First Trip To Laos – Luang Prabang
By Gentle Giant
Mekong, mother of the waters ….
"Besides, where exactly is the Mekong?" I asked this not real unattractive young European woman sitting on the other side of my table. She pointed with her finger in the darkness: " Right here". Actually the river was just about 10 metres away. I did read so much about this famous river, how wonderful it would be to sit at this water and now I was there and didn't realize, I was sitting at its embankment for over an hour.
This was my first night on my trip to Lao (I prefer to spell it, like the locals call it).
In the last 55 hours I had managed to sleep about 5 hours: Flight from Hamburg to Munich. In Munich, the flight to BKK started with 6 hours delay, cause the airplane air-conditioning system didn't work and it took them about six hours to get new
parts from all over Europe to finally make it work. So of course I missed my flight from Bangkok to Udon Thani but was lucky to get a seat for the next flight. The price was 1300 baht with Air Asia. In Udon Thani there was a "limousine service"
(minibus) to Nong Khai. Nong Khai is a small town about 50 kilometres from Udon Thani. It's located along the Mekong and on the western part of the town is the Friendship Bridge (Lao-Thao Border) over the Mekong.
In Nong Kai I stayed at the MUT MEE Guesthouse. I can recommend this one. I think most rooms are without AC, but definitely it was OK for me, cause I was glad to have my pull-over with me, to use it in the night and the early morning hours. Mut Mee has a very nice atmosphere, you can meet many people from all over the world, most of them on their way to Lao, and exchange information. They also have a restaurant, so you can sit near the river, eat and have a drink. I did pay about 170 baht for my room. In high season (December…) it will help to make a reservation!
This first night in Nong Kai we did talk a lot about Malaria prophylactic. From my internet research it seems to me, in Lao there is a real chance, to get nearly every known infectious disease – with the exception of yellow fever. So if you are thinking of visiting Lao (Vientiane seems to be not that dangerous), do start your preparations a long time before you go, to get your vaccinations in time. Most important: avoid mosquito bites and look carefully what you drink (and eat) (don't expect medical treatment at Thai standard in Lao!)
To get the visa: You can get the visa right at the border. Don't waste your time to get it in your home-country or in BKK. Just go straight to the border. First go to the Thai Immigration office at the border (Thai side of the Friendship Bridge).
You can take a tuk-tuk in Nong Khai (40 baht). If you want to go directly from Udon Thani to Lao, you can take a bus or even a train (15 baht) to Nong Kai. Of course, you can take a night train from BKK to Nong Kai. My tuk-tuk driver tried to
make me use a visa-service. He needed two trials to understand, that he wasted his time. You don't need it. Its wasting time and money!!
What does Thai Immigration do? Invalid your one-entry visa! At this moment, I was thinking about what will happen, if the Lao immigration wouldn't give me the visa! So after losing your Thai visa, you have to take the bus to go over the bridge (no foot passengers allowed!) 10 baht. On the other side you leave the bus, fill out the visa application and hand it in together with your photo (don't forget!) and 30 US. You can pay baht, but have to pay more. US Dollar is the currency you will need for your whole trip in Lao. Of course you can change a big sum of dollars in Vientiane into the local currency, the KIP, but for what? Everyone is happy to get your dollars. The usual exchange quote is 10000 Kip for one Dollar. So its easy to handle. Don't expect to find an ATM machine in Lao. There aren't any! There are opportunities to change Thai baht or even pay with them at tour-agencies. But best is to have enough Dollars in your pocket before you enter Lao. You will not need too much of them. A usual prize for dinner is about 1 Dollar, for my rooms I paid 3.50 a night (in Vientiane expect a bit more). Bus Vientiane to Luang Prabang is 7-8 Dollar.
Ok. You hand in you passport and have to wait for about 15 minutes to get it back. After that you have to wait in another line to check something else, don't ask me what. Its all a bit curious but no problem. Look what others do and be patient. It was all a bit amusing….. At last, you have to pay some 15 baht (20?) for the POLICE MUNICIPAL). No joke! They want to know, where you will stay in Lao (Hotel). So be prepared to tell them a hotel name.
Now I have got this big (!) stamp in my passport and was thinking of what to do next. I don't know whether there is a regular bus going to Vientiane (about 27 km). There were some minibuses and the drivers asked me where I want to go. First they
want 180 baht, later agreed to 100. About 30 minutes later I was in Vientiane. My plan was, not to stay in the capital (as most do) but to take the next bus to Vang Vieng, a village on the way to Luang Prabang. I don't know where the buses
leave to Luang Prabang. You can read in Internet, they leave from bus terminal near Talaat Sao (morning market). What I definitely know is, that my bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane went to another bus-terminal.
My luck was, these minibuses transferred a group to a bus to Vang Vieng, and I just had to jump over to the next bus and was on my way.
VANG VIENG. A 3 hours trip from Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang. My first impression of Vang Vieng: A shitty hole. This impression didn't change! And if you like the young people from Khao Sarn Road in BKK, you will feel at home: Nearly everyone (of the tourists) is in the age range from 19 up to 33. Many of them US citizens, some Germans etc. It must be real hip for young Americans to go to Lao nowadays! Many of them behave like shit (I didn't like to see, how some of these young LADIES treat the locals). But I didn't have real problems with them. I rented a bicycle and explored the terrain. In Vang Vieng is a river and the nearby mountains in the sunset make a good picture… My room (with bathroom) was ok (3,50 Dollars).
The next morning I was ready to take the bus to Luang Prabang. You can take a minibus at 9 am or a bigger one at 10 am. You have the chance to have dinner on this tour. A bus trip for 6 hours can be boring. This one was not. The landscape is beautiful. Most of the time the road has serpentines. The bus is climbing up and down and up and down….After some time this isn't fascinating any more, but what still got my attention was, when the bus went through the villages. In the bigger ones, you can see the school girls and boys going in a line along the road. The girls all dressed in skirts. Like nearly every woman upcountry! Today its an unusual view for us. Most exotic on this road are the villages in the mountains. The simple huts are all built along the main road, cause there is no other road and even no other place to build them. Its like driving trough their living rooms: Most of the villagers are sitting in front of their huts at the edge of the road. Small kids playing on the road and small pigs among them.
Life goes slowly in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos. Most vehicles are these small motorbikes, which they drive slowly! I did rent a bicycle (someone told me, tourists can't rent a motorbike cause of accidents – wise people!) and many times I was faster! You can see women on their motorbikes with an umbrella in one hand! No, it was not raining. It's the the sunshine! I like this slowness and what else I do like much: The friendliness of the people. I met a lot of people in Luang Prabang and most of them liked to have a chat. Especially the novices in the temples. Most of them are learning English and are very interested in practicing their English speaking abilities.
The temples: If you like temples (wats) Luang Prabang is your town. There are about 40 (in a town with 16,000 inhabitants) and many of them are worth a view. Since in December 1995, the entire town of Luang Prabang was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they invested much afford to restore the temples and other historic buildings. The UNESCO report signified Luang Prabang as the best-preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia!
Don't expect a nightlife in Luang Prabang. There is a night market where you can buy food and one where you can buy cheap handmade stuff. At 10 pm the town goes to sleep. I read on a paper in my guesthouse, that the owner has to take care, the guests are in the house at 12 pm! So go to bed early, and be ready (the cocks will help you!) to enjoy Luang Prabang in the early morning. In December in the morning the temperature can be as low as 9 degrees Celsius. Don't forget your warm clothes!
On my way back to Vientiane, I did the whole distance in one part. Its about 9 hours by bus. If you prefer to do it within 30 minutes, there is a service by Lao Aviation to Vientiane 3 times a day. One-way ticket is about 2700 baht. I would recommend to do at least one journey by bus.
At the end of my journey it was definitive sure, I want to come back soon.
Friendly (!) feedback and questions to Stickman's e-mail address. He can forward them to my address.