Southeast Asian Adventure Part 2: Luang Prabang

After our introductory sojourn in Bangkok, our Asia trip continued to the mellow Laotian town of Luang Prabang. I didn’t know much about this place before arriving, which made my enjoyment of Luang Prabang even greater.

There’s seemingly little “to do” in Luang Prabang, but surprisingly that suited me just fine. Situated along the Mekong river in central Lao, Luang Prabang is home to a lot of monasteries and monks. After spending a few hours in town, it’s readily apparent how much of a presence this has, as you’ll frequently encounter novice monks walking about town.

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Many restaurants and hotels line the riverfront French-influenced streets, and the main road through town is filled with cafes and small shops. It’s a bit tourist-centered for sure, but the warm weather and slow pace to things has an alluring way of grabbing you and convincing you to settle in for a little while. We still kept busy with activities, but a good part of our enjoyment was relaxing by the river and soaking in the atmosphere.

The weather was unseasonably cooler than normal, mostly in the high 70′s to low 80′s with somewhat overcast conditions. For us, it meant a nice break from the searing tropical heat. For the locals, it meant sweater weather. “It’s so cold right now!”

We arrived last Thursday (March 24th) and stayed at the Apsara Hotel, a beautiful place on the bank of the Nam Khan River (an offshoot of the Mekong). Everyday started off with a relaxing breakfast on the patio overlooking the street and river.

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Our activities for the week roughly included:

* Thursday – Arrival. Strolled through town, checked out the night market, hit up Sala Cafe on the river for dinner.

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* Friday – Rented bikes. Strolled through town. Hit up multiple coffee shops (Saffron, Morning Glory). Hung out for apres-bike at a cool, huge bar overlooking the river called Utopia. Couldn’t help thinking that the unfenced patio would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in the US. Love it. Dinner at Tum Tum Cheng.

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* Saturday – Busy day. Got up at dawn to watch the giving of alms to the local monks. It seems to have become more of a tourist attraction but it’s hard to complain when you’re part of the problem – still, some groups seem to go way over the line.

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During the day, more coffee shops and walking around. I gave Meagan a quick primer on DSLR photography and I may have created a monster. It was nice not to lug the camera around and Meagan tools some pretty cool shots.

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In the afternoon, we hit up the National Museum, which was the former and opulent residence of the Lao royal family. Afterwards, climbed Mount Phousi, a large hill in the center of town with a temple at the top. Chatted with some novice monks who were eager to practice English. Amazing views from the top.

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Finished off with happy hour at Utopia followed by dinner at Blue Lagoon with a super friendly staff.

* Sunday – Chilled in the morning. Walked through the town and market. Coffee/lunch at Joma cafe (my favorite). Took a river boat up the Mekong to check out the Pak Ou Caves. The trip was enjoyable (if a little chilly due to the grey skies) and the caves were moderately interesting. Lots of Buddha statues. On the way there we stopped at a local village, which is apparently a frequent tourist stop judging from the number of people selling handmade scarves and other crafts. Finished off with dinner at an Indian restaurant.

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* Monday – Lao cooking class at Tamarind. Started off with a trip to the local market. Great experience, lots of sights and smells. Let’s just say that Laotians are much more comfortable with the breadth, depth, and storage conditions of their meat selections than we are accustomed to!

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Class was cool – met some interesting travelers, many of whose multi-month Asian excursions put our three-week jaunt to shame. We met a young couple from Sweden on an extended trip who plan to return home via the Siberian train. Awesome! We made a few dishes, including a super spicy vegetable dip, steamed fish in banana leaf, chicken stuffed in lemongrass (very creative), and something close to mango sticky rice!

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After class, we took a nap, had a glass of wine at Pack Luck Wine Bar, wandered through the Night Market again, and finished off with an awesome tableside Lao BBQ (and shot of Lao Lao whiskey!) at Lao Lao Garden.

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Throughout the week, we would occasionally check on the weather of our next planned destination, Koh Samui, Thailand. Our plan was for our trip to be about half backpacking, half sitting on the beach, and Koh Samui was the start of the beach plan. We got a little worried when the forecast indicated pretty much constant rain for the days leading up to our arrival, often with large amounts (2-3″). Not quite the beach weather we were hoping for, especially considering this is the dry season!

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(photo courtesy of Camille at http://samui-weather.blogspot.com/)

We stumbled upon a super-informative Koh Samui weather blog, and started to realize that the situation was more than unpleasant – it was getting dangerous, with lots of flooding, and the airport had recently closed, causing lots of stranded travelers. We scrambled to figure out our options. Fortunately wifi with a laptop in the hotel to check out flights on Kayak while Gmail chatting with friends who have been to various Asian destinations is a world of difference compared to my previous travel experience of stumbling from an Amsterdam coffee shop to an internet cafe!

We considered waiting it out in Luang Prabang or heading to the Thai mountain town of Chiang Mai, but Meagan randomly suggested “how about Cambodia?”. A little bit of searching, and we found a relatively cheap flight to Siem Reap the following day so we booked that! It looks like Koh Samui is finally starting to dry out and rebuild, but unfortunately not without a few casualties for the people living there.

Tuesday morning, we checked out and said our goodbyes to the friendly staff at the Apsara and headed to the airport. We’re now well into our Cambodian adventure, checking out the the temples of Angkor and the town of Siem Reap, and it’s been an excellent detour (not to mention another large visa in the passport). But more on that to come.

Luang Prabang was definitely a winner. Here are some more pictures – more to come later when we return home.

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Finally, here is Meagan, soon-to-be all-star pediatrician, gracing the streets of Luang Prabang in local style, sans helmet!

 

Luang Prabang – we’ll be back!

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