Luang Prabang in Laos is one of my all time favourite towns: a laid-back backpacker town in the middle of the green Lao hill country, perfect for meeting fellow travellers.
Last time I was here, I woke up on the banks of the Mekong, wearing a pair of bowling shoes, so I was interested to see what was in store for us this time.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang?
Back in 2009, SpicyLaos Backpackers was the cheap, sociable hangout doing the word-of-mouth rounds in South East Asia and I had an amazing time there. The backpacker scene in Laos isn’t quite as it used to be. SpicyLaos is now Lemon Laos Backpackers. “Same same, but different”, they say. I say it’s had it’s day, but then again, what do I know.
This time we stayed in Khammany Inn Guest House, where rooms are surprisingly clean and can be had for somewhere between £1 – 2 per person.
Just like the first time I rolled into Luang Prabang, we (me, Ruth and Adam) grabbed baguettes (a Laos speciality, an improvement even on those of their ex-colonial rulers, the French) and dragon-fruit/mango smoothies from the corner of Kitsalat and Sisavangvong, blitzed the Night Market and started the short hike up Phou Si, a sacred hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.
Phou Si is home to several Buddhist shrines and temples and the trail winds steeply up through lush greenery to the top, where you’ll find the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si…and, especially at sunset, shitloads of tourists with cameras.
We took out our cameras and got busy.
Going Out Drinking in Luang Prabang
Later we hit the town. The epicentre of the bar-restaurant scene in Luang Prabang is on Kingkitsarath Road. Many will give you a free shot of something or other just for walking in. Some are shitty, some are good, but Lao Lao Garden is probably the favourite. Fairy lights and trailing threads blend almost imperceptibly with the natural vines hanging down from the trees above the outdoor seating. There’s bamboo aplenty and the marquees make this a pleasant hangout whether the sun’s shining or the rain’s coming down hard (as it was for us).
We settled in for a night of Beerlaos, fruit flavoured rice wine and, as it progressed, several glasses of straight lao-Lao (Laotian rice whisky. The first “lao” means alcohol and the second “Lao” means Laotian or from Laos…In case you thought they were just repeating the same word.)
Apparently a Beerlao – even at only £1 – is equivalent to your average Lao’s weekly salary, which, as well as making you feel guilty, makes you realise that lao-Lao (the local’s booze of choice) is by far the most cost-effective way of drinking in Laos. Little did we know we were about to discover for ourselves, firsthand, how it is made…
That night Ruth got a message from our old friend Marion from Vang Vieng asking if we wanted to go with her, Kayla and some other travellers on a river boat up the Mekong to the Buddhist caves. I vaguely remember mumbling something to the effect of “yes” and then passing out for good.
The next day we met up with the others (Marion, Kayla, Kush, Irene and Matt) at the dock. Anticipating a long day, I came armed with a beer. It was when somebody mentioned a “whisky village” that I started to get really excited.
The journey up the Mekong was a pleasant one, with the cool air blowing off the water, and the Pak Ou Buddhist caves were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. (Unfortunately, photos don’t come out well in that darkness, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself.)
The caves contain literally thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The upper cave, past a long rest-house where locals were sleeping on the floor (and I was tempted to join them) and up another steep hill, is the fat Buddha, who, Marion told me, was too good-looking to achieve enlightenment, so made himself fat to rid himself of the vice of pride. A noble effort.
After Pak Ou, we docked at a village called Ban Xang Hai, put on the map for its production of lao-Lao.
After wandering the village, we came to what passes for a “distillery”.
The Lao-Lao Fermentation & Distillation Process
1. Soak sticky rice overnight or for at least five hours.
2. Steam it until cooked and firm.
3. Wash it in the river.
4. Combine with rice powder and yeast.
5. Place in open-air containers.
6. Add water.
7. Leave to ferment for five to ten days.
8. Add more water.
6. Leave to ferment for another five to six days.
7. Transfer to a distiller known as a mo tom lao (effectively just an old metal drum).
8. A consistent temperature must be maintained by constantly adding wood to the fire beneath the mo, patching holes and wrapping it in banana fibre or cotton.
9. Extract alcohol vapour into a “recycled” bottle.
10. Replace with cold water every five to seven minutes.
11. When distillation is complete, mix all bottles together and stir to ensure an even alcohol content.
12. Send it out!
You can see me finally pluck up the courage to drink snake “whisky” on Youtube.
After being plied with free samples, we decided to give back to the local economy by stopping at a local shop and buying a round of beers. We sat in the shade around a table of pineapples and whiled away the time shooting the breeze and sharing travel stories…
…until our boat driver came looking for us.
Later that Night
We all met up, along with Theresa from Vang Vieng, at Utopia – the main backpacker haunt in Luang Prabang with its lounge seating and volleyball court.
Utopia brought back a lot of memories for me. Last time I was there, with Jess, a bunch of Americans and Pheung from SpicyLaos, we played volleyball, drank too many cocktails, met Nevo, a great Israeli guy, at some point moved to Lao Lao Garden, drank more cocktails and met three more (not so great) Israelis intent on shagging Jess and the American girls.
Luang Prabang, as with most places in Laos, has a curfew at around midnight. However, there is one place that, for some mysterious reason, is exempt from this rule and therefore has become something of a backpacker legend…the bowling alley! This night in Luang Prabang ended, as most do, with the bowling alley on the outskirts of town.
There was a drunken tuk tuk journey, people were met and forgotten, Beerlao was consumed en mass…
…and at around 3.45am, I woke up to find myself passed out on the banks of the Mekong (well, actually a tributary thereof), still in the (mud-caped) bowling shoes.
There is never any shortage of tuk tuks in the bowling alley car park, so, as soon as I’d figured out where I was, I fell into one…
…and woke up the next day in my bed in SpicyLaos with no memory of the journey home.
I’d agreed to meet Jess that day to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls, so with a terrible hangover we were soon being trundled along a dirt road in the back of a pick-up. I remember listening to the stories of an Australian girl who’d been travelling for 10 years and been turned around at the Iraq border, and it was here that I saw my first water-buffalo wallowing in the mud.
Jess told me all about what I’d missed last night – namely the three Israeli guys breaking into our hostel, trying to get into the girls’ rooms and having to be kicked out by the staff.
The waterfalls were beautiful with their opaque, turquoise water tumbling over rocks golden in the patches of sunlight. A dip in that cool water was the best hangover cure I’ve ever had.
I climbed up the slippery mud track to the top, where I discovered a lone Buddhist monk bathing in the serene blue pools and dappled shade. The view of the surrounding Laos countryside – the green hills I love so much – was astounding, and I lingered as long as I could.
After messing around on the rope-swing and generally relaxing at the falls, we visited the black bear sanctuary next-door.
Back in town, I had something to take care of. I walked to the bowling alley (about 50 minutes) to return the bowling shoes and get my boots…Only when I got there, my boots were where I’d left them, but I’d become awfully attached to the bowling shoes.
I walked out with both. I’d been told last night that the bowling alley is owned by the Chinese mafia, which would explain the late closing times, so I was shitting myself as I made off wearing stolen mafia goods.
Yes, it’s stealing. No, I don’t care. Those babies went on to be the most well-travelled bowling shoes that ever came into this world. They out-lived those boots, and another set, and I’ve even climbed mountains in them. They did finally pass away, in some exotic nation that escapes me. May they rest in peace.
Other Things to Do in Luang Prabang
The other waterfalls are the Tad Sae falls. I’ve never been, but I hear they’re equally amazing.
There’s a temple called Wat Xieng Thong that sadly didn’t make it into this story but which blew me away. There’s also Wat Wisunalat, which isn’t so impressive, but makes for a good reason to explore Luang Prabang.
Back in the present day, we said all our goodbyes, bundled Adam into a tuk tuk and a bus to Thailand, and set off ourselves for Vietnam.