Luang Prabang – Relaxing in the City

We took a sleeper bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang which might have been one of the worst decisions we have made thus far.  Firstly, the sleeper bus cost us more than a day bus would have (which means we didn’t actually save any money by not paying for accommodation), and this sleeper bus made the sleeper buses in Vietnam seem like a luxury.  Instead of getting our own reclining seats, we were both cramped together in a space on the floor, about the size of a child’s bed, with nothing but two blankets and a couple of dirty pillows.  After attempting to sleep in positions that would make a chiropractor’s eyes bleed, we finally made it to Luang Prabang at about 6:30 in the morning.

After negotiating a tuk tuk down to 15,000kip per person into the city center, we wandered the streets exhausted, looking for reasonably priced accommodation.  After going from guesthouse to guesthouse, another traveler approached us and told us that he too had tried to find accommodation in the price range we were hoping for, only to find that everywhere in the area was at least 120,000kip for a double room.  By Western standards, 130,000kip ($16) is not much for a double room, but by comparison it’s quite a lot more than most budget accommodations in Laos and more than most places we stayed in Vietnam.  We relented and booked a room in Central Backpackers Hostel (which is not central at all), assuring ourselves that the nice room and free breakfast made it worth it.

We decided that we deserved a nap after a sleepless night, and woke up around noonish.  We walked to the center of town where several stalls are set up next to each other selling sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes.  All of the stalls sell the exact same things and they are there every day.  A couple sandwiches and a banana shake later, we wandered around the city to get an idea of what it had to offer.

Luang Prabang is sleepy and laid back like Vientiane, but the scenery is admittedly much better.  It sits at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan river, so many of the guesthouses and restaurants sit next to the water.  Additionally, the city itself is lush with trees and jungle plants which add to the charming atmosphere.

IMG_2465
Monks across the river

IMG_2466

We headed to a local cafe with the intention of using the internet, (only to find that it didn’t work) but we got some treats anyway.  We decided to hang out in the common area of our hostel to do some internet surfing instead which ended up working out much better…until the city wide blackout!  It happened out of no where and no one seemed to be perturbed by it.  Everything was normal, then all of a sudden we were sitting in complete and utter darkness.  It was actually kind of exciting!  Plus, the power came back on after 20-30 minutes so it wasn’t a real issue.

For dinner we decided to try a place called Lao Lao Garden.  After walking through the main entrance, we found ourselves outside again in their enormous garden patio surrounded by trees and plants.  It literally felt like we were sitting in the middle of the jungle even though we were right in the middle of the city.  This is where we got our first chance to try traditional Lao barbecue.  Our waiter lifted the center tile of our table to reveal a small pit where he put a cement block filled with burning coals.  After setting a hot plate shaped like an upside down bowl on top, he poured soup in the ring around the plate and set a big chunk of animal fat in top. He put baskets of raw meat and vegetables on the table next to us and instructed us to start cooking!

IMG_2467
Surprise hole in the table where the coals go

First you put vermicelli noodles and vegetables in the soup, then set the meat on top to cook.  It was a little time consuming but also quite fun.  We were given buffalo, chicken, and pork along with a large assortment of veggies.  The food was decent but what really got us was the peanut tamarind sauce they serve on the side…yum!

IMG_2468
Big hunk of fat in the middle in to grease the hot plate!

After dinner we walked across the street and down a small path to a well known backpacker hangout called Utopia.  After getting a couple of Beer Laos at the bar, we sat down in the center space where they have a bunch of mats and lounging pillows on the floor to hang out on.  The place was really large; it also had a sand volleyball pit, a deck overlooking the river, and scattered tables all in a jungle like setting.  They also played some half way decent down tempo music (for the most part) which was a welcome change from most bars in Southeast Asia!  We had a lot of fun here, and ended up hanging out with a big group of people from Brazil, Italy, the UK and a dozen other countries.  Unlike in Vang Vieng, we had the sense (and we were just tired) to leave before going over the top, and called it a night around 11:30; a relaxing but good start to our stay in Luang Prabang!

Sandwiches: 45,000kip ($5.54 USD)

Shake: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)

Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)

2-Beer: 20,000kip ($2.46 USD)

Joma Cafe: 30,000kip ($3.69 USD)

Lao Lao Garden: 123,000kip ($15.14 USD)

Utopia: 50,000kip ($6.15 USD)

Accommodation: 130,000kip ($16 USD)

Total Spent: 413,000kip ($50.83 USD)

Vang Vieng – More Partying and the Blue Lagoon

After an eventful day of tubing, drinking, getting lost in the dark and other debauchery, we woke up mercifully not hungover and set out to explore Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is very small, and although the surrounding scenery is gorgeous, there isn’t really much to do in town other than get raging drunk, or lounge around in one of the hip restaurants until you’re ready to get raging drunk.

We walked along the streets, perusing the touristy shops and came upon a sign advertising ‘German-Thai food, the best schnitzel in Laos.’  We thought that was quite random, and decided we would like to check it out.

After following the hand drawn signs for a few blocks, we finally found Viman Vang Vieng, where we were greeted by a small man with a strange accent.  He recommended ordering the schnitzel, after assuring us that it was the best schnitzel in Laos and even better than in Germany, so we decided to try it.

The man, Mr. Kaz, is the owner of the restaurant and seemingly the only person that works there.  He rounded the corner and started cooking our food which only took perhaps 20 minutes.  Neither of us are any sort of schnitzel-afficianados, but the dish was very good, especially paired with the perfectly fried potatoes!

He sat with us while we ate, explaining that he was born in Thailand and grew up in Germany.  He was visiting Laos a couple of years ago, and when he came to Vang Vieng, he realized that “this was his place” and decided to open a restaurant.  The result is a quirky combination of German, Thai, and Laotian food, all of which he boasts to be quite skilled–and we certainly can’t argue.  We ended up coming here again the following day to try his Thai curry which he makes in the “old-style” and was also very, very good.  He is also an artist, and the walls are covered in his eclectic paintings.

After spending a couple of hours with Mr. Kaz, we walked back lazily to our hostel and sat around the common area for a while.

Around dinner time, we got a couple of street sandwiches, then headed to Kangaroo Sunset Bar, one of the infamous local hangouts.  It was full of inebriated backpackers playing drinking games and grinding on each other to Top 40s music, all while consuming shot after shot of lao-Lao, the local rice whisky (read: sticky rice moonshine) and huffing ‘happy balloons.’

IMG_2456
Happy Balloons being sold by a Lao woman, at a stand in the back of the bar

One of the bartenders wearing a frog suit approached us almost immediately, insisting that we participate in a bizarre game of no-hands darts.  She also introduced us to another girl who worked there wearing a penguin suit who challenged me to name all 50 states for a free drink.  After winning both the darts game and the state challenge, we were full of free shots of lao-Lao and vodka redbull within 30 minutes of our arrival.  After another hour or two of Beer Laos and chatting with the penguin, the bar was closing.  There is a curfew in town that forces businesses, with the exception of a few bars, to close down by midnight.  Naturally, everyone knows which bars stay open after curfew and there is a mass exodus to said locations at about 11:30pm each night.

Somehow our intentions of going to the bar turned into chatting on the curb with a couple of spacey Norwegian dudes that were tripping on mushrooms.  Two hours later, we stumbled back to our room, where we would end up staying for a full 24 hours in recovery from the night before.  It’s worth noting that we rarely get drunk anymore (we’re so mature, obviously) so our tolerance is low, and our tolerance for hangovers is even lower.

After a full day of agony and swearing off alcohol for life, we woke up feeling mostly alive and decided we would spend the day at Tham Phu Kham Cave and the Blue Lagoon.  Most people rent motos or take tuk tuks, but we decided the exercise would do us good after two days of binging and nothing productive.

About 4 miles each direction, we walked by small farms and admired the towering limestone karsts in the distance.  The sun was brutal and when we finally made it there, we were glad to jump in the beautiful (but frigid) blue water of the lagoon before making the sweaty, treacherous ascent to the Tham Phu Kham Cave.

IMG_2458

DSC_0441
The view walking to the Blue Lagoon
DSC_0444
Limestone karsts in the distance
DSC_0454
The Blue Lagoon
IMG_2460
Jojo swimming in the Blue Lagoon

We had done our research and brought along our own flashlights and headlamps to go exploring.  Once inside the cave, there is a reclining buddha statue surrounded by stunning rock formations.

DSC_0468
The sleeping buddha in the cave

DSC_0554

Moving on, the cave opens up to a huge cavern and endless tunnels.  There are also deadly, plummeting holes with no safety precautions but some markings on the wall, so the flashlights were essential!

DSC_0456

DSC_0463

DSC_0480

We ventured as far into the cave as we dared, but it was apparent how easy it would be to get lost in there so we turned back to avoid any mishaps.

DSC_0526
Marking on the wall warning visitors about the dangerous holes!

DSC_0494

DSC_0534

DSC_0558

Coming back down from the cave was even more perilous than the ascent.  Luckily we had good shoes on, unlike most of the other tourists who were fearfully clutching to the rocks in flip flops.

IMG_2463
Jojo climbing back down from the cave

DSC_0561

By the time we started back to town, the sun wasn’t quite as intense but we were pretty exhausted when we got back.  We had dinner at one of the chilled out pizza joints on the main road, then went back to the hostel to wait for our sleeper bus at 11:30pm.

We had a blast in Vang Vieng, but we made our exit before falling into the out of control party atmosphere that so many get sucked into.  It certainly is a good time and worth doing on occasion, but frankly, we worked our asses off to save up for this trip and don’t feel that it’s a valuable way to spend all of our funds.  Plus, feeling too sick to go on adventures during the day just isn’t worth it for us.

So, on to Luang Prabang!

1/28

Breakfast: 30,000kip

Coca Cola: 7,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Lunch (Schnitzel): 130,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Dinner (Street Sandwiches): 40,000kip

Kangaroo Sunset Bar: 130,000kip

Chips/Water: 20,000kip

Accommodation: 70,000kip

Total Spent: 437,000kip ($53.97 USD)

1/29

Sandwich + Coke: 27,000kip

Thai Curry: 95,000kip

Pizza/Beer: 110,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Beer: 10,000kip

Accommodation: 70,000kip

Total Spent: 317,000kip ($39.15 USD)

1/30

Breakfast: 30,000kip

Coca Cola: 7,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Toll Bridge: 8,000kip

Blue Lagoon Entrance Fee: 20,000kip

Food + Beer: 75,000kip

Pizza: 138,000kip

Pancake: 10,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Sleeper Bus: 400,000kip

Total Spent: 698,000kip ($86.21 USD)