I can’t believe it took me almost a year to get to write about my solo travels in Laos in late Spring of 2014– I blame the intercontinental move and going back to work. This blog is very new and I even doubts anyone will read this, but I still want to share my experience there, hopefully inspiring more people to go visit this amazing and much underrated country. I will start with some ideas on what to see and do in Luang Prabang, followed by the Van Vieng area and finally the capital Vientiane.
If you have followed me for a while and on the old blog, you will know how much I love Laos as I have repeated it a million times or so. It had to be just one stop of a multi-country South East Asia trip started in Thailand, but I ended up spending the biggest part of a month there- and I totally blame the languid charms of Luang Prabang.
I had not over-researched my Laos trip, as I wanted it to be as spontaneous as possible; also, being on my own meant that I did not have to negotiate or be accountable to any travel companions and was able to make impromptu decisions and follow my own whims– something that doesn’t really come natural to me after years of self-imposed organization and discipline.
Having read my friend’s Luiz great posts about his trip to Luang Prabang, I had an overall idea of where I wanted to stay and what were a couple of “must see”, but not much more. I booked a flight with Lao Air, a room in what seemd to be a nice boutique hotel (see- I have still a good way to go to become a backpacker) and left Suvarnabumi Airport after 10 days in Southern Thailand that had left me with a bitter aftertaste of “spoilt by tourism”.
The richness in culture, architecture and cuisine, gained over its troubled history, makes Luang Prabang one of the most enchanting places to visit today. Most travelers stay for a couple of days en route to other destinations in Laos or nearby Cambodia and Vietnam – this is a pity as Luang Prabang is in my opinion the jewel in the crown of French Indochina and certainly merits more time. (The London Foodie)
Luang Prabang has a shiny new airport, standing in the middle of lush green hills looking very, very empty of human presence. From the airplane, I already started realising that I was onto something when I finally glimpsed the wide, sinuous curves of the Mekong rolling around what looked like a scattering of gilded roofed dollhouses.
The Lao Air plane looked like my late Grandma’s parlor, with wooden details and cutesy napkins. It was also notably empty, as apparently LP tourism is more the “cheap bus” type, so I felt positively like a VIP – a somehow frightened one after reading the notice on my seat. Note that Laos is landlocked so not sure about the “flotation” bit.
Service announcement: yes you do need a Visa for Laos, it can be purchased on arrival for dollars, Singapore dollars or a multiple zeros amount of the local currency.
The stereotype around Laos is that it is “chilled”, and as many travelling stereotypes, it is true. The chilling starts at the airport, with the visa stamping and luggage collecting, and follows throughout. Rushing does not seem to be a thing there – which would drive nuts my normal, sharp-elbowed, harried London self, but is just fine with my solo holiday version.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang: my mid-range, great value choice
A short taxi ride delivered me to my hotel in the sharp heat of the afternoon. If I had previously regretted spending the whooping sum of £50 per night on it when much cheaper accommodation is available, in LP I really changed my mind when I got to the cheekily named “My Dream Boutique Resort”.
I had no doubts it would be nice as it was recommended by a friend, but still was not expecting the sheer beauty of the place, the exquisite details, the lush garden and the general air of tranquility surrounding the small resort. It is just as gorgeous as my bad pictures show and in fact much more. After 5 minutes I had unpacked (read- scattered my crumpled clothes all around, whilst ooh-ing and aaa-ing over the beautiful room and bathroom) and was back at reception asking if they had availability for a couple more nights. Which became a couple more, and then a couple more…
My Dream Boutique Resort has very attentive local staff, without the slavish deference that I found so embarrassing elsewhere, and is run to chilled perfection by the lovely Mr Somnuek. My cynical heart is rarely impressed, but you can tell he’s genuinely excited about sharing the beauty of LP with his guests. I remember him fondly and if you ever go, say hi to him from me!
Breakfast at MDBR is – need say it? great, and reflects the city’s rich culinary heritage as well as a desire to cater for westerner’s palates, with croissants and pastries next to local fruits, noodles and the typical Laotian coffee. Specialty coffee purists turn away, this is 100% Rubusta and roasted in margarine.
The hotel restaurant is also quite good if you are feeling peckish and especially chilled (=lazy). The resort has a pool, and I noticed that many guests seemed to be content to spend most of their day there. It is indeed relaxing to have a dip whilst sipping from a coconut and tasting the local snacks (buffalo jerk and fried lime leaves, anyone?) but I get itchy feet even in chilled Laos so when the heat went down a bit I set out to explore the city.
Conveniently, MDBR offers bikes for free for guests, which is really a great way to explore the city surroundings that are quite flat. The Old Town itself is somewhat hilly so unless you are sportier than me and enjoy biking uphill in the sun, you may want to walk as it’s very convenient.
Luxury accomodation in Luang Prabang
If you are now scared by the bamboo bridge, or simply looking for more upscale accommodation In Luang Prabang (you lucky thing) there are other options. I swooned over La Residence Phou Vao website for a while and it’s definitely in my imaginery honeymoon locations list, with its gorgous suites and infinity pool overlooking the golden roofs of Luang Prabang.
For the ultra-luxury feel withing the city itself, you may want to check out the Amantaka resort. I went there for an evening drink with my new friend, and we were kindly shown around the magnificent grounds. It is a stunner- a sleek, tasteful dream of colonial white, precious woods and luxury touches – and unlike many of this type of resorts, it has not been built from scratch but from the restoration of a French colonial-era hospital, which gives it a more authentic feel. This type of place can easily be soulless, especially when half empty as it was when I visited, but this doesn’t seem to be the case at Amantaka.
The resort has a bar and a restaurant, of course – we sipped suitably strong and well-crafted cocktails for prices that would have looked fair in London or New York, and pondered over the menu. Ultimately, we decided to make the most of not being in either London or NYC and do our wallet a favor by dining elsewhere as Luang Prabang has no shortage of cheap and good places to eat.
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
If you are thinking of visiting and considering accommodation, here are my thoughts. Most guesthouses, including the ones recommended my Lonely Planet and co., are in the central part of LP, which is the fluvial peninsula on the Mekong river. They range from backpacker to expensive, and most also have restaurants and will offer activities like day trips from Luang Prabang, and even offer you a “special view” on the famous alms giving procession.
Accommodation on either side of the river tends to be less expensive and more homely, which is why My Dream Boutique Resort with all its comforts sounded to me a bit more authentic. You also do get at least a glimpse of “real people”‘s life – not sure how to express this without sounding patronizing, but I really mean what Laotian people do when not busy posing in traditional costumes for the tourists (that is, most of the time thankfully).
Another advantage of staying on the other side of the river is getting the bonus “cross a bamboo bridge” adventure…or of cours egetting a tuk tuk into town, on a much more solid-looking wooden bridge.
I won’t deny I was a tiny bit scared the first time as the whole thing seems awfully fragile and falling to pieces as you walk on it. I still wouldn’t recommend it to the elderly or if you’re in anyway impaired, definitely invest on a taxi or tuk tuk to the centre. But the bamboo bridge is great fun and really really quick – 2 minutes and you are at the base of the verdant and glittering Phou Si Hill, in the heart of the Old Town and a popular sunset watching destination.
More on this on my next post on things to do while in Luang Prabang (apart from chilling).