Luang Prabang, Laos
Most of our sightseeing centered around the town of Luang Prabang although we definitely wanted to enjoy time on the Mekong River. We decided to take a luncheon cruise to the Pak Ou Caves the next day because it was expected to rain for the rest of the week.
We dressed warmly and were at the boat dock in time for a 10:00am departure. The cruise we chose was on the Nava Mekong boat which had good reviews on TripAdvisor. We were not disappointed. The staff was very attentive and the Tour Guide, a young Frenchman, spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable.
We cruised upriver for just over an hour and stopped at “The Whisky Village”! As the name indicates, local whisky is distilled here and we had a small taste of two different types of whisky. Both of them tasted like bad Moonshine and we decided to pass on buying a bottle! We continued on a walk through the village where women were weaving traditional Lao fabrics. To reach the village we walked across a “gangway” from the boat to the shore then walked up a fairly steep muddy slope to the village. This would not be easy for anyone with problems walking.
Re-boarding the boat, we continued upriver to the Pakou Caves. Dating back thousands of years this is one of the most respected holy sites in Laos, filled with hundreds of Buddha statues of all sizes. The highlight of the day for us was the journey up and down the Mekong River, taking in the scenery along the Banks. We passed villages, water buffaloes and cows grazing in the fields and a couple of elephants at work.
The people farm along the banks of the River at this time of year. During the rains the river floods and deposits rich silt along the banks which is perfect for growing vegetables and herbs.
Our return trip passed swiftly as we enjoyed a delicious lunch and chatted with our table companion, a young woman from Venice, Italy. We’ve now added yet another destination to our Bucket List!
Royal Palace Museum
Just around the corner from our guesthouse was the Royal Palace Museum and we managed to visit it in between rain showers. Set in beautifully landscaped grounds the Palace was built between 1904 and 1909 and was lived in by King Sisavang Vong and his family until the Communist takeover in 1975 when the Royal Family was sent to “Reeducation Camps”. The building was turned into a museum in 1995 and has been well preserved. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the Museum and there are no pictures to showcase the exquisite mirrored walls of the throne room or the Reception Room decorated with murals depicting everyday life in Laos in the 1930’s. Among the gifts from various countries was a piece of moonrock from the United States.
Bill was really looking forward to seeing the Royal Car Collection but what we found was a few old, dirty cars stuck in an outbuilding! A Citroen; and a few Lincolns given to the King by the US. No care has been given to these cars since the King was overthrown. Definitely disappointing to a car buff!
For those who love Markets, Luang Prabang is hard to beat! If food is your thing, visit the Morning Market where the local people buy their produce each morning. You’ll find everything you can imagine … and some, frankly, you don’t even want to imagine! Many of the stalls sell exactly the same produce, all laid out on mats on the ground. Fruit, vegetables and herbs, chilies and eggs side by side with fish (dead and alive), buckets of live frogs, some snakes, pigs feet …. it’s all there, along with the smells!
Around town there are several other day markets selling Lao silk, paper items and locally made handicrafts made by the Hmong people, but the most important daily event is the “Night Market”. Half of the main street in town is closed to traffic and hundreds of venders set up their stalls on the sidewalk as well as in the street, most of them selling the same items! We soon found it all too overwhelming and left it to other tourists to fight their way through the crowds and try to figure out the best deal.
We did venture down a narrow lane from the Night Market to have dinner one night. Along one side of the lane are tables filled with large serving platters of food – noodles, rice, vegetables, meat, sausages, curries and more. Each vendor tries to attract your attention and get you to buy from them! When you’ve decided, you’re handed a plate and you help yourself to as much food as you want (or can fit onto the plate!). The vendor then heats it in a wok, finds you a table and you sit back and enjoy the chaos! All this … food, entertainment and meeting new people at your table – for $2.00! You just can’t beat it!
There are many beautiful temples in Luang Prabang and it’s difficult to imagine a more spectacular one than Wat Xiengthong. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers it acts as the gateway to Luang Prabang and was the temple used for the coronation of Lao Kings. The mosaics throughout the temple are exquisite, particularly the Tree of Life mosaic. Remodeling in the 1960’s brought the temple back to its former glory and it is well worth a visit.
Just down the street from our guesthouse was Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, one of the few monasteries unharmed when a mercenary army from China known as the Black Flag Army, looted Luang Prabang and destroyed many ancient Buddha images in 1887. One day we happened to walk past when drummers were performing on the verandah. What a treat!
And so our visit to Luang Prabang came to an end way too soon! Looking back, we feel we should have spent more than ten days enjoying this special town but then we feel the same way about every place we visit! We’ll be heading south the Vientiane, the capital of Laos next!
Link to Photos:
Luang Prabang, Laos
Saying goodbye to our friends in Chiang Mai on January 1st, we boarded our plane for Luang Prabang, Laos, the next stop in our Southeast Asia journey. Our flight took us over heavily forested mountainous terrain and we landed at a small airport that reminded us of Orlando Airport in the “old” days when we walked across the tarmac to the terminal! Visa and Immigration formalities took a while but went smoothly and we left there with a 30 day visa at a cost of USD $35 each. You are required to pay in US dollars and change is given in US dollars.
A shared taxi ride into town took about 15 minutes, dropping people off at different hotels or guesthouses. Although it was almost dark by the time we were settled in our guesthouse on the Mekong River, we set out to explore the surrounding area and find a restaurant for dinner. The streets were almost deserted and we walked in the middle of the road without fear of being run over! It was quite an eerie feeling after the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai! We later found out that the town closes down completely by 11:00pm!
Visiting a new country means that we have to get used to some changes and here are a few quick points about Laos:
Laos is a landlocked country bordered by Thailand in the west and southwest, Myanmar (Burma) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the East and Cambodia to the southwest.
The country is officially known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) and, since 1975 has been a One Party Socialist Republic, governed by a Communist Politburo controlled by Military Generals. The Hammer and Sickle flag flies alongside the Laos flag.
Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 -1953 and much of the French influence is evident today throughout the country.
Unlike Thailand, they drive on the right hand side of the road so we had to get used to looking the other way before crossing the road!
Kip (LAC) is the Lao currency and 8,200 Kips equal One US Dollar! Wow … that’s a lot of zeros!
Laos played a role in the Vietnam War and according to Wikipedia “Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population”. Vast areas of the country are impossible to cultivate due to unexploded bombs which continue to cause death and injury to people.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Luang Prabang is known as one of the best-preserved towns in Southeast Asia and was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995. The architecture is a combination of traditional Lao Teak houses and French colonial mansions, many of which show the effects of time.
The town is situated in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and attracts backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts with its wide variety of activities, as well as those interested in textiles and architecture. The French influence is obvious and the vast majority of the visitors we came across were from Europe, particularly France. We also met a lot of Australians, as we did in Thailand.
One of the first things we noticed was that more Lao people speak English than the Thais in Chiang Mai. Also, many of the restaurants offer delicious French style breads and bakeries and even Lao restaurants serve Western type dishes.
The prices are quite a bit higher than in Chiang Mai where we ate lunch for the two of us for around $3! Here breakfast can cost around $10 for two – that’s with a large, delicious up of cappuccino! However, the Night Market food prices are on a par with Chiang Mai.
Luang Prabang is, without doubt, the premier tourist destination in Laos and has the reputation of being the heart of Lao culture and religion. All this adds up to inflated prices apparently unknown in other parts of Laos – we’ll see if this is true as we travel south. The normal stay for tourists is 2.8 nights.
We initially booked a guesthouse online for two nights but were not pleased with it. So, on our first day we familiarized ourselves with the layout of the town while checking several guest houses, ranging in price from $12 a night (recommended by a young Canadian couple) to $25 per night which had the bed against the wall so one of us would have to climb in!
We soon found a very nice place for $30 per night. Remember, in Chiang Mai we were paying $14 a night! The house is an attractive traditional Lao style house made of teak. Our room was large with a very comfortable King bed and a modern bathroom. We booked for a week. One problem was that there was no closet to hang our clothes. We assume backpackers don’t need to hang anything up! And the other was weak WiFi. However, the staff was friendly and the location was perfect.
We left Chiang Mai in the rain and the cloudy, cool, wet weather followed us to Luang Prabang. In fact, we only had 1 day of sunshine during our stay which is most unusual for this time of year. This did not deter us from the sightseeing we had planned to do and we were soon in the laid back mood of the country where PDR is known as Please Don’t Rush!
We’ll catch you up on our sightseeing in our next blog.
Album Link: https://goo.gl/photos/K4qZe1udbUSSRMsZA
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is the most famous temple in Chiang Mai and we visited it one morning in late December. This site is always busy with lots of tourists visiting and since it was high season and close to the Christmas Holidays we encountered even bigger crowds.
The road and parking lots were congested with tour minibuses, red buses (songthaews) brown buses, delivery trucks, scooters and bicycles (yes, people do ride bikes up there from Chiang Mai!) And there are the inevitable hawkers, some quite aggressive, pushing bells and other trinkets into your face as you attempt to get into the temple!
We bought our tour tickets (Baht 600 or $16.60 each) through a local travel agency in our area. The price was less than several other companies we checked on so we were expecting a “standard” tour which, in fact, was what we received!
We arranged to be picked up outside our apartment building at 8:45am and received a call just after 9am telling us the minibus was just a short distance away. With the traffic in Chiang Mai, it’s not easy to estimate arrival times, so no problem! It was a beautiful, sunny, cool morning – perfect for a trip out of town.
The minibus was almost full of passengers who had been picked up earlier so we had the seat in the back to ourselves. Normally four people would be seated here so it was nice to have a little more room. Remember, tour buses in Southeast Asia are built for small Asian people, not big Westerners!
Royal Palace Gardens
The tour included a stop at a Hill Tribe Village but some of the passengers were visiting the Royal Palace and we opted to do that instead of the village. Having seen two working villages on our Northern Thailand Tour, we didn’t want to do a repeat, particularly since we felt it would be more geared to tourism i.e. selling souvenirs (which we found out later was the case!) The admission to the Royal Palace was Baht 50 each and we enjoyed an hour walking around the beautiful grounds before being picked up for the short drive to the Temple.
It’s a 15 kilometer drive from Chiang Mai to the temple on a very windy road that reminded us of our drive to Pai and Mae Hong Son. The temple was built in 1386 and expanded over the centuries. Construction of the temple would have been extremely difficult because the current road was not completed until 1935 and the only way to reach the site was through the jungle.
Once we reached the temple complex, which sits at 3,542ft (1000m) above sea level, we had a choice of walking up 300 stairs, guarded by Naga (snake) figures from the 16th century or taking the cable car. For us it was a no-brainer!
Our entry ticket explained the “Do and Don’t in the temple”:
After a short briefing by our guide we went to the lower terrace for a panoramic view of Chiang Mai which, unfortunately, was very hazy. After taking our shoes off, we moved on to the upper terrace and walked around the dazzling gold-plated chedi, among the many small shrines, Buddha statues and beautiful golden umbrellas.
All the colors were enhanced by the brilliant sunshine. People were praying, chanting, lighting candles, ringing bells and the smell of incense wafted through the air. Although there was a lot of activity, there was also a sense of peace and calm.
Sacred Destinations recounts a myth related to the location of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep like this:
“According to legend, a magical relic multiplied itself just before it was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai. A suitable place therefore had to be found to shelter the new relic.
Unable to decide on the site, the king placed the relic in a portal shrine on the back of a white elephant and waited to see where the animal would take it. Eventually, the elephant walked up to the top of Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down, and died. The temple was immediately built on the miraculously-chosen site.”
What better way to end our article with that wonderful story! We’ll be back with more about Chiang Mai later.
As we write this, we have just a few days left in Chiang Mai and we sit here wondering where the time has gone! What have we done? What should we have done? How can we cram the rest of our plans into a few days – and get ready to leave?
We’ve been asked about our daily routine, so we’ll share that with you. Unless we have an early appointment there’s no need for an alarm clock. The resident rooster, or a departing flight from Chiang Mai Airport, does a pretty good job of getting us up! A cup of coffee on the balcony enjoying the view of Doi Suthep Mountain gets us started.
Since we have no cooking facilities (other than an electric kettle) our breakfasts usually consist of cereal (which, if it’s imported, is quite expensive) along with fruit which is plentiful, cheap and delicious here in Chiang Mai. Bread (no toaster!) and Peanut Butter is an alternative and we do splurge occasionally and eat an English style breakfast at some of our favorite cafés. Thai breakfasts consist of soup, rice and a stir fry type dish which is not a favorite with Priscilla first thing in the morning! Oh – and also semi cold fried eggs …ugh!
Our days are a mixture of work and play. For several years we have been attempting to master online marketing and, while it’s been fun, we haven’t accomplished what we wanted. Chiang Mai is known as the Digital Nomad capital of Southeast Asia, and soon after we arrived we were fortunate to meet an Internet expert who has taken us under his wing and set us on the right path! Boy have we learned a lot! It’s challenging but we love it! So, we’ve spent more time working at our computers than we anticipated.
But we’ve still found time for play. Twice a month we attend a Chiang Mai Expats Club breakfast and have met very interesting people from all over the world; some just visiting and others living here permanently. Our previous blogs have recounted our experiences on our unexpected 4 Day tour of Northern Thailand, and we’ve spent time visiting local markets and exploring the Old City here in Chiang Mai.
We usually eat both lunch and dinner out and we are fortunate to have a great variety of places to choose from. Within walking distance is Maya Mall that has two food courts as well as numerous restaurants serving different cuisines – American, Japanese, Chinese and, of course, Kentucky Fried Chicken!
For a change we buy salad fixings from Rimping Grocery Store and enjoy a home-prepared meal, although salad isn’t exactly Bill’s favorite! Several restaurants offer a delivery service but so far we haven’t used it.
We think Chiang Mai has more Coffee Shops than Seattle, Washington. Seriously! For those who just can’t live without it, there are plenty of Starbucks, as well as other international brands such as Dunkin Donuts. But, frankly, we prefer the Thailand chains like Black Canyon and the small independent coffee shops that are dotted all over the city. We also often stop at local coffee stands and street vendors to enjoy an iced Thai coffee! It’s delicious!
So what else do we do during the day?
Traveling lite means doing laundry every 5 – 7 days which isn’t that much of a problem. The washing machines are on the ground floor of our apartment building and once the clothes are washed we hang them up on the balcony and they are usually dry by the end of the day. We haven’t met anyone here who uses a clothes dryer. We didn’t bring a traveling iron with us which would have been a good idea because some of our clothes are not “drip dry” and don’t look that great despite extra care.
We often connect with people over lunch in Maya Mall, at street markets or in coffee shops, and spend time talking about what brought them here and what they’re doing. Time just seems to slip by as we learn about different countries, lifestyles and customs. We find it fascinating.
And in the evening? We have a television in our apartment that has numerous Thai stations and just a few foreign stations. If we want to get news, about our only choice is Russian TV! We get most of our news from the Internet, i.e. USA Today as well as CBS through an App on our computers. We occasionally get a copy of The Bangkok Newspaper so we are not completely out of the loop! We also decided to splurge and get Netflix so we can watch a movie when we feel like it.
Within easy walking distance, Maya Mall has a very modern movie theatre featuring movies in English and we promised ourselves we’d catch up on movies while we’re here. The complex features an upscale theatre with wide reclining seats, dining, IMAX and 3D movies. Wednesday is “promotion” day with lower admission, however, so far we’ve not seen one movie!
We also listen to Sirius radio on our iPad while we work and when we want to relax. It’s a little touch of home which we enjoy.
In essence, we spend our time relaxing, eating, working, meeting and making friends, doing a little sightseeing, exploring the city on foot and just enjoying being here! If we can’t walk there, we rely on the Red Buses, known as Songthaews, that charge locals Baht 20 per person but foreigners (farangs) Baht 60 – 100 if they can get away with it! You learn pretty quickly how things work!
So you might ask how we get money to pay for meals, sightseeing and other expenses. Well, the days of Travelers Checks are definitely declining! It’s the day of the ATM!
So, we go to an ATM, take out as much as we want in Thai Bhat and that’s that. It’s that easy but there’s a catch! Each transaction results in a Bhat 200 ATM fee and your Bank in the US, or wherever, will charge you a currency conversation fee also. So what we did was get an account at a Bank in the US that does not charge a conversion fee and also picks up the ATM fee. Problem solved!
Certain credit cards do the same and we highly recommend that you make sure you are not hit with these charges when you travel overseas. They can mount up fast!
Many hotels, stores and tour companies take credit cards so all you really need is a credit card (or debit card) and cash from an ATM. Just make sure your credit card company knows you’re traveling and to expect charges from overseas, otherwise your transactions could be refused.
We found that if you bring physical dollars with you, you can get a good rate at Exchange offices in Thailand as long as you know which ones to go to. However, we don’t recommend carrying around lots of dollars, euro, etc. in case your wallet is stolen or lost.
We hope this gives you an idea as to how easy it is to live in Chiang Mai and many other parts of the world!
We’ll continue to give you more insight into how we have lived and enjoyed our time here in Southeast Asia. Stay tuned!