After our sweet little stint in Chiang Mai, we hopped a quick 45 minute flight to Luang Prabang, Laos, on Lao Airlines. A bit pricey but it definitely beat the 3-day slow boat ride across the border. We’ve heard that’s the adventurous but pretty touristy way to enter Laos. In the interest of maximizing time in Laos though, we opted for the flight!
The northern regions of Thailand and Laos are incredibly mountainous and that was the first thing we noticed. Massive craggy rocks jutted out of the landscape in between the meandering Mekong River – it was gorgeous!
Small town SE Asian airports are glorious – probably like US airports were in the 70s – laid back, stress-free, and mostly hassle free. Except for the local hawkers waiting to sell you something outside the airport. The first and trickiest scam to avoid in any new country airport are the airport taxis and the guys that approach you immediately as you exit the secure area. In hopes of avoiding the scams, I went to an official looking stand that said “taxi to Luang Prabang”. We still paid way too much and although they said it was a private car, we had to drop off two other groups before they dropped us off. It’s not like there’s a suggestion box at these places so we just shrugged and enjoyed the scenery of this new town/country!
As soon as we got into Luang Prabang town, we fell in love with the quiet but charming streets, cool architecture/shops/restaurants/hotels, and laid back vibe right along the river. The town is located on a peninsula surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Most of the hotels are on the outer rim of the town with adorable little balconies overlooking the river and street below. No visit to LP would be complete without a walk across the infamous Bamboo bridge which is only available 6 months out of the year. Jax trepidatiously made her way across with Adam commenting the lack of structural reinforcements in the bridge.
The first night we stayed at Le Sen Boutique hotel (everything seems to be called boutique in Asia regardless of qualifications – there’s not exactly a “boutique police” supervising here 🙂 We almost always rely on our friend’s advice or TripAdvisor reviews to select our spots. The hotel was great – had a good breakfast spread including lots of unique jams and a nice pool. They also had free bikes you could ride around town so we hopped on those and headed downtown to soak in the city’s vibe. (Prolly the only downside being that it was outside of the town area and not along the river.)
The town is incredibly bike friendly – people just smile at you even when you ride the wrong way down a one-way street. We grabbed some dinner and headed to the famous night market which lived up to its hype! Two entire blocks of the street was jam packed with pop up tents and vendors selling their goodies underneath. The market seemed to have a lot more interesting and unique textiles and goodies than we’re used to in Cambodia. Even in Chiang Mai, Jax found several runners and rugs that she really liked and they were consistently from Laos so she was on the hunt! She found a few gems – one large epic rug and one incredible $10 (aka would have been sold for $70 easily at Anrtho) pillow case.
Adam explored the food carts in the meantime and befriended a local family at their mobile crepe and smoothie shop. The whole family was there – two sons, one young daughter, mom, and dad – selling their food, every night of the week. Their son was the main seller, yelling “smoothie” in several different languages at passing tourists. He knew Chinese, English, French, Japanese, etc. Pretty incredible to see how much is expected of young kids in a culture that emphasizes community over the individual – often playing a very big role in the family business. It really makes you think too about the differences – the good and bad- between western ways and eastern ways. The father was a driver during the day and then came to the market each night to setup the shop. Unbelievable and very humbling how hard some people work to make ends meet and all with a smile on their face. And on top of this, he makes a mean PB & Nutella crepe!
The number one tourist attraction in LP is the Kouangxi Waterfall – we had to check it out! Instead of cramming into another minivan for the 30 minute ride down there, we rented a moto from a great place on Kitsalat Road for $20 a day. It was the most expensive moto rental we’ve ever had in Asia but apparently that’s how it goes in Laos and the bike was brand new which helped. The ride took about 45 minutes but the roads weren’t busy at all and the fresh air and freedom was a welcome change from other transport. Kouangxi lived up to its reputation. There were three large pools for swimming and a massive waterfall at the top you could hike around both sides- the hike was kind of gnarly steep and slippery and we couldn’t see much from the top but it was a good workout if anything. (Jax the gypsy ended up walking barefoot down bc her flippies were too slippery.) The swimming areas were packed with tourists so Adam did the mandatory jump from the tree into the water deal and we made our way back to the moto for our 45 minute moto adventure home.
Jax found some friends along the way and the views were epic!
At the end of Day 2, we hopped on a 1-hour shuttle to our hotel for the next 2 nights. An unique spot on the Nam Ou River called Nam Ou Riverside Resort. The resort used to be an elephant sanctuary – where they would bring abused or neglected working elephants to come and live out their days in a peaceful spot. The goal was for hotel guests to come and learn about the elephants and help bath and feed them. Too often in SE Asia (the land of 1 million elephants), you see elephants being abused and overworked – sometimes even with smiling tourists sitting on top of them in metal cages that are digging into their back. We choose to avoid the elephant rides to avoid supporting the industry.
Nam Ou Resort no longer hosts the elephants – the owner moved them closer to town to get more tourist traffic to see the elephants. Now, the resort is a peaceful riverside retreat with MASSIVE rooms and stunning grounds that makes you feel as if you were in a British colonial resort back in the day.
Day 3 we took a river cruise from the river right below our hotel to a buddha cave, visited a traditional village, tasted rubbing alcohol named “rice wine” and got to see the picturesque rock formations along this epic stretch of water.
After 2 days of reading by the pool, riverside breakfasts, and the slow life, we headed back into LP for 1 more night of riverside exploring before we hopped on the bus to Vang Vieng.
We decided to wing it Jax style and find a place when we got there. We had seen quite a few little spots with balconies so that was our goal. We ended up staying right in the heart of LP at a little hotel with a balcony room overlooking the river – there are tons in this area! The room was small but did the job and allowed us to walk everywhere in town. After seeing all the colorful textiles, Jax was inspired to take a dye class and she signed up for one over at the lovely Ock Pop Tok or in English “East Meets West.”
The tuk tuk for the hotel/art center came to pick me up (free of charge) and I hopped over to learn how to make natural dyes. I had a lovely Laos man teach me about silkworms and how they harvest the cocoons. He then showed me how the women do the intricate weaving process for their fabrics. It was SO impressive! Definitely something you appreciate more once you see it and realize people are paying way less than they should for such a detail-oriented and talented craft. Next up was the actual dye. He told me how each dye was made (simmering water with different cloves, fruits, barks, leaves, etc.) and then had me pick 3 that I liked. I went for the blue, light pink and darker pink. Over at the dying station, I eyed a scarf I wanted to re-create and so we began the process of adult”tye-dying.” He helped me put plastic and tie off the small circles and different shapes I wanted to make. Lastly, we dipped them in the dyes for about 2-5 minutes, washed them off, removed the plastic and wah lah. We hung them up and I waited on the lovely terrace of the restaurant while they dried off.
For dinner, we checked out Khaiphaen Restaurant (sister restaurant to Friends in PP which is excellent) which employs at-risk youth and trains them to be servers and also sells crafts from local families. A cool concept but the food was not very good, so as we have often done over the last 5 months, we went for “Dinner #2!”
After dinner, we strolled along the streets and Jax made friends with 3 week old puppies before we visited the night market and our favorite crepe family one last time before we said goodbye. We had spent so much time with them by the end of our 4 days here that we had taught each other all of the fun games we knew and learned lots of Lao language from them. The kids were adorable!
Lesson Learned #24: Lao textiles and hand made crafts are epic! Lesson Learned #25: SE Asians are not germaphobes. There is such a lax vibe with babies and puppies that you would NEVER see in the states. While the extreme of it could be dangerous, it makes me think we westerners should relax a bit.
“You may think I am prolonging adolescence and voiding responsibility. Well, I can simply say that I am not impressed by grownups or their society. But I will also say that I disagree with you. The choice to pursue a dream, at the destruction of my comfort, with the loss of safety and certainty, all for the purpose of doing something that inspires others to a fuller life of wonder and creativity and quality, to me that is a burden of responsibility worth carrying. To me, that is growing up.” Jedidiah Jenkins