Lounging in Laos — Ensconced in the comfort of everyday life in Luang Prabang

By Margo
This article appears on page 18 of the November 2015 issue.
Opposite: Monks in meditation.

We are two senior females (ages 69 and 71 during the late-2014 travels chronicled here) who escape the Michigan winters for warmer temperatures. When deciding on our travel destinations, Carole and I tend to look for affordable locations with good public transportation, though, instead of taking public transit, we often simply walk from place to place — a favorite pastime for us. 

Our plan

Carole and I do not consider ourselves adventure travelers, and our main priorities in selecting a destination are comfort, safety and cleanliness, especially for longer stays. We prefer to stay in most destinations for a minimum of one month, as many lodgings will offer deep discounts for lengthy stays. 

It also helps when we tell the proprietor that we prefer our linens be changed only weekly. (After all, we don’t change them any more frequently at home.) Generally, savvy owners/managers will jump at the chance to book someone looking for a longer stay. It’s less wear and tear on their property, and we make few demands — a win-win.

Where to go?

We are typically gone from home for six or even seven months each year, scheduling our own flights and lodgings. We are repeat visitors to many of our favorite places but also like to include one or two new destinations to our itinerary each season, just to keep us on our toes. 

We use the Web to check out where to go during a particular month because we want to avoid the monsoon and slash-and-burn seasons, if possible. Items printed in ITN have sparked our interest in certain places, as have meeting and talking with fellow travelers we’ve encountered along the way. Everyone has a travel story, and we often hear about preferences and “dos and don’ts” firsthand. 

We don’t consider ourselves “go and see” tourists either; rather, as travelers, we tend to settle into a community and frequent neighborhood businesses on a regular basis. By the time we leave an area, we feel almost like locals.

We’ve found that the key to successful travel experiences is flexibility and a positive attitude, no matter what the circumstances! And we never worry about language barriers; we’ve found locals more than willing to communicate with us as best they can when we express an interest in them.

In love with Luang Prabang

For the 2014-15 travel season, we started with almost five weeks in Istanbul, arriving on Sept. 22, 2014. We then moved on to Luang Prabang, Laos, staying at the familiar Phounsab Guesthouse (Ban Choumkhong, Sisavangvong Rd.; phoun-thavy-sab.jimdo.com) for one month.

This was our third visit to Luang Prabang. On our first, during the holiday season in 2011, we had scheduled only five days, and after day two we were kicking ourselves for being so shortsighted. It was love at first sight! 

This was when we met Mrs. Tengone, owner of the Phounsab Guesthouse, who gave us a reduction in the standard nightly fee for this latest visit, also throwing in unlimited laundry service. (We paid $30 per night; the regular rate is $40-$45, depending on the season.)  

View of the Mekong River.

Incidentally, the Phounsab Guesthouse does not provide breakfast, which, for us, was perfect. We don’t want to eat the same thing day after day, nor do we want to be locked into a tight time frame to do so. (In Kuching, Borneo, we had vegetable fried rice for breakfast for three straight weeks, and we said, “Never again.”)

Settling into Luang Prabang, we spent the days doing absolutely nothing. Yes, that’s right, nothing! We were in one of our favorite places, enjoying the balmy temperatures, swaying palm trees and winding Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, not to mention the slow pace, the tropical ambiance and the French-influenced food. 

A young woman who was on our flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang gasped as we all walked from our plane to the terminal, exclaiming “It’s just like Maui!” 

She and her husband had come for three days and were already wondering if there would be enough to do. We didn’t have the heart to tell her there’s really nothing to do in Luang Prabang. The husband was already cussing under his breath because their prearranged van wasn’t there to meet them. 

He hadn’t seen anything yet! Everything is in slow motion in Southeast Asia, except, maybe, the tuk-tuks, whose sounds we heard every morning like a swarm of bumblebees heading out for the day.

Cashing out

At the new French bank in the center of town, Carole and I exchanged $200 for Laotian currency, walking out with 1,607,400 kip. We became instant millionaires without even buying a lottery ticket! 

And there were definitely enough places to spend that kip, including the night market, with its blocks and blocks of mostly Chinese knockoffs, and the morning market, which is mainly for locals and much more authentic. And if you haven’t spent all your money at the markets, there are also silver shops and an equal amount of silk shops all over town.

Usually, when abroad, we use ATMs attached to a bank (and only when the bank is open), saving credit cards for emergencies only. Luang Prabang is the exception. We are still a little leery of the brand-new, freestanding ATMs that have popped up all over town since our first visit. 

Speaking of money (as well as personal documents), it is contained in our undergarment money belts, never in a purse and never left in our room. And, depending on which country we’re in, we may not carry purses at all. Instead, we have a couple of different lightweight travel vests so we can carry everything inside the pockets. 

Mixing with the locals

The next day we visited the morning market, which was bustling, as more and more travelers are discovering it. It was fascinating with its variety of produce, some of which we recognized and other types which we did not. There were live fish and dead fish as well as live birds and dead. Meals were being prepared all around us, mostly soups for an Asian breakfast or carryout for later. 

We bought a little bag of sweets but not before watching their preparation for several minutes. We had discovered these gooey coconut-milk delicacies during our first visit in 2011 and were amazed that the same couple we remembered was sitting on their little stools in front of their home, mixing, pouring and deep frying these tasty little treats that are eaten with a toothpick and served on a banana-leaf tray. 

We finally had to ask an English-speaking person about the “something else” they were also making: mashed, cooked green beans, grated coconut, sticky rice powder and a dash of salt and sugar all rolled into balls and deep fried. These were also good, but our favorite was the coconut-milk treats.

Le Banneton French Bakery & Café.

As we searched in this early-morning hour for a place to enjoy our newly purchased bag of goodies, a place where we could sit with coffee and tea and watch the world go by, we turned around and noticed the sign “Same Same Restaurant & Wrong Way Bar” (on the same street as the morning market). Why hadn’t we seen it before? 

Their menu was posted outside, and the entrance was welcoming, with various pots full of blooming flowers and bonsai plants. Numerous hanging cages contained a variety of small birds and doves, providing a delightful chirping that seemed to drown out the market bustle outside. 

The Same Same Restaurant & Wrong Way Bar was empty except for three local men who were sitting at a table drinking Lao milk-coffees and tea. We climbed the steps and found a table. All three men said “Hello” in unison. 

Shortly thereafter, a friendly woman who was also all smiles came over and said “Hello,” too. We would later learn her name was Sirivan, as we ate there several more times. 

Café society

We also enjoyed revisiting some of our old haunts. As we walked through the door of Le Banneton French Bakery & Café (on the main street) on our first day, we were touched when the waitress spotted us and said she was glad to see us again. 

Do you realize how remarkable that is? Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with thousands of tourists passing by on a weekly basis, and she remembered us from one year before! On another day, the owner from the same café came over to our table and thanked us for being loyal customers by giving us a little French lemon tart to take home.

The most notable change, for us, was the increase in the number of Chinese tourists we saw. We even noticed dusty vehicles with China license plates, the visitors apparently having driven all the way from there. In fact, many signs advertised wares in three languages, a change from one year before. 

The strip of guest houses along the Nam Khan River had been built up, with the newer ones being more of the boutique variety than for backpackers. Along that same strip, we noticed that the two or three derelict buildings we’d seen on prior visits now had “For sale” signs on them, written in Laotian, English and Chinese. We wondered how long before those would become boutique B&Bs, too.

Luang Prabang attracts folks from all over the world, and we met some interesting people there. While dining at Le Banneton one day, we asked a couple if we could join them at their table for four because the place was packed. They both spoke perfect English, and we learned they were a brother and sister from Korea. He had been living in Berlin for six years studying medicine, and she lived in Seoul, where she taught part time and studied film. 

Our new Korean friend cordially invited us to contact him in Berlin on our upcoming visit, saying he would personally give us a tour of the city!

One thing that hadn’t changed was the Internet service. It was abominable during each of our prior visits and still was. Some days, there was no service at all, which was frustrating at times. 

The details

As the time for us to leave the city grew near, we realized we would miss Luang Prabang. We’ve found no other place quite like it. 

On a more personal level, we would miss the sweet mother-and-daughter housekeeping team at our guest house who greeted us every morning with smiles and who sang while they worked. It’s little pleasantries like these that make our travels so rewarding.

Morning market in Luang Prabang.

Although we are not budget travelers, we tend to be conservative spenders. For our Sept., 21, 2014, to May 7, 2015, travel season, a total of 229 days, we averaged $152 per day for the two of us. This was actually higher than our usual costs, as we splurged on a 2-week river cruise in Myanmar. 

During our extended yearly travels, we make few purchases and limit our wheeled luggage to two pieces plus an additional shoulder bag for each of us. The total weight carried by each of us tends to be around 50 pounds, as we want to be able to manage our own belongings without assistance. One of our mottos is “If it doesn’t fit in our suitcase, we don’t buy it.” And, frankly, at our age, we already have everything we need.

The primary purpose of this commentary is that we want to illustrate to ITN readers that it’s possible for two senior women to travel independently and affordably without having to resort to tours. We’d like to encourage others to get out and see the world. Take your time, traveling leisurely, and you will most definitely be rewarded.

If you have any questions for us, we can be reached at mconthegoagain@yahoo.com.