Saturday, August 4, 2012

Soulful Luang Prabang and Vientianne (Laos)

Soulful Luang Prabang (Two nights)



The entire town of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The residents of this town have preserved their way of life.  When we went around town, we observed that it was devoid of malls, fastfood establishments and 24-hour stores like 7-Eleven.

The townspeople are soft spoken and follow a much slower pace of life.  So if you are used to fast service, you have to be a bit more patient when you spend your time in this small, quaint, charming place.

We arrived at Luang Prabang in the afternoon and immediately checked in at Le Belair Boutique Resort (email address: info@lebelairhotels.com).  We liked this place as it made us feel like we were living in a nicely-designed big local house in a local community beside a river.

Welcome drinks at Le Belair boutique hotel.
After checking in, with free big modern Tuk-Tuk ride courtesy of Le Belair, we went to Luang Prabang’s main street called Sisavangvong Road and booked for the following day’s nature and temple group tour with ALL LAO Travel Service.  A minimum of four persons is required for a packaged tour of US$380 or US$80 per person.  Though there are many travel/tour companies which offer similar services, so it’s good to compare their rates if you’re not in a hurry.

Here are the activities we enjoyed in Luang Prabang.

1)    Climb up to Mount Phou Si

After arranging the one-day tour for the following day, we embarked on our first activity: the climb up to Mount Phou Si.  Phou Si in Laotian language means Holy Mountain.  It is a long climb to the top (around 20 minutes), so it’s not for the fainthearted.  But once you reach the top, you’ll surely say that it is worth the climb.  The topmost part offers a calming sunset view and a panoramic view of the city, the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River.  The best time to climb up Mount Phou Si is an hour before sunset to allow some minutes of rest before the sun sets, and to secure a good viewing place sunset view place as the top gets packed during sunset.  For a variety of views, it is best to go up the mountain from one side and go down the other side.  Climbing up to this mountain is free of charges.

Golden buddhist statues/sculpture at Mt Phou Si

View on the way up to the top of Mt Phou Si

View of Mekong River from the top of Mt Phou Si

View of the night market street (Sisavangvong Road) upon coming down from Mt Phou Si.
2)    Stroll along and dinner at Sisavangvong Road

After the Mount Phou Si climb, we walked along the night market road of Sisavangvong, with nice, quaint restaurants.  We were all drawn to the lovely Restaurant Luang Prabang Bakery and Guest House, where we had our sumptuous first Laotian dinner to recharge after the mountain climb and to prepare for the night market.

Restaurant Luang Prabang Bakery and Guest House, along Sisavangvong Road

Local Laotian food at Restaurant Luang Prabang Bakery and Guest House: C'est si bon!
3)    Night Market shopping

After dinner, we checked out the night market.  Every night the Sisavangvong Road is closed and is converted into a market with local vendors.  Products sold ranged from local souvenir items to silk clothes and bed covers.  It is worth going to this market, not only because of its reasonably-priced quality products but also to observe how the locals sell their products.  This is the only market I’ve been to in Asia where stall owners didn’t tout.  I didn’t have the impression that the vendors were overpricing as haggling was almost non-existent.  One of my friends (who else but Dan!) went gaga over shopping!  The market was open till around 11PM.

The night market street called Sisavangvong Road; the market is worth checking out, with quality products and no hard-sell among stall owners.
4)    Alms offering to the monks

The following morning, we woke up early to catch the 6AM parade of monks around town, a must do when you are in Luang Prabang.  This has to be arranged the day before with Le Belair reception so a free Tuk-Tuk ride could be made available for a trip to the site, which is at the end of Sisavangvong Road.

Once you arrive at the site, you could take part in giving food to the monks (if you feel like) by kneeling at the roadside.  You could purchase food offerings from the side street vendors.  This is a very humbling and touching street scene, as even toddlers stood side by side with their parents to offer food to the monks.  For me, this was the highlight of the whole Luang Prabang experience.

This is what you see in Luang Prabang at 6AM.

I was genuinely  touched by this generous act of these two little girls.
The Tuk-Tuk waited for us and immediately brought us back to Le Belair afer the alms offering for a relaxing breakfast by the river (included in the room package).  At round 830AM the staff from ALL LAO Travel Service picked us up at Le Belair for the one-day nature and temples tour.

5)    One-day packaged nature tour

The one-day tour included the following:  Wat Mai (temple), Wat Sene (temple), Wat Xieng Tong (temple), Ban Phanom (weaving village), Kuang Si (waterfalls) and Mekong River Cruise.  End the tour with a relaxing dinner at one of the restaurants by the Mekong River.

Make sure you visit the beautiful temples in Luang Prabang.

Inside one of the temples.

Mothers usually bring their children to the temple to pray with them.
Ban Phanom weaving village

Silk cocoon, Ban Phanom weaving village.

Silk plant, shown by our guide at  Ban Phanom weaving village.
Kuang Si falls

One of the swimming areas at Kuang Si falls.
Mekong River, as viewed from Luang Prabang.

Mekong River
 6)    Massage

There are many reasonably-priced massage salons along Sisavangvong Road from which you could choose.  We went for a one-hour massage (less than $15 dollars!) at Sisavangvong Road when our tour guide took a break around mid-afternoon, before bringing us to the Mekong River cruise. It was one of the best Thai massages I've ever had, at such a cheap price. I highly recommend having a massage just before the Mekong river sunset cruise, after all the other activities are done.

 
Vientianne (Two nights)

After staying two nights in Laung Prabang, we flew to Vientianne to visit our very dear couple-friends.  As the flight was early morning, Le Belair provided packed breakfast (sandwich+ 1 fruit+ bottled water).

For two days, our very gracious host-friend brought us around Vientianne. The best part was catching up with our couple-friends while enjoying the Gourmet/Culinary experience, as we dined in the best restaurants.  Other than the food trip and seeing our couple-friends (which was the best aprt of our Laos trip), there’s really nothing memorable in Vientiane.

Estimated Expenses of the 4-night Singapore- Luang Prabang-Vientiane-Singapore route:
Airfare= S$900+ per person; Singapore-Bangkok-LuangPrabang-Vientiane-Bangkok-Singapore
Le Belair Hotel in Luang Prabang, De luxe Room=US55 (when room is shared with two people)
One-day tour=US$80
Thai Massage=40,000Kip (around US$5)
Restaurants=approximately US$130 per person for the whole trip

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