We flew from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos. This was just a quick visit, only 6 days, over New Year’s Eve. We were running out of time given that we needed to get to the Philippines by January 9th when Moire arrived. We had booked a flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Manilla on January 8th. So, the plan was December 27th to January 2nd in Luang Prabang; then two days on the slow boat to Thailand and January 4th to 8th in Chiang Mai. The Laos visa was $42 CAD which seemed to be a lot for only six days. Maybe we should have passed over it and just returned to Thailand. Or perhaps we should have skipped returning to Thailand. Whatever the case, we had booked some things in advance which really makes it challenging to adjust your travel plans.
The place where we stayed in Luang Prabang was by far the worst place we have stayed in the last eight months of travel. I don’t often name the places but in this case I will just to advise you not to stay here. It was called the World Hotel. Firstly, the room they put us in on the first night was not what we had booked. The booking said it was a classic studio that was 30 square metres. The room we got was maybe 9 square metres. The room was slightly bigger than the bed itself. The bathroom wall was broken and the shower sprayed through the broken was and over the top onto the bed. The bed was basically a boxspring and was incredibly uncomfortable. The next day we asked about the room and they moved us to another room. It was slightly bigger and the bed was a little bigger. However, in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and the bathroom floor was flooded with about 2 inches of water. The sink water spilled onto the bathroom floor behind the toilet and into a floor drain. It was gross. The water eventually went down but it was still a terrible room. On a good note, I would say that the staff was pleasant and listened to our concerns… albeit in limited English. Also, the breakfast was quite good. Overall, I would say go somewhere else.
One day we rented a motorbike. Luang Prabang is a laid back kind of place and I felt that I would be alright driving here. We rented it for 24 hours starting at 12:30 pm one day until 12:30 pm the next day. This allowed us to do something on the first day and then another place the next morning. On the first day we drove to the Buddha Caves. It was about 40 km from Luang Prabang. We used the maps.me app to route our way. Nic managed the map from the back of our bike. We had to pay about $2 to park the bike and then another $2 for the boat across the river to the caves. At the caves it was about another $2 to enter the caves. The Buddha Caves (Pak Ou) are caves where they have basically retired Buddha statues. When you go in there are hundreds of statues inside a few caves. You can see it all in a half hour to an hour. We had lunch at a restaurant before went across. On the way back to LP, we stopped at a village where they make local whiskey. They put things like scorpions in bottles. I tried a sample but would not try more than a sip. Nic bought a very nice silk scarf from a local boy. We got back to LP shortly before dark.
The next morning we got up and headed to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. This was another 40 km in the opposite direction from the caves. Again we had to pay to park the bike. The admission was another $2 or so. Inside the gate there is also a bear sanctuary. These are moon bears that were rescued from poachers who kept them to harvest the bile from the gallbladders. We then climbed up to the multiple points of the waterfall. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to climb to the very top. The best pictures are perhaps the ones on the way up anyway. We had to leave enough time to get the scooter back to LP by 12:30 pm. We just barely made it.
Later that day we went to a restaurant/bar called Utopia. We went for lunch. It was quite a nice place overlooking the river. Most of the seats are pillows on a balcony type structure over the river. We went and just hung out there for a few hours playing cards. We decided we would check it out for New Year’s Eve the next night. There were having a $15 CAD meal including your ticket to stay for the night. After that we went up Mount Phousi to Wat Tham Phousi. It is a temple on a hill in the centre of the city and people go up for sunset. Unfortunately, it is extremely crowded and the many people make it not that enjoyable. If you are a fan of sunsets, perhaps you are okay suffering through it. I choose to believe that there are probably better less crowded places to enjoy the sunset. And also going to Phousi at another time is probably more enjoyable with less of a crowd. After the sunset you also need to battle the hundreds of people down the stairs. Overall, my suggestion is to skip the sunset timing of your visit.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. We woke up at about 6 am to try to witness the Sai Bat. This is the morning ritual of giving of alms to the Buddhist monks. Each morning the monks walk multiple routes through town to receive alms from the people who have gathered. It is a 600 year old tradition. People purchase small packages of sticky rice from local vendors to give to the monks who walk in procession along specified routes. The monks take the gifts in silence and continue along. It is one of the rituals to witness in Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, we went too late and learned that you need to go out around 5:30 am. We would have to try again another day. Instead, we went to the morning market and enjoyed the culture of locals selling food from blankets and bowls on the ground. We did go back to witness Sai Bat on January 2nd. We did not buy any rice but just stood back and watched for a while.
Later that day we went back to Utopia at about 5 pm. We were not sure how big a deal New Year’s Eve would be in Laos. We suspected Chinese New Year would be a bigger deal (January 25th) but Utopia is owned (maybe run) by a couple of Canadians and we knew there was a party planned. Not that we are big partiers but we enjoyed the vibe at Utopia and felt it would be a good place to spend some of the evening. We got a table and decided we would slow eat our way through the evening. We started by ordering appetizers occasionally and then ultimately ordered a pizza to share. We played Beans (actually Bohnanza) one of our favourite games. Eventually, others joined us at our table. We did not eat the set menu for $15. And from what we gathered it was a good choice. The others at the table who did eat it were frankly underwhelmed by the meal. In fact they ended up ordering off the menu just like we did. Sorry Utopia, you might need to step up the meal a bit. However, the evening was fun and the energy was good.
We did not ring in the New Year at Utopia. We decided to go to the town centre area and experience the festivities with the locals. There was a lot of dancing and singing in the street. Not to mention drinking of course. There was a stage set up and there were performers and a countdown. We could not understand what was happening but it did seem like they were raffling off some big prizes because people were getting very excited. After midnight, we basically just headed back home.
January 1st was a pretty slow day. However, after the giving of the alms on January 2nd we had a slow boat to catch to Thailand. We had booked it in advance but you can do it without pre-booking. For starters, a tuk tuk picked us up from our hotel at about 7:30 am. It also picked up multiple other people. The slow boat dock is only about 10 km from the centre of town so it does not take long. The tuk tuk driver gave us a blank ticket for the boat and asked us to write our name on it. He then handed us 100,000 kip (which we had paid to the tour agency) and told us to stand in line for the ticket. The ticket booth did not open for about 20 minutes.
When we got on the boat, it already had a large Chinese tour group taking up the best seats. They had bikes strapped to the roof. I am not sure why they got to board early but I am sure they paid for that. The seats are like bus seats basically bolted to planks on the floor. They could move so sometimes your space got more crowded as the seat in front of you moved back. The Chinese man in front of me kept jumping up to take pictures and every time he did his legs banged his seat back at me. Finally, I got pretty frustrated and pushed it way up so he would get the message.
The trip is two parts. The first day is about 9 hours long and ends in Pak Beng, Laos. The scenery is pretty stunning but it is a long and uncomfortable ride when you are almost 2 metres tall. You can take a fast boat which will get you all the way to the border in one day but from everything we read it is a very stressful ride and can be quite dangerous. In Pak Beng, we had booked a hotel for the night. We spent a little more than we normally would but after 6 nights in the worst place in the year, we wanted something a little more comfortable. It was nothing fancy but it was a bigger room and the mattress was comfortable.
The next morning we had breakfast and then the hotel took us back to the boat dock. The second day is a different boat. We gave them the voucher from the tour agency to pay for the second boat. This day was about 8 hours and ended in Huay Xai, Laos (where the Thailand border is). It was about 6pm when we arrived. It was a little less crowded on the 2nd day and I got a double seat to myself.
The next choice is whether to stay the night in Huay Xai or to cross the border into Chiang Khong, Thailand. We decided to get across the border and get a bus the next morning to Chiang Mai. We had thought that perhaps we could get to Chiang Rai that night but learned that it was not possible. We had researched a hotel to stay at in Chiang Khong but did not have a reservation. To take a step back a moment, when you get off the boat, there are tuk tuks there ready to take you to the border or to town. We got on one with several people to the border. Firstly, you have to exit Laos. Then you pay for transport to the Thai border. You have to pay a little extra for Overtime for the customs officers because the border technically closes at 4 pm. It is not a lot maybe like $2 CAD per person. Finally, back in Thailand, you need to take another transport to get you to the hotels in Chiang Khong. We had no problem getting a room in a nice hotel in Chiang Khong. If we were not running out of time we might have stayed here for a few days to explore.
To get to Chiang Mai from Chiang Khong you can either take the one direct bus per day or you can take a bus to Chiang Rai and then take one of many hourly busses from CR to CM. I checked out the direct bus to CM but it was sold out for the foreseeable future. So I booked us a 4pm bus from CR to CM. We then needed a local bus from CK to CR. The bus from CK to CR was a little more than 2 hours and the bus from CR to CM was about 4 hours or so. From our hotel in the morning we got a tuk tuk to take us to the bus station. He drove us up and then pulled over on the side of the road and told us to wait a minute. He then flagged down the bus and we boarded it on the side of the road. Pretty simple really.
We had about a four hour wait in Chiang Rai for the bus. We signed up for a free city bus tour in the terminal but ended up missing it because it left early. I suspect it was full. A tourist information office told us that there was a flower festival happening and Nicola got very excited. We killed a couple of hours by walking to the flower festival and having some lunch. We also bought a Thai sim card for the phone. It was about $6 CAD and was good for 15 days and 30 GB. Crazy. We need plans like this in Canada… listen up Bell and Rogers!! We arrived in Chiang Mai on the evening of January 4th. The next day was Nicola Day!!! Her birthday!
I planned us a nice day for her birthday. Firstly, we went to a cat café called They Call Me Cat. For about $7 CAD you can play with their 26 cats plus you get cat treats to give them and you get one drink of your choice. We stayed for a couple of hours and enjoyed the cat love. Charlie must never find out because he might be mad at us for leaving him behind and frolicking with other felines. Nevertheless, Nic got her cat fix. Next we went to a restaurant called the Riverside. It was a nice place on the (you guessed it) river side. After that we went to a bakery that I had found that has nice cakes. We bought a couple of pieces of cake and a candle that said “riches” in Thai (I just grabbed one quickly but forgot to ask what it said). The girls working in the bakery sang happy birthday to Nic. It was quite lovely. On the way home we stopped and booked a trekking trip for the next day. Overall, I think it will be a memorable birthday for her.
January 6th was our trekking trip. We were picked up at our guesthouse at about 8 am. There was about 6 hours of hiking through the hills in Doi Inthanon National Park. The tour included a nice lunch along the hike. The guide picked it up from a road side restaurant before we arrived at the start of our hike. It took us by four waterfalls, one of which we had time to swim at. The water was quite cold but I was ready to be cooled off. Unfortunately, while hiking after lunch, I slipped on a narrow path and tumbled down the hill about 5 feet or so. I was stopped by a bamboo tree luckily. I got a scrape on my left knee but was still okay. One girl was recording video on her phone and turned and caught part of my fall. I wish I had got a copy of the video.
The next day, January 7th, was our last day in Chiang Mai. We just wandered around taking in more of the sites. But then we spent some time packing for our flight to the Philippines the next day. Overall, Southeast Asia has been a wonderful experience. I know Nic told me it takes a long time to see it all… but that just means we will have to come back.