Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cycling Isan Thailand - Laos 2016 : Day 9 - Hello Luang Prabang!

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Cycling Isan Thailand - Laos 2016 : Day 9 - Hello Luang Prabang!
Tour of Isan Thailand & Laos : Day 9, 10th December 2016


Route Recommendations :
1. Traffic Directions, Ride Conditions & Flights
- Laos  is left-had drive, so ride on the right hand side of the road. Do remind yourselves of this when entering Laos. Same thing applies when crossing the road, so do take care.
- We flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Lao Skyway at a return fare of about RM500 which included free checked-in luggage (inclusive of sports equipment for our bicycles) of 20kg.
- This is a short an easy touristy route. Year end temperatures in Luang Prabang is quiet cold with early mornings at 15ºC and afternoon at 23ºC.

2. Communicating with Local
    For the uninitiated cycling in foreign lands can be a daunting experience, especially when one can only speak a smattering of the local language or if there is no common language to speak to each other (like English). Most Lao can hardly speak English, and learning some basic phrases will be helpful.
    This could be partly overcome by using translation apps like Google Translate. Do install this app into your phone and before you leave on your tour do some basic translation as it will be saved onto a list of recent translations.
    And do install memory-resident translation apps into your mobile phone.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang have quiet an international exposure; most international eateries and drinking joints have staff that speak fairly good English.
In Laos, doctors and pharmacists speak relatively good English. Seek out clinics or pharmacies for help when necessary.

3. Staying in Connected
    When travelling in a group it's important to be able to communicate with each other, especially if one got lost or just to share photos and moments. Other than wifi provided by hotels, home-stays and restaurants, getting pre-paid card is a good option.
In Laos:
We crossed over to Laos via the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai and bought Lao Telecom high speed 4G SIM cards from a mini-mart at the Laos side with 1.5 GB data that last for a week for 150 Bahts. This was a mistake as the mart attendant was not very familiar with setting up the phone. Un-noticed by us, there is a Lao Telecom booth right after the immigration booth (at an island on the centre of the road), buy it there as the staff can set up your phone for their system for it to work properly. Click here to view a range of Lao pre-paid sim packages.
For Lao Skyway, once one have checked in, there is free wi-fi available, the password is shown in the passenger's copy of the luggage tag.

4. Places of Interest
- Mekong and Nam Khan River confluence view from either:
  Viewpoint Cafe (GPS:19.89811, 102.14481).
  Riverview Park (GPS: 19.89773, 102.14516).
- Sunset view at long boat jetty (GPS: 19.89828, 102.14303).
Wat Xieng Thong (GPS: 19.89752, 102.1431), a temple of beautiful design with semi-precious stones inlay to form wall murals and stupas.
Luang Prabang Night Market (GPS: 19.89065, 102.13507).

5. Currency Exhcange
Although the Thai Bahts is widely accepted in Laos it is better to change to the local Kips at the hotel or money changers for better rates. Market stalls and restaurants generally give poorer exchange rate. In Luang Prabang, there are several money-changers that open early and close only at night. Do note that they will do not give back change in the currency that you offered, i.e. if you want to change 50USD, don't offer a 100USD note and expect a return of 50USD. Try to change Kips to your daily requirements as buy back rates are lower.
A convenient money-changer offering good rates (GPS: 19.88885, 102.13308) is situated near the Luang Prabang Post Office. This money-changer is opened everyday from 7:30 am to 11:00 pm.

6. Accomodations
Our accommodations for two nights at Luang Prabang was at the Mekong Moon Inn (GPS: 19.88992, 102.13255) at around MYR160 per twin-sharing room per night inclusive of taxes.

7. Food
After a week of Thai food, we decided to go for other food for a change:
Breakfast a good fusion spread of Lao & Western fare at the Khampiane Botique Hotel (GPS: 17.96689, 102.60569) in Vientiane, that was included in the room charges.
- Lunch was relatively good Lao fare at the Viewpoint Cafe (GPS:19.89811, 102.14481).
- Dinner was a combo of street food at the Luang Prabang Night Market (GPS: 19.89065, 102.13507) & un-appetising food at the Luang Prabang Caterer's Evening Market (GPS: 19.88976, 102.13363), the caterer's food is buffet style and serve for quantity and not quality. Would not recommend eating here as the food is really not good.

8. Weather
November and December are good months to ride in Isan and Laos as the weather is quite cooling and the possibility of rain is low. Early morning temperatures is between 18 to 20°C, mid morning between around 22°C and afternoons 26-28°C.

9. Navigation
Where data signal is available and strong, one can use Google Maps to navigate around. If the cycling options may not be available, just use the walking options.
In cases where data signal is weak or unavailable (like in remote rural areas), install MAP.ME into your phone. It's an off-line map app.   
Alternatively, use a dedicated GPS unit like those from Garmin. However ensure that one install the Thailand and Laos maps into the unit.


PRELUDE

A day before we had cycled across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge from Nong Khai to Vientiane and had enjoyed the food, sites and charms of the city. Today, we fly to Luang Prabang to enjoy the beauty & serenity of this UNESCO Heritage Site.


THE RIDE

 

Cycling Distance: 11.93 km.          |             Level: Easy
The route is slightly hilly and short, with its cool weather, laid back and easy going Luang Prabang was a pleasure to cycle around.


After the hotel breakfast, we waved our goodbyes to our friends (Calvin, Peow and Hooi), they will be riding back to Nong Khai to take a train back to Bangkok and then a flight back to Malaysia; while Chew & me will continue on to Luang Prabang.
We will definitely miss their jovial company, their laughter and crazy jokes too.


Chew and me cycled the short distance (5km) to Wattay International airport, upgrading works was going on and the Domestic Terminal was temporarily housed in the white cubish building.


Our journey there was on Lao Skyway's ATR 72-600 which many regional airlines use for their local flights. I feel safer for my bicycle with this plane as it is low slung and luggage handlers do not have to throw the bags up.
Our flight took us across the Laos countryside, flying over lakes and spiny green mountains which looked like the backs of dragons, there must be some legends here. The lakes of the Nam Ngum Reservoir were especially scenic - our next Laos adventure would probably include Vang Vieng, a nice riverside rustic town located slightly north of this lake.


We landed safely with our bikes in good condition (unlike the Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, where one of my bike's rear rack arm was badly bent till the mudguard was hitting the tire. I had to do some slow creative bending to get it back to working condition).
We cycled down from the airport to Luang Prabang town, a route that was on quiet roads that also took us across an old iron bridge.


2:00 pm - We had checked into the Mekong Moon Inn. Hah! It sure has a romantic sounding name! This hotel has two wings, one facing the main road and an annex on a narrow adjacent side lanes. Our rooms were at the annex, which I think were better ones as it was away from the noise and had better exposure to local life.
We left our bags and were ready to cycle out and EXPLORE!


Now this is one of the most important places for many tourists coming here. It looks like a souvenir shop, which it is. But on the left is a money changer which gave very good exchange rate; and it opens up from early morning up to eleven at night everyday! I would advise that one change just enough Lao Kips for the day's usage so that there will not be much balance left to change back.


Time to explore the town, we rode a loop that would encompass the heritage centre of the town (see route map above). At this time of the year, even in the afternoon the weather was cooling and the roads were without heavy traffic; it's such a pleasure to cycle here.


One of the side alleys at the old town which had been nicely done up.


Our route took us along Kingkitsarath Road which loops around a mini peninsular formed where the Nam Khan River joins the Mekong. The views were so scenic here; we just had to stop and pamper ourselves to a more expensive late lunch at a place appropriately called Viewpoint Cafe. We sat there sipping our beers while waiting for the food, enjoying the scenery where the river confluence.



We had a Lao fare set, one that had sticky rice serve from a rattan basket to go with several Lao dishes. The one I enjoyed the most was this Luang Prabang sausage, it had meat which was minced together will local herbs and spices which gave it a strong heady flavour.


Down below, some monks from a monastery on the opposite bank of the Nam Khan were repairing a narrow foot bridge. I think they were doing repair works.... but I am not sure, perhaps their were doing some Shaolin exercises?


Our next destination - the Wat Xieng Thong, a place that should not be missed when visiting Luang Prabang. Built in 1560 by King Setthathira, its many buildings showcases the height of Lao architecture and craftsmanship - from the elaborate roofs, wall murals with glass mosaic inlay,  to golden door archways and gable walls.


Elaborate stupas, one dark gold one and another with bright blue and white glass mosaic.


A golden stupa with a dark blue one; both dotted with detailed inlays.


The gable wall of the main prayer pavilion reflecting a golden hue from the rays of the setting sun.


Up at the edge of the roof's ridge, an elephant trunk lined with dark green glass mosaic mad it looked like one carved from dark green jade.


May of the buildings have murals made from glass mosaic inlay that depicted life in the Lao Kingdom centuries back.


A close up look at one of the elaborate murals.


Spotted around the temple grounds were elaborate adornments like these shiny dark green lotus blooms .....


..... and even elephant heads!


Inside the main prayer pavilion, a local Lao lady kneel in prayer.


The moon has come out to give its blessing over the temple... time to leave... i.e. after a short prayer for a safe cycling in Laos.


We left via Kounxoua Road, a pleasant area lined with trees an many old houses that had been converted in hotels. Along this road too were several other temples.


A shop here sells nice local hand-made textile crafts, most of which were in rich dark blue hues.


Further down, several children dressed in costume were playing along the roadside, there part of the cast performing at the nearby Children's Cultural Centre which have performance every Thursdays and Saturday from 5:30 to 7:00pm.


At Sisavangvong Road, the locals were setting up stall for the daily night market. We rode back to our hotel, and took a walk out....


... to enjoy some street food at this market.


At the market, another tourist recommended us to try the food at the Caterer's Evening Market located at an adjacent side alley. Here the food were served buffet style. The food is cheap at 15,000 Kips per pax but.... most of it were vegetables, meat dishes were extras. Overall, the food tasted lousy... and as Chew rightfully put it, sitting there at the crowded tables we felt like pigs in a sty eating bag gruel!
Very bad recommendation from the other tourists; we would recommend avoiding this place and sticking to food sold at at stalls along the night market.


Hoping to make our dinner better, we ordered these barbecued fish.... the meat tasted good but there was an overall smell of kerosene.


Thank goodness, the stall at the Luang Prabang Night Market more than made up for our bad food experience. Here I am sitting comfortably on a bamboo stool, slowly negotiating with a sweet, charming lady. I was buying several of those pretty bags for friend back home. These were of very good workmanship hand-made by the locals.


ຂອບ​ໃຈ​ຫຼາຍໆ

(That's "khob chai rai rai" - "Thank you very much" in Lao)


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