Luang Prabang, Laos ラオスノルアンプラバン
Let this be a lesson to you; always double check visa requirements before you head off on holidays (unless you’re from Singapore). I went to the airport knowing I needed a visa to enter Vietnam but what I didn’t know was that I needed to pre-apply for one. I figured it was like Cambodia, Laos, Turkey and any other number of countries; I’d be able to get one on arrival. Nope. So, when the folks wouldn’t let me on the plane I had to scramble to get flights changed for the following day as well as call hotels in Luang Prabang and Hanoi letting them know I’d be late. I also had to rush from the airport to Wan Chai on HK island to the Vietnamese immigration office in order to get an emergency visa ($100 USD for about 5 minutes work). In the end, I managed to leave on Christmas day but due to weather and the subsequent delays, I arrived at my Hanoi stopover 5 hours later than originally planned. More than once I thought that maybe something was telling me I wasn’t supposed to go on this trip.
I quite liked Luang Prabang. It’s definitely a nice place to visit though it has certainly become like much of south-east Asia; geared toward tourists. Which I guess is good in one sense but detracts in another. I had been looking forward to seeing some of the Buddhist temples and the Pak Ou caves, historical resting spot of Buddhist statuary past its prime. I guess I’ve been completely spoiled by temples and shrines in Japan because the majority of the temples that I saw left me unimpressed. Granted, they were old at several hundred years but many also seemed fairly uncared for despite still being operational monasteries. The caves at Pak Ou have also become a disappointing tourist trap. The slow boat up the Mekong river was nice (though out pilot seemed to take the slow-boat part to heart) but once you get there, the landing is chock-a-block with other tourist boats and the lower cave where most of the statues are is full of people. That’s become par for the course in that part of the world though. It was the same when I went to Siem Reap to see the Angkor temples. A far cry from what one friend of mine described as her trip there over a decade ago. Though, the mad dash out of Cambodia when civil war erupted I could do without but certainly seeing the sights without the throngs would be a bonus.
There is a lot to be said for the town though. It’s definitely a quiet, relaxing place and the people are very friendly. There are a lot of great restaurants and cafes to choose from, many of which have seating on either the Mekong or Nham Kan river. I can honestly say I never got a bad cup of coffee while in Luang Prabang and most of the places have free wifi. A rhetorical question: If little ol’ Luang Prabang can manage amazing coffee and wifi-ready cafes everywhere, how is it that Hong Kong, the self-proclaimed “Asia’s world city” can fail so miserably on both counts? All told, I would definitely go back to Laos on a vacation. A long weekend is really all that’s needed to see most sights and relax with a Beer Lao or two by the river.