The Father-Daughter Road-Trip
Back in May, my Pop and I road-tripped from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos) and back. For a carsickie like me, 1,529 kilometers of snaking roads sounded very much like a test of my ability to hold back vomit, but Pop sold it to me when he said that the views along the way were spectacular. And boy, were they.
We took our time and stopped overnight at two places, Thung Chang (Thailand) and Sainyabuli (Laos), before taking the famed Route 13 from Sainyabuli to Luang Prabang, also known as the scenic route (coined by me, just a few seconds ago). We coursed the tops of mountain ranges, through narrow valleys walled in by dense rainforest, through small hamlets of bamboo huts, and along we trundled, enjoying the view of a simpler (but not necessarily easier) life.
Thung Chang Hill, Thailand
Our first overnight stop was spent on the Thai side, at Thung Chang Hill, a small restaurant which offers a modern chalet for approximately 500 baht (USD15.50) per night. Relatively close to the Huai Kon – Muang Ngeun (Thailand-Laos) border, Thung Chang Hill made for a convenient rest stop with delicious Thai food to boot! Though there isn’t much around in terms of entertainment, there is an interesting rundown museum (Thung Chang Sacrificial Monument and Thung Chang Military Museum) displaying weapons and photographs of communist guerrillas around that area, during the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s.
The Border Crossing
The land border crossing requires some preparation, especially when you’re bringing your own automobile over. Forms need to be filled and this and that document will need to be copied, but if that’s all been prepared, then it should be a breeze. Traffic might be a bit of an issue though, as delivery trucks of all shapes and sizes use this crossing on the daily.
The official buildings are basic and small, which I suspect is because it’s not really a crossing that tourists pass through often. It costs something like US$30 per visa, but the price depends on the passport you hold.
The town has a small population of about 16,000 people and is known to be one of Laos’ ‘elephant capitals’, with their main attraction being the Elephant Conservation Centre. We didn’t visit the conservation centre, but did visit the beautiful Nam Tien reservoir-lake where it’s situated.
Next to the boat dock that brings passengers to the conservation centre, a houseboat restaurant lays buoyant, as well as a long bamboo bridge curving across the water. Found in a scenic bay, where the waters’ surface is covered in plants, the restaurant is a relaxing place to have lunch whilst escaping the midday heat.
Sainyabuli town has a sprawling indoor market, with narrow lanes of eclectic products ranging from soaps to sarongs, and it proves an interesting stroll. For a more pleasant stroll though, we walked along the banks of the Nam Houng River, which is lined with restaurants that serve juicy fresh river prawns that go especially well with a refreshing Beerlao.
Crossing a bridge over the Nam Houng River, we stumbled across another market, aptly named China Market, that mostly sells…you guessed it…imported Chinese products. Bounlien Grill Duck, across the road from the market, beckoned to us as wafts of grilled duck filled our noses. A meal of grilled duck, sticky rice, and raw vegetables here is definitely something to recommend.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Winding and mostly paved, Route 13 took us across the Luang Prabang mountain range. It is one of the most popular roads for road-tripping motorcyclists and is considered the most important highway in Laos as it connects major cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Village after village seemed to zoom past as we made our way to Luang Prabang, with many photo pitstops along the way. The roads were virtually clear of traffic, aside from some tour buses and motorcycles. We did spot some goats though.
We had pre-booked to stay at Dok Ban Hotel via booking.com, but as the idiom goes “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. The facade, the free public wifi, and the parking, could never in a million years make up for the disgusting room right next to the “check-in counter”. If you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang, don’t stay here. They literally swept all rubbish under the bed (seriously, there was a huge pile of rubbish under the bed), rather than disposing of it, the toilet was clogged even before we got to use it, AND THE BED HAD PERSON-SHAPED SWEAT STAINS. I mean, it was bleeping gross. Unfortunately, we had paid in full, so we got them to change the bedsheets and still slept in our sleeping bags and on our own pillows (ah, the joys of not having to think about luggage allowance).
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and rightly so, as it boasts a plethora of natural and historical sites. The quaint city itself is delightful and the food even more so. We treated our tastebuds to Le Banneton for french pastry breakfasts, and Tangor for Asian-with-a-French-twist dinners.
Luang Prabang Night Market
A short walk away from Tangor, on Sisavangvong Road, the night market is abuzz (every night, if I’m not mistaken). The stalls here are a little repetitive, and definitely catered for tourists but it is here that you can buy Laotian souvenirs, hone your (friendly) haggling skills, or just admire their pretty linens, fabrics, and carvings. It is important to note that the market usually closes around 10pm and don’t be afraid to stray off the main road to the smaller roads, which also have stalls (mostly fresh goods). Further down the main road, you can find a small postage stamp shop. I spent some time choosing what to add to my collection, and I find stamps to be a great souvenir! They’re lightweight and are distinct to the country of origin.
In this part of the city, also known as the old quarter, well-preserved French Colonial buildings are a common sight. Due to the French Protectorate of Laos in the 19th and 20th Centuries, it’s no wonder that both architecture and gastronomy make the past so apparent.
Along the main market street, I also spotted a hotel whose name drew me in. Indigo House. If, like me, you’re drawn to anything indigo, then you would understand my interest. They have a lovely little souvenir shop that sells indigo dyed fabric bags, and other indigo-related products. I had heard that Laos was known for their indigo dyed fabrics, so I wanted to find out whether there were any factories nearby.
Phanom Village was suggested to me for indigo fabrics, but as luck would have it, it wasn’t the season for indigo, and most of the dyers were tending to the rice fields. It was a good thing that Phanom Village was only 6km from the city though, so the drive wasn’t too long.
Somewhere along the way we stopped by the grave of Henri Mouhot, a mid-19th Century French naturalist and explorer, who died of malarial fever in Laos. The grave is a short walk from the Nam Khan river where you can find a clearing enjoyed by locals with picnics, music, dancing, and swimming.
The Mekong River runs along the edges of Luang Prabang town, where one can enjoy a nice cold beer at one of the many restaurants running along the shore. The view proves to be picturesque, as you observe the boats pass and the men net fish along the riverside.
Mekong river cruises are a popular way to enjoy Laos, as they stop at multiple towns and cities found along the world’s 12th longest river. We didn’t have enough time for this, but I definitely want to return for this!
We drove back via a faster route (Route 4) from Luang Prabang to Sainyabuli, and stumbled upon a small waterfall on the way. Mind you, this was a weekday, but we found a party up in there! Locals with big sound systems on the back of their pick-up trucks, karaoke and dancing, barbecuing and playing in pools of water. There were monks enjoying themselves too! I don’t remember the name of the waterfall though, but it was along Route 4.
Taking the same way back with the same stopovers, we made our way from Sainyabuli to Chiang Mai, enjoying the same food and despite the exciting road-trip, we looked forward to getting home.
If you would like to see more pictures of this trip, please click here.