Relaxing in Laos' Cultural Capital
Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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Where I stayed
Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang 192 miles
by Van 9AM to 5PM
3 Feb Mojo Guesthouse 2 nights (120000kip/$15)
5 Feb Vilayvanh Guesthouse 13 nights (120000kip/$15)
The Way to Luang Prabang, Laos
Both the private van and big public bus to Luang Prabang leave at 9AM. We opted for the 11 passenger van because we thought it would be quicker and a smoother ride. And for $2.50 more for the 8 hour journey, we thought it would be worth it. We arrived first and Michelle claimed her coveted front seat!
The road out of Luang Namtha starts out flat but still has plenty of rough patches and potholes to make the driver earn his pay. Soon enough, the road climbed though jungle covered hills. The Laotian next to me started feeling car sick and asked for a baggie from the driver. Usually buses in Laos have bags tucked in every seat back. There are very few straight roads in Laos and the Lao people seem to have a low tolerance. We passed many small villages that erect ramshackle houses very near the road. Many of them are wooden but now we see most replacements are made from block and cement. None of it is fancy but many have satellite TV dishes and snarls of electrical wires connecting the buildings. What more do you need?
We looked out the window and spotted Sander, the 27 year old Belgium guy who lives in Kunming. He was on his bicycle. We first ran into Sander at a café in Jinghong. Of course we have to talk to all the cyclists when we get a chance. We met Sander a second time at the Immigration Office as were exiting China. This is the third time. But we couldn't stop and we just waved. Sander is cycling from Kunming to Bangkok this time and he travels super light. He has just rear panniers and those are not full. The climate here is mild so he doesn't need many clothes or a jacket. He stays in guesthouses and doesn’t cook. He was peddling like mad and making good time up a steep slope.
We arrived in Luang Prabang at a bus station on the outskirts of town. We shared a tuk tuk to the central part of town. The main tourist area in Luang Prabang is on a small peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Khan River. The driver was willing to drop us at our hotel but he had a difficult time finding it. We got a nice tour of the city because of it. Actually Mojo Guesthouse is a new name. A young guy from Thailand bought the Lao Moon Guesthouse a few months ago and changed the name. He and his brother are in the process of fixing up the place and it is still a bit rough around the edges.
We had met and talked with Delphine, a French girl in the van and we agreed to meet up for dinner the next day. This was her return to Luang Prabang before catching a plane home to Paris and she had a few ideas. She suggested we met at Utopia Restaurant at eight for drinks then go for Lao barbecue at a place she likes along the river. Sounds good!
Amazing Night Market Food: Big Fish, Buffet & Chicken
For tonight, we were on our own. We found our way to the night market. LP night market is massive and one of the best for souvenirs. I had to drag Michelle away even though she knows we can’t buy anything. We tapped the ATM for another million kip and found the food alley. They have great barbecued pork, chicken and fish as well as an 'all you can eat’ selection of non-meat items that is $1.25 for all that you can pile on one plate.
In the morning we made our way to the Mekong and one of the outdoor restaurants on a platform overlooking the Mekong. Simple food and million kip views!
Finding Utopia – Zen by Day, Groovy by Night
Utopia Riverside Restaurant and Bar has a series small signs that lead you from a main road, through the neighborhood of small streets, then to a footpath to the entrance of Utopia, a super relaxing place, perched on a bluff overlooking the Nam Khan River. We stepped through the front door and were immediately struck by the cool ambiance of the place. Low lighting, acid jazzy and cool pop music plays, cushions on the floor around low tables. Hookah pipes and pieces of Vietnam era bomb parts round out the décor. (Laos was one of the most bombed countries during the Vietnam war and parts of Laos are still littered with unexploded ordnance.)
Beyond the covered main patio, Utopia has garden tables on the grass and a lounging platform next to the yoga deck. Those have the best view of the river. Food and drinks are quite good. We went to Utopia perhaps 10 times during our stay in LP.
Later we met Rob, the brains behind the operation. He began working at Utopia and eventually took over the lease. He revamped the menu, found a yoga teacher to put on classes in the morning, and tries to keep drugs off the premises. The menu has The Hungry Cyclist burger named after the writer of the book; The Hungry Cyclist; Peddling the Americas in Search of the Perfect Meal. Rob said the writer came to Utopia and helped him create a new menu. The Hungry Cyclist Burger’s key ingredient is wasabi mayonnaise. My favorite thing on the menu is the Cluster Bomb Breakfast set served with great Lao coffee. Rob said his place has become the most popular LP. And judging from the steady stream of people going from and to Utopia, he probably is correct.
Finding More Great Food; Lao Barbecue
Back to meeting Delphine for dinner. After a short fruit shake at Utopia, we walked the kilometer down the peninsula to an unnamed riverside barbeque café. It is under awnings and doesn't have a name sign. We were given the only free table and a menu. A good crowd is always a good sign. They only serve the BBQ set and drinks in the evening. We asked for 3 sets. The waiter told us two would be enough for three people to share. A basket of vegetables with mushrooms and a plate of three meats appeared. We cooked the items ourselves on the heating dish on the table. Drippings from the meat and veggies drop into the bouillon filled rim of the BBQ pan to create a delicious broth.... BBQ this way is nice way socialize over a slow dinner. We went back two more times during our stay in LP.
Finding Home at Vilayvanh
I was anxious to go back to Utopia in the daytime so we went for breakfast. Along the way, we passed a guesthouse that Delphine said was recommended in the Lonely Planet. We stopped in and asked if they had room. It was fairly early in the morning and we got lucky. They had a room. This time of year, they are always full. And if someone moves out, by 9AM, someone will have come by to claim the vacant room. We immediately doubled back up to our Mojo guesthouse, less than 5 minutes away, and picked up our bags.
We got back to VV Guesthouse quickly. We crossed the threshold and the Manager, Duk, greeted us warmly by saying ‘..this is now your home.’ He was very sincere and the moment we entered, the whole staff watched out for us and made sure we were happy; Duk, his assistant, and even the cleaning lady. Nothing was too much for them. They did our laundry, ran to the store for ice for us, shared their sticky rice and seaweed treats, and served free coffee and fruit in the mornings. When Duk told us he made the single cup coffee filters used at the guesthouse, Michelle asked if he would make one for her. He was delighted and two hours later, we were the owner of a brand new reusable coffee filter/holder.
We first paid for 3 days, then 2 days, then 3 more days and it went on. We didn’t want to leave. If we had more than a 30 day visa, we might still be there!
Running into Sander Again
We spotted Sander, the Cyclist, at the Aussie Sports Bar having a beer. We went over and greeted him. He was resting up in LP for 5 days before continuing south. Over those next few days we had dinner at the night market with him and had him over to our house for Mojitos. He had taken two days on his bike to cover what we did in one. At that rate, we quipped, you will be in Bangkok before us!
February 7th Full Moon
Today was Utopia by day and street market in the evening.
As dusk was setting, Duk was preparing 2 small shrines at the guesthouse with flowers, incense and candles. Spirits are able to follow the smoke from the incense and find the people who they help keep safe. Duk invited us to join him and walk over to the local temple to observe a special ceremony. The ceremony coincides with the full moon. Monks were chanting prayers inside the small temple. Parishioners were inside and outside the temple as there was not enough room for them all inside. The chanting ended and a candle-light procession formed with the monks leading and the families following. They completed three laps around the small temple to the beat of a giant drum and symbols.
The next morning, Michelle woke up feeling body aches and more. I felt fine so all we could attribute it to was (maybe) the fish she ate the night market. Often, we have the same thing or at least taste each other’s food. The fish was an exception. So the fish must have been the culprit.
Valentine's Day with Fed-Ex
We got a surprise email out of the blue from Fed-Ex. They received the prescription and the parcel was released! Where shall we send it they asked? They couldn’t forward it outside of China and they wanted us to pay return charges if we wanted it sent back to the States. After more than two months, you want us to pay again for the parcel to be forwarded?, we complained. Yep, if you want it, you pay, came the reply (not a direct quote but that was the tone.) We gave them Sander's address in Kunming. If we do end up going back into China, we would be passing through Kunming on our way to Sichuan Province.
Meeting up with Henrik the Viking
Henrik checked into the VV Guesthouse and became part of our daily routine. Henrik is a freelance journalist who has been pretty much on the road since 1993. The longest he has stayed in one place is six years in Spain. Somehow he had time for a wife and two kids along the way, one of whom is studying in Canada on a Fulbright scholarship. Henrik makes a living writing stories and submitting them to various periodicals. He has a process and it works. It has been funding his travels for so long now. He came to Luang Prabang to do a story on the Book Boat, a charitable initiative started by an American. They work with the local library and take school books and supplies up the river to small village schools way off the grid. Henrik met with the director and scheduled a ride along on the Book Boat.
We usually had long discussions over coffee with Henrik in the morning and then go our separate ways. Then we’d be playing cards and meet up again after Henrik woke-up from his afternoon siesta for a mojito (Michelle’s specialty by now). Then we’d be off to dinner somewhere in town together.
Henrik told us travel stories galore and sparked our interest to go to some of his favorite places, Goa, Bali, Cambodia…