Category Archives: Laos

Highlights of Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong

Last weekend, I spent three nights and four days in Luang Prabang, Northern Laos. I reckon you would need at least three full days to appreciate the city and the surrounding area. Perhaps a bit longer if you want to take it easy and soak up the local atmosphere at your own pace. Luang Prabang is not really that big. With a good strong pair of legs you can easily visit all the main attractions during one day on foot. I walked the whole time and never once took one of the tuk tuks.

I think in many ways the city lived up to all expectations. People kept telling me that Laos is Thailand 15 years ago. If they meant a slower way of life, honest and sincere people, and hardly any traffic on the road, then they are surely right. I found the Laos people in Luang Prabang to be both kind and warm and very generous in their hospitality. I had just bought a baguette chicken sandwich and was sitting down to eat when a neighbouring stallholder offered me some of her fruit to eat. Talking to other Thai people about this, they agreed that everything in Thailand has become so commercialized now.

Luang Prabang

Apart from the slow pace of life, I think the highlight was the temples and the monks. Fortunately, many of the buildings are protected by UNESCO as Luang Prabang became a World Heritage Site in 1995. This includes many of the temples, the royal palace, and quite a few of the French colonial buildings. The most attractive temple is undoubtedly Wat Xiang Thong (You pronounce the “X” like an “S”). The murals and mosaics are very beautiful. In fact, most temples I visited had an attractive attribute. Walking around town you see monks everywhere. Well, to be precise, most of them are novice monks. Many of them became novices in order to take advantage of free schooling. Quite surprisingly, there weren’t that shy and many times I was approached by young monks who wanted to practice their English. This is something that doesn’t happen so often in Thailand these days.

Luang Prabang

Phu Si Hill

When you first arrive in the city, it is a good idea to climb to the top of Phu Si Hill. There is a golden chedi at the top but the views alone are worth the climb. Nearby is the former Royal Palace and National Museum. The Royal Family was deposed in 1975 and this museum gives you a chance to look back at the glory days of the Kingdom of Laos. The guidebooks list about half a dozen temples to visit. But, you don’t really need to stick to this. Just wander around and enter any that look interesting from the outside. You might find a few surprises or just meet a local who wants to chat with you. In fact, that is what I did most of the time. I didn’t try to see everything as very early on I decided that I would be coming back for another visit in the future. And so I felt I should leave a few major locations for later. Two places I didn’t go to were day trips from the city. These were the Buddha caves at Tham Ting and the waterfalls. I also didn’t take a trip on the mighty Mekhong River which is worth doing. Though maybe when it is a bit warmer.

I flew to Luang Prabang which is quite expensive. There are cheaper overland options which include a two day slow boat ride. You can also drive up from Vientienne which I would love to do in my own car one day. It is apparently possible to take your own car across the Thai border though obviously there is a lot of paperwork involved. Once you arrive there then your holiday can be quite cheap. My guesthouse was only about $10 per night. Food and drink is also inexpensive though most of the major temples and the museum charge about 20,000 kip entry ($2) which starts to add up. Particularly when some temples you want to go back two or three times at different times of the day. A fair amount of English is spoken though I used Thai for most of the time. Most Lao and Thai numbers are the same which makes shopping easier for people coming from Thailand. I would say the city is safe though if you are looking for night life then you will be disappointed. Most people are in bed by 11 a.m. But if you are looking for a good side trip from Thailand then I would highly recommend Luang Prabang. Probably visit Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai first and then go from there.

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Learning Lao in Luang Prabang

I have been finding it interesting comparing Thailand and Laos. In many ways their cultures are similar. They share the same religion and also many of the same festivals. However, Laos is more untouched by the outside world and so their way of life is more genuine and hasn’t been diluted so much by Western influences. Before I left home, I did make an effort to learn some Lao. I think it is always important to at least use the every day polite words in any country that you are traveling. For Laos, some of the keywords and phrases you should learn at least are “sabaidee” which is used as both a greeting and farewell. Then for thanking someone, you should say, “khob jai“.

I was in a book shop this morning and the owner greeted me with “sabaidee“. I replied with the same phrase. And then he turned to speaking in English to me. His English was good but he had trouble at one point. I then rephrased it in Thai without thinking and he immediately replied back in Thai. We then ended up having a long conversation in Thai which he found much easier. He says a lot of the town people can speak and understand Thai because they watch Thai television and listen to Thai music. However he said he couldn’t write Thai and could only read a little. Which is a bit surprising because there is a lot of Thai products here with all the words written in Thai.

I think I found shopping the most difficult when it comes to the language. Partly because the numbers are so large. A meal in Thailand could be about 25 baht. But in Laos you could pay at least 10,000 kip or more. It doesn’t help that words in Lao and Thai are also nearly the same when it comes to numbers. So, I keep getting a shock when they say to me “neung saen” (100,000) for something in the night market. There are a couple of other differences. For example, twenty is “sao” and twenty five is “sao haa“. In Thai, they don’t say “ten thousand”. They say “one unit of ten thousand”. In Laos, they sometimes do like this, though often I hear them say “sib pun“. A final difference is that there are no “r” sounds in Lao any longer, so one hundred is “hoi” instead of “roi” which is said in Thailand.

Both the Thai and Lao scripts are related to the same family. However, Lao has been simplified post-Communist takeover and so there are fewer characters. Some letters look very similar to Thai while other letters look like the wrong one! For example, the letter that looks like a “ror” sound is in fact a “hor” sound. Despite this, I think it would be fairly easy for me to learn to read Lao. There are a number of road signs I could work out already as well as menus in restaurants. Talking of restaurants, in Thailand, if you want to order two glasses of beer you would say “bia song gaew“. But here that translates as “two bottles of beer”! I am sure there other linguistic traps like that to be careful about.

One of the best things about the night market here, and even the tuk tuk drivers, is that they are not only very polite, but not persistent too. In Thailand, you can easily get bombarded by people wanting to sell you things. They often don’t leave you alone and follow you around until you give in. But, in Luang Prabang, walking through the market I only got greetings of “sabaidee“. If I didn’t make eye contact, then they wouldn’t try and sell me something. If I did looked interested, they would only ask once. If I said “no”, then that would be it. They would allow me to move on. I think it would be really nice to bring some of the Thai vendors here for a training course. The Thai tuk tuk drivers could learn something too. When I walk by their Lao brothers they usually only say “sabaidee“. When they do ask if I want a tuk tuk, I only need to say “no” once.

I have often wondered whether I should move to Laos for a more true cultural experience. People have often told me that Laos is Thailand twenty years ago. Which is great in theory, though I do like some of my modern luxuries. Though as long as I have my laptop and a good Internet connection then I will be happy. They have many Internet cafes here around Luang Prabang and both price and the speed are not too bad. I think at the end of the day, I would like to come here on holidays, but I wouldn’t want to live here permanently. The weather is one draw back at least. I tell you it is freezing cold here in the mornings. There is low cloud and the sun doesn’t managed to break through until at least mid morning. I am so glad I brought my thick jacket. I much prefer it to being too hot than too cold.

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Alms Round in Luang Prabang

Giving alms to monks is an early morning ritual that dates back for generations for both Buddhists in Laos and Thailand. The practice is very similar. Lay people get up before dawn to prepare food for the monks. They then wait patiently outside their house for the monks to come so that they can make merit and then be blessed by the monks in return. That is the theory but it didn’t quite happen like that in Luang Prabang where I am presently on holiday. The city is famous worldwide for the alms round where literally hundreds of saffron robed monks walk the streets as far as the eye can see. However, due to this popularity, the event has because almost a circus show put on for the foreign tourists.

I have witnessed many alms rounds in Thailand. I have also been on several where I went with the monks on their entire round. You may remember one of my past stories where I wrote how I was roped into becoming a “temple boy” to carry the monk’s heavy alms bags. So I knew that I would need to get up early and be at the temple well before 6 a.m. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. It was still dark and hardly anyone on the roads. I decided to head for Sisavangvong Road which is kind of the main strip in town. I had also noted yesterday that there were several temples along this road. In the distance, coming out of the mist towards me, were small groups of tourists. Then a Lao lady came up to me to ask if I wanted to buy some food for the monks. I was obviously in the right area.

As it was still too dark to take any pictures, I just walked up and down the road a few times observing the growing crowd of onlookers. Mats were being laid out on the side of the road and people started to sit down with their offering. By 6.15 a.m. it was started to get quite crowded. However, the tourists far out-numbered the locals. If there was any at all. There were several groups of Thai tourists as well as a coach load of well-off Laotians who obviously weren’t from around here. Maybe here on holiday from Vientienne. There were also a number of Western tourists who had decided to give alms. Some had come individually from their guesthouses. However, many seem to have come on tours in minivans because I counted at least a dozen parked on the opposite side of the road.

Ten minutes later, I saw the first monks leaving their temple. Unlike in Thailand, these all left at the same time in one long line. They were also leaving a lot later. It did actually cross my mind that it was being orchestrated a bit. They had left their temple as soon as it was light enough for us to take pictures without using a flash. And there were certainly plenty of people doing that. I had a hard time getting any good pictures without getting a tourist in the background. And of course, at the same time trying to be respectful to the monks on the alms round. Another difference is that the monks kept going at a brisk rate. They hardly paused for anyone to offer them food. There was only time enough to give them a pinch of sticky rice before they had moved on. In Thailand the monks would stop for several minutes at each house and wouldn’t leave before giving a blessing.

I suppose in some ways I was a little disappointed. At first I felt bad that we were intruding on the local people who were giving alms to the monks by taking pictures of them. But honestly, there weren’t any. Most people giving alms were from out of town and were also keen to have their friends take their picture. I knew this couldn’t be the full extent. The local people had to be somewhere giving alms. So, I decided to follow the monks, which was no mean feat. They kept a good pace. I guess the combination of a freezing cold sidewalk and walking in bare feet kept them moving. From the main street they turned right and headed towards the Mekong River. Before they reached it they turned right again and headed back up a parallel road towards Wat Xieng Thong.

This was much more like it. The only people along this narrow road giving alms were the true local people. Better still, there were only two or three foreigners. No tour buses here. It was much easier to appreciate the alms round and to observe the lay people giving food to the monks. Though, like before, they only gave a pinch of sticky rice as the monks quickly filed past. Still no blessing from the monks which I found strange but maybe this is the norm in Laos. At the top of the road the monks entered the temple and quickly dispersed. A straggler came up to me to say hello in English. He was a young novice monk about 12 years old. He asked me where I was from and if I was cold. His English wasn’t that extensive but it was still good enough to chat for a short while. I was quite surprised because this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Thailand. Kids are usually too shy or disinterested to approach foreigners.

In the end I did enjoy the morning alms round. It is nice being up and about before dawn and watch the town come to life. I am also glad I found a stretch of road that was more authentic. Though now that I have written about it, how much longer will it stay that way! Anyway, I still have another full day in Luang Prabang and I think tomorrow I will get up early again, though not as early as 5.15 a.m., and come and walk along this road. I will stand at the top of the hill and wait for them to approach me. Now it is time for me to find some breakfast.

A Trip to Luang Prabang

Almost on impulse, I decided the other day to take a four day trip to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. I’ve wanted to go for quite a long time, so when an opportunity arose the other day I jumped at the chance to book a trip. This is probably actually the best time of the year to go to Laos. The rainy season has now come to an end and the weather has turned dry and cool. Perfect conditions for travelling. I checked on the Internet and the maximum daytime temperature at the moment is 22 degrees Celsius. During the night it is dropping to a very chilly 7 degrees Celsius. Luang Prabang is about parallel with Chiang Rai which is also going through a cold patch at the moment. Before I left I made sure I packed my jacket and sweater.

Luang Prabang is in many ways cut off from the outside world. Travel options are limited. If you are feeling adventurous then you could try a slow, two day boat ride from the Thai border. Or, if you are like me, and have limited time or are eager to get to your destination, then you could always fly there! However, it is not cheap. From Bangkok you can fly either Lao Airways or Bangkok Airways for about 8,000-10,000 baht return trip. I decided to fly the former as it was slightly cheaper. Though I didn’t know at the time why. I should have guessed when I arrived at check-in at the airport when I saw that there was no-one else in the queue. At the departure gate there were exactly ten other people waiting. A bus took us out onto the runaway where we were greeted by a two propeller airplane. I haven’t flown on one of these for a while.

The flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang only took about 100 minutes. I had a window seat just behind the propellor. I had some great views though I was a bit worried that the propellor would fly off and hit me in the face! Though I suppose if that was to happen then everybody else on the plane would die just as quick so I didn’t bother to change seats. The only city I recognized along the way was Lopburi because of the two very large and distinctive roundabouts. I had spotted them on Google Earth and so recognized them straight away. They are already marked on our site if you want to go and take a look. Coming into land we had some great views of Luang Prabang. In particular, the temple on top of Phu Si hill and the Mekong River behind.

The air stewardess had given us our immigration forms and also a form to apply for a 30 day visa on the airplane. This turned out rather fortunate that we were able to write this in advance. A Vietnamese Airline plane had just landed before us full of tourists. However, as we entered the small airport building we saw that they were busy filling in their forms and so we were then able to go straight to the front of the queue for the visa. You don’t need to go to the trouble of applying in advance. Just make sure you bring along a passport size photo. If you don’t have one, they will photocopy your picture in your passport for a fee. Listed on the board were the prices for the visa for all the different nationalities. Strangely, although both England and USA were US$35, Canadians have to pay US$41! Eastern Europeans are US$30.

Immigration itself was quick and painless with only a few people in the queue. Next door was baggage claim and my bag was already waiting for me. On the way out, I passed an exchange booth. I made a mental note that Thai baht was 286 kip and US dollar was 9.4 kip. I didn’t change any as I thought the rates here wouldn’t be that good. However, the place I changed my baht at this afternoon was only 281 kip for one baht. In contrast to Bangkok airport, I wasn’t bombarded with taxi touts as I left the airport building. Outside I found a table for booking taxis. The guy asked where I was going. I already had the name of a guesthouse and I told him. The price was fixed at US$5 or 200 baht. It was slightly cheaper to pay in dollars. I was under the impression that it was $5 per vehicle however the receipt clearly said “per person”. If this was a meter taxi in Thailand then it would have cost me less. The guidebooks suggest that the return trip to the airport is a lot less. I didn’t really mind. Having a fixed price takes out the stress of being cheated.

I was at my guesthouse and checked in by about 1 p.m. As I still had a good part of the day left, I decided to set off on foot to explore the area. I also wanted to try and get my bearings. My guesthouse was alongside the Meklong River. Behind me was Phu Si hill and so I decided to climb that first to help orientate myself. The entrance fee was 20,000 kip which sounds a lot and I almost didn’t go up. I had to sit down and work out some benchmarks for buying things while in Laos. A good marker would be 100 baht. This is about 28,000 kip. So the price wasn’t too bad after all, though maybe a bit more than what it would be in Thailand for a temple in Ayutthaya.

As expected, the views from the top were spectacular even though the temple itself was only of passing interest. I reckon there would be some good views of sunrise here as well. From the hill top I walked down the other side to the Buddha’s Footprint. Along the way I passed a series of Buddha images that represented different days of the week. Interestingly they didn’t match the Thai version. I will share with you these pictures later. The footprint turned out to be a large indent in the rock. Nothing too exciting. I continued walking down to the bottom of the hill where I come out at a small temple. They seem to be everywhere.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering around the town admiring the French colonial architecture. I didn’t really visit any temples as such. I will explore those properly tomorrow. After several hours of walking I ended up at a small restaurant overlooking the river. I was parched and so ordered a bottle of Lao Beer. The price was probably inflated as it was a restaurant with fine views, but at only 10,000 kip I wasn’t going to complain. I think sometimes in order to enjoy your holiday, you should just pay the price and don’t waste energy trying to find the cheapest source in town.

I will talk more about the town in a later blog. It is early evening now and I am back at my guesthouse typing this up on my laptop. I will save this on a thumbdrive and try and post it at one of the internet cafe which are scattered around the town. It is already getting very chilly. Luckilly I didn’t pay extra for an air-conditioned room as I am not even using the fan! I am wearing my thick jacket now. There is a night market in town and I will go and explore that shortly. I was planning on sitting down to a nice meal of Lao food. But on the way back I saw a stall selling some baguette sandwiches for only 10,000 kip. Obviously a French influence. I must say, it was not only superior to subway sandwiches in Bangkok, but was a hundred times better value for money.

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