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Charming Luang Prabang

After passing the border at Chang Khong, there is a direct boat to Luang Prabang. This small city (only 16.000 inhabitants) is the cultural centre of Laos. Many wats (temples) between the French colonial and traditional houses. We are lucky enough to witness the boat race festival when we were there. This, and the friendliness of our guesthouse family make our stay here an unforgettable experience.

Street view Luang Prabang

We wake up early in Chang Khong to head for the Laos border. The people of our guesthouse do not understand English, and we cannot make them understand we want some breakfast. So we just pay and search for breakfast elsewhere. Not an easy tasks, the city seems to sleep at 8 AM. But we finally find a nice spot at the banks of the Mekong river.

The waitress is very friendly and informs us not to hurry to catch the boat to Luang Prabang. A little later other travellers appear, who we saw earlier in Sukhothai. They booked the boat trip at a travel agency in Chang Khong and will be picked up here by a minivan. We decide to join them so we arrive a little later at the border.

Cargo ship on the mekong river in LaosOnce at the border, we get a little depressed. We thought Laos was little visited, but a bus full of elderly tourists has arrived, struggling with the formalities. So much for adventure travel in Laos. But when we move from the customs to the ferryboat, from there to a gathering point by tuktuk, and on to the boat, we change our minds. The boat is a rebuilt cargo vessel, with simple, but relaxing low seats. Primitive, but nice, and we cannot imagine the elderly people also take this boat.

Stop-over Pak Beng

Travelling by slow boat over the Mekong River is great. We relax, enjoying a book and the views. Once in a while a fast boat passes with loud noise, and the passengers are sitting cramped, wearing life jackets and helmets. They arrive in Luang Prabang after 7 hours, we arrive in Pak Beng, halfway, in 6 hours.

Pak Beng is not much of a village. A mud road of a few hundred meters long, half full with guesthouses for the tourists that stay here overnight on their way to Luang Prabang. In the guesthouses it is rush hour when a boat arrives, and in the morning when everybody wants breakfast before the boat leaves again. During the day, it must be very quiet here.

When we leave the next morning, it rains. It leads to some delay at the guesthouse, and we arrive at the river 15 minutes late. We cannot find the boat, and a guy indicates it has left already. We think that's impossible, since there were still some passengers at the guesthouse. The guy wants to help us onto another boat for 300 baht. We decline, since we already paid the boat fee. A little later, others arrive and together we find our boat, behind some other boats. Worst of all, the guy trying to rip us off appears to be part of the crew of our boatÂ… So much for friendly Laotians, apparently many people turn into assholes around many wealthy tourists.

After another day on the water we arrive in Luang Prabang. We can take our time to find a guesthouse, but because of the heat we do not look very far. We find a nice, large, and clean room and take that.

Phu Si Mountain

Gold decorations on Phu Si mountainAfter freshing up we head for the town. First we search for some new T-shirts, then we spend most of the day enjoying a beer, partly forced by some showers. The next day we explore some more, starting with climbing Phu Si mountain, in the middle of the town. Beautiful temples on the hill, and great views over the surroundings.

The center of Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Kan rivers, and Phu Si is in the middle. After descending we walk the old town, which is very quiet. The streets are lined with old buildings, Laotian and French colonial, and of course many wats. The style of the wats is clearly different from those in Bangkok. The roofs are longer and lower, in a nice curve. But the decorations in gold are similar. All very nice, but the nicest thing about Luang Prabang cannot be described, it is the friendly mood in this quiet town.

Cultural Buffet

Traditional clothes of different hill tribes in LaosOn a terrace along the river we are given a note. It announces an evening with traditional dance, and we decide to go. Strange enough, the audience consists of 9 people, including us, but we have a great time. While we enjoy some good food the show starts with an old woman singing with 2 of her grand children. After that there are girls performing different dances and different traditional clothes, from the surrounding hill tribes in Laos. We also recognise one of the dances from the Gawai festival on Sarawak, proof of the migration and the shared heritage of different tribes in Southeast Asia.

New guesthouse

After two nights we decide to change guesthouses. Our room was clean and good, but there was a lack of atmosphere. So we moved to Coldriver guesthouse, recommended to us by other travellers. And it is a complete change. No large clean room here, but we are really guests of a family, including daughters Mimi (11) and Nunu(8), a visiting aunt with children Emmie (3) and Emmon(2), and the grand parents. Everybody is very friendly, we are given a lot of food and are expected to play with the children, of which especially Emmie is adorable.

Cozy fair in Luang PrabangLuang Prabang is preparing for the annual boat races. A day before there is a fair, with small attractions among the stalls selling goods. There is a small ferris wheel and carrousel, and we can win prizes throwing balls, darts, and other small games. Very amateurish, but nice and cozy.

In the afternoon we rent a bike to explore around town. We visit a large golden stupa just outside Luang Prabang, with nice views over the city. Inside are a lot of paintings about Buddhism, some of them with very bloody scenes. Then we cycle along the outskirts of town. Very little tourists come here, and almost no traffic. We are stared at by the otherwise very friendly people. They are preparing for the boat race here as well, platforms with seats are being built for the spectators on this side of the river. We are getting more and more curious about the festivities of the next day.

Monks begging round

Monks begging roundAnd that day starts early. Our guest family asked us to come and watch the monks begging round at 5.30 AM. The monks make this round every day, but this day is extra special. The family has been cooking all day to have enough food. And this morning, the three generations women of the family are offering it to the monks. They kneel on a blanket on the street, with us behind them to watch. A little later the monks arrive. They hold a large bowl in which the women donate a piece of food. After a while, the bowls are so full that the monks throw some food back into the bowls of the women, or they give some to some boys who are swarming around them with there own baskets. After half an hour it is finished, the monks are back to their temples and the streets are empty again.

We hurry back to bed, to get some sleep before we have breakfast with the complete family. Our guesthouse is located at the river, but not on the route for the races. But we can already see some teams passing to the starting point, in the meantime paying a tribute at the bridge. At the guesthouse, everybody chooses a favorite team, and for us that's obviously the orange team.

To the boat races

Boat races in Luang PrabangAround noon we head for the festivities. There is another fair along the route of the races, and it is very crowded. No tourists, but the locals have come from far to witness the races. We throw some darts and play some games and slowly follow the crowd, until we reach the finish line. There we descend the steep river bank, to find a nice spot close to the river. There are no seats here, but we do have a good view over the river, where the races are just starting.

The boats race against each other over a distance of approximately a kilometer to the finish. They are long boats, with some 30 peddlers in each. The men sitting in front shout the pace of peddling, and in the back is someone steering and a few peddlers standing. It is a great spectacle to watch, especially with the fanatical supporters on the river banks. Each team has its own group of supporters who go nuts when their team is peddling.

Finish of the boat races in Luang PrabangAfter a number of races we decide to go and have a meal in town. When we return, we watch the races from the starting point, a large boat in the middle of the river. After some more races, there is a long pause, apparently they are awaiting the final. We hurry back to our original position, just in time for the final to begin. The audience goes crazy, and so do we since it is eventually the orange team that wins. After the finish, everybody leaves the river banks immediately, to return home, and so do we. But when the winners pass by we give them another cheer.

The night of the races there is not much going on. The locals have had enough during the day so the town is quiet. So we have a drink in our guesthouse. We bought a bottle of Lao-lao (rice wine) and Nunu is happy to fill our glasses each time we empty them. A quiet end of a very exciting day.

Kuang Si falls

On our last day in Luang Prabang we decide to visit Kuang Si falls. Together with some others we rent a tuktuk to bring us there, over the nice dirt roads through a magnificent landscape. Unfortunately, it starts to rain so we hide under a shelter at the parking lot of the falls for an hour.

Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang PrabangThe waterfall is beautiful, with a lot of water because of the rainy season. But the paths leading up along the falls are very slippery. Because of that, we cannot reach the swimming spots on a higher level of the falls. But the weather is not good for swimming anyway, and when we notice some leeches, we decide to descend again.

On the road to the falls, a small stretch of forest is surrounded by fences. A tiger is raised here, which was rescued from poachers. We can approach him behind bars, and we see a guard playing with him. We understand they intend to bring him to the Phu Si hill in Luang Prabang, but we think he would be better off staying here.

At the way back to Luang Prabang our driver stops at a local village of the Hmong hill tribe. We walk along the huts, where people try to sell us their stuff. They also examine the pattern of the woven bracelets we got at other hill tribes, so they can copy those. Guesthouse family Luang PrabangThe children here are not begging for candy, so there are not many tourists passing here. They just want to play, and when our tuktuk has trouble starting, they help us push and wave when we leave.

In the evening we eat with the family. We are having fried rice, which is very good. Emmie is very active and hangs around our necks, while we sing karaoke with Mimi and Nunu. The next morning we have to say goodbye to this warm family. It was great being part of it for a short time. Luang Prabang will always have a special place in our hearts, partly because of this family.



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