Luang Prabang, Laos…a visa run holiday
January 28, 2017
Since our visa extension was expiring soon, (see the blog on Travel Documents for Thailand), we decided to take a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos and have a visa run holiday. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” We can certainly see what is special about it and I want to share that with you.
Trip to Laos
Laos Airlines flies directly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang every afternoon. It only takes an hour and cost us $234 USD each which included a box lunch on the plane. It was a propeller plane, but saves a stopover in Bangkok and it was an easy flight over the forested mountains into Laos.
We had completed our visa forms and arrival/departure cards on the plane. Since I amazed myself by packing some clothes and my camera gear into my daypack, we were quick to arrive at the visa line. We had pictures, passports, forms and $42 USD ready to go and moved quickly into a new country where we would be allowed to stay for 30 days if we wanted to.
A puzzle we haven’t been able to solve is why it costs more for Canadians to enter Laos than it does for anyone else in the world. It is $35 for Americans and only $40 for citizens from Afghanistan. Another part of the puzzle is why you pay in American dollars. They do accept Thai Baht, but the exchange rate they offer would discourage most travellers so have American currency. Fortunately we exchanged some Thai money for American at the airport in Chiang Mai.
Money in general is challenging to sort out here. The kip has been so devalued, that $1 CAD is the equivalent of about 6000 kip. A million kip is about $160. Although they have a 100 000 kip note, the bank machines often run out of cash. Many places take Thai baht or American dollars, but few places take credit cards. Once you leave the country, there are few places that will take kip in exchange for another currency.
The money exchange offices do a good business exchanging mostly American dollars into kip. We didn’t bring cash except for the visa payment so we used the ATM to take out money from our account at home. The exchange rate was much better for us than if we exchanged it at the booth. We did discover, however, that the ATM’s close to the money exchangers charged a 3% fee to withdraw funds. The bank ATM’s charged a flat rate of 20 000 kip (about $3). I read later that a bank machine near the market doesn’t charge any fees for withdrawals. This could be related to the company or bank that owns the ATM, but it would be worth paying attention to the fees, depending on whether you are taking out a large or a small amount of cash.
I found a guesthouse on TripAdvisor, but chose to book it directly through the guesthouse website. I had also emailed the owner to let him know when we were arriving. For $35/night we got a room with a king size bed, tv, fridge and shower. It also included a hot egg breakfast with a large warm, white baguette and real drip coffee. The use of a bicycle and pick up and delivery to the airport were also part of the package. The webpage describes the bridge across the Nam Kham (the route to the main part of the city) as a rickety, rackety bridge. It was surprisingly sturdy, however. They have to take it down in the rainy season or it would just wash away.
The guesthouse is only 6 years old and was built where a coconut forest used to exist. It was built in the French Colonial style to match the UNESCO preservation expectations. It feels old but has wonderful wood stairs and dark furniture. The front staff here speak excellent English and went out of their way to make us feel welcome, even returning our missing phone to us at the airport.
I knew that Laos was a poor country with the GDP only $3000 per capita. During the Viet Nam War, this country was hit with more bombs by the Americans than Germany received during WW 2. The number of people living in poverty is very high as are illiteracy levels. I expected something much different that what I saw.
People here live in a fertile land. Forests cover the mountains and the Mekong River provides water, transportation and fish. The rainy season renews the land. Tourists flock here to see the old French buildings and experience a part of Asia that moves much more slowly and quietly than most other towns and cities.
The people themselves are so resourceful. Old houses are converted into guesthouses and cafes serve french food, Laotian food and even wonderful fusion food using fresh local ingredients. Silk, cotton and bamboo from Laos are woven into beautiful handmade scarves, bags and wall hangings. The textile industry is bustling here but you might not notice it for the artistic appeal of the products. Even old bombs are used to make metal items like spoons. There is a day market and a night market where they sell these products. Check the travel menu page for more pictures and details on Laos Textiles.
Farmers have terraced the land and grow lots of rice. Other fields are divided into small raised beds and grow lettuce, herbs and other fresh vegetables. We saw a water buffalo dairy on a side trip.
Kuang Si Waterfall
We rented a scooter and rode to a Natural Preserved area about 25 km away. The road was pretty smooth, although narrow considering it is the main road through the country from China to Cambodia. There were a few potholes but we did ok. The views on each side of the road were quite a contrast. The infrastructure still needs some work in Laos.
Bear Rescue Center
There was a village outside the park with lots of stalls selling fruits, grilled meat and locally made textiles. We had to pay about $3 to get in to this Area. The first thing we saw were bears! I love surprises.
The Bear Rescue Center was similar to one we visited for grizzly bears in West Yellowstone a couple of years ago. They rescue Asiatic Bears that trapped by poachers or whose mothers were killed. They are on display in large natural areas part of the time and in cages the rest of the time. We watched as a keeper placed food around the enclosure for the bears to find. These animals seemed pretty comfortable and I didn’t see any clear paths where they had been pacing. They were sleeping, eating or wrestling with each other. We saw about 12 bears altogether.
The park had many groups of people from all over the world. They were swimming in the pond, walking along the paths, taking pictures of the waterfalls and just enjoying the beauty of nature. The park contained several picnic tables, pathways, bridges, changing rooms and signs describing the importance of the many plants and animals. Like many of the places we are finding in Asia, this park could be anywhere in the world.
The falls themselves drain the mountains and eventually the water ends up in the Mekong River that starts in Tibet and after flowing through Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, passes through Viet Nam into the South China Sea. In this area, the water flows over limestone. As the rock breaks down from the flow of water, it gets carried along. The light reflects off the calcium carbonate in much the same way as the light does on glacier water in the Rockies, giving the ponds a lovely blue color.
The overall drop is 85m. If you look carefully you can see some swimmers standing 2/3 of the way up on the highest falls. In other places, it looked like the water was just flooding into the jungle. It is such a spectacular place that is so well preserved in a part of the world where people are more attuned to trying to feed their families.
I will leave you at the park and continue in another post describing the Royal Palace and some of the amazing food we discovered in Luang Prabang, Laos.