Laos is abundantly green and picturesque and also really, really hot and humid. We spent six days in northern Luang Prabang along the Mekong River and enjoyed our time exploring the town and surrounding areas. We felt like we were thrown back in time – no corporations, Starbucks, Micky D’s, or a 7-11 to be seen. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site so it’s been completely untouched and we found ourselves immersed in its culture – a truly rural experience. As a landlocked country, Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand because most things are imported, but not by very much. Our Airbnb apartment was located in a small neighborhood and thankfully had air conditioning in the bedroom. Initially, we were excited to stay away from downtown but after being awoken at 6:00AM on more than one occasion by a combination of roosters, chain saws, and strange music blaring from a speaker in the street (so bizarre, I wish we took a video), we were ready to get back to city life by the end of our stay. Luang Prabang is laid back and slow paced and you can tackle pretty much everything in a few days, so looking back we would have stayed for maybe half the time that we did.
Our Airbnb hosts helped to arrange a motor bike rental for a few days which we were hesitant about initially, but once we realized that people drive on the right side of the road it was game on. Coming from Thailand where driving is chaotic and completely backwards from the States we were more at ease with the leisurely speed and less crowded roads. What we weren’t prepared for were all the potholes – it was seriously like a game of Mario Kart at times! Even though our apartment was a fifteen minute walk to the main town, it was nice to have the bike to lessen our time in the crazy heat and humidity. We also wanted to take the drive to Kuang Si Falls which was highly recommended by our hosts and other bloggers. Most tourists hire a Tuk Tuk or small bus but we wanted to experience the drive at our own pace and see some of the countryside. The ride was longer than we had anticipated but the scenery, smells of burning wood, and small villages with animals and small children playing everywhere made it worth while. Once we arrived at the Falls, we grabbed a quick bite of grilled chicken and some fried rice which made all the difference because unbeknownst to us, there would be a rigorous hike ahead. The base of the Falls were a beautiful light blue and before making the ascent, we were able to spend some time in a rescued bear sanctuary which was pretty awesome. Next up, some photo op’s at other areas near the base and then up to the top which we thought was going to be a pretty easy climb… that would be if we actually went the right way. Nope. We followed another couple and ended up taking the steep and slippery route and with Jenn in her sandals it proved to be more difficult. Completely drenched after our leg and cardio workout, we reached the top relieved to have made it without a fall or sprained ankle. Views to the bottom were hard to see but the waterfall itself was gorgeous and bright blue. The area was mostly filled with backpackers swimming in the natural pools, taking photos, and enjoying themselves. We opted to enjoy the views instead of taking a dip and made our way down, the right way this time, and hopped back on our motorbike to make the long journey home. At one point about halfway back we stopped dead in our tracks after encountering a herd of cattle in the middle of the road. Not knowing whether to navigate through them (some had gigantic tusks), we turned around and waited for some locals to drive by and lead the way. A minute later a local on a scooter weaved right through the herd and we followed closely behind. It was hilarious – a true “cow in headlights” moment.
(click on pictures to enlarge)
On our last day we walked to the top of Mount Phousi, located in the middle of town and the highest point in the area. We were originally going to stay to watch the dusky orange sunset but it was so hot, buggy and crowded that we decided to enjoy the view for a few minutes and watch the sunset elsewhere.
We visited the well known outdoor night market one evening to grab dinner and walk around which is where most people spend their time after the sunset. The products sold were very well made, especially the textiles which Laos is known for. We opted to grab dinner at one of the food stalls outside of the main eating area which was too hot and cramped for us. We found a little family-owned stand serving noodle soup (a Laos staple) and Khao Soi, a completely different version than what you get in Thailand which Jenn preferred. The noodle soup was light and very flavorful and the Khao Soi’s broth had a depth of pork flavor hard to describe. It was really tasty. We were fortunate to try some other traditional Laotian dishes at Joy’s Restaurant, a five table eatery in the home of the owners (Joy) sister and it was one of the most memorable food experiences. In fact, the same two guys who were eating there our first time came back again the next day – that’s definitely a good sign! Both times we had the pleasure of getting to know Joy and enjoy her fresh and delicious dishes which were all made to order. The green papaya salad was the absolute best we’ve ever had and the chicken Laab, full of shaved lemongrass and tangy lime was another winner. We also tried Kaipen, a flash fried river weed from the Mekong served with a perfectly rich, smoky and spicy chili-paste. Joy’s talent in the kitchen was evident and it was easy to tell that she genuinely cooks with love. We talked at length both times, learned about her family and husband, an Australian photographer, and how they’ve made Laos their home ever since meeting years ago. In fact, their love story was featured in the newspaper that she proudly displays in the restaurant. So adorable. She’s such a special lady!
We had dinner one night at Utopia which is a big hangout for backpackers and tourists in general and we understood why. It’s located directly above the Mekong and has outside seating in many areas depending on your preference. We opted for the area directly overlooking the river and instead of chairs, we sat on mats that could be used for sitting or laying – very chill. It was at Utopia where we had our first taste of Dark Beer Lao – the best beer we’ve had in SE Asia. The food was also pretty good with the tomato and smoked eggplant soup as the winner. We also tried Blue Lagoon the night of our waterfall excursion to treat ourselves to an air conditioned dinner. The service was lovely and food delicious. We had our first and last experience of Lao whisky which generally tastes like grain alcohol with absolutely no flavor whatsoever – no thank you. Lunch one day was at this cute restaurant close to the river called Khaiphaen where they’re known for a hospitality training program for teenagers and young adults. The food was also good – the eggplant dip and grilled beef sandwich delivered, especially the baguette it was served on. Since Laos was once a French colony, some of its influence remains in the food, bread being a main staple. There are stands that only serve sandwiches and we tried one with the same opinion as the first. Not as much meat as we would have wanted but the bread was top notch! Another pleasant culinary surprise was our dinner at Secret Pizza. After some research, we decided to find our way to this hidden pizza oasis, a little skeptical at first because of our love and respect for a good pie. The owner is an ex-pat from Italy and he and his wife built a pizza oven in their backyard to initially entertain friends. Soon after, they decided to open a restaurant which has become the most sought after pizza joint in town and we completely understood why after the first bite. It was easily comparable to any decent Neapolitan-style pizza you get in the States and since its only open on Tuesday and Friday nights (weird, I know), we were happy to have our fill. On our last night we enjoyed dinner at Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, especially the green salad with a deliciously tangy vinaigrette – not a heavy, too sweet, mayo-based dressing which tended to be the norm. Their spicy mushroom Tom Yum and lasagna were really fresh, well prepared and provided a satisfying end to our experience in Luang Prabang.
All in all we had a nice time in Laos, but Thailand still tops our list as our favorite country in SE Asia from the places we’ve visited so far.