LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
7 DAYS 7 NIGHTS
I hadn't been to Luang Prabang since 1975 so it seemed time to go again. I think in those days I flew a Royal Air Lao Airline plane and was accompanied by a Chinese wife. This time I did it on Bangkok Airways turbo prop and arrived in one hour and forty minutes. And this time no Chinese wife. Visa on arrival was easy despite the airline's originally informing me that Americans cannot enter on visa on arrival. Just bring one picture and thirty dollars in American money, no problem. And once I got to the (only) immigration booth, or one of two, I forget, I knew I was in for a good time. The girls - and they were quite young - both laughed and joked with me and on their uniforms were a few items of personal jewelry. Just what we all need from time to time: a really relaxed laidback vacation with no plans to do anything but drink lots of Lao beer and read a few books. And the Laotians are a very polite, hospitable people.
The town is surrounded by rivers and mountains and the setting couldn't be better. It is a World Heritage Site so there are no tall buildings or double-decker busses full of gawking tourists, and traffic in the town is so light I was usually able to ride a bike down the center street without any problem. Of course, I did forget yet again to pack a long-sleeved shirt although I do know that these places can be cold in the mornings. So, sure enough, after a couple of days of hot, sunny weather the weather changed. A few hours of rain and then four grey days: often pleasantly cool, sometimes damn chilly. Foreigners and Laotians alike were wearing jackets. The day I took a boat trip up the river in an open narrow boat it was cold as hell and despite a windbreaker, two short-sleeved undershirts and two short-sleeved shirts, I froze my derriere off. Fortunately, we stopped a a village along the way known as "Whiskey Village" and I sampled some of their 50 percent proof moonshine and that helped. And at the end of the trip the weather changed again to beautiful sunshine.
Is there really enough to do there for seven days and nights? Actually, yes. There are two or more different waterfalls worth seeing, caves along the river with hundreds of Buddha images, elephant riding, and day trips down river or up river, plus bicycling and yes, you can rent motorcycles. There are a few used book stores. One thing I did remember to do was to bring three of my own books to see if I could trade them for others. At one store I managed to trade all three for a copy of Chekov's The Duel and other Short Stories and a copy of Conrad's Lord Jim. I think that would be known as trading upwards. (They even had a copy of Kay Danes' Nightmare in Laos: The true story of a Woman Imprisoned in a Communist Gulag. Maybe the censorship board was out for a beer when that book was passed as OK for sale.) But the real fun was walking the town and every now and then stopping at a cafe and having Laotian coffee or a beer or a good breakfast or stopping at a bakery. It's all there: Belgian beer, German ice cream, Russian coffee, Western desserts, pizza, hamburger and fries. As well as some really good Laotian and Thai food.
The museum is worth a visit - a quick one. It was once the palace of the King of Laos. And if you don't know, he and some of his family were starved to death by the communists in a cave area, probably Sam Nua, in the northeast of the country in the late 1970's. The building set aside for tourists does sell a map of the town for very little money but does not offer any free map of Luang Prabang. And yet there was plenty of material on Yunnan province which was great with me because I am heading there next year. I believe Bangkok Airways and others flies there so most likely the material came from them.
Guesthouses are all over now and yes, there are backpackers, but it is not crammed with them like Khao San Road. I asked one woman loaded down with a huge backpack trudging up the hillside by the Mekong River how long she'd been on her river ride. She answered, "Two days." A bit long for long-in-the-tooth types like me, I think. I was planning a visit to Vang Vieng if possible but the express bus takes five hours one way and I think it is only three hours from Vientiane so I'll wait on that visit. My stay at the Riverside Guesthouse was a quiet one with the usual noise of geese, cocks and dogs in the early morning hours. It was on the bank of the Nam Khan river which branches off from the Mekong, so you can easily find a guesthouse facing either river. The fellow who owned my guesthouse (only 8 rooms) spoke quite good English and was a cool guy:
Me: In Thailand farangs can't buy houses; could I buy one here?
Me: Well, farangs can't buy land either; could I buy any in Laos?
Me: Oh, well we can buy condos in Thailand now. Could I buy one here?
Him: We don't have any.
Duh, oh, yeah, come to think of it, you don't. I don't even think the capital has any.
One of the wonderful things about Luang Prabang is that there are no supermarkets and no 7-11's. Mom and Pop stores have what you need. Guesthouses range from backpacker places near the deservedly popular Joma Cafe to the Amantaka Hotel which charges $1200 for its top suite. But remember not all of the guesthouses are cheap. I paid only $40 for my room but larger guesthouses in my area went for $100 a night. The 3 Nagas ranges from $165 to $340 for its executive suite. And the Phou Vao hotel up on its own little hill is also expensive. I visited the hotels to have a drink at night, to check out the chicks working there, and to see if there was any action. The lack of guests in the hotels was embarrassing and the hotels were mainly silent, with staff walking about with little to do. The Amantaka is part of a luxury chain of hotel across Asia and elsewhere and to my surprise I used to work with the Chairman of the Board and his brothers when they put out Orientations magazine in Hong Kong so long ago. There is also a hotel called Le Parasol Blanc. Behind it is a great setting of a lotus pond and a restaurant (Dok Bua or Lotus) overlooking the pond. You can see the dancers on the stage in a picture up above.
What's that? What about sex? Well, twice I was asked by tuk tuk drivers if I wanted a "Lao lady" and I thanked them but said Phom Gae Lao, I'm old. They laughed and went off but not before one asked if I wanted "smoke." So I guess Maryjane is there as well. The tuk tuks are like those in Thailand but some of them have elongated seats so they become a combination of a song taew and a tuk tuk. The Laotians understood a lot of my Thai, especially my small amount of Issarn Thai. But they do not use "khrab" at the end of the sentence and they just say "Sabaidee" as a greeting and "kopjai" for thank you. It took me some time to get out of the habit of using "Kab khun, khrab."
Here are three of the 12 regulations on my hotel wall exactly as written: "Do not any drugs, crambling or bring both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love. Do not allow domestic and international bring prostitute into your accommodation to make sex moving in our room, it is restriction. If you do not follow this accommodation regulation you will be fight based on Lao PDR Law. Police Department, Lao People's Democratic Republic."
The Night Market is a real highlight with beautifully made silk and cotton products as well as food, etc. Bargain of course. It was a really relaxing trip in a laidback town with all the land and water tours you could want; or you could just have a beer, read a book and relax.