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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?

Slow boat down the Mekong

Slow boat ride on the Mekong from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos

Sailing past some awesome landscape

Part 1

Compared to its neighbours, Laos is still relatively less visited. However, due to the shape and geography of the country, there is a tourist trail that most visitors follow. It features most of the must-see sights in Laos from Buddhist temples and colonial cities to waterfalls and caves. And you can start your adventures in this beautiful country on a traditional slow boat ride that takes two exciting days.

 

One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos
One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos

Many tourists choose to start this route in the north after exploring the famous Thai city of Chiang Mai and perhaps the Golden Triangle. Arriving from Bangkok, you can take a night train or bus to Chiang Mai. The most convenient train is No. 9 that leaves Hualumphong Station around 7 pm. When I tried to book our tickets, there were absolutely no seats left so we took the afternoon train. A third class seat set us back only 240 baht. There are also domestic flights connecting the two cities but then it seems more practical to fly directly to Chiang Rai.

A short stop in Chiang Rai

It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!
It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!

I’d recommend Green Bus to travel on to Chiang Rai (you can also book your tickets online). It costs about 170 baht and takes 4-5 hours. Chiang Rai is much less touristy and much more hassle-free than Chiang Mai but it also offers a few nice sights.

Apart from the recently built White Temple, there are two lovely old Buddhist temples, too, within walking distance from the centre.

If you break your journey here, you should check out the night market with great street food options. We tasted fried larvae with some delicious sauce besides the usual spring rolls and fried rice.

The red bus to Chiang Khong
The relaxing journey in the rickety red buses to Chiang Khong by the Lao border takes you through spectacular landscape.

Take it easy in Chiang Khong

The town itself doesn’t have too many classic tourist attractions to offer. Its location by the mighty Mekong river and the backwater atmosphere still tempts many people to stay bit longer. For those on a tight budget, there is decent street food and Chiang Khong even boasts with its own humble bar strip. We spent two nights at Namkhong Resort and Bungalows (300 baht for a triple room with fan and free use of the resort’s pretty swimming pool).

Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
The Mekong with Laos on the other side
The Mekong with Laos on the other side

Across the border to Laos

There is a convenient ferry connecting Thailand with Laos but sadly it is only available for locals. We, foreigners, have to cross the border on the new Friendship Bridge. This means an extra hour’s travel in the morning and higher costs. Many if not all the guesthouses in Chiang Khong offer tickets for the slow boat including transfer to the border and, in some cases, all the way to the pier. It may sound a good deal and most tourists we saw opted for this solution. We don’t fancy the idea of being driven like cattle from one tuk-tuk to the other so we decided to arrange things for ourselves.

If you know the prices, it is actually cheaper this way and certainly feels more independent. Hotels offer the combined ticket for 1250-1500 baht. The trip from Chiang Khong to the pier in Huay Xai cost us 120 baht per person and we got there faster than most others. You can buy the boat tickets at an office on the hillside on the left as you approach the pier for 220,000 kip (880 baht). However, make sure to change money somewhere in Huay Xai first because they’ll charge you 1000 baht if you pay with the Thai currency.

A row of long boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos
A row of slow boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos

The slow boat

The boat was scheduled for 11.30 am and we could have a quick lunch in a riverside restaurant before departure. We could also buy Laotian kip there but the rate was awful. If I did it again, I wouldn’t exchange more than 100 dollars for three people because there are much better rates in Luang Prabang.

Traditional wooden long boats ply the waters of the Mekong. There are dozens of them in use and they are normally staffed by members of a family, who own the boat and live on it. The captain sits in the front of the boat and there are two rows of seats right behind him. In my experience, locals tend to sit here but we joined them on the first day because most of the better seats were reserved for the ‘package tourists’. We didn’t mind: it was less noisy and fresher than in the back and we had more contact with the villagers.

We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.
We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.

There are rows of old car seats in the middle section of the boat, organised pretty much like in a bus. Only these seats are not fastened to the floor! There is a very basic bar and even more Spartan toilet in the back, followed by the engine room and luggage storage (on smaller boats your bags may go under the board in the front). The living quarters of the family occupy the rear section.

The captain of the slow boat takes a break between two long trips.

 

The "tourist section" inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.
The “tourist section” inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.

Remote villages along the way

We had nice sunny weather on the first day with only a few brief showers. The river flows quite fast and there are some scary rapids with sharp rocks so we weren’t bored. Then when we saw our captain was in control we could enjoy the countryside and chat to our neighbours. It takes about 6 hours to reach Pak Beng, where you have to spend the night. You can only buy boxed noodle soup on board the slow boat (and cold beer) so it’s a good idea to buy some take-away in Huay Xai.

The scenery is interesting enough with a few villages along the way. Now and then the boat stops at one of these settlements or just by a rock and people get off and on. Young girls offered handmade jewellery at one village – unfortunately, we had no time to buy anything from them.

These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.
These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.

 

For many villagers the boat is still the only way to travel
For many villagers the slow boat is still the only way to travel

Pak Beng

We arrived in Pak Beng about 6 pm. Some days before I checked room prices on the internet but they all seemed way too dear for such a small place. And there is absolutely no need to book in advance. We hardly got off board and we were approached by local kids and their parents, all waving faded photos of their guesthouses. We said yes to two smiling girls and in a minute we were sitting on the back of a van with some other tourists. A triple room only cost 60,000 kip. It was all very efficiently organised: they asked us what we wanted to have for breakfast and take away for lunch the next day, we paid and that was it.

What must have been a sleepy fishing and farming village in the past has become a (budget) traveller’s haven in the past decades. I’m sure 90 percent of the villagers either have a guesthouse or run a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. We had a pleasant dinner (fried rice with buffalo meat) with river view and then retreated to our dingy room for the night.