Lunar New Year in Luang Prabang

Laid back Lunar New Year in Luang Prabang, Laos

Why did I visit Luang Prabang?

Hanoi has not been kind to me for a while. For more than a week I’d been battling a slight cold (sneezing and ticklish throat) that morphed into a super shitty virus. No, it wasn’t the Novel Coronavirus, but someone did cough without covering their mouth as they walked past me at the gym the day before I started feeling unwell. Coughing and spluttering over everyone is quite common in Vietnam. Usually I can avoid it, but it’s difficult when your legs are wound around a machine and you’re in the middle of a sit up. The virus was definitely an air born transmission, and it was a downhill slide into bed rest from there.

Lunar New Year was also looming large, and I was determined not to spend another year in Hanoi for Tet — four Tets were more than enough. The first year was exciting as I soaked up the festivities. The second year, I sprained both my ankles falling down steps. Yes, both ankles. At the same time. I couldn’t walk for two weeks. The next year, I was in the thralls of a break-up. The year after that, another break-up. Different guy.

Adding to this, dealing with my Vietnamese company stuff has been stressful. I’m having to engage lawyers to deal with transactions that would be relatively simple — and doable online — in my home country of Australia. I needed a break from it all, but I could only be away for just a few days because there was no one around to watch my cat. The husband and wife building security — who usually look after Bella for me while I’m away — had gone back to their home town for Tet.

So I thought about where I hadn’t been yet and where I wanted to go that wasn’t too far away and Luang Prabang, famous among my Hanoian friends for being quiet and small and lovely — with fresh, clean air — ticked all the boxes. So I booked my guesthouse and my flight, and high-tailed it out of Hanoi for Lunar New Year 2020.

How did I get to Luang Prabang?

I flew Laos Airlines from Hanoi, and with a return it was a little pricey, considering it’s a short flight — just over an hour. I spent more time in the airport than I did in the air. The flight was delayed slightly but ok — I had a struggle to fit my duffle bag into the overheard compartment, and the seats were on the small side. The meal was not vegetarian — a BBQ pork sandwich — and there was no vegetarian alternative. Thank God for dessert — a small cake, which I downed in a few bites. I was ravenous thanks to my early breakfast.

Going home, the flight was delayed more than one hour, taking off at 6:10PM instead of 5:10PM. The vegetarian option was a packet of fruit chips. Starving, I also ate the Joma chicken salad sandwich — and offered a blanket apology to chickens everywhere for consuming their kind.

How many days did I spend in Luang Prabang?

I opted to stay in Luang Prabang for three nights, four days — mainly because I had no one to look after my cat, and she’s fine on her own for four days — and this turned out to be the perfect amount of time. I had enough time to chill, and enough time to see the things I wanted to see, namely Kuang Si Waterfall, the night market and the Mekong. I’ve lived in Asia long enough that temples don’t really do it for me — especially after Myanmar where they are spectacular and Angkor Wat where I wandered around awe-struck — so was happy to give the wats a miss and just take it easy.

Where did I stay in Luang Prabang?

It took me around one month to find accommodation I was happy with. This is unusual — most places I travel to have a good selection of mid-range accommodation. Not so Luang Prabang, and I had to compromise on things like a pool and breakfast. You can pay a lot of money — and by that I mean upwards of US$100 per night, or not very much for noisy, lacking-in-privacy hostel accommodation — for breakfast and a pool. Yeah, no.

And I read the reviews. Poured over them, in fact. Most guesthouses (I read) were too noisy, too dirty, too old, too far. So many toos. In the end I stumbled on Ho Xieng Guesthouse #2 (there is also a #1) and it was lovely. Quiet, clean, close to the market and the river. Not expensive. Good reviews. No pool and no breakfast, but given the struggle I had to find somewhere that looked decent and was inexpensive, I wasn’t going to complain. And it turned out to be a good choice, with a coffee place right across the street, and a short walking distance from everywhere I wanted to see and be.

What I did I do in Luang Prabang?

I was picked up from Luang Prabang International Airport by my driver (I always book a transfer unless I’m super familiar with the destination, and I usually do it via my accommodation) and driven the 4km to the centre of Luang Prabang. The countryside looked like it had not rained in a while. The vegetation was covered with a layer of dust and grime, presumably from the road. The surrounding landscape, with its low density housing and dryness, reminded me of Myanmar: if I didn’t know better, I could easily have been driving into Mandalay.

As an aside, to ensure immigration is a quick process, get an entry/exit card before you stand in line. I organised my visa at the Laos Embassy in Hanoi a week prior because I avoid visa on arrivals wherever possible. Vietnam has trained me to be nervous about immigration, so I try and minimise risks of not being allowed into a country by being as prepared as I possibly can. However, I (and other passengers) was not given an exit/entry card and had gotten to the front of the queue and then, despite having valid visas, had to leave the line and fill out more paperwork. Annoyingly, the airline did not, repeat did not, give us this documentation prior to landing, as is the usual process with other carriers.

Day 1 – Exploring my neighbourhood

I arrived at my guesthouse at around 1PM and checked in and checked out the facilities — including a big bath and even bigger balcony — dumped my gear and went to nearby Joma Bakery for a lunch. Actually, it was breakfast as lunch. In Hanoi, there is a Joma Bakery only 100m from my apartment, and I was pleased to see that the menu was almost exactly the same. As was the smell. Mmmm. Coffee. I ordered the oat French toast with mango and maple syrup, and a lemon and mint freeze, and stayed there for an hour or so, reading my book and planning my afternoon via the paper map supplied to me by my guesthouse.

I could feel the stress melting away as I read, people-watched and nourished myself with delicious food and drink. I stayed at Joma until around 4PM before heading out along the main drag. I stopped to change some money — money changers and ATMs are everywhere — and walked until I found the delightful Kaogee Cafe, where I ordered butterfly pea flower tea and sat for another hour or two, reading my book and taking photos because the light was soft and glorious. I learned to say hello and thank you in Lao language.

As dusk fell, and the vendors started setting up for the night market, I made my way down towards the river and had a short stroll. I still wasn’t feeling the best. I wandered down steep stairs to the banks, taking photos of the sunset and then climbed back up. I watched local men expertly playing petanque, forearms ropey and strong, chiselled by the sport. Not hungry, but feeling that I should eat, I found a restaurant that sold vegetarian rice noodle soup. I parked myself at a table covered with a red tablecloth and accompanied by a large light globe, listening to the conversations of my fellow diners ebb and flow around me. Bali this. China that. My soup was ok — not flavoursome like the soups that are dished up in Vietnam — but I felt that it was doing me some good. Then it was back to my guesthouse for some balcony time and an early night.

Day 2 – Meandering by the Mekong

I must have been exhausted because I nodded off watching Million Dollar Baby on HBO (it was one of only a few English channels available), and slept until 11AM the next day. Hungry, I got up and showered and went out to forage for food. I decided to have my brunch at Mini-House Restaurant, mainly because I could sit close to the street on a comfy bench seat — and the picture of their pancakes on the menu looked really good. I wasn’t disappointed. Four fluffy, golden pancakes were served with maple syrup, tropical fruit — slices of dragon fruit, mango, apple and watermelon — and a Lao tea. I had two cups and sat there, reading my book and people-watching for a couple of hours. The weather was warm, but not humid, the light still soft and glorious. It really was perfect weather.

Needing to stretch my legs after all that relaxing, I walked down to the river and along the footpath that follows it. I walked to the bamboo bridge and park — and sat for another hour, enjoying the view and fresh air. Feeling peckish, I headed back to the town centre, but not before stopping off at Big Tree Cafe for French fries (served with a delicious garlic mayo and the usual tomato ketchup) and a large lime soda, refreshing despite being served sans sugar.

With my feet aching and sore — I was wearing rubber thongs — I headed back to my guesthouse for a one hour foot massage. My guesthouse didn’t offer the service, but MyLaoHome Hotel was a few doors up and had a spa, so that’s where I went. It wasn’t quite as good as the massage I had in Mandalay, or the massages I get in Vietnam, but it was fine. More than passable. I got my money’s worth and my feet were treated up a treat.

With my feet feeling human again, I went to check out the night market. It was all very same-same-but-not-different so I bought nothing except an avocado, salad and fried egg roll. And coconut pancakes. My God, they are delicious! They are tiny packets of fried, custardy coconut heaven for only KIP5,000.  Served in a banana leaf, they are also environmentally friendly. Full and tired, but with just enough room in my stomach for a caramel ice cream cone, I walked back to my guesthouse, happy with my day and looking forward to a long soak in a hot bath.

Day 3 – Waterfall, elephants and more Mekong

Wanting to ensure I made it to Kuang Si with the minimum of fuss, and because I’m lazy and could put everything on my credit card, I booked myself on a full day Viator tour that took in the waterfall, a couple of local villages, an elephant park and a cruise up the Mekong back to Luang Prabang at the end of the day. I read the reviews (of course), and generally they were positive. I don’t understand why: the reviewers must have mistakenly reviewed a different trip and I now have major trust issues with trip reviews.

Pick-up was between 8.30-9AM, and was on time. As one of the last passengers, I didn’t get a choice of seat, and was forced to sit at the back of the mini-van on a tiny bench seat. I was ok with that until we picked up the last lot of people — a family of three — and the four of us were crammed in the back because there was no room elsewhere for them to sit in the van. I like lots of personal space — preferably a single seat — and did not get it, so spent most of the morning feeling invaded, especially as the dude sitting next to me went to sleep and encroached with his legs, arms and elbows. I pushed him into his own zone and he apologised, but still.

First stop was a Hmong “village”. It was icky. We were literally herded out of the van to file past countless souvenir tables selling all the same stuff, presumably from China, with young children and babies used to try and emotionally manipulate us into buying aforementioned stuff. No one bought anything because it was not a cultural experience. No cultural information or Hmong history was given to us by the guide. At all. I know that tourism is important to developing countries and local communities, but there are better, more sustainable ways to do it.

We piled back into the van and it was a short drive to the Kuang Si, where we spent two hours. This was a definite highlight of the day: the waterfall(s) was a beautiful shade of soft blue, and to get to it we had to walk through a cool, lush rain forest — and a Free The Bears rescue centre. I didn’t stop to watch the bears on the way in — I was worried that they were being exploited or not looked after — but I did stop on the way back. While the enclosures aren’t exactly The Hilton, the bears seemed happy and well fed — they were fat and their coats were shiny. They were playing and seemed to enjoy finding their food, which was hidden in various large “toys” — metal drums and basketballs and the like. The bears are Asiatic Moon Bears, who are kept in tiny cages for their bile before being rescued. Humans are so, so cruel. Unfortunately, no portion of my ticket price went towards the bears.

We all piled back into the mini-van for an uncomfortable hour and a half trip — no water was handed out (lucky I had my own) and we had to ask for a toilet stop — to a whisky “village”. Same deal as the Hmong “village”, but at least there was a little bit of information about the process. I bought a nuoc mia da (freshly pressed sugarcane juice) on the way out, which I’m 100% sure was not part of the plan because I was expected to buy liquor. Or a scarf. Or a bag with an owl on it.

Then it was onto a (very) late lunch in an elephant park. Again, no information. I don’t know the name of the park. I don’t know where it’s located. I don’t know where the elephants were from, or why they were there, but to my untrained eye, they looked happy. Some were bathing in the river, and having their backs scrubbed by their keepers. However, I was horrified to find out that the elephants were being ridden, and that this was an option on the tour. Because I wasn’t riding, I was switched to another group for the afternoon boat trip. As an aside, the buffet lunch was nice — but quick. I was at the park for a half an hour maximum. No chance to look around or take pictures, which was disappointing. It was eat and run.

The boat ride back to Luang Prabang was lovely, mainly because I like boat rides. This one reminded me of Inle Lake in Myanmar, although the itinerary was nowhere near as good. We stopped at a beach that had nothing on it (pointless, and I didn’t get off the boat), Pak Ou Caves (I weighed up the effort required to climb stairs vs perceived reward… and didn’t get off the boat), and the whisky “village” — again. I didn’t get off the boat — again. After all of that was out of the way, it was an hour or so cruising up the river, where I watched the sun set — a magical experience because the water was serene and calm, and the colours of the sky were extraordinary: orange and gold and pink and grey.

As the night fell like soft, navy silk around me, I walked the short distance back to the town from the port, through the night market, stopping for a feed of BBQ fish… and more coconut cakes.

Day 4: Morning market and Phousi Hill

I didn’t sleep well on night 3, despite the long previous day excursioning. Nevertheless, I got up early, wanting to catch the sunrise (more or less) from Phousi Hill. I walked the couple of hundred metres to a couple of hundred steps, which I climbed, stopping every now and then to catch my breath. I’m fit, but those steps were on a rather steep incline. I reached what I thought was the top only to find a ticket office wanting to charge me KIP20,000 to get the rest of the way to the top. I declined, because I had hardly any cash on me. I’d not gone to the money changer the day before, because I didn’t want to deal with excess kip coming back into Vietnam. So I toddled back down the stairs to the morning market. In hindsight, I should have skipped the hill climb and gone to the Royal Palace Museum across the road. Or taken a cooking class. Or watched the morning alms ceremony. Oh well. Life is full of missed opportunities.

It took me a while to find the morning market, and refusing to give up, located it between the river and the main drag. It wasn’t a big market by any standards, but it was local, despite the tourists checking out vendors’ wares. It was the usual array of fruits and vegetables, rice and noodles, breakfast dishes, butchered pork and filleted fish, bags and clothing. While it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was a nice, non-pushy place to wander. I bought a serve of coconut pancakes — which I had enough cash for — and headed back to my guesthouse for a last coffee on my balcony before packing up, checking out and heading to the airport.

How much did Luang Prabang cost?

Luang Prabang was more expensive than Hanoi for food, drinks and tours. I was quite surprised because Asia, especially developing South-East Asia, is usually cheap, cheap, cheap. Luang Prabang is not.

Visa: AU$65 (US$45)
Flight: AU$300 return to Hanoi (US$205)
Airport transfer: US$10 each way
Accommodation: US$109 for three nights
Foot massage: KIP80,000 (US$9)
Food, drink and sundries: Around US$20 per day
Tour: AU$65 (US$45)
TOTAL for 3 days, 4 nights: Around US$500.

Do I think Luang Prabang is worth visiting?

It’s a resounding yes from me. It’s a sleepy, peaceful town and if you want peace and quiet — which I did — then Luang Prabang is definitely worth visiting. If you want to do nothing, you can. If you want to explore the history and culture you can. If you want to rent a motorbike and discover the countryside, you can. The Lao people are kind, pleasant and helpful, and while tourism is the mainstay for income, vendors are neither pushy nor scammy. My one piece of advice would be skip the organised tours.

I’ll be back — especially if I need time. to just. chill. out. and. relax.

Photo of the Mekong River taken by me on Day 3.

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