Minibus Drama and Barbecued Rat in Luang Prabang

121 days travelling and we’ve fallen in love with this beautiful country.

21st January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Our trip up to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang began with another long and winding bus journey. The journey got off to an odd start as a minibus pulled up to where we were waiting and the driver told us he wasn’t there to collect us. Eventually, after some persuasion from the owner of the guest house, he agreed to take us along with an older French man – even though we’d actually booked seats on one of the larger coaches. Thoroughly confused, we sat in the bus apprehensively as he picked up a few more passengers and before we knew it, we were back where we started and the French man was being evicted from the bus. With a helpless look on his face, we shrank into our seats hoping we wouldn’t be next. Bear in mind, the man had actually booked a seat on a minibus, unlike us who had booked to be on a large coach.

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The driver then went about picking up the rest of the passengers and we finally thought we’d be departing for Luang Prabang – an hour and a half had already passed by now. In hindsight, it was very naive of us to think it would be that straight forward. The drivers phone was ringing off the hook and he kept driving more and more aggressively with it pinned to his ear. We circled the town several more times for no clear reason, always coming back to the same office, and it was clear the driver was losing his patience. Eventually we pulled up to what should have been his final collection point and everyone looked around nervously at each other. There was only one free seat left on the bus and there were two people standing outside their guest house – looking rather annoyed, and rightfully so, at their late pickup. The next thing we knew, we were all watching them disappear in the distance as our driver sped off towards Luang Prabang.

The colourful tuk tuks of Laos
The colourful tuk tuks of Laos

I’m convinced that we should have been the ones to be kicked off the bus, as it would have made sense from a numbers perspective. However, we didn’t feel too guilty, as he had checked our tickets repeatedly when he decided to evict the French man and seemed to think he’d made the right choice. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with him.

Once we actually left Vang Vieng, the bus journey itself wasn’t too bad. As we were in a minibus, we were able to take the newer paved road which was a more pleasant experience than taking the back roads (notoriously bumpy so we have heard). We got chatting to the couple sitting in front of us, who we found were doing a very similar route to us and also planning to work in New Zealand later on in the year. It was a nice opportunity to swap stories and a few travel tips, and we found out they come from the same area of the UK as some of my family. Small world.

We made it to Luang Prabang around mid afternoon and shared a tuk tuk into the centre of town with everyone on our bus – it was a much cheaper option than all going our separate ways. Cramming into the tuk tuk (it really was a tight squeeze with 14 of us), it wasn’t long before we reached the beautiful town centre of Luang Prabang. Luckily the tuk tuk stopped just a 2 minute walk from our guest house, so we had a short walk down a quiet, unassuming street before we reached where we’d be staying for the next week.

The view from Utopia in Luang Prabang
The view from Utopia in Luang Prabang

We were really pleased with our guest house location, it was just a two minute walk away from the bustling night market, yet it was on a very quiet and pretty street where there wouldn’t be much noise. To top it off, there was the cheapest laundry service in the whole town (as far as we saw) just across the road from us and the best rated coffee shop in Luang Prabang just around the corner. Result. Saffron Coffee served one of the best coffees I have ever tasted in my life, and a Lao Latte became a daily habit (sometimes twice daily) while we were in Luang Prabang. (I still think about it all these weeks later).

After settling into our guest house, we decided to venture out to find some dinner and explore the local night market. We have found the markets while we have been travelling have been fairly mediocre, usually selling the same cheap knock offs that were fairly unappealing. The night market in Luang Prabang was very different and there were several things we could have easily purchased right there and then (this was to become an ongoing theme during our time in Luang Prabang). Every night the Main Street comes alive with vendors selling a variety of goods, from throws and cushion covers, to jewellery and paintings. My wife has been collecting little patchwork flags of each country we have been visiting and managed to find a big chunk of the ones she was missing, much to her delight. We had dinner that evening at a restaurant called Buang which was highly rated on Trip Advisor and we could see why – the food was absolutely delicious.

Anyone fancy some barbecued rat?
Anyone fancy some barbecued rat?

Later that evening, we went to meet up with the couple we had met on the bus earlier that day for a drink by the river. It was lovely to spend a couple of hours chatting and swapping stories, as well as getting another perspective on long term travel as a couple and having a good laugh in the process.

22nd January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)

This morning we set off to find some breakfast at a cafe called L’Etranger. The cafe sells a variety of handicrafts and second hand books as well as serving delicious food, it’s a real little gem. I decided to try a local Laotian breakfast consisting of aubergine dip, sticky rice and a poached egg, while my wife played it safe with yoghurt, muesli and fruit. They also told us about the movie nights they run every evening, so we made a mental note to make sure we came back for a movie before we left for our next stop on our trip.

Bombs used as artwork in Utopia
Bombs used as artwork in Utopia

After a satisfying breakfast, we popped into a couple of the local handicraft shops around the town. Luang Prabang is absolutely full to the brim of shops selling amazing local handicrafts, so we were very spoilt for choice. One of our favourites was just across the road from L’Etranger and was called Mai Te Se. We had to talk ourselves out of several items in the shop, telling ourselves that we would be able to buy them online via their webshop once we were back home (my wife made me promise, somewhat reluctantly).

After prising ourselves (more my wife) away from endless cushions and blankets, we decided to make our way over to a restaurant called Utopia. We had read good things about this restaurant being the perfect place to spend the afternoon chilling out, as it was equip with loads of beanbags and cushions, as well as boasting lovely views over the Mekong river. We ended up spending a couple of hours there, reading our books and having a bite to eat. My wife even found the time for a quick nap in the afternoon sunshine.

One of the many stalls in the morning market
One of the many stalls in the morning market

That evening we decided to venture out to a Mexican restaurant called Amigos for dinner, having spotted it on Trip Advisor. Seeing that they had an offer on tacos that evening, we both ordered a portion of the ‘supreme tacos’ only to find out that only regular tacos were included in the offer. The food wasn’t that amazing either and quite pricey compared to other places we had been eating in Luang Prabang. Oh well, you live and learn.

23rd January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)

We started our day off early by wandering around the local produce market, which was on one of the roads opposite our guest house. It was bustling with locals, even at 7am and it was interesting to take in the different sights and smells as we walked through the small streets. We loved seeing all the fresh fruit and vegetables laid out in colourful piles, as well as some of the more interesting culinary options available (barbecued rat anybody?).

The intricate Wat Xieng Thong
The intricate Wat Xieng Thong

We spent the rest of the morning exploring some of the many temples scattered around Luang Prabang, including the most famous one, Wat Xieng Thong. The temples were all incredibly beautiful and intricately decorated with Japanese glass and gold, glimmering away in the sunshine. Many of the temples were in easy walking distance of one another, which was one of the things we really loved about Luang Prabang – it made everything really accessible and meant we didn’t need to spend money on transport. Transport is disproportionately expensive in Laos compared to things like food and activities, so we got around on foot as much as possible.

After finishing our temple exploration just before lunch, we decided to stop by the Big Tree Cafe for a bite to eat. The cafe is situated at the quieter end of town very close to Wat Xieng Thong and set in a beautiful garden. We both opted for salads, as we have been trying to make a more conscious effort to be healthy on a daily basis while we are travelling (let’s see how long that lasts). It’s very easy to veer off the straight and narrow when you are eating out at restaurants 3 times a day and have no control over what goes into the food you are eating. This is especially difficult being coeliac and trying to keep costs down.

Sunset on top of Mount Phousi
Sunset on top of Mount Phousi

Later that afternoon we decided to climb Mount Phousi (more like a hill really, if you could even call it that) which was located at the centre of Luang Prabang. We had heard it was a great place to watch the sunset from, but that we’d need to get up there early as it got very busy. Busy was definitely an understatement. We got up to the top of the hill about an hour before sunset and there was already at least 100 people staking out their spot for sunset. Settling ourselves down with our Kindles as we waited for the sunset, more and more people crowded up onto the top of the hill. An hour later there was probably at least 400 people crammed into a relatively small area on top of the hill – it was quite a spectacle. One guy was holding his DSLR above his head – attached to a tripod for extra height, which just made it comical.

By the time the sun was actually setting, the view was mostly obstructed by people holding their camera phones up in the air to get the perfect shot. Although the sunset was nice enough, I wouldn’t say it was anything to write home about and definitely spoilt a little by the hundreds of people inevitably obstructing the view. I do sometimes slightly lose my faith in humanity in times likes this (maybe I am just turning into a grumpy old man before my time). We heard it is a bit better at sunrise with less people there, but I’ll admit we never quite managed to drag ourselves out of bed in time to see for ourselves.

It gets a little busy on top of Mount Phousi
It gets a little busy on top of Mount Phousi

That evening we had another wander around the night market and I found someone selling the same coconut cookies we had tried in Vang Vieng. We also tried one of the local rice crackers, which unfortunately mostly tasted of oil rather than anything else.

Until next time.

P.S. Don’t worry about the French man at the beginning of the post, we bumped into him in the night market. He made it there safe and sound – although he didn’t look too pleased.

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