Tag Archives: architecture

Luang Prabang – a little Europe in Laos

From a dusty village to a gem of colonial architecture

By slow boat down the Mekong – Arriving in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang and its rivers - the Mekong and the Nam Kham.

Yes, it takes two whole days and you have to travel without much comfort (unless you charter a whole long boat). Still the two-day slow boat ride down the Mekong river is the best way to enter the country in the north from Thailand. It’s a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of village life and you can meet lots of other travellers. After our fabulous first day we continued our journey to Luang Prabang.

One more day on the river

After a quiet night in Pak Beng (or not so quiet for those who spent their time in or close to a bar), the boat departed around 9 in the morning. None of the seats were reserved this time so we could sit wherever we wished. There were Buddhist monks and villagers sitting in the front rows but we found some comfy seats in the middle. (You should go for the front (car) seats as the back seats are much smaller).

Undulating hills by the Mekong
Undulating hills by the Mekong

The landscape was more or less the same as on day one: gentle hills covered by plantations or pristine rainforest with a few villages thrown in for a change. This time we were less lucky with the weather but the occasional rain made the heat more bearable. We made a few stops, where locals hopped on and off and smiling villagers waved to us.

On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day,
On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day.
For these kids, the Mekong is their life.
For these kids, the Mekong is the whole world.

The second part of the journey is actually longer and we only arrived after 4 pm. Although we bought the tickets to Luang Prabang, we were dropped some 5 km before the town. Apparently, slow boat owners no longer have the right to use the port right under the Royal Palace. This means an additional tuk-tuk ride (20,000 kip pp) to the centre of town with all the hotels and guesthouses.

The city of the Golden Buddha

Luang Prabang is a real gem, a city with beautifully preserved temples, French colonial architecture and a cultural heritage. All this made it worthwhile to be listed as a World Heritage site back in 1995. The historical centre of Luang Prabang was built on a peninsula, surrounded by the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Kham. Almost al of the once decaying colonial buildings now house hotels, restaurants, bakeries, bars and art galleries. 

The high street of Luang Prabang at night
The high street of Luang Prabang at night

On arrival Anita stayed in a café (Laotian coffee is world class) while Áron and I looked for some place to stay. It was shocking to realise that Laos is actually more expensive than its western neighbour (somehow I assumed the opposite). And Luang Prabang is probably the priciest of all Laotian cities so we had a hard time. After checking a dozen places, which were either too dingy or out of our price range, I reserved a room on Booking. Villa Luang Sokxay is a pleasant hotel far enough from the main drag to ensure quiet nights yet close enough to the action.

3 things you shouldn’t miss in Luang Prabang

If you only have a few days in this lovely town like we did, you won’t have time to see all the sights in and around Luang Pragang. But if you listen to me, you shouldn’t leave without visiting some of its finest temples, the historical centre and a nearby waterfall.

These young boys live and study in the monastery.
These young boys live and study in the monastery. They usually come from poor families and this is one of the few ways of ensuring a secure life for them.

Nothing can beat the residential buildings and wats of the former Royal Palace (Luang Prabang used to be the capital before the communist takeover in 1975) in elegance. But we also enjoyed the other central Buddhist temples like Wat Siphouthabat Thippharam or Wat Pa Huak. If you don’t mind climbing hundreds of steps, you can enjoy great views of the city and its rivers from the top of Mount Phu Si. This hill has its own monastery, a cave filled with Buddha statues, a gigantic Buddha footprint and a viewpoint on the top.

The elaborate roof of the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was built with French help in the early 20th century and it was the last Lao king’s home for half a century.

As the French gained control over Laos in the late 19th century, they started to build administrative and residential buildings in the then capital. They imported European technologies and materials but successfully blended them with local and other Asian designs to create a new Laotian architectural style. Most of these buildings still exist and they are nicely restored so keep your head up as you walk the streets in the centre.

A fine example of French colonial architecture
A fine example of French colonial architecture

You like nature? Then the surrounding areas offer just as many attractions to you. We visited in the rainy season so the choice was a bit limited. For example, some of the caves were closed due to high water levels and it wasn’t possible to swim in the ponds under the waterfalls. We still decided to see one of them, Kuang Si, and we didn’t regret it. It’s about 40 minutes by tuk-tuk from the centre of town (we paid 200 thousand kip for the three of us but bargained hard). 

In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!

It must be fun to soak in the turquoise blue water but during the monsoon the waterfall is a breathtaking giant. We had a short trek in the jungle, walking around the falls. There was so much water that the stairs were flooded on the way down but it was more fun than risk. Definitely worth the time and the 20 thousand kip entrance fee.

Kuang Si waterfall near Luang Prabang

All in all, I would say that if you see only one place in Laos, it should be Luang Prabang. But why would you leave so fast when the country has so much more to see and experience?

A glimpse of Doha, Qatar

20 hours in sizzling Doha, Qatar

Emblem of the city over one of its main roads

 

It was just by accident that we spent (nearly) a day in Doha. I was desperately looking for reasonable flight tickets to any exciting destination all April and May and I almost gave it up. Then I found this special offer by Qatar Airlways (no, this is not a paid advertisement) to Thailand. The only drawback was the duration: 32 hours in total from Budapest to Pattaya. This meant arriving in Doha at midnight and get on the next flight 20 hours later.

The original plan was to spend a few hours at the airport and spend the day in the city, saving the cost of the hotel room. Then a well-travelled friend advised us that you get a free night’s stay (or even 2 nights) at a 4 or 5 star Doha hotel if you have a long stopover. I checked the official website of the airline and within 3 minutes we had a night booked in the Holiday Inn. Not one but two rooms absolutely free.

I can fully recommend this option if you don’t mind arriving a little later at your destination. Just make sure you contact the hotel about the free transfer (part of the offer in case of 4-star hotels) before you travel. We didn’t book a shuttle so we had to take a taxi (70 riyals or 20 US dollars).

Warm welcome

The first thing that struck me (apart from the mile-long queue at immigration) was how kind and helpful people are in Doha. This includes airport staff (except maybe immigration officers), hotel reception, shop assistants, museum staff and people at restaurants. Perhaps it’s only because I come from a post-Communist country where politeness towards customers isn’t necessary the norm but all three of us noticed immediately.

Road on an artificial island with the skycrapers of Doha in the background
Road on an artificial island with the skycrapers of Doha in the background

Of course, we couldn’t wake up early so our sightseeing walk coincided with the hottest part of the day. It was around 45 Celsius but we didn’t want to start spending our bucks on the first day of our holiday so we walked. If you do the same, take some water with you and cover your head. Sunscreen is also a good idea. Most stores have AC and there is quite a lot of shade so you’ll survive.

A museum you shouldn’t miss

There are three places I’d like to recommend in Doha. The first one is the Museum of Islamic Art, a modern building situated on its own artificial island. The building itself a feast for the eyes with its square blocks curiously forming a dome not unlike that of a mosque. And the two openings on the top resemble the head of an Arabic woman wearing a chador.

The museum seen from the port
The museum seen from the port
The dome of the museum rethinks ancient mosques
The dome of the museum rethinks ancient mosques

The space inside is no less impressive. The exhibition halls are arranged on three floors around the open interior so that you can walk around the dimly lit rooms. The principle of “less is more” is perfectly applied here so each object receives the attention they deserve. There are carpets, tiles and various everyday objects created in the Islamic world from Spain to China. Some of them are more than a thousand years old.

An ancient bazaar

You can spend hours lost in the mazes of the bazaar
You can spend hours lost in the mazes of the bazaar

The second must-see sight is Souq Waqif, probably the oldest remaining part of Medieval Doha. In contrast with most of the buildings you can see in the capital today, the alleys full of little shops recreate the atmosphere of a world gone by. Sure, it’s touristy and way too clean compared to Damascus or Jerusalem but you can spend an hour or two browsing or shopping. The streets are shaded, which is a huge advantage in the summer months.

Tickle your palate

And, finally, let me recommend a friendly South Indian restaurant located about 20 minutes’ walk from the Corniche (and the two sights above). If you just desire a snack, you can (hardly) choose from the range of super sweet cakes on display in the bakery section. But if you are after something more substantial, the restaurant offers a fine selection of spicy South Indian fare. We loved the vegetarian aloo gobi masala and the Rayroth chicken curry. It’s also great value for money as the three dishes with steamed rice, water and coffee cost only 80 riyal (23 USD).

Visitors take a break in the lounge of the museum
There are many other places to have a drink or a meal – even in the museum.

All in all, Doha with its unique sights and friendly inhabitants was a very pleasant kick-off for our holidays and we’ll be happy to return for another round on our way home.