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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?

Bangkok highlights for 2 days

Two relaxed days in Bangkok

Krung Thep as the Thais themselves call it, Bangkok is a beehive of over 8 million people. It is famous for its awe-inspiring shrines and colourful night life, not to mention the bustling markets and other shopping opportunities.

A quick photo at Bangkok's Hualamphong railway station.
A quick photo at Bangkok’s Hualamphong railway station.

We spent only two whole days in the Thai capital this time and it wasn’t easy to choose from the wide array of sights. We don’t like to rush from one place to another so we finally decided to look around the Grand Palace (because our son hasn’t seen it yet) and Chinatown, both in the centre of Bangkok.

No shoulders or knees please!

Tourists will know the complex as the Grand Palace although its official name is Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We saw it back in 2000 when my wife and I first travelled to Thailand. We don’t particularly enjoy crowded places (to say the least) but we thought our son should also see the majestic buildings so we paid the hefty 500 Baht each and entered. Well, almost, because we first had to buy a pair of long trousers for Áron, who was wearing shorts. The same thing happens to those arriving in sleeveless tops (only they’ll have to buy a T-shirt).

I thought I'd blend in well with the monkey statues :)
I thought I’d blend in well with the monkey statues 🙂

Visitors are only allowed to see a few of the more than 100 buildings of the complex. The main attraction is clearly the Emerald Buddha and its temple. You can only enter the elaborately ornamented building without your shoes and photography is not strictly forbidden inside. The large room is half empty but the other half is composed in a way that the rich details direct your eyes on the – surprisingly small – green figure sitting on a high platform. Interestingly, the Buddha statue was originally kept in Chiang Rai, where it was accidently discovered after lightning cracked a building.

It was good to see that they spend the tourists' money on the restoration works.
It was good to see that they spend the tourists’ money on the restoration works.

 

A Kinaree majestically stands above the crowds.
If you watch the details, you can find some weird statues on the buildings. The Royal Pantheon (Prasat Phra Thep Bidon) is guarded by the Kinaree (halfd-swan, half-woman creatures, while other buildings are supported by the Hanuman, monkey deities from the Hindu mythology.

If I went again, I’d avoid the whole neighbourhood at the weekend. It can be frustrating when you have to stop every second to let someone take a photo and there are queues even for the dustbin. Also, some of the buildings, like the coronation hall, are only open Monday to Friday.

Bird’s nest soup, anyone?

If you’ve got tired of the hordes of other tourists, take a boat down the Chao Phraya river to Pier 5 (Ratchawong). You are bang in Chinatown, surrounded by another kind of crowd. It is as old as Bangkok itself and one of the largest of its kind in the world.

The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)
The busy main road of Yaowarat (Chinatown)

During the day it is the gold capital of Bangkok. You can see the golden letters against a red background everywhere. Then there are countless stores selling food products. When the sun goes down some of the streets turn into a night market of clothes, bags and whatever you can imagine.

Chicken for sale in Chinatown
Chicken for sale in Chinatown

Yaowarat in Thai, Chinatown is also famous for its street food and restaurants. We tried a busy eatery across Hotel Royal (we actually had to wait for a table). Professional staff, unexpected but addictive flavours and affordable prices. But you can also try bird’s nest soup or seafood the pricier restaurants.

It doesn't look oexclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service
It doesn’t look exclusive from the outside but the food is excellent just like the service

For a cultural experience, leave the busy streets behind and check out Wat Traimit, the temple of the gold Buddha. It looks like Buddha statue are not made but discovered in Thailand because this 3-meter-tall solid gold figure was also found by accident. All right, the statue itself was there for centuries but nobody knew it was made of gold until it was dropped while being moved. The plaster covering broke and a top tourist attraction was born.

The same building houses a small exhibition about the Buddha statue and a museum about Chinatown on the second floor.

And the Golden Buddha himself
And the Golden Buddha himself. Photography was prohibited but when I saw that everybudy was taking photos with their phones I followed their example.

Breakfast with Buddhist monks

It’s tricky to find a budget room in Bangkok that’s not a cubicle without any windows and so noisy you can’t sleep all night. After a long search I stumbled on a homestay by Wat Sangkathan in the northern Nonthaburi district of the city. For just 10 dollars we had a spacious room with a bathroom and a little terrace. But the main advantage was the location.

Wat Sangkathan is a temple popular with Thai people, who come and spend a few days learning about the teachings of the Buddha. They follow a strict daily routine, which includes that they can only eat once a day before noon. The monks collect food and then share it not only with their disciplines but anyone who turns up in the morning.

 

This is how we ended up having breakfast with all those people in white and orange. Of course, donations are appreciated. At the weekend there is even a small market with a large range of homemade products and fruits and very friendly prices.

Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects
Coffee, tea and fruit juices were available for free at the temple all day and you could also get drinks with curative effects

The temple complex offers a quiet retreat after the craze of Bangkok. There’s a large pond full of enormous catfish, a dream of any fisherman (but be warned, fishing is not allowed). We saw turtles and a giant lizard, too.

Leaving Bangkok

Our plan was to go north to Chiang Rai from the capital but because we dislike buses we chose to take a train to Chiang Mai first. Thai Railways has a very useful website where you can book tickets online. Just make sure you buy your ticket days ahead as the popular lines fill up very quickly. We only got third class tickets one day before departure for the 14-hour journey. The seats were not designed to fit the average European but there were empty seats most of the time so we survived. We loved the restaurant in the train and all the food offered by locals between the stations.