d taken the public boat back to Nong Khiaw. The owner of Lao Youth Travel arranged this for us and we had some trepedation about handing over 1.8M kip two days before our departure (he was heading out in a trek and needed to pay the boat driver) but it all worked out fine and the owner called the driver a few times during our boat trip back checking in.

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Do

Don’t do much! Bring a good book. Buy more at the cultural center or swap at a guesthouse. We left electronics in Luang Prabang and supplemented at the cultural center with a puzzle book for Sean, dogs personality book for Julia and a history book on the mayflower for Kyle.

See the caves. There are three…two that you can see simply continuing to walk on the road past the school and one that takes an adventurous route behind the Wat and up a steep mountain climb. If you take the latter, you’ll be rewarded with great views.

Bring books from Big Brother Mouse and drop them off at the school.

Walk past the caves to visit waterfalls or villages further afield.

Leverage Lao Youth Travel for organized treks and kayaking trips.

Chill, watch the river life, play Uno, breathe.

Leaving Lao*

We leave Lao today. I’ve started and halted many posts on Lao as my feelings on the country have evolved. When I think back to our first week in Luang Prabang, we were turned off. Turned off by the tourist strip of ticky-tak stores and backpackers in short shorts and tank tops walking with bottles of open BeerLao. Turned off by the garbage and dust and animal feces. Turned off by the tourist weary residents.

So I waited. Because first impressions can be wrong. And mine was.

Luang Prabang is a picturesque town with a fushion of traditional Lao and European colonial buildings situated on the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the Nam Kham rivers. Haven’t lush greenery and colonial architecture always gone together so well?

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I look out from our balcony at white French buildings with blue shutters, narrow brick side streets, palm trees and colorful, opulent flowers. The elderly Lao women on our block are packing up their rice and mats after having spent the first hour of their day on their knees methodically offering a pinch of sticky rice to the sixty or so monks — shaved heads, orange robes, so young — who quietly plod by in bare feet…every day!

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I am struck by the ingenuity of a people to make do with the resources they have. A hydro electric generator made from a bike wheel. Children’s toys in the form of straws, used plastic cups, and sticks. The ability to leverage the earth to eek out a small living — harvesting bamboo, rice, river weeds, and carving small garden beds into the river banks.

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The annual per capita income in Lao is US$3,000. The landlocked country is surrounded by China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. The latter two exert a heavy influence on the socialist country, both culturally and politically. This proximity also led to the Northern Vietnamese using Lao as a supply route during the Vietnam war and as a result, Lao is the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history, with the U.S. dropping over 2 million tons of ordnance on the country. (As an American, it has been eye opening to witness the impact of the Vietnam war and U.S. Secret war on Cambodia and Laos. A future blog post on this topic…waiting to visit the Opium Museum in Thailand to increase my education on the secret war. Out of respect to those involved on all sides, I want to get the facts right.)

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The buddhist and animist country is changing rapidly due to the foreign investments in mining and hydropower and the continued growth of tourism. You can feel the infrastructure straining at the onslaught.

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But the beauty of the country lies in the landscape, the sing-songing “sabaidees” of the children as you pass, the devoteness of a Buddhist nation, and the calm relaxing breeze carried from the Mekong River. Khawp jai lai lai, Lao.

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* In the U.S., we commonly refer to Lao as Laos. However the country calls itself Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic).

More to follow on Tips, Sleep, Eat and Do plus a few Luang Prabang getaway recommendations soon!

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