Laidback & charming with a spoonful of genuine hospitality & tranquility and a dash of rich culture and you’ve got yourself one hell of a country.
Laos, for us, was one of those countries that exceeded our expectations in so many ways. It’s often called the “forgotten country” of Southeast Asia and in our minds this will be one of our most memorable destinations, for many reasons. Nowhere close to ever being forgotten.
We decided to change our plans slightly in Laos and stay for a full week in the Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Luang Prabang. This was our third country in our Southeast Asia tour and after arriving from Myanmar we were so excited when we saw the downtown area. Not to knock Myanmar whatsoever but because they aren’t super equipped for tourism just yet, Luang Prabang seemed like a well developed mini city compared to some of the towns we had just visited. From cute cafes overlooking the Mekong River (go at sunset!) to tree house restaurants with chill music & cozy mats overlooking the Nam Khan River, we were in heaven.
Whether Andy realized it at the time of booking our hotel (or not) I somehow tactfully was able to use my sales skills (thanks LinkedIn) to have him agree to an $83/night hotel at My Dream Boutique. Whoever thought of that name sure wasn’t lying because it was seriously, a dream. I know, $83/night in USA standards is a super cheap when it comes to hotel prices, you might get bedbugs or it may be in a not so great neighborhood, but for Asia, you’ll be living like royalty at this price per night. And we were. For the most part in Asia we’ve been targeting $40/night or less and all of our hotels have been so great. So this was certainly a splurge.
One of our favorite parts of this hotel was the location. In order to get to the downtown area of Luang Prabang it was a short walk, over a bamboo bridge. A local family builds the bridge and takes it down every 6 months to prepare for the rainy season and flooding of the Nam Khan. In order to cross it you must pay $0.70 (round trip price) and the proceeds go to the materials for the family to build it. The bridge bounces and moves under your feet when you walk across it so for the weary travelers, that’s your fair warning. It was like a guaranteed adventure at least 2 times a day, we loved it.
The streets of Luang Prabang are lined with local shops, idyllic restaurants & cafes and every other storefront in between is a massage parlor. I’m not even joking when I say we both got at least 1 massage a day here. For less than $4 for an hour, it’s kind of a must. You can tell though that not everyone is properly trained because there were a few times I had to say ouch when they were kneading my spine or shin bone. Andy too. A few times I could hear him say “shit” under his breath and I knew they were probably gauging his bones just like mine. One time I opted to get a head massage for 30 minutes because my bones needed a break from the massaging and I came out with hair looking like I got electrocuted. No joke my hair was fluffed out so much that I couldn’t even put it in a ponytail because of all the knots. My “masseuse’s” secret technique was to take tiny pieces of my hair and twirl it around and pull just a little to give my scalp a tickle. Sounds dreamy right? The few bruises I got and my temporary dreads definitely came with the price I guess. If anything, it was definitely a good laugh between us after comparing our experiences.
So in other news, Andy and I found Utopia in Luang Prabang. Seriously though, we did. It’s a hippy type restaurant with mats and pillows everywhere overlooking the river. Super zen by day with yoga at sunrise and party central at night (of course, closed by 12am for the town wide curfew rule). Utopia had by far the best cheese pizza we’ve had in Asia to date. After weeks of noodles and rice we were craving (and dreaming about) some western food and so after some cheesy pizza and buffalo cauliflower we entered our food utopia.
Two of the nights in Luang Prabang we ate the street food at the Night Market which was amazing. Lucky for us our typical weak stomachs have been doing so well here it’s definitely a small victory we celebrate from time to time, and surviving the Night Market was one of those victories. From homemade dumplings to bbq chicken wings to noodles and pork belly, all for less than $5. The Night Market had stall after stall of handmade crafts, paintings and tchotchkes, it felt like there were hundreds of stalls and amazed us how perfectly each item was placed on the mats. Every day from 5pm-9:30pm (ish) they would put the tents up and promptly take them down. The smart stalls had their little kids as the salespeople so it was hard to barter with them because they were so cute. But you have to. It’s part of the culture. They catch you glancing and tell you the price and before you can even say anything they say “special discount for you” and the price goes down. You may be negotiating a difference of $.50 but it’s still part of the game for them, try it out.
Our most rewarding day so far on our entire trip was when we volunteered for a few hours at Big Brother Mouse. We each were able to sit with a local from Laos to help them with their English. I sat with a young boy named Le that has family living in the countryside and he is going to school in Luang Prabang. He comes to BBM every day (2 sessions per day) to get better at his English. We talked about our favorite movies, what it was like to live in Laos and he wanted to know all about New York City. If there was ever a word he didn’t understand he had me write it in his notebook and we’d practice it out loud and I would give him the meaning using different words. Close to the end of our volunteering session I went in the back room to find Andy. He had an entire table full of students! He was surrounded by 5 Lao students and they all asked if I could take pictures of them with Andy. They loved him! I mean it’s hard not to love Andy. But seriously, they were giving him high fives and laughing at all of his jokes. Come to find out after, they asked Andy such tough questions. For example, what’s the difference between have, want, need, must, and have to. The difference between look, see and watch. The difference between nice to meet you and nice to see you. So hard, right?! High of the trip, hands down.
Kuang Si Falls was definitely another highlight of our time in Luang Prabang. We got a tuk tuk and got there at about 11am (definitely get there at that time or before because at noon all of the tour buses start piling in). The water is so crystal blue it almost looks fake. Don’t be chicken and take the plunge into the chilly water if you decide to go, it’s refreshing and if I can do it, you can too.
We woke up around 5:30am twice for the traditional Tak Bat. Every morning as the sun is rising Buddhist monks line up from oldest to youngest and carry large pots with lids around their necks. They walk slowly in perfect line formation, meditating, as they walk from their local monastery down the streets of Luang Prabang. Locals wake up early that morning to make fresh batches of sticky rice and set up a mat outside their houses. Kneeling down, hands in prayer, knees and shoulders covered, never looking the monks in the eye are all of the respectful and traditional ways to give alms. One by one as each monk passes by, the locals will give one scoop each of the sticky rice into their pots. We were lucky enough to be able to watch from a distance at My Dream Boutique with only 2 other tourists close by.
After Tak Bat we headed up the 355 steps to the top of Mount Phousi to see the 360 degree view of Luang Prabang from above. It was definitely a great view and I highly recommend coming either for sunrise instead of sunset because it’s known to be so crowded with people that you can’t even snap one photo without a million people in it.
Luang Prabang, you might have bruised our limbs but you stole our hearts so that’s all that matters.