SATURDAY, AUGUST 19, 2006. LUANG NAM THA TO LUANG PRABANG, LAOS. I awoke to women screaming and the lurching of our bus to the right. Apparently, our bus driver had swerved on the wet road to avoid a motorbike on a mountainous curve. Our bus ended up at a 45 degree angle just off the road. Fortunately, no one was injured. Upon inspection of the bus' front tires, I noted a lack of tread, which contributed to the sliding of our bus off the road. A few hours earlier, I boarded the one daily bus from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang (70K kip, 9 hrs). Joining me on the bus were the four who trekked and kayaked with me the prior two days: Koya, Emma, Harri, and Anneli. It rained for a large part of our all day bus ride from the mountaineous region of northern Laos to the flatter, lower elevation of Luang Prabang. The roads were entirely sealed and in good condition. The mountains were a lush green, most certainly due to the monsoonal rains. Although it is monsoon season in Southeast Asia, it really hasn't effected my travels. It tends to rain in the late afternoon and early evening for brief periods.
On first impression, Luang Prabang looks like a pretty laid back, traveller friendly city. I plan to spend at least a few days here to see whether it lives up to its reputation as one of the best cities in Southeast Asia.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 20, 2006. LUANG PRABANG, LAOS. Laos is a quiet country (Quite a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of China). It's an early to bed, early to rise country. Pretty much everything shuts down by 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., including restaurants and bars. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. and headed out of my guesthouse, Heritage House ($6/single), to find some breakfast. As I wandered around, I spotted Emma and Koya, the French and German couple, and they joined me for breakfast. After breakfast, we proceeded on the Luang Prabang walking tour detailed in Lonely Planet. We walked northeast of the old colonial district, visiting several wats before reaching the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. From here, we headed southwest along the shore of the Mekong river, passing numerous restaurants, guest houses, and retail stores. Later, we ascended the steps to the summit of 100 meter high Phu Si mountain for a view of Luang Prabang and the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Luang Prabang is a lot bigger town than Luang Nam Tha, but you can still walk in the middle of some of the main roads without worrying about traffic. Lao people rarely approach you other than to say "Sabaidee" (Hello). If you smile at them, they are quick to smile back. One American traveller noted to me that she thought the Cambodian people were the nicest in SEA--until she came to Laos. Most Laotians that I have met speak English. I suspect many speak French too as a lot of the signs are in both Lao and French. The Lao language is very similar to Thai.
In the old French colonial district where I'm staying, there are many restaurants and cafes serving up (so far) excellent Western and Lao food. In between the restaurants are retail shops, Internet cafes, adventure travel agencies, and day spas. The mix of restaurants and craft shops reminds me of both Ubud, Bali, and Lahaina, Hawaii. There are relatively few tourists here as it's the low season due to the monsoonal rains (You can easily find a table at any restaurant--the difficulty is choosing a restaurant as there are so many). Those tourists that are here are mostly Western. It all makes for a very laid-back, chill out atmosphere for this UNESCO World Heritage city. Many cite Laos as the highlight of their Southeast Asia travels, with Luang Prabang being one of the main reasons. It's hard for me to disagree.
MONDAY, AUGUST 21, 2006. LUANG PRABANG, LAOS. This morning I moved to a different guesthouse, Levady ($4/single), because of construction noise from my former guesthouse. It's 33 percent cheaper, newer, and slightly smaller than Heritage House.
I spent most of the day wandering around the side streets of Luang Prabang. In the afternoon, I visited the Royal Palace Museum, the former residence of King Sisavang Vong and his family. It's definitely worth visiting as it has some really nice art, mosaics, and period furniture. As I was leaving, I ran into Harri and Anneli, the Estonians, who were just entering. I decided to try a Lao aromatherapy massage ($7 for 90 min.) It was a good massage, but not extraordinary. But, hey, for seven bucks, I'm not complaining. The standard, basic massage price around town is $3 for one hour. As I was walking back to my guesthouse, I ran into Koya and Emma, who were just sitting down for dinner at an Indian restaurant. They invited me to join them, which I did. After dinner, we headed to the nearby night market for some browsing. We did make offers for some tee shirts and pants, but none of our offers were accepted. As it began raining, we decided to call it a night. I haven't decided what to do tomorrow, but it might involve another massage.
Although Cambodia and Vietnam share a border with Laos, I previously visited both countries in 1998, just after graduating from law school and taking the California bar exam (legal licensing exam). Therefore, I plan instead to head to Bangkok and then to Malaysia, one of the last countries in Southeast Asia that I have not yet visited. My objective in Malaysia is to see the orangutans and do some diving off the island of Sipidan, both in Malaysian Borneo. If time permits, I will stop in southern Thailand for some beach time.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 23, 2006. LUANG PRABANG. Luang Prabang held a boat racing festival on the Nam Khan river today. The town was packed with Laotians and foreigners enjoying the festivities and watching the races despite heavy rains.
Luang Prabang has been a most relaxing and enjoyable stop for me; I didn't even leave the town, which many do, to see some nearby caves and waterfalls. I was content to simply enjoy walking and biking around this very laid back town. Tomorrow I will catch a minibus to Vang Vieng, another backpacker hangout. I'll probably only stay there a day and continue on to Vientiane as I have less than a month to make my way to Sydney.