September 18, 2012

Mark and Millie's Guide To Laos

Travel date: January 13-18, 2012 (around 5 days)
Airline used: Vietnam Airlines from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Luang Prabang
Budget for Laos: around P100,000+ per person (airfare, accommodation, food, shopping, transpo)



BLAH
Cultured, quaint and picture perfect, Luang Prabang is a grand old dame of a city that wears her age well in a kaleidoscope of silk, gold and red tiled roofs. Gorgeous temples, picturesque countryside, orgasmic French colonial architecture and a gaggle of ethnic groups combine to make Luang Prabang a charmingly mystical setting. Described as ‘lost in time’ for its observance of traditional practices and well-preserved streetscapes, the former Royal Capital is not as undiscovered as they’d have you believe due to the hype UNESCO World Heritage status brings. But fear not! Laos has still been spared the tourism massacre of Cambodia. The traditional, quiet Lao way of life and small town feel have not been destroyed by tourism. Imagine Baguio pre-1990 earthquake and Venice pre-floating museum days and you’ve hit upon the magic of Luang Prabang. Expect like-minded young, culturally sensitive and respectful travellers, as well as gentile older couples seeking an authentic and hushed getaway. Remember, you’re here for culture, you’re here for wine, you’re here for arts and crafts, to settle a midlife crisis, play some golf, experience a different way of life and take in the natural beauty. You are most definitely not here to get wasted. Luang Prabang, whose name references its Royal Buddha Image, is a cultural heritage oasis in a region exploding with development and the full sandstorm of problems that go with it. With a concentration of unique temples, some of the best French and Lao cuisine in the region and colonial architecture, Luang Prabang is for the discerning traveller who loves learning about other cultures and would like a view of a place that time forgot.

ESSENTIAL NOTES:
  There’s only one reliable ATM near the market and distributes the local Kip currency, so reserve the credit card for your hotel and withdraw more than enough for you entire stay before you touch down
  If you’re not an ASEAN citizen, you’ll need to pay for a visa on arrival.
  There’s an 11:30pm curfew and a blessed ban on buses and trucks, so this place is quiet. Those seeking the Vang Vieng experience need not apply.
  The nights get nippy and the mornings misty in the popular dry season, so pack a cardie, a scarf and pants.
  It’s a real town, not a museum, so ask before you photograph locals, be polite and observe local customs.
  The food here is ah-mazing. You’d be crazy not to indulge
  Slow down, relax and enjoy. Breathe in that mountain air, have a sip of your G&T and go back to a time when deadlines, facebook and television hadn’t ruined your life yet - so switch of the wi-fi and don’t ask for a TV!

TIMES TO VISIT:
Dry Season (November - March)
It’s peak season, but it doesn’t get crazy, so shell out some extra cash and enjoy the sunshine. Don’t forget to pack sweaters, cardies and a scarf. Avoid the searing ides of march. Wet season can be soggy, but offers a picturesque Mekong, verdant greenery and accommodation specials.

Luang Prabang Film Festival (December 1-5, 2012)
LP’s fab film fest celebrating the best and brightest of Southeast Asian cinema either under the stars or in converted indoor spaces. Thoroughly indie cool, from presentation to production, LPFF screens the most awesome and esoteric films across the region, including the best offerings from Philippines (not that artista crap-trap). The festival has grown in popularity, so book early, Shirley. 

Boun Pimai (Lao New Year, Mid April)
Three days of splash, dash and soaked fun held just before the onset of the rainy season, the festival celebrates water, cleansing and features the most elaborate New Year festivities in the country, with processions and the cleaning of the Prabang (Buddha Image).

GETTING THERE AND AWAY:

Fly
Only 3 airlines serve the city, with jaunty Bangkok Airways’ Bangkok to Luang Prabang being the most popular route. Vietnam Airlines also flies from Siem Reap or Hanoi to Luang Prabang; whilst Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane, Hanoi, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Siem Reap to Luang Prabang. Locked away in a serene patch of forest mountains, Luang Prabang airport continues the city’s ‘lost in time’ charm. It is decidedly rustic. Enjoy it while it lasts, the Lao government is rushing to extend the runways for 777s, A340s and the other big boys for 2013. So get in quick, before the packs of tourists from China et al overrun the joint.

Drive
Road travel is typically erratic, outdated and reliant upon the smoothness of the road. Still, interprovincial sawngthaew - barely road worthy buses and trucks - ply the roads between Vientiane and Luang Prabang at US$10, for an 11 hour trip, barring any unforeseen events like blown tires, weather or excessive stops. It’s US$8.50 from Vang Vieng for an air conditioned seven hour journey. A slightly more reliable option would be the minivans at US$18 from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

Float
Boats are harder to find in the popular dry season and most of the timetables are in Lao. A reliable and historical slow boat service runs between Huay Xai along the Thai border and Luang Prabang, if you’re up for a pleasant cruise with other beer sipping foreigners (locals take the bus). Luang Say does a cruise with better facilities and an open bar. Avoid speedboats unless you’ve got a death wish bigger than Charles Bronson.

WHERE TO STAY:

Budget
A plethora of guesthouses and quaint hotels in converted heritage buildings line the streets; pick the ones with the best location. Here are some to get you started.

Khammany Inn II Hotel
Free wi-fi, filtered water, bananas and a traditionally decorated room for ~US$22 make this one a winner.
Chao Fa Ngum Rd, Ban Thad Luang/+856 2078 107 035
booking.khammanyinnhotel@gmail.com

Sita-Norasingh Inn
Wi-fi, spiffy rooms decorated with local art and a great location round out this cheerful, yet cheap hideaway.

Ban Pack Luck Villa
Slightly pricier, but well worth it, Ban Pack Luck is smack bang in the middle of town, next to the coolest bar in town, in front of L’Elephant Restaurant and steps from the Night Markets. With quirky cool decor and free breakfast, you can’t go wrong on a budget.
Bat Vat Nong, Pha Gnalluangmuangchan Rd
http://www.ban-pack-luck-villa.com/

High End
Luang Prabang is a grand old dame of a city that just makes you want to indulge. Here’s the definitive magic three plush digs to kick back and relax in.

The Belle Rive
Gorgeous French Colonial boutique beauty in a prime location along the Mekong River and a short walking distance from all your favourite Wats, Markets, Wine Bars and French restaurants; with all the super-mod bells and whistles. Resident manager Ell delivers grace and style to complement the colonial chic rooms. No other hotel makes you feel so right drinking a glass of sherry on your own private balcony.
99 Baan Phonhueang
+856 71 260 733
reservation@thebellerive.com
http://www.thebellerive.com/contact.html
Our hotel, The Belle Rive.


3 Nagas
The restaurant’s better, but this all-wooded out boutique treat still offers nice digs and an ace location. Beautiful wood panelling, limited rooms and the vintage Citroëns outside offer a touch of exclusivity despite the rooms being rustic. Best to book the suite. The manager has been known to rub some guests the wrong way, so don’t take it personally. If you’re not staying here, make sure you eat here. Repeatedly.
Bat Vantong, Sakkaline Rd
+856 71 253 888
Kiridara
The new kid on the block; this place boasts a kick-arse spa (that prices accordingly), spectacular nature views, a great restaurant and a swish pool, which is rare amongst the high end hotels. The staff are sweet and the breakfast is fab. The drawback? It’s not in the centre of town. In fact, it’s slightly out of the way, but that’s part of the appeal. So fight for your tuk tuk, get on yer bike or leg it into town.
22/13 North Rd, Ba Naviengkham
+856 71 261 888


Luxe
If you’re on your honeymoon or just very, very discerning, Luang Prabang has you covered with our top two picks.

Hôtel de la Paix
As one of only two chain hotels to open shop in LP (for now), the empire strikes back with a vengeance. Ultra-swish mix of traditional and mod, with a chill library, wine cellar, pool deck and pricey Indochine Spa. Feeling extravagant? Book the Governor Suite. If a private fire place, mood lighting and high ceilings don’t get your heart racing, it may have already stopped.
Manomai St, Ban Mano
+856 71 260 777
book@hoteldelapaixlp.com


La Residence Phou Vao by Orient-Express
Long considered the gold standard of Luang Prabang hotels, La Residence wears the winning mix of traditional and modern with serious swank. Set in sensitively restored heritage buildings in the quiet part of town, it boasts all the spa, top-shelf liquor and poolside exhibitionism you bright young things desire. And yes, the hotel is owned by that Orient Express, so hop on for an exotic ride.
13 Luang Prabang,
+856 71 212 194/Toll Free USA: 800 237 1236/Toll Free France: 0800 913 079
reservations@residencephouvao.com
GETTING AROUND:

Walking
Saunter, meander, amble or march - if you were a smarty-tarty and booked at one of the hotels along the Mekong in the historical end of town, your legs can get you almost everywhere you want.

Cycling
Think flowing dresses, vintage pastel-colored bikes and a picnic basket in front, not the lycra-wearing Tour de France sweat fest. With gentle slopes, light traffic and bikes for rent everywhere, Luang Prabang is the perfect two-wheeled jaunt for amateurs and weekend warriors alike.

Tuk tuks
Best reserved for those bedded down away from the centre of town. Bargain ahead.

Charter Vans
Your concierge can arrange a private van for a trip to Kuang Si Falls, the Elephant Village or another out of town adventure. Usually US$50 for a return trip.

Charter Boats
Most of the upper end boutique and luxury hotels have their own boat for you to cruise down the Mekong at Sunset in (bring mosquito repellant. Your hotel can also arrange for a boat to ferry you to the Pak Ou Caves. Bring friends to split the price, or snuggle up with your sweetheart for a private cruise.


ITINERARY

DAY ONE
Wake up to the smell of fresh croissants, paninis and coffee at Café Ban Vat Sene for a traditional French breakfast, then grab a bike or stretch your legs for a tour of the charming colonial city. There is no ‘right’ way of exploring the city or any natural starting point, making Luang Prabang your own little living playground/museum of architecture, art and history. Just about every street is a showcase of Lao or French colonial architecture, lovingly preserved or beautifully restored, so charge that camera, son. There are more Wats than what (over thirty in total), so if you’re prone to bouts of temple-itis, make sure to explore Wat Xieng Thong for its beautiful gold-laden temple, Naga-headed gold carriage and the maze of sims, shrines and pavilions, each featuring intricate mosaic work and captivating stories depicted on the walls. 

Wat Mai Suwannapumaram is a must for its royally derived exquisite beauty that captured the hearts of Chinese conquerers. Wat Hosian delights with its silvery naga balustrades and drum house. Whilst Wat Wisunalat, the oldest temple in continuous use and Wat Manorom for its gilded facade are also worth a good gander. If you’re intrepid Wat Pa Phon Phao will delight for its unique architecture, minimal visitor buzz and the stories depicted on the walls. 

For French colonial architecture When you’ve explored enough of the city. When you’ve discovered enough temples, head to Spa Garden or the surrounding massage clinics to repair your legs, before having lunch at the Big Tree Café for an outdoor, riverfront refreshment. If you’re feeling heretical, order up their Korean nibbles. If your hotel has a boat, a cruise down the Mekong at sunset is in order. Lather up the mosquito repellant, don the wayfarers and hat for the quintessential Indochina getup. In the evening, pull up a chair at the delightful 3 Nagas for a stirring introduction to Lao cuisine. The entire menu is spectacular, but the pork stuffed lemongrass stalks are not to be missed. Afterwards, head to the night markets for some silverware, Hmong silk scarves and unique jewellery. Start at around 7pm, as browsing the market is a popular affair and the atmosphere and wares will suck you in. Before you the day ends, make sure you’ve booked with the concierge for your excursions out of town.
Wats in Luang Prabang
Blue Lagoon and The Big Tree Cafe

DAY TWO
If you really must, wake up early for the Alms Giving Ceremony, a traditional procession of the city’s monks who receive alms of sticky rice from the city’s denizens. Should you attend, remember that this procession should be treated with the utmost respect. Some unscrupulous travelers have tried to make the whole affair a zoo. Continuously setting off your camera flash, disrupting the procession by standing in the middle of the road and buying and offering ‘alms’ sold nearby are all definite no-nos. Instead, ask your hotel to procure the correct sticky rice alms the night before and watch the ceremony with dignity and respect. 

Afterwards get some breakfast at Joma Bakery Café for fresh bread and latte art. When you’ve fully recharged, enter the Lao-French Cultural Centre for its stately colonial architecture and rotating exhibits, then onto the Royal Palace Museum for its crimson walls, storied history and the Phra Bang palladium from which the city derives its name.It’s not Versailles, but, it’s certainly a captivating place, filled with cross-cultural gems like the Reception Room’s murals of traditional Lao lifestyles, painted by French artist, de Fauntereau and the King’s chambers, preserved exactly as they were in 1975 when most of the Royal Family was hauled off to ‘re-education camps’. Read the exhibits closely for a comprehensive guide, but make sure to read between the lines. If you do, you’ll hear the juicy rumors that the 1st Century Buddha Statue is a mere replica, with the real one sold off to the USSR during the Lao Civil War. 

Make sure to visit the splendid temple on the palace grounds. When the munchies strike, take a seat at Blue Lagoon next door to the Palace for an early lunch. There’s fondue, Swiss bratwurst and rösti potatoes, but the Lao fare is damn good and not to be passed up. 

At midday, venture out on your slow boat to the Pak Ou Caves, at the mouth of the Ou River, two hours upstream. The Tham Ting lower cave is an easy enough climb, but Tham Theung Upper Cave can test your stair master abilities, so work those glutes. Hundreds of damaged Buddhist figures are retired and laid out across the caves in various positions and states of disrepair, forming a serenely eerie, yet compelling sight. The upper cave cloaked in darkness and a damp aroma provide a tomb raiding experience for the excitable. Head back to the city for dinner at as the sun starts to set. After so much day’s worth of French and Swiss food, a Lao offering is in order. Nothing beats Café Tamarind on the opposite shore of the peninsula. Starter plates of various jeow, handheld sticky rice, dried water buffalo skin barbecued pork skewers, like you’ve never had them will get you hooked - if the friendly staff don’t charm you first.

A temple in The Royal Palace Grounds
Pak Ou lower and Upper caves
Lao cuisine in Tamarind Restaurant
DAY THREE
Wake up late and check the skies. If it’s rainy, roll back into bed. If it’s sunny or there’s a light morning mist, pack the bikini and get on the road to Kuang Si Falls. The crystal clear turquoise and milky white pools are stunning, but ascend to the mid level pools for a dip. If you have travel insurance, jump in by swinging out on the rope, Tarzan. In the dry season, the water can get chilly, so warm up under the sun and head to the dainty water fall for a photo op. Make sure you’re wearing mountaineering shoes so you can safely trek to the top of the waterfall for a butterfly-filled meadow for a picnic lunch like no other. On your way down, visit the Bear Rescue Centre for a gander at nature’s cuddliest and deadliest furry creatures. Make sure to donate something for the good work performed by the bear’s carers. 

When you’re back in town, head to the Bellerive Terrace for some loose leaf tea, cognac and a peruse of their fine selection of books on Lao history, culture and travel guides. If you’re not knackered from your little adventure, then roll out of bed and head to Ock Pop Tok textile gallery for the best scarves, home decor and antiques in Laos. Supporting local craftsmen and featuring the finest materials, it’s the perfect place for gifts. The Akha dolls and caterpillars, crafted using the traditional skills of the Akha women, but with modern designs  are an absolute delight. 

For dinner, book a table at the ever popular L’Elephant. With a scrumptious French-Lorrainian menu with local touches, a dedicated garden growing almost every herb, leaf and veg, and skillful floor staff, the place will have you humming Le Marseillaise. After dinner, head across the road to whet your whistle at Pack Luck Wine Bar. With an extensive and lovingly selected collection from France, Spain, Australia, Italy and Chile, this place means business, minus all the pretension and attitude found at wine bars back home. So get your glass of Chardonnay and melt away to some Bossa Nova.
Kuang Si Falls
L' Elephant at night, Luang Prabang's number 1 restaurant: food is great but really pricey. We came in when no one's around. Restaurant is ALWAYS fully-booked so make sure to book a day or 2 days before.
lunch at L' Elephant
DAY FOUR
Make today special by heading out to an elephant sanctuary for a ride on those gentle, smelly giants. Elephant Village Sanctuary, with its resident vets, rescued animals and local community focus makes it the top choice for your day out as a mahout. The 1 Day Mahout Experience or the Full Day Experience has all the joyrides and goodies you could want, including training in controlling elephants, bathing them in the Nam Khan River and a jaunt to Tad Sae Waterfall and the ‘Trail of the Falls’, with a decent buffet lunch and hotel transfers. After a fun filled day in mud, shower at the hotel and head out for dinner. If it’s a Friday night, head back to Tamarind and pull up a chair at the communal table for their weekly Lao Celebration Feast (7pm). At only US$11.25 for a whole marinated and steamed fish with all the jeow, fresh herbs, noodles and veg you could want, you’re in for a trad Lao treat with your fellow travelers. If it’s not Friday, continue the food odyssey by chowing down on the degustation menu. Offering dishes of the esoteric and unusual, let the staff guide you through your culinary journey.
Off to the night market
DAY FIVE
After days of gorging yourself on mouthwatering Lao cuisine, it’s time to take that cooking home. Give yourself a souvenir that lasts by taking the Cooking Course at Tamarind so you can learn to whip up those stuffed lemon grass stalks, Orlarm and spicy jeow whenever you get a whiff of nostalgia. The course starts with a morning visit to the market for an explanation and selection of ingredients and a jaunt in the kitchen making the core Lao dishes. If you did well, you’ve just made yourself lunch! If not, don’t fret, order up another dish and let the experts satisfy your spice cravings. (US$32)

After satiating your craving for food, walk to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre near Mt Phou Si for some cultural sustenance, an academic research-backed, not-for profit museum that has taken a long term view towards preserving the cultural history and practices of the different ethnic groups. TAEC is a blast of color, artistry and history showcasing 30 different ethnic groups including the Hmong, Tai Dam and Kmhmu that make Laos well, Laos. The museum shop is packed full of bona fide ethnic handicrafts, so pick up some authentic souvenirs here, rather than the Night Markets. In the afternoon, if you haven’t climbed Mount Phou Si yet, then head to the top with the rest of your of fellow adventurers for a lofty sunset whilst you poke around the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si. For all the other stairmasters who scaled Mount Phou Si before, take five at Blue Lagoon for some well deserved coffee and fondue. Having ambled, spelunked, mahout-ed and climbed all over Luang Prabang, a restorative spa session is in order. If your hotel isn’t packing spa treatments, book a massage and scrub at Kiridara Spa or Angsana Spa for a blissful rubdown. 

Thankfully, the hotels don’t have a monopoly on skilled therapists. Kamu Spa offers the famed traditional massage practiced by its titular ethnic group, whilst Spa Garden and the massage therapy places surrounding it will put you in skilful hands without hurting your pocketbook. If it’s a Friday night or weekend, get your groove on at Hive Bar after another round of Gai Phad Prik at 3 Nagas for dinner. Dance floor not your scene? Head back to Pack Luck Wine Bar to break open some Champers and knock back a few glasses of red. It’s celebration time afterall- you’ve just cracked open Luang Prabang.

The Night Market!!!

More pictures of Luang Prabang, Laos



















We went to Laos last January (2012) for our Asian Trip (Singapore-Cambodia-Laos). Our estimated budget for Laos was around P100,000+ per person. This budget included: airfare, accommodation, food, shopping, transpo, tours etc.  We stayed there for almost 5-6 days. This is not really a budget itinerary since we stayed in a pricey hotel with a view and also ate in expensive restaurants spending at least 100 USD per meal.  We also bought jewelry and silk scarves for our mothers and my grandmas. You can definitely enjoy Luang Prabang for less. I hope our guide was helpful. 
For inquiries, please leave a comment, but before that, here's our short video.



Enjoy!
xo
Mark and Millie



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Listening to : Utopia by Goldfrapp
        Loving: Laos
              =(: stomach ache

4 comments:


  1. fantastic post and Thanks for sharing this info. It's very helpful.
    heritage hotel in jaipur

    ReplyDelete
  2. How are you so rich??? No, I mean, seriously, I wanna know your secret to success! You seem so young and yet already able to travel like this with that hefty budget. Do share your secrets!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hahaha, uhm thanks for thinking we have reached "success" :) Mark and I are not rich. Both our families are comfortable in our respective countries so we really don't need to support anyone. I only support our helper's daughter in high school but she's also a scholar so I only pay some miscellaneous fees.

      Aside from that, Mark and I have been working for 3 years now and we're not really big spenders on material things. We really spend most on traveling. I don't have any debts, credit cards and I maintain a simple lifestyle. I don't buy any gadgets and I'm not particular whether my things are branded or not. Mark, on the other hand, is still a student and is so busy with school work that he hardly ever goes out, so I guess he's able to save money that way.

      We're also both scholars in our universities by the way and we've been saving since we were in elementary school. Both our parents are businessmen and have taught us to handle our finances well.

      I hope this helped. Thank you for your inquiry :)

      Delete

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