Flying in to Luang Probang Airport, we were greeted with wonderful views of the mountains, lush forests and, of course, the Mekong River. Laos is seventy-five percent covered with forest and jungle, largely mountainous and landlocked, thousands of miles from the sea. The airport is modern, clean and the visa on arrival process worked well – the immigration officials even apologized for the slowness of computer systems with warm welcoming smiles. We were immediately reminded of the openness of the Lao people. Whilst the country is relatively poor by Western standards, the people are deeply religious, traditional and frequently laughing and smiling.
We were wary when we were quoted Kip50,000 for the taxi transfer to our hotel but later learned that this was equivalent to GBP4.24. Our first floor room in our villa/hotel had a beautiful view of the Nam Khan River; the river bank has an assorted range of boutique accommodation and trendy restaurants, many being attached to Lao cooking schools. Backpacker accommodation tends to be on the Mekong River bank. Luang Prabang is located at the confluence of the two rivers – we were a short walk from where the Nam Khan joined the mighty Mekong – this flows 4,400 Km. from China to the sea via Laos, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Seeing traditional life on the Mekong River is one of Asia’s greatest highlights.
Since we were last in Luang Prabang three years ago, it has become one of Asia’s hottest travel destinations (source Wikitravel) This stunningly different city now has UNESCO heritage status and is on the global tourist map – fortunately Luang Prabang’s relative inaccessibility has so far protected it from the mass travel market. There are probably three elements to its tourist market. Firstly, there are the backpackers, who frequently arrive by boat on the Mekong, on their way to Thailand. The second market is for discerning individual travellers, who seek out the boutique accommodation and local restaurants. The third market is composed of more pampered international travellers, who are attracted to the newer and bigger hotels, offering lots of facilities – these are often a little outside the main city, or a ferry across the river. The cheapest route to Luang Prabang is the slow boat up the Mekong. The quickest route is by air but flights tend to be expensive. Road transport is difficult and bus journeys frequently take twelve hours plus. A relatively new phenomenon is the large groups of Chinese tourists arriving by road from Southern China. Ahead of the Chinese new year, we observed many large Chinese groups.
Luang Prabang, the former capital, is by far Laos’ biggest tourist attraction.The city and the immediate area offers history, culture, life on the river, insights into minorities, as well as a rich array of trekking, biking, kayaking and other adventure activities, along with elephant interactions, caves and homestays. So far, the city is still relatively unspoiled, with fresh unpolluted air but in season tourists seem to outnumber locals. It is still remarkably cheap compared say to neighbouring Thailand.
Anyway, we deposited out bags at our hotel and went out for a walk to remind ourselves of the geography. We turned left and followed the bank of the Nam Khan River. There are rope bridges across the river and the occasional fisherman to be seen wading into the middle of the river casting his net. We soon reached the point where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong – it a popular viewing point and great for photographs of life on the Mekong from a high vantage point. We followed the Mekong, passing many simple boarding houses and traditional restaurants. The views of the Mekong were like a picture post card. Eventually, we headed away from the river, looking for the main street which has an array of Buddhist temples, monasteries, restaurants and shops catering for tourists. We went as far as the night-market and saw the stall-holders setting up. Realizing the time and that we had not applied mosquito spray, we hastily returned to our hotel.
That evening we returned to one of Luang Prabang’s most popular restaurants. We were warmly welcomed back, having explained that we remembered the restaurant from our last trip. Its food is traditional Lao, with a cooking school. We had a special tasting menu and some wine – we pushed the boat out that evening and the cost was circa GBP25 for what could only be described as an eating experience.
After the bustle of Bangkok, it was wonderful to slow down and take in Luang Prabang’s rich offering. For us travel is about contrasts and this was a perfect example, contrasting two of Asia’s finest cities.