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A fascinating northern Laos getaway
There is enough see and do in and around Luang Prabang to occupy at least 2-3 days (compared to the capital, Vientiane, in which you can see everything in one day). The safest and most comfortable way to reach LP is to fly Bangkok Airways (they use fairly new ATR72s) from Bangkok. If you want to include Vientiane on your itinerary, and want to avoid flying Lao Aviation (which doesn't have a good safety record), then do what we did and fly into Vientiane on Thai Airways, hire a car and driver to travel north to LP and then fly out on Bangkok Airways (or do that in reverse). This way you can see some of the rugged mountainous country between LP and Vientiane and experience some hill-tribe village life without getting too far off the beaten track.
We hired a four wheel drive and driver from Asia Vehicle Rental in Vientiane which cost us USD240 for the two day trip from Vientiane to LP and a third day for the driver to return the vehicle to Vientiane. It was a near-new Hyundai Galloper -- very comfortable -- and the rate included all fuel, insurance and the driver's accommodation and meals. Based on AVR's recommendation we took two days to do the trip, stopping overnight at Vang Vieng on the way, and we are glad that we did as it would have been a long day doing the 7-8 hours drive in one go, and would have left little time to stop off and explore places on the way.
We took Route 10 first north to the Nam Ngum reservoir where there is a good lunch stop in Na Nam village from which there are spectacular views of this vast artificial lake with its picturesque islands. After that it is a short distance west to Route 13 which is the main highway north (and the only highway on which it is regarded as safe for tourists to travel in Laos). By mid-afternoon we were in Vang Viang which is an interesting small town on the Song river, surrounded by rugged limestone karst hills. Several guidebooks mention there are still opium dens in this town which occasionally get raided by the police (and any tourists caught in them are immediately deported!) There were quite a few tourists here, many tubing down the Song river, and an interesting market where you can see all sorts of birds, rats, squirrels and other mammals being sold for the cooking pot. Accommodation is fairly basic here with the 'top end' being the Thavansouk Bungalows right on the river where the most expensive cabins (USD35 a night) have air conditioning, hot water and great sunset views.
The second day of our trip north was one of the most interesting days in Laos. The road climbs to about 4000 ft as it winds through the mountains, passing through hill-tribe villages, and offering spectacular views of the rugged mountain scenery in this part of Laos. There is an interesting town called Phou Khoun about half way which makes a for a good rest stop. This is at the junction of Route 7 east to Phonsavan (near the Plain of Jars) but most embassies recommend that travelers avoid Route 7 as it is still subject to attacks by bandits and insurgents. Route 13 north from here is now regarded as safe, as there have been no attacks on travelers for quite a few years, but embassies still advise to exercise caution when traveling on this highway.
At Phou Khoun we saw women from different hill-tribes shopping in town -- some in very colourful traditional dress. It's about a 4 hour drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, so you should be able to make it into LP by early afternoon depending on how many stops you make on the way.
There are so many temples to see in LP, you won't want to visit them all, but Wat Xieng Thong at the north end of town is definitely worth a visit. One other worth a quick stop at is Wat Ho Siang on Thanon Chao Fa Ngum. I have not seen this one recommended for a visit in any of my guide books, but there is a fantastic mural on the front of the temple depicting some sort of war with naked women being cut in half and having their tongues pulled out whilst villages are plundered and burnt behind them - very gory but very unusual.
Many of the guidebooks recommend a visit to Talat Naviengkham, LP's biggest market, but it has now been moved out of town to a new brick and concrete compound, and no longer has the atmosphere of the old market. Give it a miss if you can visit the Vang Vieng market on your way north or south.
Luang Prabang is a great destination for a long weekend if you want to get away from the crowds of Bangkok -- it's one of those places I'm looking forward to visiting again.