Sunday, January 3, 2010

LAOS (2006 & 2008)

Luang Prabang and Vientiane

(Carry lots of moist towelettes--my number one tip for all SE Asia)

Perched on a leafy peninsula in the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, a former capital of Laos, is one of the best preserved of Asia's ancient cities (with less than 20,000 people, we would call it a town) and as such, was chosen by UNESCO as one of the Patrimony of Humanity sites, bringing with it all the benefits and curses of that designation. There are lots of tourists, mostly European, dozens of guest houses, restaurants serving banana
pancakes, tour guides and gift shops everywhere. But it did not take long to get over that and fall in love with the place. It's beautiful. Traditional wooden houses mix with colonial French architecture on small streets studded with palm trees, bouganvillia, datura and orchids. There is almost no traffic--a few cars, motos, and bicycles. The windows of our room in an old guest house look out on a Buddhist wat (temple). This morning at
6am we watched from our window as the monks went out with their bowls in hand to receive alms from the villagers.
This is the only food they eat. We, capitalist piggies that we are, have been chowing down on green papaya salad, spring rolls and grilled fish. I have been avoiding the meaty things, afraid they might be some of the sun-dried rats we saw being sold in the market.

We stayed at the Sayo Guest House, an old French house, a bit funky but charming and comfortable, with a view to a Buddhist temple. My friend Caren Cross had reviewed many of the guest houses a few years ago and said this is the best.

For fancier digs, check out and a place called Aspara Hotel

Go right away and eat at Tamarind (across from Wat Nong Temple). The Australian owner loves real Lao food and will explain it all to you—it was our last meal there, but I wish it had been our first. The lemongrass and ginger drink was memorable, as was the watermelon and chili granita.

Rent a bicycle and go everywhere—check your bike carefully before setting out, esp. that all nuts and bolts are tight.

Eat in the nighttime food market, which you will see on a side street perpendicular to the main street, where you cannot miss the nighttime craft market (we hardly bought anything, even though we tried)

We had a fancy meal which we enjoyed at 3 Nagas on the main drag.

Another good meal was at the Park Houay Mixay Restaurant, near the Sayo.

We took a boat ride up-river (a bit too long) and then a shorter one down the river to the pottery village—simple, but interesting

We flew to VIENTIANE instead of the 12 hour bus ride due to time limits, but I wish we had seen a bit more of ‘real’ Laos.

We spent one night at the unpleasant Villa Manoly (which sounded good in the Lonely Planet) and then ended up at the big, glizty, communist style Lane Xang Hotel and loved it. We used the pool every day and saw a great night-club act one night (‘Limbo Rock’ played on traditional Lao instruments). If you book in advance they will meet you at the airport.

The Lani 1 Guest house was the only place with some kind of charm (funky-ish), but it was a few dollars more than the Lane Xang and no pool.

Next time I’d check out the Auberge Sala Inpeng which looked lovely (


I picked up a brochure about an eco-lodge that looked interesting—about 50 km from Vientiane:

www.chanthapanyahotel looked good, too.

FOOD (Vientiane)

Along the river at night there are lots of food stalls selling grilled fish, chicken, and sausages as well as papaya salad, etc. You can lie on blankets with pillows like the Lao people do, or sit at tables and chairs. It’s fun and the food was good.

Also along the river was a nice bar on top of one of the tallest buildings (about 4 stories—forgot the name, but just look up and you will find it). It was a pleasant place to sit and have some lao-lao, a local rice liquor.

We ate twice at the Kualao Restaurant (111 Samsentahi Rd.) in an old house.


There is not really much in the way of sights in Vientianne, but the place has a wierd other-worldliness about it. It’s hard to believe it’s the capital of anywhere. Of course, there are wats, simpler than in Thailand. The Patuxai Monument is worth a visit to see Lao people hanging out. We liked the morning market, which is geared to tourists as well as selling everything from clothes to electronics (we bought much needed new pants and had them hemmed in one hour) but even more interesting was the Talat Khua Din, the produce market, nearby behind the bus station. It is funky and colorful.

We met long-time ex-pat Carol Cassidy at her very high-end Lao Textiles shop (in all the books) and had a good chat--the work is amazing and expensive.

Flights in and out of Vientiane can be expensive. You can take a bus (about 90 mins.) to Udon Thani over the Thai border and get a flight to Bangkok for a fraction of the price.

We did this, staying 2 nights at the border town of Nong Kai, which we enjoyed.

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