June 20 – 23, 2009
I have found out since moving back to Hong Kong that a long weekend-trip can get me to some pretty interesting places in Southeast Asia. There are too many choices, actually, especially when I don’t have a strong preference for one over the others. I have always wanted to visit Angkor, but news about its ongoing restoration until 2010 has put my plan on hold for at least another year. The timing matters little since it is already so crowded.
Then I read this article by National Geographic on Luang Prabang, another place I was interested in but did not feel particularly urgent to go. However, a quote in that article advised “go now, or don’t go at all”. I don’t know how much did that quote motivated me to go to Luang Prabang, but I couldn’t get the place out of my mind since reading it.
After saying bye to cheap tickets to Taiwan and Thailand – that’s the sacrifice to make when traveling to non-mainstream destinations, I finally sucked it up and bought the tickets to Luang Prabang online. I know there are cheaper ways to travel there, but I did not have the time nor stomach for a two day slow boat ride from Thailand or an ass-breaking 10 hours bus ride after flying into Vientiane.
This would be my first time to Southeast Asia, so I was really looking forward to Luang Prabang. To my knowledge Laos remained largely undeveloped, and Laotians were said to be the most laid back people in the region. Although very popular among backpackers already, Luang Prabang still seemed to be devoid of package tourism. I was hoping the town, being the centre of tourism in Laos, hadn’t been completely overrun by tourists, yet.
Flying over the mountainous landscape and looking over Luang Prabang through our plane window was a huge relief for me. After an absolutely appalling twenty consecutive days of heavy raining and thunderstorm in Hong Kong, the light sunshine cast over the dark red rooftops and muddy rivers were delightful to say the least.
Our fifty-seater plane was the only plane on the runway at Luang Prabang’s airport. All of us queued into two lines inside the terminal – those who needed visa and those who didn’t. A quick study of the list of visa fees revealed two very strange items:
No Charge: Singapore, Thailand …… Japan
Charge: All European Nations $35, United States $35 …… Canada $42
WTH!? I understood why Laos waived the visa fees for its neighbours, but Japan? Come on, maybe twenty years ago, but 2009? Even Laos’ communist cousin China had to pay $20 to get in. But even more baffling to me was the second item. What did Canadians do to deserve the most expensive visa fees of all, even more than the United States? Unfortunately, we were the only ones holding Canadian passports on that plane, so nobody else shared our anguish.
Other than the pricey visa, the procedure was quick, and we were greeted by our guesthouse’s staff at the arrival gate. We boarded the small van and had a small talk with our fellow passenger, a mid-age Kiwi in the middle of a three month trip in Southeast Asia who had nothing better to do in a fine weathered day than catching a free ride to the airport and back with the guesthouse’s staff. He was nice enough to offer us some information and whatnots, and he commented how Vientiane was a total bore. Good to know, I replied, since I wasn’t going there.
Our twin room was clean, with a shared balcony facing a small wat. The location was a little far from the town centre, and the walls served no noise ventilation purposes, but for $18 it was a fair deal.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking along the Mekong River. Luang Prabang was in general very clean. I had expected the town to be dusty, like much everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but fortunately that was not that case.
The roads were very quiet, as many locals were taking their afternoon naps. Not everyone was staying idle, though. High up on a 5-stories tall coconut tree, a small boy was busy harvesting the fruits with a machete. His family stayed on the ground and gathered the fallen coconuts, then stacked them up into a pile along the street. I bought one for 5000 kip ($1 = 8500 kip). It tasted like salt water.
Our slow walk along Mekong ended when we took a turn to the main road in Luang Prabang, Th Sakkarin. French colonial buildings lined up along both sides of the road – most had been converted to guesthouses, restaurants, or travel agencies. This was obviously where backpackers gathered, but their numbers were limited, perhaps because of the low season or the economic downturn. The local kids paid no attention to their surroundings and continued to play badminton.
The arrival of mass tourism was everywhere – on both sides of the main street, colonial buildings were renovated and became hotels, cafés, restaurants or massage parlors. At the front of the Royal Palace, entire section of the road was blocked off for the night market where hundred of vendors sold similar low-quality souvenirs.
Finally we got to where the real action was. As the sun began to descend, locals and travelers alike flocked to the local food market. Flies, dust, fumes surrounded the cooked food on the tables, but the backpackers were enjoying their 10,000 kip per plate meal like they had never eaten before. Their mantra seemed to be: better be full now, diarrhea be damned. We chose and picked a piece of spring roll here, a piece of fruit there, but I didn’t believe my stomach was strong enough to endure an entire meal at the market.
We went to the bank of Mekong again to watch sunset, then we had foot massage at a random massage parlor. I hope nobody else visits again, because it absolutely sucked. All the massagers did was rub oil on our feet and created minor fiction between their palms and my feet and legs. If that’s massage, then I am massaging my own feet everyday when I put on my socks.
We had a light dinner at L’Elephant, a French/Local cuisine restaurant, then walked along the Mekong River on our way back to the guesthouse. It was a clear sky, and stars shone brightly above our heads. Although far from the otherworldly night sky in Ollantaytambo, Peru, when I saw the Milky Way, I hadn’t seen so many stars in the sky since. The road was very dimly lit, but we never felt unsafe. The long walk was prolonged as we stopped every couple steps to marvel at the sky.