After having read about it, been warned about it, and debated about it, we decided to suck it up and save the $200 price difference between the cost of the bus and the flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. We shopped around and purchased a ticket from our favorite travel agent the day before ($45 each) and by 4:30pm on Wednesday we were back at Hanoi Posh Hotel to collect our belongings and begin the dreaded journey. We were “picked up” by a man on a motorbike who motioned for us to follow him. With our large packs on our backs and our small backpacks on our fronts we walked, trying to keep up with him, about 3 blocks to a random store front. Here, he told us to wait along with three other people, and he took off. Unsure of what to expect and yet, not too surprised, we waited for about an hour. Finally, the man returned and grunted at us to get into a taxi van which had pulled up a minute earlier.
The five of us climbed in and the taxi followed the bike to another random pickup spot, where three more guys piled in. Yes, you did the math right, 8 passengers and 8 large bags in 7 seats and change. Typical. After a sweaty and cramped 20 minute drive, we arrived at a dirt alley next to a few auto dealers. We got out of the taxi and waited for a few minutes until the guy showed up again on his bike and motioned for us to follow. With a collective chuckle, we all did so. We joined another group waiting in front of a Nissan dealership and a few minutes later, the guy grunted again for us to split into two groups – those heading to Vientiane or Luang Prabang. The Vientiane group followed him away while we waited again for him to return. Finally he did, and we followed him to the bus station entrance, where he handed us off to a new guy. This guy took us upstairs and collected our passports. We waited for about 10 minutes in the station while they processed our tickets and checked our visas, and then followed him outside to the waiting bus. Total time from hotel to bus: 2 hours. Total activities: 1 – following.
The sleeper bus was a converted seater bus with twin rows of bed-seats on either side of the aisle at mid-height, and a flat surface below with some mattresses. We got on first and snagged a pair of seats in the next to last row. Behind us were three other tourists. Another pair of tourists sat further up and the rest of the bus filled up with locals. Luckily, the bus wasn’t full, which meant there was nobody on the bottom level under us, and in general, it felt comfortable for what it was. We settled in and relaxed for the first 2 hours until the bus pulled in to a roadside “restaurant” for dinner. We were very happy to have our sandwiches from Highlands, which Felix washed down with a beer ($1). Jordan spent our last few Dong on some chocolates ($1.70) and we used the gross bathrooms (Jordan went twice just to be safe) before getting back on the bus.
The ride was long. Throughout the night we were tossed around by the sharp turns, made frequent stops to pick up more passengers and mail collection, and felt the impact of the many many potholes. We fell in and out of sleep throughout night, but we actually woke up at around 6:30am as the bus arrived at the Laos border. We got off, waited until the border opened at 7:00am, got our exit stamps and walked across a bridge to Laos where we bought our visas ($31 each) and were stamped into Laos (successfully avoiding the sketchy guy who was trying to “help” the tourists and happy we had brought US dollar cash which made it so we didn’t get ripped off like the other tourists who used Dong for their visas). By about 8:00am, we were back on the bus and at the mercy of the windy mountain roads. We stopped for lunch in Phonsavan at about noon (yogurt & musli and grilled egg & cheese at Craters, $6.25). We brushed our teeth on the side of the road (no running water at the restaurant) and got back on the bus. 4:30pm: emergency stop by the side of the road – Jordan had to pee and the Vietnamese drivers and co. don’t want to mess with this girl. 7:00pm: tired, nauseous, bored, stiff, and very ready to get off the bus, we arrived at the Luang Prabang bus station. Along with the other foreigners we piled into a tuk tuk (10,000 kip = $1.25 each) for the 10 minute drive into town. We got off right by Joma cafe (a landmark, and oh so nice to see a familiar place) and walked down the alley to a guesthouse we had pre-selected, Hoxieng 1 ($15 / night) We dropped our stuff off in the room and ventured out to stretch our legs and get some dinner.
Walking along the main street which doubles as the night market, it was easy to get distracted by all the various stalls selling art, clothes, jewelry, tapestries, silk scarves, and housewares. Still, we needed to eat and were getting cranky. We decided on a place that looked good and ordered a glass noodle salad and a sautéed eggplant dish ($8). Both were delicious, but Felix couldn’t handle the heat…he turned purple and started crying from the spice. Luckily, he had a BeerLao to wash it down and tame the spice. BeerLao is one of the best things we’ve discovered in Laos which says more about the country than it does about the beer. Jordan enjoyed the spicy dishes and took one for the team by finishing them off. Feeling exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep, we went back to our hotel.
On Friday morning, we decided to upgrade to a nicer hotel for Shabbat. We went out in search and ultimately wound up at Sayo Naga ($25 / night with breakfast). We wandered all around town looking for a supermarket. Along the way, we happened upon Scandinavian Bakery where we bought some rolls and cookies for Shabbat ($3.50). After finding the “supermarket” which was really more of a minimart, we bought some cheese, chips, muesli, yogurt, Coca-Cola flavored Mentos (they are super yummy) and a BeerLao Gold ($17). We decided to see if we might be able to pre-pay for Shabbat lunch at our favorite local cafe, Joma, and were successful. Still in pre-pay mode, we stopped at the massage place next door and once again successfully pre-paid for hour long foot massages ($8 each) for the following afternoon. Feeling good about our Shabbat plan, but with little time left, we hurried over to Delilah’s Cafe for a quick dinner of spaghetti and salad ($7). We made our way back to our guesthouse in time to light candles and enjoy a quiet late Shabbat dinner.
Shabbat morning started with a nice breakfast of yogurts, muesli and fruit (from the guesthouse breakfast) which was followed by a much appreciated relaxing morning. In the afternoon, we ventured out to Joma for a cold cheese and veggie sandwich with salad and a scoop of chocolate ice cream for dessert ($5.50). Next, it was time for our massages. This was a difficult day. 🙂 We started off with a freebie 10 minute Dr. Fish experience. Our feet we washed by the staff and we placed our feet into a large fish tank. In the tank were dozens of small fish who ate the dead skin off our feet. Jordan was so excited to try this as she had been talking about for a long time and really liked it, while Felix found it too ticklish to endure for more than a few seconds at time. Having fed the fish, we were ready for some pampering. We sat next to each other and enjoyed our massages. This was a great way to spend Shabbat afternoon.
After our massages were over, we made our way over to Big Brother Mouse, an NGO which promotes literacy and English language skills. There, we spent two hours conversing in English with local Lao young adults who are working to improve their English. It was tiring to try to understand each other as every sentence needed to be thought out and enunciated clearly. Plus, we had to listen intently to the Laotian with whom we were speaking so we could understand his broken English through a heavy accent. Still, this was a most rewarding experience. We learned about Lao culture, daily life, the education system, the various cultural groups and religion. Shabbat ended just as the session did and we swung by the hotel to pick up our wallet and phones before heading back to the night market area for some shopping and dinner.
We strolled through the night market viewing various items of interest and getting a sense of the prices before making our way to a vegetarian buffet about which we had read. Each person gets a bowl and can fill it up with as much food as he wants for the set price of 10,000 kip ($1.25). We loaded up our plates and had a seat at the long table set up along the alley. The food was delicious – rice with veggies, four kinds of noodle dishes, stir fries with and without tofu and more. About half way through our meal, a Russian couple sat down next to us and we realized our mistake – they had piled on about twice as much food as we had! We vowed to come back and correct this error. Strolling through the night market we came across a genius discovery – an Oreo Nutella Shake ($1.25 and it was so good we plan to recreate it at home). Just as the vendor handed us the shake, we felt the first raindrops landing on our heads and heard the approaching thunder. As the vendors rushed to pack up their stalls, we booked it back toward our hotel, arriving just as the drops turns into a torrential downpour. Happy to be dry, we sipped our delicious shake and relaxed.
Sunday was reserved for experiencing the town, which according to the guidebooks has a lot of charm. We arranged with Ms Key from our hotel to wake up early (5:45am) and participate in the daily tradition of the alms ceremony. Every morning at dawn, monks from the many Wats around Luang Prabang walk down the streets holding silver bowls as locals (and these days just as many tourists) place sticky rice inside. This is their food for the day – they only eat until noon, and can only drink water, juice or tea for the rest of the day. Ms Key prepared three baskets of sticky rice and showed us where to sit, how to sit (kneeling with your feet behind you, don’t look the monks in the eye) and how to pull a small ball of sticky rice and place it in the bowls. Before we knew what was happening, dozens of saffron-clad monks were filing past us and we could barely keep up with the pace, our fingers burning as we pulled out clumps of hot sticky rice. The ceremony was a very interesting and unique experience, and we were happy to have taken part in it, but we found it sad that some of the other tourists were disrespectful and shoved cameras in the monks faces in order to capture the scene. The whole thing was over as quickly as it began, and we were back in bed by 6:30am. It almost felt like a dream.
Later on Sunday, we ventured out into town, spent an hour at the very interesting Museum of Art and Ethnology ($2.50 each), visited Wat Xieng Thong ($1.25 each, the oldest and most remarkable Wat in town), and stopped for a beer and a coconut at a cafe by the Nam Khan River ($2.25). We were on our way to see the Royal Palace when we ran into a nice looking couple who were holding an interesting looking souvenir. As the conversation with Brianna (Canadian) and Ian (Scottish) went on, we decided to hang out with them and we settled down for another round of beer and coconut at a similar cafe, this time overlooking the Mekong River. We could relate to their long-distance dating story, and hope that theirs works out as well as ours. Still enjoying each others’ company, we walked together to Phousi Hill (go on, say it a few times, the H is silent) where we climbed up about 300 steps ($1.25 each, an expensive workout) to see the sweeping 360 degree view and a gorgeous sunset.
Back on the main street, we said goodbye to our new friends and went back to our vegetarian buffet to correct our error from the night before. This time Jordan’s eyes got the best of her, and she couldn’t finish even half of her portion (Felix did fine). Stuffed, we perused the night market and picked up matching pairs of elephant slippers ($5 total) and some assorted souvenirs. Satisfied, we went back to our hotel and settled in for the night.
Ready to get out of town for a little bit, we were excited to go explore the waterfall nearby (one of two in the area, but the only one with water during the current dry season). The tuk tuk drivers wanted 150,000 kip to take the two of us there and back, so we walked down the street in search of more people with whom to share the ride. Luckily, only a few minutes later, we spotted two girls who were in the same predicament. Glad that we found each other, we decided to join forces and have the upper hand in the negotiation with the drivers. Together, we agreed on 80,000 kip per pair ($10) and hopped in the back for the 45 minute drive to the Kuang Si Waterfall. Throughout the drive we enjoyed getting to know Michelle and Marilyn – both originally from Singapore, their cute and bubbly nature made the time pass quickly.
After paying the entrance fee ($2.50 each) we walked along a path to the Bear Sanctuary and arrived just in time for the 12:30pm feeding. We watched as the center’s staff hid food throughout the enclosure (fruits and vegetables, which they placed on top, inside and underneath what looked like a playground for bears). As soon as the staff was done, out came the bears who searched high and low for the hidden food. The Asian Sun Bears were adorable! One of the smallest types of bears in the world, most of them were rescued from poachers and other unlucky fates, and reside here cared for by an international non-profit.
Ready for some waterfalls, the four of us continued along the path through the woods towards the sound of water. Before us unfolded a beautiful sight – turquoise pools fed by wide white waterfalls and a lush green backdrop. Further up the path were more waterfalls and pools, culminating in a stunning 40 meter high multi-level waterfall. We stopped for a photo-op with an excitable group of monks on a field trip, and then followed them up a path on the left side of the falls. The hike up to the top was rigorous and a little slippery on the steep dusty rocks. From the top of the hill, there was almost no view and the four of us waded through the swampy stream and over to the other side. Doubting the worthiness of this idea, we began to slide down the hill cautiously. Hot and sweaty, we really just wanted to find a nice pool of turquoise water so that we could get in and cool off. Luckily, just as we were about to give up hope, a couple trying to climb up the hill told us of a pool only a little further down. We reciprocated by advising them not to climb any further since there was nothing to do or see higher up on the hillside. Sure enough, following their directions, we turned onto a path, ducked behind a “Do Not Enter” sign, and followed the trail a few dozen meters to a beautiful pool suspended between two waterfalls. We joined a few other people swimming in the deep blue water and finally cooled off. It was really awesome to sit by the edge and peer over the top of the waterfall dropping 30 meters below. Already past our time limit for the tuktuk, we dried off and hustled back to the entrance for our ride back into town. We parted ways with Marilyn and Michelle, hoping to see them again later in our trip.
With no time to spare and still in our damp bathing suits and clothes, we walked over to Tamarind restaurant for our next activity – a Lao cooking class! The last to arrive, we paid ($26 each) and piled into a tuktuk with the other 8 aspiring chefs. We drove about 20 minutes to a small farm just outside town where the cooking school is located. Set between a lovely garden on one side and a lily pond on the other, there were two rows of cooking stations set up under a peaked gazebo. Behind the cooking stations, in another gazebo, were two rows of ceramic pots filled with red hot charcoal, which are Lao stoves.
Under the instruction of Chai, a young, small and witty Lao man with a Western sense of humor, we prepared 4 dishes: sticky rice with a dipping sauce (Jordan made an eggplant sauce; Felix made a tomato sauce), steamed fish in banana leaf, chicken-stuffed lemongrass (ours was rice noodles and mushrooms), and sweet purple sticky rice topped with fruit for dessert. The methods of preparation for the dishes were largely the same, using a mortar and pestle to grind herbs together forming a paste and then steaming or frying. The final meal was augmented with a few extra dishes and we certainly did not leave hungry. While Lao cooking isn’t our favorite, the fish was one of the best things we’ve tasted on this trip (we can’t believe that such a process produced something so ridiculously good).
At around 8:15pm, the tuktuk dropped us off at Tamarind, and we walked back to the main street to book our activities for the next day. The plan was to do a half-day elephant riding and bathing package in the morning, and then take a minivan to our next destination, Vang Vieng, in the afternoon. We made the booking ($34 each for the elephants, $15.50 for the van) and retired for the night.
Excited for our day, we packed up our stuff, ate breakfast, and at 9:00am, the minivan arrived to take us to the All Lao Elephant Village. From here on, we had a very mixed experience: on the one hand, the time we spent on the elephant was incredible, and one of the most exhilarating and exotic things we’ve ever done. On the other hand, the overall experience was marred by the fact that the company did a terrible job at providing the services that they had promised and making us, as customers, feel valued. They were unprofessional and didn’t follow through on the things they had said would be done, we were handed off from person to person without any direction, and ultimately, spent an hour wandering around in the hot sun instead of being with the elephants as promised.
Once with the elephants, we were having a great time. Our Mahout, Kong, was friendly and took us out into the jungle where we took turns riding on the elephant’s neck (much more fun and more comfortable than the seat). Kong doubles as a photographer and seemed to enjoy doing our photoshoot as we goofed around atop this gentle giant. Bathing might be a bit of an overstatement, but we climbed onboard in our bathing suits and enjoyed an elephant swim. It felt more like “Felix and Jordan Bathing” rather than “Elephant Bathing”. Just as we were about to climb out of the river, we began to feel drops and by the time we were driving back to town in the van, it was properly raining.
Annoyed and disappointed at the overall experience, we went back to the booking office to complain, and spent a good hour arguing with them and facing their unpleasant and even racist comments, before they ultimately refunded us a meager $10 each. While we would highly recommend an elephant experience, we definitely would not recommend this company, and plan to say so on as many public forums as possible. We boarded our minibus Vang Vieng ready to leave Luang Prabang behind us and focus on the good times we had here.