Some travel articles impart major life lessons and leave indelible and lasting imprints on the wayward bound. This is not one of those. Here, Monica Pitrelli imparts practical advice before proceeding to Luang Prabang in Laos.
1. Proceed with safety, not speed, to the Pak Ou Caves.
Carved into the limestone cliffs bordering the Mekong River, the Pak Ou Caves are packed with Buddha images on every ledge and landing. More interesting than impressive, the caves are commonly accessed by a scenic two-hour upriver ride on a slow boat.
Not thrilled about the lengthy trip, my group of four learned that speedboats zip you to the caves in 25 minutes. Locating one wasn’t easy. But with persistence we finally tracked down a heua wai, which apparently is Lao for “shallow, unstable canoe with a deafeningly loud car engine tacked to the back”.
We climbed in, no lifejackets, no helmets, no comfort – and kicked up to sickening speeds. We whizzed across the water, dodging river rocks just below the surface and tiny ripples that threatened to topple our rickety ride. We laughed as we passed the slow boats (“suckers”, we mouthed to one another – it was much too loud to actually speak). The beautiful scenery passed in a blur. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived, wind-blown, dazed and hair on end. Later that evening, we read in our guidebook that these boats are extremely dangerous, should be avoided at all costs and have killed tourists.
2. Tuk-tuks don’t always keep accurate time.
If you are dropped off outside of town, throw your tuk-tuk driver a tip to stick around or meet you at an agreed time. Since the speedboat dock (the floating two-by-four pictured here) was outside of town, we arranged with our driver to return us to town.
Exiting the boat of death on schedule, our driver was nowhere to be found. One hour later, we finally flagged down another. En route to town, we passed our original driver, who quickly u-turned, accelerated and furiously demanded his bounty. Our new driver ducked his head low and gunned it. A mid-speed game of chicken ensued back to LP, complete with screaming, incessant honking and near collisions. At our hotel, we exited to more shouting, mayhem and demands from both drivers for payment.
3. Bowl a few, if you can.
Luang Prabang’s worst kept secret is the late-night bowling alley, Bao Ling, that runs afoul of the town’s 11.30pm curfew. Cheap beer, a rowdy back-packer crowd and a roaring good time, the lanes are so packed by midnight you’ll be forced to shoo loafing backpackers away to get in a good three-step delivery. Don’t get too serious though – there are no perfect games in Luang Prabang. Many of the lanes are not calibrated, which often has the hysterical result of ruining talented bowlers’ games while bumping up beginners’ scores. Last I heard, the bowling alley had closed down, but this could have been a vicious lie by the young’uns to keep us older folks from killing the vibe.
Want to Go?
Getting There: You can’t fly direct. Fly into Bangkok or Vientiane and grab a connecting flight to Luang Prabang.
Getting Around: Foot or bicycle is best.
Stay: 3 Nagas ( www.3nagas.com)
Eat: Lao Lao Garden and Restaurant Brasserie L’Elephant