Luang Prabang – a hidden beauty in SE Asia

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Notes from our journal – Dec 2018

Just saying out loud the name of this place makes us relax. As our Airbnb host said, there is nothing to be rushed in Luang Prabang; it is a place to unwind, relax and take things slow.

The beauty of LP is that it is so unassuming – from the beautiful Buddha temples to the quintessential French bakeries; from the jazzy night market (still peaceful though) to the street food to watching the sunset over the mighty Mekong river; LP is unlike any other town we have been to. Literally meaning “Royal Buddha Image“, it is an old royal capital city in north-central Laos, encompassing the UNESCO Town Of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site.

Royal Wat, Luang Prabang

We included LP in our itinerary, primarily to explore the Kuang Si Falls, but we fell in love with everything in this exquisite place.

Getting there and setting in (Day 1)

LP was the start of our 12-day South-East Asia trip covering Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia. We love to take weekday flights after working hours and catching up on meals at the airport lounges.

Though we had to travel overnight, reaching LP was surprisingly easy (for a city we had not heard about much). We took a Thai Airways flight from Bangalore to Bangkok, loading up on some more food and watching a movie, and then another smaller flight to LP which was reasonably empty (and on which Soh joined two more seats and just crashed).

The magic of LP began even before we landed. The airport is a small building settled in a valley, with the landing strip giving a scenic welcome surrounded by hills and greenery. The building itself is reminiscent of the quaint small town airports in India, where you walk on the tarmac itself.

A short 15-minute process later (because of Visa on arrival for Indians), we were outside the airport and inside the country.

And true to the small-town feeling, we were able to take an auto-rickshaw, right from the airport to our Airbnb stay, 20 minutes away. The homestay itself was a humble building of two floors (as was most of LP), but our room was facing the river. The serene view coupled with a calm breeze was enough for us to crash onto the comfortable beds.

Refreshed, we started out, by early evening, to explore the town on foot. There is the easy availability of two-wheeler rentals throughout the town, but we decided to stick to walking on the first day. Very quickly we stumbled  from the calm of our homestay to the calm of the café, Utopia. True to its name, it provides a perfect setting overlooking the river (like many in LP), lounge seating which was a mix of bean bags and low carpets, and a chill ambience.

It was just the first day of our trip and we were excited, but the vibe of the place held us to an idling evening.

After mustering some strength with a few hearty dishes, we set out again on foot. We walked along the curving river, noting the many cafes and the tourist population around the town. There were a couple of tourist spots that we skipped for the day, but soon ended up in a busy street, the night market. A pedestrian-only stretch, which is set up only in the evenings, we stumbled from one stall to another, not really sure about what to buy (though Soh was keeping an eye out for deals).

Usually, we buy souvenirs of a place only towards the end of the trip. But here, in the well-lit night market, we decided to buy a couple of items on the first day itself, mainly because we found some really good options, and sauntered back to our homestay, to plan for our next few days.

Getting around and exploring (Day 2)

We started the day with a lazy breakfast in our Airbnb and then dozed off again for some time. Jet lag maybe? We finally stepped out to the Royal Wat Road for lunch. (And also realized that the only thing we had done in LP till now was eating!)

While planning our trips, one of the things we discuss is transit. We either prefer using local transportation options of bus/tram/metro or renting our own vehicle, which gives us the flexibility to explore like a local or be spontaneous with our plans. In LP, the best option we figured was renting a scooter (on which Iti is always scared). So on our way to lunch, we found a decent outlet on the main road and close to our Airbnb, and picked from one of the many options. The rental was reasonable, but they did ask for a deposit of a passport which we were hesitant about. We spoke to our hosts, who reassured us about the practice and its safety. So off we went on our red two-wheeler.

Since card payments weren’t widely accepted, we also exchanged some USD and got some local currency, while also carrying Thai Baht (remaining from our earlier trips) which were accepted at most places.

After these basics sorted, our next stop had to be food, and we ended up at BOUANG Asian Eatery. A sumptuous (local lasagne for Soh) and yummy (vegan burger for Iti) meal later, we started roaming around on our scooter and exploring the town.

LP is based on the banks of the Mekong river, so the easiest thing we thought of doing was taking a boat ride on the river. We found one vendor and luckily not much crowd because the tourist packages do this mostly in the first half of the day (when we had slept). What we also realized was that in LP, similar to India, negotiating at the vendor place was easier and a better price than booking online.

We took a long wooden boat, with some shading and were able to get a different view of the city from the waters. We enjoyed the gentle sailing through water which was accentuated by the perfect afternoon breeze.

Soh was almost drowsy, and maybe sensing that, our boatman then asked us if we wanted to explore the other side. It is a non-touristy side of the town, so we were conscious not to be a disturbance, but walked through a village, crossed a number of temples (wat) before ending up at Wat Tham Sakkalin.

This is a cave temple and we found a local who took us inside as a guide; inside the cave is a stone ceiling with beautiful patterns. There were also relics, stone patterns and an old Buddha made from wood.

After further exploring, we took a forest path, which with a short climb of stairs, brought us to the hilltop, Wat Khokphap, and with it a gorgeous view of LP and the surrounding area.

Our boatman picked us up from a new spot right next to the forest path, and the ride back was another smooth sailing and we were happy with the excursion.

By the time we returned back to the central town, it was still late afternoon, so we thought of checking out a fine dine place we had read about – Manda de Laos, a serene Laotian restaurant hidden away in a magical setting of lily ponds and reeds. With its unique environment and with dusk falling, it made for a memorable setting.

We grabbed drinks and a small appetizer and then, gradually, sauntered towards the Royal Wat Road. Very soon we were hungry again and gorged on some delicious cheese crepes in the night market.

Picnic outing to Kaung-si falls and pizza (Day 3)

Kuang-si was one of the reasons we had stumbled upon LP, and so we had a whole day for visiting and enjoying the place. True to our learning from travelling, we started the day early (with a heavy breakfast) and off we went on our two-wheeler.

Luckily we didn’t get much traffic en route, one because we were hoping to get lesser crowds there, and two because Iti really shone with her navigating skills from pillion – turn left direction with a right hand out for explanation! But the ride otherwise, driving out from town and among so much green, was wonderful.

As was the falls and the area around them. We walked around, snacked on munchies, hiked to the top (which not many people do), and eventually jumped and swam in the turquoise (and cold) water. Needless to say, we were spellbound by the beauty of the place.

By the time we were out and dry, we were hungry again (obviously), we found a tucked place where we could enjoy our meal (and Soh’s beer), next to the waterfall!

We were tired by the time we reached back and took a lazy evening and were almost ready not to make too much of an effort for dinner when we found out (our Airbnb host again) about a place, which serves one of the best wood-oven pizzas in LP, that is open only on Tuesdays and Fridays and is literally called Secret Pizza!

Luckily it was a Friday, and we had to try, so we helmeted up and with approximations, since Google Maps wasn’t properly marked, were able to reach the place. The place itself is effectively a front yard converted to seating for 50 people but with a wood pizza oven and a cosy bar.

There was a lot of local crowds, mixed with tourists, which gave us confidence about the food. But with crowds comes waiting, which we did do for some time, but eventually just shared a table with a group of Irish tourists. We ended up having a jolly time in conversations, sumptuous pizza and great desserts.

Some more food and exploring (Day 4)

LP is filled with a mix of food joints – happening hang-out pubs, small roadside vendors, to old European themed bakeries. That is where we found ourselves in this cute place, Le Banneton Cafe, to get our fill of croissants and be transported to a bakery in France, buzzing with conversations with an air that was filled with coffee and sugar.

Fueled by the energy, we went exploring Mount Phou Si and its 350 stairs climb to the top, to take in another 360 degrees view of the city and the river. And it is a breathtaking view. The stupa on the peak is the one visible from across the town and acts as a navigation guide for the locals.

The climb down was easy, but we were not done and went exploring the compound of Wat Xiangthong – such a beautiful, charming and absorbing place that we bought a painting of it.

After so much exploring, and a pit-stop at the Novelty Cafe for some more delicacies, we went back to the Royal Wat – one of our favourite place in town, where we went every day.

As the evening was winding down, we walked along the Mekong river enjoying the sunset, and then strolling in the night market (and controlling Soh’s urge to buy everything).

Since it was our last night, we wanted to explore a little bit more of LP. And going further away from the central town and French quarters, we ended up further inwards and in a local market. The place was full, but not with tourists – this (and similar such settings) was where the locals met, ate, shopped. We ended doing our own bit of shopping, though with hand gestures and translation apps, since being a local market, English was not much help.

But this also brought fore the reality of different sides of LP – the bubble of the idyllic french quarters with its eateries and tourists vs the rest of the city and Laotian people. We were glad about a chance to explore this side of LP.

Winding down (Day 5)

We had an afternoon flight out to Hanoi, so had thought of a free morning. But then we did go out for this small alms ceremony which the local monks carry out.

Based on a couple of recommendations, we had heard about this ceremony but had been debating whether we should go or not. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. It is a silent ceremony in which the monks walk big and small streets, quietly open for alms or bhiksha from the people (Soh had also seen this in Nepal), and they live on that. It is a highly spiritual and silent ceremony, which in recent years has become a bit of sore with tourists creating noise around the participation and selfies!

After some discussion, we decided to go on our last day in LP, early in the morning, but with a promise to ourselves that we will keep our distance and respect the silent nature of the occasion. But our hopes of going very early and experiencing some decorum vanished quickly as soon as we stepped out on our scooter. This was the first time in LP where we saw almost 7-8 tourist buses rolling in, filled with folks, making it noisy and rendering it nowhere close to the spiritual aura we were hoping.

Even with crowds causing some disturbance, the monks continued along on their path and in a way it was beautiful to see them ignoring the material world and going about with their ethereal exercise.

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Our last afternoon in LP we went around the town on foot again and ambled along the river, soaking in the colonial architecture, and ended up at our favourite cafe, Utopia, to wind down our zen time, before taking an auto-rickshaw to the airport.

Luang Prabang was a beautiful place with a unique calm of architectural, religious and cultural heritage. With a blend of rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences and numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, and the delightful people, LP is a must-visit place in any SE Asia itinerary. We hope to go back there someday along with exploring other areas of Laos.

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Have you been to Luang Prabang? Or planning to?

Cruising in the Emerald Water of Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

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From our Travel Notes: December 2018

The story goes that a few centuries ago, dragons descended in the northern part of Vietnam and spewed fire to protect the sea from nasty invaders! They spit out jewels which scattered around the sea and turned into small islands & tiny karsts – forming what is now known as Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay.

And while we did not get see any dragons on our sojourn (a bit disappointing for us GOT-fans), we had an absolutely lovely time cruising through Bai Tu Long Bay – a gorgeous segment of the Gulf on Tonkin, known for its emerald waters and towering limestone islands that are covered with rain-forests.

Ha Long bay is quite popular amongst visitors from all over the world, who either book a junk boat, or take a cruise to explore fishing villages, the caves, & rock formations within this bay.

For us, we knew it had to be part of our South-East Asia itinerary, but then came the tough part – planning it out. Do we go and come back the same day (Sohil’s initial choice) or stay in the sea cruising for a couple of nights (Itisha’s initial choice)? Which company and type of boat should we choose? Which activities to include (Iti had a long list) and which to skip (Soh had to shortlist)? Is it really worth the cost?

The Internet can answer a lot of question but in the case of Halong Bay, we realised there are unlimited options available and not really a perfect solution. There are literally hundreds of boats & cruises that operate in the area and even after filtering out based on our budget & duration, there was not only one, but at least 10 different cruises that popped up (Not ideal to Iti’s liking, who wants to take the ‘best decision’, always).

We did some time-consuming & a little confusing research almost a month before our cruise dates, and finally made these choices –

  • We decided to go with a mini-luxury cruise (with our own cabin and balcony) for our journey. Cruises are not exactly an economic affair, but we realized that the cost of the cruise in Ha Long is much lesser than a cruise we might take in other parts of the world. And we had not taken an over-night cruise ever before, so the novelty factor also came into play.
  • The duration option that made the most sense was the 2-day & 1-night. Our base was in Vietnam was in Hanoi, which is 4 hours from Halong. It would have been rushed to our liking if we had travelled back on the same day; the additional day also gave us time to soak in the views of the place at a different time of day. (There was also a 3-day & 2-night option available, but that was too long and would have hampered with rest of our Vietnam travel plan).
  • After some back & forth on reviews on Trip Advisor, blog posts and aggregator websites, we decided to go with Signature Cruises (we shortlisted around three cruise ships but Iti’s favourite travel YouTube vloggers, Kara & Nate, had taken this one, and that gave it the winning edge!)
  • The good part about the Vietnam cruises is that the price included everything – to-and-fro Hanoi to Halong (at additional cost), all meals, activities, and stay which meant that once we made our booking – all we had to do was sit back & relax.
  • The Signature Cruise ship actually navigates in Bai Tu Long Bay, which is quieter and less-touristy compared to Halong Bay
  • Also, all cruises also have a standardized itinerary that includes everything from (from hiking to kayaking), so there isn’t a need to plan anything separately.
  • We booked directly through Signature Cruise’s travel desk, who gave us good information and (more importantly for Soh) a better deal.

Journey into the Bay
Day 1

8:00 AM

We started our day with a serving of Vietnam’s popular Bahn-Mi sandwiches for breakfast at our homestay in Hanoi Old quarters. Our pickup was at 8 in the morning and we kept our remaining luggage in the homestay itself (why carry Iti’s 25 dresses when 5 are enough for 2 days and 1 night). We were pretty groggy (not exactly morning people!) and mostly slept during the 4-hour journey in a comfortable coach on a calm highway. Once we reached Halong, we signed up a few forms and waited at the dock with our co-passengers for about an hour, finally to board a small boat, which took us to our main cruise ship.

1:00 PM

Our cruise was a luxurious white vessel, with a colonial-style wooden flooring and included a restaurant, an open deck with sun loungers and about 10-12 cabins for the passengers. It came with its own grandiose & sophistication and yet the super cheerful crew and a limited number of passengers (around 25 from what we remember) gave the entire place a cosy & intimate vibe.

We started sailing immediately and were directly taken to the ship’s restaurant for lunch and given our two-day written itinerary with reporting times and activities. Most of the times, we enjoy DIY travelling and creating our own unique (weird!) travel agenda.But there is also a charm in leaving the planning to someone else and going by a set plan – the only thing we had to do was turn up and enjoy. A welcome break compared to rest of our South-East Asia schedule.

The lunch was a bit tricky. There were multiple options in the buffet and Sohil was more than happy to start gorging on the delicacies, but for Itisha, the vegetarian food was limited. (There was a dish of ‘Tofu and Veggies’, which, Iti will not say bad, but to be polite, so very far off from the Indian palette, that she has now stopped eating Tofu completely. She was a little upset, for the lunch, and the thought of not having food to enjoy for the rest of the trip. And that showed on her face because soon the Captain was at her side asking for her preference and assured that from next meal onward the food will be prepared with the exact ingredients and style that she asks it to be made).

2:00 PM

We checked-in to our cabin which was no less than a suite of a hotel – Well-spaced area with a wooden flooring, grand double bed, a wide dressing and a surprisingly luxurious bathroom that had a remote-controlled loo and a Jacuzzi with a sea-view! The best part, however, was the attached balcony where we could lounge on chairs and enjoy the breeze coming through limestone island over the pristine sea. There was a moment when both of us thought that we might just skip the rest of the itinerary and spend rest of the day just absorbing the views from the balcony.

Cruise Balcony
we were in love with our balcony

3:00 PM

Our cruise docked and we were ready for our first activity of the day (2nd as per Soh who counted lunch). We boarded a jetty to go to Vung Vieng fishing village. We were given a Kayak to explore the area. It took us a while to synchronize our rowing; Iti’s fear of water and Sohil’s over-eagerness were not really a good combination to start with, but we did settle after a few ground principles and started enjoying it.

Vung vieng is a full-fledged village that floats on the sea! We kayaked near the colour coordinated fishermen houses, then turned a corner to come to the children’s school and further ahead reached a large community hall. All the structures in the village were on stilted wooden beams and made in a way to blend with the surroundings, matching with the perfect calm. We spent a little less than an hour kayaking in this peaceful location next to the gorgeous grottoes and caves. At the village, we also saw a demo of how pearls are extracted from oysters, though weren’t given souvenirs to carry off to the disappointment of Sohil.

4:30 pm

We were back in our cabin. As we kept sailing deeper into the sea – we realized that Bai Tu Long Bay is huge! The water became clearer, the surrounding became quieter & we lost count of all the hundreds of limestone islets & rocks that we saw on our way! We utilised this time (on Iti’s insistence) to click a lot of photos (a lot), (on Sohil’s insistence) to chill out on the cruise deck for sunset and to also watch a demo class by the chef on – how to make a Vietnamese spring roll.

7:30 pm

And did we mention, we were there on Christmas Eve – so this was time for our Christmas party on board!

It was a super fun evening planned meticulously planned by the crew. There were gifts from Santa Claus which included free chocolate (Yey! for Iti) and wine (Yey! for So). Then came a round of games for the guests, followed by a few singing performances from guests and crew alike. We learnt and sang the Vietnamese version of ‘Merry Christmas’ withal the while filled with lots of food and conversation.

Of all the games that were organized, there was a game – ‘who can drink and finish a beer bottle the fastest’ and (needless to say) the winner was Sohil.

We wound the evening down with a calm walk around the deck watching the other anchored cruises around our own, the only sources of light around.

Day 2

6:30 AM

We woke up just as the cruise started sailing again. There was a Tai Chi class on the open deck which, even with one person’s reluctance, we ended up attending – though it was so chilly that we were packed in our sweatshirts and the movements a bit laboured.

7:30 AM

After having a quick and mini (but well deserved as Sohil would say) breakfast, we were ready in our hiking clothes and sneakers and set out to explore Thien Canh Son cave. We climbed up about 100 stairs on a small cliff to reach the entrance of the cave and once inside, could see a surprisingly vast hollow filled with limestone stalactites and stone structures.

There are limited stopping points and activities in the Halong Bay and with the increased influx of tourists and cruise ships and limited itinerary, there is always an expectancy of huge crowds. Luckily (or maybe planned by our Captain) ours was one of the first group to reach the spot and we had good enough time without much crowd to explore the reflecting hues and diminishing lights of the various segments and paths of the caves.

But by the time we were starting back, there was a huge line just to get into the caves! After enjoying some stunning views of the bay from the top of the islet, we were back to the warmth of our cabin.

10:00 AM

Brunch came early, thankfully, with more variety for Sohil and as promised a fried rice combo for Iti.
We lazed around a bit more and spent some more time on the deck and it was soon check-out time. Within the next hour, we were packed, landed back on land and were off to Hanoi dozing in the comfort of the coach.

3:00 PM

We were back in Hanoi by afternoon, and it seemed like crazy madness compared to the serene beauty and calm of the Halong Bay; scooters everywhere honking, people everywhere in hurry and it felt for a moment that we were in Chandni Chowk in Delhi. But Hanoi has a very different charm owing to the language of conversations, the smell of the food and the façade which was a mix of rustic and neon.


Ha Long was our perfect mini-cruise vacay. A first-time cruise experience in such a breath-taking landscape.

In summary, the priority list of decisions for cruising in Ha Long / Bai Tu Long Bay comes down to the following –

  1. The cruise company (and the ship) – too large and it might feel like crowded
  2. The mix of inclusive activities
  3. The duration which is worthwhile

We were delighted with our decisions and lost ourselves in the calm sea and the bay of wonders loving every minute of it.


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