Off to a bang in Luang Prabang

Well, what a great way to greet a brand spanking new year with a rip-roaring hangover. Not even good old noodle soup can cure the skin crawling, stomach churning symptoms, caused by quadruple whisky shots and random cocktails. It also cannot cure the hangover blues. That particularly nasty side effect that they do not pre-warn on the bottle. Eugh, they should state:

Please enjoy this lethal concoction which will immediately increase confidence in ones abilities, particularly anything involving dancing on furniture, singing, trying the splits and generally thinking that you are the best thing since sliced bread. Please be warned that once these few short hours of bliss have passed, you will experience the harsh reality of your life and see all your true faults as they really are. Not only will you look and feel like shit, you will feel completely disillusioned with your place and purpose on the planet and may be subjected to thoughts of ‘what is the point in it all’ before burying yourself under the duvet for hours on end. The only cure for this is to either have another beer (not recommended) or overeat (be prepared for bloating and more self loathing should you choose this option).

I chose both as I have no self-discipline, especially in the hung-over state that I’m in. Welcome 2014, and nice to meet you Luang Prabang.

Oh Luang Prabang. What can I say? We didn’t get off to a good start and to be fair I was fairly critical of you. My first impression was just ‘touristy’. I was surprised at the amount of tourists that filled the streets and could forget for a moment that I was in Asia and instead have stumbled upon a small European town. Bags, scarves of every colour imaginable, jewellery, genie pants, throws, cushion covers and coffee/shake bars galore. I must say that I instantly wanted to leave, feeling strangely unwelcome. The locals smiles were few and far between but I’m sure (and after researching Luang Prabang further) it is simply the exhaustion of dealing with the ‘Farangs’, who could be extremely obnoxious and rude. Not all, of course. Most foreigners are completely respectful of the local culture and customs.

Although it was a rough start, I have slowly succumbed to your charm. Move away from the tourist markets and you can wander the streets and smile with the locals, without having to weave through the hoards of people in the main market area. Although not as cheap as Thailand it is certainly a hell of a lot cheaper than the UK, giving opportunity to splurge on the delicious foods and in particular the coconut shakes, with pretty much taste like liquid Bounty filling. Although Luang Prabang would not automatically pop to ones mind when deciding where to celebrate the arrival of 2014, we were not disappointed. The Khammany Inn where we stayed prepared a great party with whisky on tap. We drank, nibbled on various appetisers and danced until 9pm before making our way to the infamous Utopia, where we continued to drink cocktails. Come the countdown, we went outside to the courtyard area where hoards of fellow travellers sat around a massive bonfire. Sand between the toes, Chinese lanterns were set off into the star infested sky with hopes and wishes for the new year. Countdown complete, Edwin and I stumbled through the streets, stopping to devour noddle soup from one of the street stalls. The bars continued to play out their tunes, well into the early hours of the morning with the 12am curfew being lifted for the special occasion. Walking back towards our hostel, a  group of locals welcomed us to drink with them and celebrate, which was a perfect way to end the evening.

Yes, I have certainly warmed to you Luang Prabang. Your laid back, quiet way of life certainly grown on me. You are a place where one can go to relax, catch up on reading, walk and see beautiful historical buildings, people watch and contemplate love, life and the universe. You can eat great food, grab a cold beer and procrastinate in the many coffee shops, bars and restaurants. No, this is not a party town so don’t expect to be parting until the early hours of the morning (New years being the exception). This is ‘quiet’ time, where you can lose yourself in the traditional Lao architecture with hints of the European influence, which add to its charm. Take a book and lay down on the cushions in Utopia with an ice cold Lao beer and just be.

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Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang

Laos scenery by bus

After searching frantically for where to go next after such an amazing stay at the Temple in Fang, Edwin and I decided on Luang Prabang. My plan was Bali, with visions of peaceful bliss, sitting on a deck chair sipping on cocktails. Instead we decided to see what Laos has to offer, with promises from fellow travellers of gorgeous Temples, amazing scenery and even better food.

We scoped out travel information on how to get there with our options being;

  •  Fly – which would take 1 hour and cost £100,
  •  Bus and slow boat – which would take a few days, time that we didn’t have seen as I had already booked the hotel
  • Bus – which would take 22 hours, give or take.

We went for the bus option. Mainly because not only was it cheaper at 1,500 baht but also allowed us to take in the views of Laos as we travelled through.

So, if you wish to take a bus here is what you do. You can’t book your seat online, so you will need to go to the main bus station in Chiang Mai. There, ask the information desk and they will point you to the Luang Prabang booth. There you will choose your seat (depending on what seats are left of course) and provide your passport information. You are advised to be at the bus station for 7.30am with the intention to leave around 8am. Remember this is Thailand and everything is on Thai time. After taking our seats on the single-decker bus, the driver then gave out blankets, water, iced coffee and snacks which meant that we left at 8.45am. The toilet at the rear of the bus is kept clean by the bus attendant. You will be given snacks here and there and are provided with lunch from 7-11. Mine was chilli prawns and rice which was actually very tasty. There were 3 stops along the way so you can stretch your legs, with the last stop being somewhere remote in Laos where you can buy dinner from one of the many restaurants. This stop was around 7pm, so be prepared to wait a long time in the journey to have a proper dinner, especially as the 7-11 dinner is a small. If you have a big appetite, you will get hungry. If this is the case, bring your own snacks to keep hunger at bay.

For your visa

Most of us on board did not have a visa for Laos. I had read somewhere through my research beforehand, that the bus does not wait for people to get their visa. With this in mind, unnecessary panic came over us when we arrived at immigration, making us practically run off the bus to get our visa in fear of being left behind in no-mans land. Do not worry. When you get to the Thai boarder you will go with the many other travellers to have your passport stamped as leaving Thailand. You then board the bus to be taken a few minutes along the road to Laos immigration. There you will fill in a form, provide one passport photo (have a few photos handy as on the form they state 3 copies are needed but they only took one) and pay $35. It is a fairly quick process, depending of course on the number of travellers there. The bus drivers will wait for you and as always with the wonderful world of bus travel in Thailand, they will do a final count before they continue on the journey, just to ensure no one gets left behind. You will be given a one month visa, which is very pretty in your passport and deserves a photo opportunity.

Once aboard, be prepared for the next stretch of the journey. Not only will the scenery take your breath away but you will also be just a little shit scared at the drops that plummet on either side of the narrow road. Of course, research shows that these are dangerous roads, so if you can knock yourself out on a sleeping tablet then all the better. The great thing about this journey is you sleep through the night, arriving at 6.30am so ‘jet’ lag is kept to a minimum.

The journey is incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable, especially though the night from around 12am to 6am, where I felt myself being lifted from my seat with every bump in the road. It is by no means a comfortable journey but it is cheap and you do get to see the amazing scenery and I especially loved the drive past the village homes, where our driver threw chocolate bars and sweets out to the children.

Laos village on route to Luang Prabang

You get to see the great rivers, misty mountains and vast jungle on your long journey before arriving in Luang Prabang. There be prepared to pay 100 baht to the tuk-tuk who will take you to your final destination, which for us was the khammany Inn, where we could recoup from the journey.