Sunday, 4 June 2017

The town of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Back again! I do enjoy this town. It would be hard not to.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage site, a town in northern Laos, capital of the province of the same name, and a major tourist drawcard. The quiet, but still somewhat busy streets draw tourists from all over the world, mainly younger, backpacker oriented people, who visit as part of their tour of Laos and south-east Asia. People come to relax, enjoy the beautiful scenery, spend a little time with nature, and generally to chill. The town is a days journey by bus from Vientiane and half a day from Vang Vieng.

LP is a tiny destination by most standards, dwarfed by the megacities in neighbouring countries, it has a population of 55,000. The town lies between the Mekong River and Nam Khan Rivers. Essentially, the town is a long peninsular. The peninsular area consists of four main roads, which form the main tourist area. This is filled with restaurants, hotels, tour companies, tourist trinket shops, and massage shops—everything you need. Prices—cheap, cheaper than Thailand, cheaper than Vientiane, and a far more relaxing locale than both.

Getting in and out is easy. There is an international airport just out of town, with planes to all nearby countries. Also three bus stations, also with routes to all nearby countries. In addition, boats (slow) linking LP to other Laotian destinations and to Thailand. A fun journey. Easy to get in, easy to get out! Transportation inside the city is by tuktuk or rented motorbike or bicycle. Or just walk—it is a small town. Delightfully, there is little aggressive selling. Tuktuk drivers will call out “sir”, but that is it.

There is a lot to do for the eager tourist. Several waterfalls, several caves (Buddhist images), and elephants, local villages, eco-tourism—you get the idea—low key “green” tourism. Day trips, 2-3 night excursions, or tailored travels. It is possible to visit villages with people living largely traditional lives—as people have done for most of human existence. In the town there are two museums, several temples, and the town itself to see. Shopping, dozens of small shops selling local handicrafts, jewellery, bags and what not. Local tourist shopping in the night market is fun. Buy a few souvenirs and a couple of useful items from locals. I always buy a gadget (spoon, bottle opener, etc) made from aluminium scavenged from unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War. There are two small malls, one open air, one more modern in style, also convenience stores, and the rest. Not a place to visit for 'shopping', but a place where you can buy what you need.

Food is great! Laos and western cuisine, and a few others. I even spotted an Aussie Sports Bar! Also cafes, with excellent Laos coffee and cakes. I would recommend the L'Etranger Book and Tea cafe. This noble venue sells excellent food, sells and exchanges books, sells local craft products, sells art paintings, great service, and has a nightly movie screening, which is always packed with 20+ people in the upstairs room watching a movie on the big screen. A fantastic night out.

Speaking of accommodation, LP is the easiest town in Asia in which to find a room. These range from 3 to 1 stars. By this I mean there are no huge franchise hotels, nor for that matter, any large hotels. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site LP preserves its traditional French/Laos architecture, with many of the building being improved upon from my first visit five years back. Walk along any street, and you will see guest houses, hotels, and rooms on offer. A dorm starts at $3-$4, a mid-range single room with aircon is $10+, a better room in a classy stylish building is $25+. I am not even sure if I would recommend booking. Just get off the bus and walk into the town. See what presents itself. Large discounts are available on the off-season (rainy season, second half of the year).

My hotel of choice this time was the Cold River. This is east of the town, on the other side of Mount Phousi (pronounced pussy). I got a room here for $25 a night, including breakfast, where I got to sit and chat to other travellers and volunteers residing here for a few days or weeks. One chap was a Dutch vet, who was advising Laos farmers with cattle and buffaloes—there is only one Laos vet in the province! Also an American nurse who was providing training for local Laos nurses. A French doctor doing the same. A group of American girls (<30 years), who were here to empower local women with English lessons.

My reason for staying here so long (ten days) in LP was to obtain a Chinese visa for my planned Chinese visit. I want to visit China again for many reasons. There are a few academic job prospects I want to check out, also I can visit my online Chinese students, see a few friends, do more waymarking in China, and see more of this large and variegated country.

Chinese visa-this was not the easiest process, but not terribly difficult. To gain a Chinese visa one must visit a Chinese embassy and hand over or present the following documents: passport (naturally), proof of inbound and outbound travel, a hotel reservation for your first stop, and an itinerary of your visit (dates and places). I added to this a copy of my travel insurance (always good to have). Then wait three working days. My wait coincided with a weekend, and, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, which necessitated the closure of the Chinese Embassy of LP. This meant a wait of a week and a few days. This did not disturb me, as you can imagine I greatly enjoyed my time in LP and the Cold River Hotel.

Ready I am. Ready for China. New shoes, a haircut, practicing basic Chinese, which will no doubt give children an excuse to laugh at my pronunciation! Leaving in two days.

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