“You take bus,” she advised. “Very nice.”
“How long is the bus ride?” I asked.
“The bus ride takes 30 hours?”
“Yes, 30 hour,” she confirmed in a monotone. “Very nice.”
Hmmm… A few more questions revealed an alternative. I could follow the travel agent’s recommendation and enjoy a “very nice” 30-hour bus ride to Luang Prabang, or for $70 more I could catch a plane flight that takes about 12 seconds.
At 9:00 the next morning my plane lifted off and by 10:30 I was walking around Luang Prabang, really pleased to be in Laos for the first time in my life. (I think the travel agents make higher commissions on bus rides, given that there are kickbacks from all the restaurants and souvenir stands the buses stop at along the way. I hate to question the professionals, but it’s possible – just possible – their advice might be a little biased. Another Hanoi travel agent told me I had to arrange my Laos visa in advance and tried to charge me $55 when she must have known perfectly well that it’s quick and easy to get a visa on arrival at the Luang Prabang airport for just $35, which is what I did.)
I shared a cab with two German girls for the short ride from the airport to the old quarter of Luang Prabang and quickly found a nice hotel room with my own balcony overlooking the street. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something felt very strange about Luang Prabang. Finally it hit me: no honking. I’d been walking the streets for an hour and had yet to hear a single horn. What a contrast to Hanoi and Saigon, were at any given moment 100 horns penetrate your skull simultaneously. In fact the streets of Luang Prabang were practically free of moving vehicles – the complete opposite of Hanoi’s perpetual river of antagonistic motorbikes and cars. I began to feel… relaxed. I’d been told Laos would do that, but I never imagined it would kick in so quickly.
That afternoon I wandered around the old quarter, basically a peninsula bounded by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Locals swinging in hammocks during the heat of the afternoon, flashes of bright orange robes as Buddhist monks walked by, rows of pale yellow houses in the French colonial style. Towards sunset I climbed up to the That Chomsi temple for 360-degree views of the town as it slipped into darkness.
Luang Prabang is filled with Buddhist temples and every morning around 6am the monks file out into the street to collect their daily alms. Locals and tourists line up with baskets of food and drop a little bit into the collecting bowl of each passing monk. The possibility of a colorful sunrise over the Nam Khan would have been enough to get me out of bed before dawn on my first morning in Laos, so there was no way I’d miss hundreds of monks filling the street.
At sunset I climbed back up to the That Chomsi temple and ended up talking with a group of monks who seemed interested in my camera.