Three months in South East Asia whizzed by in a hot, sweaty, spicy blur. The days started to run into each other, we lost track of time and often got lost ourselves, but each day felt like an adventure. As you would expect from long-term travel, there were plenty of ups and a few downs, thrills and spills along the way. There was a missed flight on day one (Wellington weather really hates us), many incredible meals down dingy alleys, a fine balance of luxurious and not quite five star places to rest our weary heads, and a plethora of sights taken in… all rolled into some of the most exciting and exhausting months of our lives.
We left with only a rough outline of which countries we would visit, and set about filling in the gaps and details as we went along. Neither of us get particularly enthused about the planning part of travel so we mostly took each day as it came which seemed to work out just fine. A certain someone and I have travelled together for close to six years now so we’re well versed in each other’s travel styles and moods. I can sense when he needs a tea top up, he can spot the symptoms of a hanger meltdown, and our spats are usually about embarrassingly trivial matters. But this trip still taught us so much, mainly about our approach to travel; some of our actions have changed, some of our views strengthened. These are the lessons I learnt from three months in South East Asia…
I can assure you that you will not go hungry in Luang Prabang. This pretty little Unesco town may be small, but its steady tourist trade means it is mighty when it comes to culinary offerings. During the day, the cafes and casual eateries dotted in amongst the souvenir shops and tour agencies in the main strip are awash with tourists seeking a bite to eat and refuge from the hot afternoon sun. When darkness falls, the streets come alive with the night market providing a one-stop-shop for eating, drinking, shopping, and people-watching! For a cheap and cheerful dinner, we couldn’t go wrong with a steaming bowl of Lao khao soi noodles which are like an ingenious cross of soup noodles and bolognese complete with herbs and condiments, while others went mad for the barbecue stalls or vegetarian buffets.
If you are in the mood for something with less curbside decor, there are restaurants aplenty serving anything from traditional Laotian cuisine to classic French fare, a legacy of their colonial past. However not all restaurants are created equal, and as is common in many tourist-centric towns, some are guilty of resting on their reputations and ultimately proving to be overhyped and overpriced. We experienced this at a much lauded French establishment serving food from a bygone era with little flavour or finesse, while others have also talked of standards slipping at other well known Laotian restaurants. After this, we stayed away from the main tourist hub and found our two favourite Laotian dining experiences located just a short tuk tuk ride away on the outskirts…
One of the most popular journeys in South East Asia must be the slow-boat cruise down the Mekong River from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. It’s a well-worn route, often described with such romanticism that it would be difficult to resist. We fell for it, and you would too if you had also read half the articles we did. With the luxury of time on our hands, the idea of spending two days crawling down the Mekong River, absorbing tranquil scenes from a rustic but comfortable slow-boat seemed just lovely. We thought it would be a great way to switch off and just relax as we had a few weeks of long, action-packed days full of exploring up to that point!
There are two options when it comes to cruising along the Mekong; you can take the much cheaper public boat, or splurge a little to go with a private company. It took us all of five seconds to come to the conclusion that the private boat option was the one for us. And a mere five minutes to find three companies which seemed suitable, but this is where our trip got a lot harder to plan. The usual journey takes two days with an overnight stay at Pakbeng, the small village halfway. Our complication was that we wanted to stay two nights instead of one, and no private company could accommodate that on their schedule. So the plan was to brave it with the public boat, but we also ended up taking a private slow-boat; this is what happened…
Still half asleep and in my morning daze, I was momentarily perplexed as to exactly where I was when I woke up that first day at the Luang Say Residence. The familiar crow of an energetic rooster is one we have heard all over our travels through Asia, and yet, my immediate surroundings took me to another world. ‘You’re in Luang Prabang’, I reminded myself… a pretty little town with a UNESCO Heritage Site title under its belt and an unshakable French influence. Which brings me right back to the Luang Say Residence and all makes sense again. This gorgeous hotel is well-regarded as one of the best in town, and within minutes of our arrival, I knew exactly why.
In stark contrast to the small but heavily-populated streets of the town centre, the Luang Say Residence is a sanctuary for those in need of rest and relaxation. At this point in our travels, we welcomed that idea and are not ashamed to admit that we spent a lot of our time in Luang Prabang simply chilling out at the hotel. If we weren’t in our suite we were most likely to be found down by the pool… The stunning French colonial style buildings set in lush, tropical gardens made for an inviting combination. Add the excellent restaurants and impeccable service, and the thought of spending the day at the Luang Say Residence was simply irresistible!
I have never been so happy to see a sunset and call an end to the day. A day which started before sunrise, involved a lot of waiting around, and an excruciating eight hour slow-boat journey down the Mekong River with about a hundred drunk backpackers for company. It was neither pretty nor comfortable and when we finally got to the port at Pakbeng, I could have kissed the ground just to be on dry land again. One by one, all 150 of us clambered off the boat to be welcomed by hoards of guesthouse hustlers ready to pounce on anyone who seemed lost and looking for a room for the night. This frenetic scene made me even more grateful that we’d made a reservation at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge and their tuk tuk was already waiting for us at the top!
When we arrived at the lodge just a short and bumpy drive later, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. We made it; it was calm, the outlook over the Mekong River was stunning, and I had no doubt that the lodge would be infinitely more comfortable than any of the guesthouses in town. The standard journey down the Mekong from a small town by the border between Thailand and Laos to Luang Prabang takes two days so most people only stay in Pakbeng for just one night. We decided to stay for two, this gave us a much needed break between slow-boat journeys and a chance to take in the idyllic surroundings and quiet village life.