ON HIS FIRST TRIP TO “THE JEWEL OF THE MEKONG,” SIMON GARTNER FALLS IN LOVE WITH THE LAOTIAN VIBEASHE EXPLORES THE TWO CONTRASTING TOURIST CENTRESOF THE COUNTRY.
I love flying… just not in propeller planes. I enjoy long, transcontinental journeys with time for movies, but on propeller planes, the pitching, turning, and constant bouncing around can be a little too much for my nerves. Suffice to say that after getting off a small plane, I’m glad to be on the ground. But when I landed in Luang Prabang, Laos, after flying in from Hanoi on a small plane, I was more than just glad – I was truly content. This feeling was reinforced with my arrival at the luxurious Apsara Rive Droit, my hotel and home for the next few days, and where the soft echoing of the Nam Khan River, on which the hotel is located, lulled us to sleep.
Getting to Know the City
Founded in the year 698, Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, a siting that made it an early hub for trade. Nearly 1,300 years later, 1997 saw the city recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has ensured that many of the historical sites of city have been restored and remain well-maintained. The UNESCO recognition has changed this city from a virtually unknown stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail to a fully-fledged cultural holiday destination complete with luxury hotels, restaurants, and cafés. Despite the attraction of new tourists in the past decade and a half, Luang Prabang has been able to keep its traditional Laotian charm.
Waking up on that first morning in Laos was a delight. The breakfast table was adorned with French-pressed coffee and fantastic French bread that would make you think that Laos was still a French colony. A thirty-second boat ride or short walk over a dubious bamboo bridge had us in the majestic city of Luang Prabang.
On our first full day, we wandered the streets, popping into the many wats scattered around the city. We drifted in and out of the small museums telling the city’s history, one of which is the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, housed in a well-maintained building with very informative exhibitions on the cultural diversity in Laos.
Just behind the museum lies Mount Phousi, a 100-metre hill in the centre of the city. The steep staircase leading to the top is lined with temples and statues of Buddha, and the hilltop offers panoramic views of the city, rivers, and surrounding area. Many travellers make the trek up the hill for either sunrise or sunset, but views are just as majestic during the day when the summit promises to be a little less crowded.
At the base of Mount Phousi, a row of quirky restaurants line the banks of the Mekong River. From my time spent eating my way down this street, I found that menus and prices are all relatively standard. A personal favourite dish was the Lao Laab, a spicy beef salad that we ordered with almost every meal. For a less casual dining experience, Luang Prabang does have some more pricey and glamorous eateries: try L’ Elephant, Arisai, or The 3 Nagas.
A trip to Luang Prabang is not complete without an early morning viewing of the local monks receiving alms. Although the practice has been going on for centuries, in recent years alms-giving has become rather touristy, with locals selling to eager travellers packages of food, clothing to wear, and even sitting mats to give to the monks.
On our second day we opted to venture off the main road and onto some of the many side streets, where locals with large baskets of sticky rice still rise early every morning to give food and receive prayers from the monks. On these back streets, at five or six in the morning, the scene seems to be taken straight from a colonial era novel: mist rises from the rivers and there’s a constant gentle echoing of the chants from approaching monks. Despite the sad exploitation of this ancient ritual, an early morning viewing of the giving of alms is certainly worth your time.
Take to the Water
Luang Prabang certainly isn’t a late night type of town and, despite the restaurants and night markets, not much is open too long after sundown. A great way to begin an evening is a sunset boat ride down the Mekong. Prices will vary based on the type of boat and how far you want to go, but the trip is relaxing and the views are phenomenal.
Luang Prabang is hot year-round so to cool off, a nice day or half-day trip to the Kwang Si Waterfalls is in order. These multi-tiered waterfalls have visually arresting turquoise-blue waters that will have you rushing for your camera. Bring your bathing suit and a change of clothes to go swimming in the pools, jump off the top of the falls, or drop down from the rope swing. The hike to the very top of the falls is steep, but certainly rewarding; the waterfalls at the top are the most stunning of them all.
As my time in Luang Prabang came to a close, I moved about 400 kilometres south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This city was far less touristy, but also less impressive than Luang Prabang. The city centre is condensed and it doesn’t take long to see the sights.
However, Vientiane does have a few museums that are worth a visit. The Lao National Museum and Haw Pha Kaeo, a converted royal temple now holding art exhibitions, are instrumental in keeping the history alive and available for travellers in the city.
On the new promenade along the Mekong, just a stone’s throw away from Thailand, night markets light up the riverside after sundown. This is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs and handicrafts unique to Laos or taste some local food. On the food trail, I journeyed just outside the city for a half-day cooking course to learn the ropes of a few popular Lao dishes, all of which have now made recurring appearances in my kitchen at home.
The next day, as I caught my flight back to Malaysia, I finally realized how comfortable I had become in Laos. That feeling of contentment that I experienced when getting off the plane stayed with me throughout my entire journey; a rare occurrence. The lifestyle, food, people, and history of “The Jewel of the Mekong” had all put me in a welcome type of trance.
My trip in Laos was unlike any other I’ve had in Southeast Asia or the world, and one that I will certainly remember for the years to come.
AirAsia offers daily, direct flights from KL to Vientiane. For onward travel to Luang Prabang, buses and boats are available, and the journey is typically 10-12 hours. A good resource is www.seat61.com/Laos.
The unit of currency in Laos is the Kip, and currently, RM1 will buy you about 2,500 Laos Kips.
A 30-day tourist visa is available on arrival at the international airports and certain land crossings for most passport holders (the exceptions include people from countries such as Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Pakistan). Visa costs vary depending on the country of citizenship, but it is usually around US$30. Citizens of certain ASEAN countries are visa exempt (including Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan), but it is worth checking online before travelling in case rules change.
This article was written by Simon Gartner for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat September 2012
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