Oun is an old friend. I’ve already gone on vacation with him to Barcelona, and to Saint Raphael. We get along super well and have a similar travel rhythm. Learning that he would soon be moving to Luang Prabang, I could only regret our choice to leave Luang Prabang for Chiang Mai because of the speed of the Internet connection.
But on Monday night, he writes me on Facebook “we’re in Bangkok, we’re going to Luang Prabang tomorrow, are you sure you don’t want to come? We won’t have the opportunity to see each other for a very long time. My mother is there too, she’s coming to see her cousins in Luang Prabang”.
His mother is Laotian, and it has always been a dream for me to visit a friend’s home country with him and his family. It’s one thing to be welcomed by the locals, but another thing to be integrated into a real local family, to go and see your cousins, aunts and uncles.
After reflection and verification of the rates on the Internet, I decide. OK, I arrive tomorrow (all alone because JB works and it represents a small budget).
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
To go from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, the cheapest ticket takes me through Bangkok. I meet Oun and his family at the airport of Bangkok, we will take the same plane. Installed quietly in my seat, Oun comes to see me just after takeoff (we couldn’t take seats side by side) and tells me “look, half of the plane is empty”.
And yes, no one takes a plane to Laos. We each occupy a row of 3 chairs and chat while eating a disgusting snack served by the stewardesses. From the sky, Laos is green green, with lots of mountains.
Luang Prabang airport is tiny. There are 2 queues: the ones reserved for unorganized people i.e. those who apply for a visa on arrival, and the others 😀 Being Vietnamese, I am exempted from visa for 30 days so I pass in front of everyone.
As usual, as soon as I arrive in a new country, I buy a SIM card, I withdraw or make the change. Luang Prabang must be the only place in the world where the rate is better at the airport than in the city.
Oun’s mother negotiates a cab to the city center at 20,000kip/person (it normally costs 50,000kip/person). This is the advantage when we speak Laotian!
We are dropped off in front of the Peninsula Villas hotel, which belongs to one of her aunts. She had it built and is now renting it to a Chinese investor for 15 years. Apparently, this business model isn’t uncommon in Luang Prabang.
Like all hotels in Luang prabang, there is a corridor/balcony accessible to all with tables and chairs, perfect for working.
While his mother is visiting her Laotian family, Oun and I slip away to discover without delay the tourist center of the city – which is composed of 3 parallel streets.
We dine at Bamboo Tree, which is very popular with tourists, because the food here is super bland, and is perfect for tourists unable to eat spicy or spicy food. We note not to return there any more because it is too expensive and it isn’t good.
We walk on the main street…
… to end up at the night market which is open every night. The goods aren’t so different than those found in Thailand, except for jewelry and cutlery made from materials recovered from the bombs.
We fall for Nutella pancakes which are too little provided in Nutella (10 000kip or 1€), and coconut pancakes at 5000kip (0,5€)
We walk in the middle of the road to return to the hotel. It is funny, in this city, at any hour of the day, we can always walk in the middle of the road, like in a small village. Oun asks me aloud “it’s not like Chiang Mai huh?” and other tourists hear and giggle too, saying “ahhh that’s for sure”.
I have to work all day. In the morning, I work on the balcony.
We have lunch at @phonheuang café where I get a real laap (Lao national dish) spicy version and not the tourist version like last night. Here, when we ask for “a little spicy”, they put a chilli pepper next to it, so that we bite into it. If we want very spicy , we will be entitled to 3 chilli peppers.
The service is super slow but it is the national standard. Here, between the menu and the command, a nap can happen. Then between the order and the arrival of the dishes, a century. I like this Laotian ugly-back side, it’s even quieter than Cambodia.
As a result, I fully understand why people are overwhelmed when they next visit Vietnam, where people are naturally hyperactive, constantly improving themselves, where efficiency, hard work, dynamism and perfectionism are taught to us from our early childhood – and where everyone has to earn more, more, more.
Oun tells me that to sum up the character of the three countries, it’s very simple: the Vietnamese digs a hole, the Cambodian plants the seed, and the Laotian watches the tree grow.
And in the afternoon, we spot The Terrace, which belongs to the Burasari Heritage Hotel.
In spite of Oun’s attempt and high-tech equipment to amplify the hotel’s wifi, it doesn’t work and ends up using 3G to connect and work.
It’s so hot that at the end of the day we’ll spend more than 20€ in mojitos, ice creams and Coke. oops…
For dinner we are invited to an aunt’s house, who cooks divinely well. They speak Laotian among themselves and I don’t understand anything, Laotian being very very different from Vietnamese.
Now I understand how JB must feel when he sits down to eat with my parents who speak Vietnamese with me and I am too lazy to translate the whole conversation to him.
The cab driver from the airport comes back to pick us up today to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls. We have the right to a privatized but tired mini-van (belonging to the Laotian government) which makes me jump at every pothole.
Admission costs 20 000kip/person (2€). It is necessary to go down to see the protected bears, before seeing the waterfalls. The path is super easy, even if it isn’t suitable for disabled people (disabled people can take the path on the left).
I didn’t know that there were actually several falls. But nature is well done and it has the best surprises in store for us at the end.
Some areas are allowed to swim, some areas are off limits. This isn’t related to the dangerousness but rather to the sanctity of certain falls.
In the end, we are rewarded by this dream vision: a series of waterfalls of a hundred meters in total, and transparent turquoise water, where small bands of gray fish swim. At the top of the waterfall, we see people swimming.
On the left, there is a small path that leads to the spring. We see a group of French seniors, whose guide forbids them to go up to the top.
It is easier to understand why a few minutes later: it is super slippery and flooded in places. Luckily it doesn’t rain.
We don’t always have stairs like this, most of the time it’s dirt with some stones used as stairs if we are lucky.
It is by panting that we reach the summit. One can cross the bridges and walk over the waterfall but it isn’t Iguazu either.
A “bamboo boat” that takes us to see mini waterfalls for 1€/person
The frame is enchanting…
On that, we go down by the other side wondering when we will be able to join the other tourists bathing happily in the secret swimming pool which isn’t so secret anymore (since we saw them from the bottom of the waterfall)
We go down, down and still no sign leading to this beautiful natural pool at the top of the waterfall. After investigation, we discover that we have to go down and as soon as we cross a sign “NO ENTRY”, we have to go over this sign and reach a small path leading to the natural swimming pool.
Already we have a lot of difficulty to go down, my sandals slip and I have to cling like a monkey to the bamboo fence, so it bothers me a lot to enter a forbidden zone at my own risk.
We are satisfied to go down, Oun bathes in one of the cascades (there are cabins to change and all and everything) then we return. The mother of Oun awaits us already with bags filled with street food bought at the entry of the site. I love to travel with the moms, we don’t have to think and we always eat well.
As soon as we get back to Luang Prabang, we get ready to go for a boat ride to see the sunset. Look for Wat Xiengthong on Google Maps, the location to see the sunset (free) is just below.
We fill a boat of 6 and pay 50000kip/person. The trip lasts 1 hour. The sunset is at 18:15 so we calculated well to be at the pier in time.
The boat ride is an excellent way to observe scenes of daily life: children playing in the water, Laotians tending their vegetable gardens on the banks of the Mekong River…
In the evening, Oun’s mom takes us to an all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurant (type Riverside Barbecue Restaurant on Google Maps). For 64000kip/person, we can serve ourselves at will. It’s a mixed barbecue like in Thailand with a fondue part and a barbecue part. There is a hole in the middle of the table where the waiters put some coal, and we go to look for ingredients: vegetables, meat, fish, noodles… there are some dishes already prepared like egg rolls and desserts. It’s a really cool concept even if we have to work hard because we have to grill something, take out the vegetables, add some broth…
We end up at a massage parlour(Day Spa, which I recommend) to pamper our legs that are being mistreated today. I am so tired that I fell asleep during the massage.
Day 4: how I missed my plane + an unexpected encounter
My plane takes off at 3pm. I book the cab via the hotel (60000kip) to pick me up at 1pm. While waiting, I take advantage of the great breakfast of the hotel
…before having a drink at Khaiphaen‘s. It’s a restaurant with an interesting concept: this restaurant is used as a school for street children, to teach them how to manage a restaurant from A to Z. It apparently also exists in Bangkok and Vientiane. In spite of the good concept and the pleasant decoration, I don’t like at all their recipe for chocolate mousse nor their cocktail.
It’s time to go. I greet everyone and settle comfortably in a large 4×4. I write to JB “that’s it, I’m in a cab to go to the airport”. And he answers me “ah well? Weren’t you supposed to be on the plane earlier?”
I recheck my plane ticket. At this very moment (1:05 pm), my plane is taking off. I got the wrong ticket, I looked at the time of the outward ticket.
But as I have never missed a plane yet, I think I might have a chance, let’s go to the airport to see if my plane is a little bit late 😀 I’m there at 1:25 pm, and after a few questions, I’m told that my plane has indeed left. That’s it, it’s the first time I miss a plane and I hope it will be the last time.
I’m writing to everyone to confirm my epic fail. Oun is too happy that I’m staying another day with him. I exchange money and then take a cab for 50,000 kips.
With Oun, we tell ourselves that as I didn’t have time to see Mount Phousi, fate made me come back here lol
So, we go there right away, passing in front of the old royal palace and its temple :
The path leading to Mount Phousi is well sloped:
But when we get to the top, we are rewarded by this beautiful view:
We go down by the other side to see the monks
and an imprint of the foot of Buddha (the foot is enormous)
And then we cross a bamboo bridge to reach the other side of the bank. The crossing costs 5000kips/person and it is necessary to keep the ticket so that you don’t have to pay on the way back. They make pay because this bridge will be damaged very quickly and it is necessary to remake it regularly.
We settle down at the Dyen Sabai Restaurant which has large spaces with a view to lie down and chat. If you prefer not to cross the bridge, there is another bar with a view, it’s Utopia.
So, I was saying, we’re chatting with our mojitos in hand and a French guy comes up to us and interrupts us by asking me if I have a blog. How does he know? He then asks me if my blog is called “Around the world 5 continents” before showing an article with my picture on it “c’est bien vous?” ahahhaha We meet his wife and two children, sitting not far away. Apparently, our blog helped them to plan their world tour. We spend a lot of time chatting, and Karen will later send me pictures of the super light luggage they brought with them. It’s super inspiring, I’ve never seen a family traveling with so little luggage. And the kids, despite the mandatory classes during the trip, are enjoying it. This is the proof that you should not hesitate to travel around the world with children! To read their blog, it’s here!
Tonight, we have dinner with other aunts and uncles of Oun, at the Coconut Garden restaurant. As they speak French, we were able to chat a little and they tell me that in Laos, it’s like in Vietnam, the parents work hard to offer their children a home, who in turn will work hard to offer their children a home… and so on. As in our country, children take care of their parents until the end of their lives.
The subject that animates all the conversations is the arrival soon of a train coming from China, crossing all Laos, to serve Thailand and Singapore. With this train will come thousands of Chinese tourists (whom everyone hates in Southeast Asia for their shamelessness, spitting and Middle Kingdom attitude), and diplomatic tensions. In short, it’s time to visit Laos, before it becomes super touristic, or a war in the area breaks out.
I am advised to try OR LAM SIN MOO, a specialty of Luang Prabang. I find it very tasty but Oun’s mother is disappointed by the dish, telling me that they should have marinated the meat and cooked it a little longer.
We come back to the same massage parlor to be pampered. At 6€/hour, why deprive yourself? 😀
Day 5 :
This time I’m leaving for good. The cab driver is surprised to see me again in Luang Prabang. I explain him the story and another customer sympathizes with me by saying that she too missed her Bali – Vietnam plane. Considering the price, it is less serious than realizing, like my former colleague, at midnight, that she has just missed her Tokyo-Paris plane due to the confusion between midnight of the same day and midnight of the following night.
Part 2: Practical Tips
How to get there
- By plane :
- From Hanoi: about 106€ one way with Lao airlines
- From Chiang Mai or Bangkok: about 109€ with or without stopover in Bangkok
- By bus :
- From Hanoi: 23h, be careful, this trip goes through a border not authorized by the e-visa. On the other hand, you have the exemption of 15 days if needed. This trip isn’t recommended at all because it isn’t very comfortable
- By boat :
- From Chiang Rai (3 hours drive from Chiang Mai): slow boat 2 days with one night in a small town, 1500 baht approx
- From Chiang Rai : fast boat in 1 day : 2500 baht approximately
Exchange rates are more interesting at the airport than in the city center. Remember to exchange money as soon as you arrive at the airport.
If you have difficulty withdrawing money, go to the Bank for Lao Public Foreign Trade (type BCEL on Google Maps). There is always a fixed fee for any withdrawal (of memory 20000kip or 2€). You can withdraw up to 2 million kip at a time (200€).
236€/person for 5 days, 4 nights + 300€ return flight from Chiang Mai (bought at the last minute)
Rate January 2018 : 1€ = 10325 kips
- Hotel: Peninsula Villas: 54€/night/double room for up to 3 people
- Transportation :
- Airport cab => city center : 50 000kip/person
- Private cab for Kuang Si waterfalls: 300000kip for 5 people max. If you go through the agencies, it costs 45000kip/person
- SIM card: 200 baht or 5USD
- Visit :
- Entrance Kuang Si waterfalls: 20 000kip/person
- Mont Phousi entrance: 20 000kip/person
- Crossing bamboo bridges: 5,000kip/person
- Boat on the mekong to see the sunset: 50 000kip/person
- Restaurants :
- between 30 000kip and 50 000kip the dish
- Riverside Barbecue Restaurant: 64,000kip/person with drink
- Streetfood: between 5,000 and 20,000 kip/person
- Beverage :
- Cocktail between 20,000 and 40,000kip (happy hour starts at noon)
- Small water bottle: 5 000kip
- Large water bottle: 10 000kip
- Massage : at Day Spa
- 60 000kip foot massage or Laotian body massage
- 160 000kip facial care (which I do not recommend)