28/1 – 11/2/2019
After tiring flight from Auckland via Singapore on Singapore Airlines and SilkAir (SQ’s regional subsidiary), I arrived in the small city of Luang Prabang.
As soon as you arrive, you know it’s small. The airport terminal building is one of the smallest I have landed in. I think a 737 or a 320 is the largest aircraft that could be accommodated. Immigration formalities and baggage collection (combined) took place in an area the size of a medium-sized business class lounge. One pays a fixed price in US Dollars + a $1 service charge for their Lao visa. As an American, I paid $35+$1. Canadians pay one of the highest fees at $42. Poor fellows.
I changed a crisp Benjamin for 857,000 kip, a rather good rate. With some pocket money, I went over to the taxi desk where you pay 50k for a fixed-price ride into town. Not the cheapest I have taken, as it’s only 5km, but whatever.
As you might expect, I was surprised when the people sitting next to me on the Silkair flight in town were in the cab along with another lady. We joked that a 200,000 kip cab (US$23.35) is exceptionally profitable. Whatever. C’est la guerre.
In a short time, I was in front of my Chinese-owned guesthouse, in its own way a tiny constituent part of China’s global “belt and road” activities. It was interesting having to use my rudimentary Chinese skills to explain how I booked and paid (Airbnb). Meeting the other (mostly) Chinese guests was a rare glimpse for me into the on-the-ground realities. The guests were here for the future China-Laos railroad.
My guesthouse was almost on the Mekong, so I went for a stroll along the river to stretch my legs. Many small “restaurants” are directly on the water’s edge. They are little more than a small patio with a dozen or so tables, a stall with coolers/fridges of drinks, and a small kitchen across the street handling food prep. The views, particularly at sunset, are incredible. “My” little one does well-priced beer and tasty local food – mostly simple curries, rice, noodles, barbecue, and dessert.
The temples in Luang Prabang aren’t exactly large. I found that I never spent more than 20-30 minutes in any one, and that includes going up and down Mt Phousi. Nonetheless, they are pleasant oases from the tuk-tuks and commerce in the streets. Some are free to enter, while others are 10-20,000 kip. The National Museum (aka Royal Palace) was an interesting visit for me, though I chuckled at the royal car collection. Three cars were gifts of the US government (I suspect to curry favor with any non-communist in the region) – two Lincoln Continentals and a Ford Edsel. Good God…why? Shouldn’t a diplomatic gift showcase your nation’s craftsmanship and esteem for the recipient?
I do want to add a note about the money changers. Yesterday, I went to exchange kip to US dollars to get some small denominations ahead of my Siem Reap trip. I found a booth selling dollars for 8,600 kip, the best rate in town. I presented her with 817,000 kip – $95. She tries to give me $91. After her English skills dramatically collapse when presented with mathematical reality, she hands me back the 817,000 and shoos me away. It’s 3pm, I am not a stoned/drunk gap yah, and I am one of billions that carries a multifunctional calculator (phone) in my pocket. Not. Going. To. Work.
Much more common is the scam when you are buying local currency, and they slip 20,000 kip notes in lieu of 50,000. Every one of those they can fraudulently tender is worth approximately US$4.
Café lovers rejoice. Luang Prabang is loaded with options to enjoy coffee as well as Lao/SE Asian or Western food. My two favorites, unoriginally, are Joma and Saffron. Joma is a Canadian owned micro-chain in SE Asia and serves up a pretty healthy menu if you need a break from more indulgent or oil-laden local fare.
Overall, the charm of this town is its sleepiness. There’s not much here. The bars are shut by 11 or 11:30 at night. The attractions are fairly simple (Kuang si waterfall is the most time-consuming, where you’ll want a half-day at least). Come here to rest, rejuvenate, think, reflect, etc. I should add that if you’re coming from Thailand, Laos will feel as if you’re paying more for less in terms of food, transport, and accommodation. If you like to sleep in, find lodging on a side street. Lao people start their day early, and the street noise would have woken me by 6:30 AM if I weren’t up already. Late risers, consider yourself warned.
Addedum: After a booking issue with my guesthouse, I moved to the Luang Prabang River Lodge Boutique, a small and charming hotel run by a Lao couple. I could look out my window and see the Mekong or go downstairs and enjoy coffee while banging away at the keyboard.