First Time in Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos – 15-19 November 2018

Despite the short distance, it was a bit of an all-day affair to get from Phnom Penh to Luang Prabang, thanks to having to fly via Bangkok. But it was a mostly uneventful trip. The flights were short and I spent my layover in the Miracle Lounge at BKK waiting for my connecting flight, thanks to my Priority Pass. Lounge was comfy enough with some very tasty food. Granted, I was less than pleased with the old white lady putting her bare feet up on a chair while she kicked back and listened to Christian sermons on her phone – with the external speaker natch…

Oh, and then there was the fellow who was seated in my row on the flight to LP. I was on the aisle, reading my magazine during boarding and he needed to get past me. Rather than saying “Pardon me” or some other normal method of interacting, he just stood in the aisle staring at me – while all the other boarding passengers were stuck behind him – until I finally felt his freakish gaze and looked up.

“Oh, did you need to get in here?” I asked.

He just continued staring at me. Very peculiar. Oh, and once he was seated (and while we were still sitting at the gate), he reported to the flight attendant that the passenger in front of him “tried to recline their seat.” I think he was expecting her to reprimand the other passenger? All I can say is I’m happy the flight was half empty and I moved one row back to get away from this weirdo.

As we approached LPQ, we were flying over the lush green mountains of this province. It was actually a tad intimidating, because we were clearly descending but there sure didn’t seem to be any large, flat expanses of ground that might accommodate something like – oh, I don’t know – an airport. Eh, I’m sure the pilots know where they’re going.

I was listening to music on my headphones as we approached LPQ – and Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” shuffled on. It’s a quintessentially American song – yet it seemed the perfect song to hear as I started my latest adventure. And it was one of those moments I have sometimes when I travel where I realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to visit different countries, meet new people and experience cultures other than my own. It got me a little misty-eyed…

Arrived at LP’s small airport and made a beeline for Immigration. Laos does “visa-on-arrival” which I’d done when I visited Siem Reap a couple of years ago (Cambodia now has an online visa system, which makes it way easier; Laos is implementing one this year, I believe), so I knew I wanted to be at the front of the line so I could make it through quickly.

And I did! Things went very smoothly. The two immigration officers at my counter started off in the typical serious and unsmiling manner shared by customs officials all over the world – which is fine! They aren’t CS agents, after all. But after verifying that I wasn’t an undesirable who’d be denied leave-to-enter, they began quizzing me about my beard, how long it took me to grow it, etc. They were all smiles, as friendly as could be and quite fascinated with my beard – which, let’s face it, IS pretty impressive. It was a nice welcome to Laos!

My hotel had sent a shuttle to collect me and soon enough, I was checked in to my lovely and spacious room at the Kiridara Hotel. The place is located a bit outside of town, which turned out to be mostly OK, especially since there are bikes available for guests to borrow. The property is quite beautiful, built into a hillside and looking down toward the Mekong River and the surrounding countryside.

My room was large and comfortable, though the space wasn’t used as well as one might hope. There really wasn’t much of a workspace – which, granted, this is a resort not a business hotel, but there wasn’t anywhere comfortable to set up my laptop – yet there was a ton of wasted space near the closets that would’ve been the perfect spot for a small desk.

There was also a huge terrace – though it was right next to the pool. There were some plants separating the terrace from the pool area, but it wasn’t as private as one might hope. But the view was really great. Well, except for the huge mansion down the road that looked something like Graceland East. It was wildly out of place (it belongs to a wealthy Laotian construction company owner, according to a shuttle driver I met later that week) with its Greek columns and pediments – though in a nod to local culture, there were also several huge bronze elephant statues flanking the entry gate. Kudos to the hotel though for planting a thicket of bamboo in a moderately successful attempt to obscure this mega-home from view.

Had dinner at the hotel – it was just OK (breakfast was similarly uninspiring for the rest of my visit), though my cocktail was very tasty: a Lao-jito!

Up early the next morning to head into town and meet up with my bike tour to Kuang Si Falls, about an 18 mile ride outside of town. I’d been very excited to do this ride, though I’d had a bit of a quandary booking the tour with Tiger Trail Adventures: I could pay double and go on a private tour, i.e. me and a guide or – if some other folks signed up for the tour during my stay in LP – join the group tour. I’d been checking with Tiger Trail regularly and it was just the day before that they told me a group was going on Friday. Perfect! Or so I thought…

Now, don’t get me wrong – the tour was fantastic. The ride out there through the countryside is absolutely gorgeous. Plus it was a nice long ride and included a few challenging-but-doable hills along the way. And our guide, Cha, was very good.

But, as an experienced cyclist, it wound up being disappointing since our slowest riders ultimately set the pace of the trip. Actually, that’s not quite true – Cha and I were typically way out in front together (though even he had to walk his bike up one of the hills that I cycled up with relative east – all my riding at home through SF’s hilly terrain paid off!), with the nice Finnish couple in the middle and bringing up the rear, an older couple from Idaho and our other guide. The couple were not experienced cyclists.

Far be it from me to tell people what they can and cannot do on vacation – but if you don’t ride regularly, does it really make sense to sign up for a riding tour that goes for 18 miles and includes hills? And while they weren’t the worst tourists I’ve ever encountered, they were very American in their demeanor, so not exactly my favorites.

Ultimately, it just meant that we had to stop every now and again to wait (sometimes for quite a while) for the rear guard to catch up. Not the end of the world – but had I been on my own, we probably could’ve made it to the falls in two hours rather than the three-and-a-half it actually took.

Again, though, I was particularly grateful for our guide letting me set a fast pace for us up in front. It was a really wonderful morning – the scenery of course and putting some serious miles in the saddle, which is always so good for me physically and mentally.

One of our stops along the way was at a local silk shop. A very friendly merchant ran the place – though for me, the highlight was the absolutely adorable puppy who was probably only a couple of months old. She was fluffy and playful and loved being around people. She was gamboling – gamboling I tell you! – and just a delightful little furball that I wish I could’ve smuggled home in my suitcase.

Once at the falls – which despite being a huge tourist draw were not overwhelmingly crowded – we walked up through the forest path to the main falls and gawked and gazed and took photos. They really are lovely.

Walked a bit further down to one of the pools where swimming is permitted. The water was pretty chilly but it was a refreshing and the water was pristine.

Next, some lunch at a local place back near the entrance, before riding down to the Mekong River. We boarded a boat for a leisurely trip back to town. As is so often the case with boat rides of any sort, it was a bit longer than I’d’ve liked – but it was relaxing and certainly much nicer than being in a mini-van. Personally, I’d’ve been happy to get some more time riding – but even so, it was a really wonderful day and I highly recommend this tour.

The rest of my stay in LP was pretty laid-back. Spent some time by the hotel pool. Made regular use of the bicycles-for-loan from the hotel to get into town.  

Had a couple of very nice meals at Pha Khao Lao – well, actually the same two meals: larb meatballs which were delicious! Owners are a husband and wife – he’s from UK, she’s Lao. He was very friendly and took great care of me on my second visit, making sure I got to try some of the local sausage along with my meatballs. A really charming place with such good food and a friendly local staff.

I also had a couple of meals at Le Banneton, a French bakery at the eastern end of LP’s main drag. It was a wonderful spot to relax and watch people go by or just take in the temple across the road. A very yummy jambon-beurre sandwich was the highlight, especially the good quality baguette. Pastries were tasty, though some of them seemed to suffer texture-wise from the local heat and humidity.

I was really just delighted with my visit to Luang Prabang. I think I was expecting something more overwhelmingly touristy and that’s not how it felt to me at all. Granted, I avoided the sunrise crush of tourists thronging the local monks collecting alms each morning. Everything I’d read about it made it sound both overwhelming and often disrespectful – though it is a huge draw for tourists. I’m sure it’s fascinating, but the cons seemed to outweigh the pros.

Really, the only thing that I ultimately didn’t like about my stay was my hotel. Granted, it was a lovely property – but beyond that, it fell short in many areas. The bikes – which I loved having use of – were not particularly well-maintained, many with squishy brakes. The shuttle to town didn’t seem to hew to the posted schedule – which is not the end of the world, but there was never any communication from the staff about when/if the shuttle was leaving or arriving. The staff in general were very friendly – but seemed unequipped to respond to anything other than the most basic requests.

Case in point: my last day was Monday and my flight was at 5PM. I asked for a late check-out at 2PM and was refused since, the fellow at the front desk explained, the entire hotel was fully booked for Monday. Fair enough – though I did ask if they expected all the guest to arrive at precisely 2PM, the stated check-in time. I didn’t really get a response.

There were a variety of things I could have been offered: use of a different room; access to a shower and changing room; a compromise of 1PM check-out – but there was nothing. Just repeatedly being advised that I had to be out of my room at noon.

And so I was! I hung out by the pool reading (though not swimming, since all my bags were packed and I wouldn’t have any place to shower and change before my flight) for a couple of hours. When I did leave at 2PM for the airport, not a single guest had checked into the hotel. Furthermore, the couple in the room immediately above mine gathered their luggage and checked-out – at 2PM.

Then I had to wait around for the hotel shuttle to the airport, with no advice as to why it was now 15 minutes after I’d scheduled my ride and I was still sitting by the front desk with my luggage and various staff members hanging around. I finally inquired and got to the airport with plenty of time – but the whole experience on my last day at the hotel was really poor. I have to say, as beautiful as the property is, I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

But Luang Prabang? Don’t miss it! Really just a wonderful spot that I hope to visit again soon.

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