February 15 (Friday): Newark to Tokyo
My spouse and I flew United from Newark, NJ (EWR) to Bangkok (BKK) via Tokyo (NRT). We both have premium silver status, and we were able to secure exit row/bulkhead seats in Premium Economy, seats 32J/32K. (It's what we like to call "business class for poor people"!) The drawbacks to our seats are immovable armrests, and no underseat storage during takeoff and landing. (You can retrieve your carryon and keep it by your seat during the flight, however.) It is not possible to fly from the East Coast of the United States to Bangkok nonstop, so we transited through Narita International Airport in Tokyo.
Flight UA0079 (a Boeing 777-200) departed Newark (EWR) at 11:25 am, arriving at Narita (NRT) at 3:30 pm (flight time 14 hours: 5 minutes). The equipment had personal in-seat entertainment systems, with a multitude of movies, TV shows, and music. We were fed three times: lunch after takeoff, a snack at the halfway point, and another meal before landing.
February 16 (Saturday): Tokyo to Bangkok
We had a 3 hour: 5 minute layover at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, which was more than enough time. Our flight from Newark arrived on time as scheduled, and we deplaned fairly quickly. We had to re-clear security between flights, although it was an abbreviated version of what you would find if you entered from the street. We were not allowed to carry liquids over 3.3 ounces through the re-screening security line, even though we had just deplaned and had never left the airport terminal. Security lines moved pretty slowly (even though we used the premium line), but we still had about two hours to relax before our next flight. You can smoke in the Narita Airport, both in smoking rooms as well as in some bars. Prices were average for an airport - they did not seem too much higher than airport prices in the United States (one large beer and one large soft drink cost about $14). We spent our layover time in the Avion Restaurant in Terminal 1, which serves food and drinks and allows smoking. The signs in the airport are marked in both English and Japanese, and navigating around is easy.
Flight UA0837 (a Boeing 747-400) departed Narita (NRT) at 06:35 pm and arrived in Bangkok (BKK) at 11:45 pm (flight time 7 hours: 10 minutes). The equipment did NOT have personal in-seat entertainment systems; instead, they showed two main cabin movies and a few TV shows. We had seats 33C/33B, which were exit row/bulkhead in premium economy (which we feel is about the best you can do without upgrading to business class). The drawbacks to our seats are immovable armrests, and no underseat storage during takeoff and landing. (You can retrieve your carryon and keep it by your seat during the flight, however.) Our flight departed about 15 minutes late from Tokyo, and accordingly, we arrived 15 minutes late in Bangkok. We arrived after midnight, essentially Sunday morning, which meant that we had been traveling for three days and still had not yet reached our destination! Immigration and passport control went smoothly and quickly, and because we did not check bags, we were exiting the airport by 12:30 am.
Because it was not possible to catch a flight to Laos at that time of night, we booked a room at the Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. (Please see my separate review on the Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport.) We knew that we could walk to the Novotel from the Bangkok Airport by using underground air-conditioned walkway, but we could not easily find the passageway in our bleary-eyed state. Therefore, we took the free hotel shuttle, because we could easily locate it, and it was a quick 5-minute ride. The walkway to the Novotel is on the B1 basement level; the airport has four levels. Also on the basement level is the train into the city, as well as a few fast food establishments (Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins), a 24-hour 7-11 convenience store, and several currency exchanges. (Note that the 7-11, at least, accepts only Thai Bhat, not US dollars or other foreign currencies.)
HOTEL REVIEW: Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport - Airport Hotel Oasis
My spouse and I stayed at the Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport for one night en route from the United States to Laos in mid-February 2013. (We stayed at the hotel twice in February 2013; once on our inbound journey to Laos, and again on our outbound journey back to the United States.)
You can walk to the Novotel via the underground air-conditioned walkway on level B1 (basement) of the airport. You can reach the basement using either an elevator, escalator, or inclined moving walkway. Alternatively, the hotel has a free airport shuttle that runs 24 hours; it takes about 5 minutes to transfer between the airport and the hotel.
The Novotel has 612 rooms and suites, VOUS spa, a lovely outdoor pool, and a large fitness center (with lockers, cold tubs, sauna, and steam room). This hotel has a 24 Flexi policy, meaning that it has no set check-in time, so guests can arrive anytime and check out 24 hours later. There is a club lounge for executive-level guests that provides free drinks and food, and it doubles as the business center for any guest (not just executive level) who needs to print his boarding pass.
For both stays, our standard room cost approximately $150 total (which was a non-refundable/non-cancellable rate that included all taxes). Hotel check-in (even though it was not crowded), took a surprisingly long time. Although there are five dining/drinking establishments in the Novotel, the only one that was open at that time of night was The Square. The hotel website says that this restaurant is open 24 hours, but as we were finishing our meal just before 2:00 am, the waiter asked if we would like anything else, because the cook was going home. The menu that we were presented was already abbreviated; the selections that they make after regular business hours are marked with a clock symbol. We are not sure if the restaurant was really closing - it could have been a language-barrier issue and/or our exhaustion. Similar to the check-in process, being served drinks and food took a long time, and after our second round of drinks, our glasses remained empty without anyone coming by to offer a refill. Prices at the hotel restaurant are a bit expensive: we shared one entree and had two rounds of drinks for $46 total.
We first stayed at the Novotel a few years ago en route to Cambodia, and the hotel looked the same as it did then. Rooms (king-size bedded, anyway) are a nice size, with large bathrooms that have a separate shower and soaking bathtub. There is a window (with vertical blinds) on the wall that divides the bedroom from the bathroom, but they provide enough privacy so that you do not feel like you are on display. In case you have forgotten anything, the Novotel provides a variety of complimentary toiletries: shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, two kinds of shower gels, toothbrushes/paste, and razors. Robes and slippers are provided, and each room has a safe, coffee maker, and stocked mini-bar. Two bottles of complimentary bottled water are provided in the bedroom, and another two bottles in the bathroom. On our first stay in February 2013, we were assigned a room that faced inwards towards the swimming pool; however, we were on the second floor (the same floor as the pool), and our window looked out through some dense foliage that blocked the view.
On our second stay in late February 2013, we received a room facing outward towards the road to the hotel, but it was the same size, shape, and configuration that we had the week prior. We have stayed at the Novotel three times over the years, and we have always been in the pool wing; there are rooms in the garden wing, which are a farther walk to the pool, restaurants, gym, and so on. We are not sure whether we just got lucky every stay, or if they reserve the rooms in the garden wing for tour group or airline employees or some other type of non-rack-rate-paying guests. We like the second floor, because that is where the pool and gym are located; however, if you have a higher room number (for example, 254), it is not possible to easily access that room from the lobby elevators unless you walk the long corridor that overlooks the lobby. Although there is an elevator near those higher-numbered rooms, it does not reach to the lobby. (You can take a huge set of stairs to the lobby, which is only a problem when you are carrying luggage.
On our inbound stay, we had no time to enjoy the hotel amenities, but we did have some leisure time on our outbound stay. We had the better part of the afternoon to spend at the outdoor swimming pool, and we had several drinks at the Splash Pool Bar (which serves food and beverages until 10:00 pm). Several rounds of drinks cost approximately $35 total, with discounted happy hour pricing in effect for part of that time. The pool itself is large, however, chairs are somewhat scarce; we were not able to find two lounge chairs together initially. Most of the pool area is in the shade by early afternoon. There are two or three tables by the bar where you can sit and eat a formal meal, but that space is at a premium, and guests aren’t asked to leave even if they are not eating. There are only four chairs at the bar, although it is also a swim-up bar that has a few seats in the pool. You can smoke at the bar area and at the dining tables.
We like this Novotel and plan to stay there again if we must spend the night in Bangkok en route to another destination in Southeast Asia.
February 17 (Sunday): Bangkok to Vientiane
We chose to fly Lao Airlines from Bangkok to Vientiane because of both price and schedule. Our Lao Airlines flight was actually operated by Thai Airways, which caused some confusion at the airport (had we booked directly through the Thai Airways website, it would have cost approximately $50 more per person). At Suvarnabhumi Airport, there is no counter for Lao Airlines, nor is it listed on any of the departing or arriving flight boards. So our only apparent option was to check in with Thai Airways, which turned out to be the correct decision. The lines at check-in were long, although they did have three kiosks to check yourself in - the self-service lines seemed to move quickly. (Just as you would do in the United States, after passengers print their boarding passes from the kiosk, they enter a small queue to check their bags.) We tried to use the kiosk, but the (unhelpful) attendants did not know what to do with our Lao Airlines booking. We should have tried to use the kiosk ourselves without asking questions; we cannot say for sure whether it would have worked. Our itinerary presented no problem to the desk agent, who quickly assigned us seats and checked our bags (checked baggage limit is 44 pounds and carryon 15 pounds, although no one weighed our carryons). It seemed like everyone was checking bags, although it looked like it would have been possible to fit our 21" rollaboards in the overhead bins if they were turned lengthwise instead of wheels in or handle in.
We cleared security with no problems, then passed through immigration and passport control with just a short wait. (If you hold a Thai passport, rather than waiting in the formal line, you can use a kiosk similar to our United States Global Entry program, whereby you scan your passport and provide your fingerprints.) We had about one hour before our flight, so we ate breakfast at Kin Ramen, which was one of the better airport meals that we have ever had (two entrees and one round of drinks cost approximately $28). We liked our meal so much that we ate at a different Kin Ramen outside of the secure area on the evening before our return flight to the United States. Bangkok Airport provides 30 minutes of free wireless per person if you go to the kiosk on the main floor, provide your e-mail address, and pick up a slip with an access code. You can smoke in the Bangkok Airport in designated smoking rooms (which are on the level below the main floor, yet on the level above the departure gates). We were able to take liquids (purchased inside the secure area) on the plane from Bangkok to Vientiane, and there was no secondary security check before boarding the plane. We were bused onto the tarmac to board the aircraft.
Thai Airlines flight TG570 (code share with Lao Airlines flight QV4570) departed Bangkok (BKK) at 11:45 am and arrived at Vientiane (VTE) at 12:55 pm. We paid nearly $200 per person for a one-way ticket. Even though the flight was only 1 hour: 10 minutes, they still provide food and beverage service. We arrived in Vientiane at about 1:00 pm, where we needed to obtain our visa on arrival (VOA).
We debated about getting our visas in the United States before we departed (we thought it was a case of “better to be safe than to be sorry”), but there is no consulate in New York City, so we would have had to make a trip (or use a visa service) for processing in Washington, DC. In addition, my spouse occasionally travels internationally for business, and could not be without a passport even for a few days, so we decided to use the visa on arrival process instead.
The flight attendants pass out visa forms that you can complete on the plane prior to landing. We had downloaded two different forms on-line and filled them out before leaving home, but we did not use either of the pre-completed forms because of the size of the paper that we printed them on (regular 8.5" x 11" inches). The actual forms distributed by the flight attendants were printed on paper that was a bit smaller than that. One-by-one, passengers hand over their passport, visa form, one photograph, and visa fee ($35 per person) at the first window. (We had read that it cost an extra $1 per person on Sundays, but did not find that information to be accurate. We had also read that they could scan your passport photo for you for an additional $1 if you did not have a photo, but we did not see anyone who needed that extra service.) After a few minutes wait, you pick up your passport (with the visa pasted inside) at the third window. (There is a second window, which was not being used.) The visa process went smoothly, as did the line at passport control. (There is a separate passport control queue for the people who just received their visas; however, we ducked under the rope and went to a regular window, as one would do if they arrived in Vientiane already in possession of their visa, because the agents were available and there was no wait.) The airport is tiny, with only two baggage claim carousels. There is a single currency exchange counter that is accessible from both the baggage claim (secure) area as well as the departure area, and there are restrooms inside baggage claim, too.
After exiting with our luggage, we quickly spotted the driver from our hotel, the Settha Palace, holding a sign with our name on it. The hotel is located about 10 minutes from the airport, and we made it there quickly. After checking in to the Settha Palace, we walked around the city to acclimate ourselves. (Please see my separate review on the Settha Palace.)
We had drinks first at the City Inn (just a block from the Settha Palace, with indoor and outdoor seating, 20% off happy hour drink prices, and free Wi-Fi), then additional drinks at Khop Chai Deu, followed by dinner at da Fao. Many restaurants in Vientiane are closed on Sundays, so we did not have many options. In general, restaurants tend to close relatively early at approximately 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm. We read about a 12:00 midnight curfew on-line, although we did not see any mention of it in the city; however, people rise early and therefore, go to bed early. (Please see my separate review of Khop Chai Deu.)
We did not see an overabundance of tuk-tuks in Vientiane, nor did we see many taxis. People and tourists seemed to walk everywhere. The only place where we saw a few parked tuk-tuks was at Pha That Luang. We do not recall seeing any taxis when we exited baggage claim, so we think that most tourists pre-arrange their hotel transfer.
February 18 (Monday): Vientiane Sightseeing
Prior to arriving in Vientiane, we had e-mailed the Settha Palace front office/reservation specialist, Sarah Dane, to organize two tours for us, but sadly, she did a bad job! Everyone said that we did not need a private guide in Vientiane, and logistically, that is true. It is easy to navigate the streets yourself (though crossing at some intersections is surprisingly busy and nerve-wracking), but we like the historical information that a guide provides, and the ability to move around without needing to consult a map. But it seemed that we were not destined to have a guide on our first day.
We had e-mailed back and forth with Sarah several times in the month prior to our arrival, and she seemed very capable and efficient in organizing our program/itinerary. However, what we found when we met her in person was quite the opposite - she appeared flustered, unkempt, and not terribly concerned with doing a good job and pleasing her guests. The night prior to our first tour, we asked the front desk what time our private city tour would begin. The desk attendant knew nothing about our tours (there was nothing in our file, despite our numerous e-mails), so he called Sarah on her cell phone (we assumed that she was at home, because he was calling on Sunday evening). Sarah said that she did not know what time our tour started, but that our tour guide would contact us that evening. When we returned from dinner (around 9:00 pm), we had no message waiting from the guide. We telephoned the desk attendant, who again telephoned Sarah, who told us that the tour would begin at 7:00 am. So we rose early and waiting in the lobby at 7:00 am to depart. And we waited, and waited, and waited! Another couple left with their guide, as well as a single man with his driver. At 8:00 am, we asked the desk attendant to telephone Sarah, who had no idea why our guide had not shown up. She said that she would be at the hotel in a few minutes to straighten things out. She arrived 15 minutes later (must be "Lao time"), in a less-than-clean uniform (business suit and white shirt) and exhibiting a giggly personality that was not appropriate for our unhappy situation. When she met us, she realized that WE were not the tour that was beginning at 7:00 am; that tour was meant for people who were traveling to Luang Prabang. She said that city tours begin at 9:00 am, and that she would try to arrange a guide for us. Frustrated at this point from waiting for 1.5 hours already, we decided to conduct our own tour of the city. (We were supposed to pay $55 per person for a morning tour.) In our e-mail communications, we were asked to pay for the tours in cash to the guide after the service was rendered. At least the airport transfer that Sarah arranged for us from the airport to the hotel went seamlessly!
We visited Wat That Dam (the Black Stupa), Wat That Foun, Talaat Sao (Morning Market, which is very commercial with mass-manufactured goods, and thus not very interesting to us), Patuxai (Victory Gate), and Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa), we walked between all the sights, and took a tuk-tuk back to the Settha Palace from Pha That Luang at the end (approximately $8 total, which seemed a bit pricey for such a short journey).
When we arrived back at the Settha Palace in the early afternoon, Sarah ran to greet us, laughing and smiling (but not apologizing), and she confirmed the starting time for our tour the next day at 9:15 am.
We took a short rest at the hotel to enjoy then pool, then went back out to see some more sights, such as the Sisavang Vong Statue, Namphu Fountain, Wat Si Saket, Ho Pra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the buddha itself now resides in Bangkok), Royal Presidential Palace (Hor Kham, which you cannot go inside), and the Chao Anouvong Statue on the waterfront promenade.
We ate lunch at Lam Paj - Baj Tong (restaurant and cooking school), where we had some of the most interesting and authentic dishes of our Laos trip. (Lunch totalled $26 for one shared appetizer, two entrees, sticky rice, and two rounds of drinks.) We visited the Night Market, which is set up in the Mekong Riverside Park, although it was more commercial than we hoped for. There were only two or three food vendors, and the remainder of the many stands sold mass-market T-shirts and other manufactured wearable goods. We had happy hour drinks at Khop Chai Deu and dinner at Amphone. Our dinner at Amphone was one of our better meals in Vientiane, with a few courses of good quality food (one shared appetizer, two entrees, sticky rice, and three rounds of drinks), combined with pleasant service, and a total bill of about $22). Amphone has both indoor and outdoor seating on a large wooden deck; some of the tables are covered with a wooden roof and other tables are not.
February 19 (Tuesday): Vientiane Buddha Park
Through Sarah at the Settha Palace, we booked a private guide and driver to take us to the Buddha Park (Xieng Kuan). Originally, the tour was to last a full day, visiting the Friendship Bridge and a local village (such as Ban Nong Bouathong or Ban Keun) at a cost of $70 per person. We eliminated the bridge and village so that we could have a shortened day; unfortunately, the cost of the tour did not decrease. We essentially paid $140 for a 3-hour tour, something that we could have done for a 40 cent bus ride. (In actuality, it is too far to travel by tuk-tuk, although we did see one in the parking lot.)
Sarah had told us the afternoon prior that our tour would begin at 9:15 am, so we were finishing our breakfast at the hotel restaurant, La Belle Epoque, at 9:00 am, when Sarah rushed in to tell us that our guide was waiting. She made us feel that we were late for our pre-arranged meeting time, when in fact, we were 15 minutes early, at least according to the starting time that she gave us the afternoon prior. Her lack of attention to detail reinforced the mistake she had made the previous day when we had no guide at all.
Our guide was able to provide good background on the Buddha Park and the statues, so he was worth the price in that respect. He also gave us a good history lesson on Laos and Vientiane on the drive to/from the park. The park is only about 15 miles from Vientiane; however, about half the road is dirt (which possibly washes out during the rainy season), so it took approximately 45 minutes each way to reach the park. We spent less than an hour at the park itself. It was intriguing, although manufactured (which we knew ahead of time), and much smaller than it seemed in the photographs that we had seen on-line. The drive from the city to the country was interesting, because we passed some tiny villages as well as drove directly under the Friendship Bridge to Thailand. (We are not sure what additionally we would have seen if we had kept the Friendship Bridge as part of our itinerary for this day; maybe they take you to the actual beginning/end, or you actually drive on it?)
We had lunch at YuLaLa Cafe, followed by happy hour drinks (again!) at Khop Chai Deu, and our farewell dinner at L'Adresse de Tinay. YuLaLa Cafe is a cute restaurant, sort of a mix of Japanese and Lao in both atmosphere and cuisine. You must remove your shoes before entering the restaurant, and some of the tables are tatami-style floor seating. The food quality is excellent, as is its presentation and fine service. The fruit shakes at Khop Chai Deu are delicious, as they were at nearly every restaurant in Laos: we particularly enjoyed the banana and mango. Our dinner at Tinay, the most expensive dinner of our entire trip, cost $73 total for one shared appetizer, two entrees, one shared dessert, and four rounds of drinks. We had thought Tinay would be our best and favorite meal, but we felt that it was overpriced for the quality of the food (which is classic French, not modern). The restaurant is hip and attractive, however, with seating both inside and on a covered porch.
February 20 (Wednesday): Vientiane to Luang Prabang
We chose to fly Lao Airlines from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. (This time we truly flew Lao Airlines, not a codeshare flight operated by Thai Airways as we had flown from Bangkok to Vientiane.) We did not try to check in on-line, but we arrived at the Vientiane Wattai International Airport approximately 2 hours prior to our flight, which allowed us more than enough time to check in, check our bags, clear security, and relax a bit. (We took a 10-minute, $11 total transfer from the Settha Palace.) At the check-in counter, we requested (and were assigned) at least one aisle seat, with the other of us sitting in the middle seat. (The configuration is 3-3.) The Vientiane Airport is small, with a few shops outside of security and a one shop and a café/shop inside of security. There is a small smoking room inside security as well, and restrooms that were reasonably clean. There are just two gates, so it is impossible to miss your flight. For the capital city airport, it was surprisingly small, with an antiquated baggage tag system (not electronic); we were asked to write our names on a color-coded baggage tag, where we also noted the name of our hotel (just in case the bags did not make our flight for some reason). There were two passport control lines that we were required to clear before entering the secure area, even though we were not departing the country. They checked our passports and boarding passes against a list of all passengers with confirmed reservations. After passing through the metal detector and security baggage scan, we were again asked to show our passport and boarding pass, and again, our names were matched against a passenger list. It seemed as though all passengers checked their rollaboards, and carried only small bags were carried on as cabin baggage.
Lao Airlines flight QV0101 departed Vientiane (VTE) at 11:45 am and arrived in Luang Prabang (LPQ) at 12:30 pm (45 minute flight) at a cost of $90 per person one-way. Our flight departed approximately 15 minutes late, which one of our fellow (Lao) passengers attributed to "Lao time". Consequently, we arrived in Luang Prabang about 15 minutes late.
The Luang Prabang International Airport is small, with two gates and two baggage carousels, but it took a long time to retrieve our bags. Upon exiting baggage claim, be sure to keep your claim stubs handy, because someone checks to make sure that your claim ticket matches what is on your bag. There is a currency exchange near baggage claim, as well as a small outdoor shop, with a large indoor restaurant and two indoor shops across the parking lot. You can smoke on the patio of the restaurant, but not anywhere in the airport itself.
When we exited the airport, our complimentary airport transfer to our hotel, the Hotel de la Paix, was waiting, holding a sign with our name on it. We had thought that we would be picked up in a vintage car; however, it was a modern small SUV-type vehicle instead. The driver needed to stop at the cargo building on the airport property before driving to the hotel so that he could pick up something that had just been flown in from Vientiane. The drive from the airport to the hotel took approximately 15 minutes, but it is an interesting drive geographically, particularly after the flat topography of Vientiane. In contrast, Luang Prabang is very green and mountainous. (Please see my separate review on the Hotel de la Paix Luang Prabang.)
Two weeks prior to our arrival in Luang Prabang, we had arranged, via e-mail with Bam, the concierge at the Hotel de la Paix, two day tours (one of the city, and another to Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si). However, after two days touring in Vientiane, and one afternoon acclimating ourselves in Luang Prabang, we realized that we would rather have a free day on February 23 (three days later) to relax and enjoy our private pool, so we tried to cancel the tour (in person), but we were told that because our program had already started, we would be charged anyway even if we did not go. (We had signed a contract stipulating the cancellation penalties, but we thought that we were still within the 72-hour window to cancel that last day.) As soon as we walked back to our room, Bam telephoned us and said that we could cancel with only a 50% penalty, but we decided to go anyway rather than losing our money. However, we asked that she shorten the tour to exclude the two village visits.
The Hotel de la Paix is approximately a 10-minute walk to town along safe and well-lit roads, so we ventured into town on our first afternoon to explore. We first stopped at the Luang Prabang Bakery Cafe, then proceeded to the Mekong Riverview Hotel (near Wat Xieng Thong) for happy hour. The riverside patio restaurant at the Mekong Riverview has great views over the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. We watched novice monks tend their gardens and skip rocks, just like young boys anywhere in the world. For such an excellent scenic location of a restaurant/bar, we expected prices to be higher; however, we had two rounds of drinks for $10 total. (Please see my separate review of the Luang Prabang Bakery Cafe.)
We spent some time at the Evening Hilltribe Market, which is set up at 5:00 pm on the main street through town (Sisavangvong Road; although the road name changes three times as it progresses). You cannot miss the market; it is well-organized, and the town provides canopies and lighting for each vendor. The quality of the handicrafts is good; the best we have seen, in fact. We did not see any T-shirts or refrigerator magnets or kitschy souvenirs like that, but there was lots of artwork, clothing, woven products, and other handmade items. Note that the public restrooms in town (behind the Night Market) cost 2,000 Kip to use, and they feature only squat toilets.
Do not pass up your chance to try street food in Luang Prabang! It is everywhere, on every corner, but the best place to try it is at the Night Market Food Alley. You can fill up a dinner plate for a dollar, and the variety is amazing - many kinds of meat (both recognizable and not!), fish, vegetables, curries, salads, and rice. At other vendors, spring rolls, dumplings, tiny pancakes, fruit shakes, and sandwiches are available for about 25 cents each. There are a few tables set up along the alley, and vendors also sell beer and soda, so you can sit down to enjoy your food and drinks. The food sets up around 5:00 pm and remains available until it runs out.
HOTEL REVIEW: Hotel de la Paix Review - Hip and Modern Accommodations in a French Colonial Setting
My spouse and I stayed at the Hotel de la Paix Luang Prabang for four nights in late February 2012. (We had stayed at their sister property of the same name in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2009, which was recently bought by Park Hyatt.) The property was once a French prison back in French Colonial days, but it is thoroughly chic and modern today. When we reserved our room (on-line) for the full 4-night stay, all the less-expensive Garden Suites were booked, as well as the Heritage Suites and the Governor's Suite, so we were "forced" to book a Pool Suite (number 3). Sometimes this room goes for as little as $325 per night, although we visited in the high season and paid almost $500 per night, not including taxes. Two weeks prior to our arrival, our credit card was debited for a deposit equal to one night's stay (plus taxes). Although the hotel seemed fully booked when we initially made our reservation on-line (approximately 6 weeks prior), when we checked again shortly before our arrival to see whether rates and availability had changed, we found that some of the Garden Suites had opened and now had availability. Because we had eagerly anticipated having our own private pool (plus the deposit we already remitted), we kept our initial room choice. Hotel rates include complimentary airport transfers, breakfast, daily minibar, and Wi-Fi. The de la Paix also offers a Katoke Cooking Class, Spa Indochine, and art gallery.
An a la carte (not buffet) breakfast is held outdoors on either the porch or the patio of the library/lounge and includes coffee and juice (we paid about $6 total for two soft drinks instead). We ate breakfast at the hotel on two of our four mornings there; one breakfast service was painfully slow, but the other was not. Breakfast is served from 6:30 am to 10:30 am. The pastry basket is delicious, and we also enjoyed the two Lao breakfast entrees (one sort of crepe/summer roll and the other a sort of pho/soup). Happy hour runs from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm, with drinks offered for 30% off and accompanied by complimentary canapes.
The hotel is located approximately a 15-minute walk to town, but it is an easy and safe walk on populated streets. We walked to town every afternoon, but took a tuk-tuk ride back in the evenings (approximately $4 total). Be sure to have lots of small bills - both US dollars and Lao Kip, because drivers (and merchants) often do not have change for larger bills, and items (and rides) just do not cost that much. It would be difficult to get a tuk-tuk to take you FROM the hotel TO town; because of the way the hotel is positioned, we did not see any tuk-tuks driving by looking for fares. (Perhaps the hotel can call for a tuk-tuk to pick you up, though.) The Luang Prabang sister hotel of the de la Paix, called 3 Nagas, is a 20-minute walk, but the de la Paix provides free transportation is you plan to dine there.
Rooms have flat screen TVs (ours was wall-mounted on a movable/adjustable bracket), small iPods and docking stations (we were able to plug our own iPod into their docking station), and complimentary Wi-Fi. The rooms do not have clocks, however; perhaps you are intended to use the iPod, which may be intimidating to less tech-savvy guests. Beds feature nice linens, and there were plenty of fluffy towels in the bathroom area. Two types of robes (silk and terry cloth) were provided (and two robes of each kind), as well as better-than-average slippers. We were a little skeptical about how we would like the indoor/outdoor bathroom format, but we found that we liked it just fine. The toilet (water) closet is actually completely enclosed in a room inside the room, and the sink/vanity area is completely indoors as well. (So you need not be concerned with rising in the darkness of night, needing to use the toilet and wash your hands, and having to do so with a semi-outdoor bathroom - that is just not the case! I have an insect phobia, yet I loved the rooms at the de la Paix!) There is a wet bar/mini-fridge area (with coffee maker), and large wardrobe/closet. The mini-bar is replenished daily, and contains 2 beers, 2 canned iced teas, 4 sodas (Coke and Sprite, but no Diet or “Light” soda, even though we requested it), 2 club sodas, 2 tonic waters, and 2 candy bars (Snickers and Kit Cat). Bottled water is provided daily (2 bottles on the wet bar, and 2 bottles in the bedroom area when they do the evening turndown.) The huge walk-in shower for two (with two different types of shower heads) and the separate soaking tub were in an area that was a step down from the sink/vanity area and separated by glass doors. There are wooden doors on one end of the shower and tub that can be opened and folded back to expose the end of the bathroom area to the outdoors (the entire property is surrounded by a 10+-foot-high wall, so no one can see in). An electronic safe, umbrellas, flashlight, and scale are provided. Smoking is permitted outdoors, although we did not expressly see it forbidden indoors. The main pool is lovely, but we really enjoyed having our own private pool and teak lounge chairs, complete with cushions and pool towels (well, we had pool towels with the exception of one day). Our pool could be lighted at night, and had its own filter system, so it seemed spotlessly clean. The back porch/patio held a small table and two chairs and a daybed, and there were two additional chairs and a small end table on the front porch. We had a little trouble with our air-conditioning system during our first night there; it seemed to be working when we went to bed, but was not when we woke up the next morning. The engineer came to take a look, and soon it was cool again. We think that perhaps the staff member doing the nightly turndown adjusted the setting, and we did not notice that the temperature had slowly risen until we had slept for a few hours.
The hotel provides a complete turndown every evening while you are at dinner, including trash removal, towel replacement, appropriate lighting, slipper placement, and water and sweet treats. Maid service was fairly good, although one day we returned to our room at approximately 2:00 pm, and it had not yet been cleaned. We mentioned it to the front desk, and someone quickly showed up for service. We are not sure why they missed us that day, though - we were up and out of our room by 9:00 am, so it was not as if we had the "do not disturb" symbol hanging on our doorknob. (We loved the do not disturb "sign" - we considered buying one at the Night Market to take home with us.)
We would choose the Hotel de la Paix again if we were to visit Luang Prabang a second time, although we would probably content ourselves with just a Garden Suite instead of splurging on a Pool Suite; the hotel pool is very beautiful, and the hotel is small enough that you would not feel crowded using it.
February 21 (Thursday): Luang Prabang Tour
We booked a half-day (morning) city tour of Luang Prabang through the Hotel de la Paix at a cost of $112 per person, which was added to our total hotel bill at check-out. We had to complete/sign a tour contract and provide our credit card details at the time that we booked/pre-arranged the tours, although we were not charged ahead of time. We think that if we had reserved our tours farther in advance than one week prior to arrival, we would have been charged a 50% deposit.
We began our tour at 9:00 am, when our guide, Bee, and our driver, Sit, picked us up at the hotel. We drove to Wat Visoun, Wat Aham, and That Makmo (Watermelon Stupa), then drove to Mount Phousi, where we climbed the 328 steps to see Buddha's Relics. There are a few ladies positioned on the mountain selling water and birds to release (We paid about $1 total for two birds). Generally, a city tour takes place in the afternoon, finishing at Mount Phousi for sunset, but we wanted to tour in the morning to keep our afternoon free. Our guide reversed the order of the sites so that we would be climbing Mount Phousi in the cooler part of the day, but even so, we were sweating and overheated when we came down the other side of the mountain. Next, we visited the Royal Palace (National Museum); in our e-mail communications with the concierge, we expressed that we did not want to visit the National Museum, but that information never got passed along to the guide. This miscommunication turned out to be a good thing, because we enjoyed the museum, which is the former palace of the king. The throne/coronation room is really ornate and beautiful, and the rest of the house is furnished with original period furniture. There are some objects to view (swords, dishes, and so on) that are interesting. There is a small car collection in the garage. You cannot take backpacks into the museum; you must use lockers to hold your bags, and you must also remove your shoes. No photography is allowed in the Royal Palace.
We visited a few more wats after the Royal Palace (such as Wat Mai, Hor Prabang, Wat Pha Huak, and Wat Xieng Thong), before we ended our tour with an outdoor lunch at the Kitchen on the Mekong. The restaurant (on the grounds of the beautiful Xiengthong Palace hotel) boasts great river views, tasty food, creative presentations, and excellent service. We had a multi-course meal (soup, entree [with four components], and dessert, and bottled water was included. (We paid about $5 total for two additional soft drinks.)
We enjoyed our private pool in the afternoon, followed by happy hour at a local bar and dinner on the sidewalk in front of The Pizza, which also serves traditional Lao food.
February 22 (Friday): Luang Prabang Elephant Village
We visited the Elephant Village in Ban Xieng Lom for a one-day mahout training excursion, departing on a private transfer at 8:30 am from our hotel. We arrived back at the Hotel de la Paix around 2:00 pm, which was much earlier than expected. If we had we been on a group tour, we expected to arrive back at the hotel after 4:00 pm. Because it was not very crowded at the Elephant Village that day, we did not have to wait for anyone to finish their basic elephant rides, so we were able to bathe the elephant early so that we could leave early. (Please see my separate review on the Elephant Village for more information.)
We stopped in at Blue Lagoon Restaurant for happy hour and ordered two drinks and one appetizer. Our appetizer was preceded by a nice basket of bread and butter as well as a complimentary amuse bouche of soup from the chef. The service was excellent, and we felt bad leaving without eating a full meal there, because the setting was lovely and we knew the food would be great. The coconut smoothie/milkshake was especially delicious! Every evening, we participated in a “progressive Laos” style of dining - we would have a drink or a bite to eat at one restaurant before moving on to another restaurant; most of the restaurants were “hits” (Blue Lagoon, Luang Prabang Bakery Cafe, Coconut Garden, 3 Nagas), but some of the restaurant were “misses” (like the restaurant/guesthouse in a prime location on Sisavangvong Road near the post office, with the large front patio with wooden handcrafted furniture, which turned out to have dubious standards of cleanliness and a single restroom with a squat toilet) and L’Elephant (where we were turned away despite the restaurant being completely empty). (Please see my separate view of L’Elephant.) We visited our favorite Luang Prabang Bakery/Guesthouse again. We stopped at 3 Nagas (Mango Tree) for another drink and an appetizer (buffalo strips), followed by dinner at a restaurant that we thought was called Youngkhone (we cannot find it on-line now, and we did not save the bill or take a card) that had both indoor and outdoor seating.
ACTIVITY REVIEW:Elephant Village - Riding an Elephant Can Be Really Scary!
My spouse and I visited the Elephant Village in Ban Xieng Lom for a one-day mahout training course (elephant training course) in late February 2013. We booked our excursion on-line for $80 per person. We paid an extra $35 total for a private transfer from our hotel to the village, which also included (to our pleasant surprise!) a private guide who remained with us during the day and explained activities and sights. It was well worth the extra money that we paid for the private transfer. We paid our bill in full upon booking using Pay Pal. All e-mail contact with Elephant Village was extremely professional and timely, so we had complete confidence that we chose the correct outfitter.
Our guide and driver picked us up at our hotel at 8:30 am, and we made the 45-minute journey to Ban Xieng Lom village in the air-conditioned comfort of a 9-passenger minivan. You only travel a distance of about 10 miles, but much of the road is under construction, thus you are driving on dirt roads and cannot move very quickly. Most of the journey is through wilderness areas, although you pass through a small village or two along the way where you can see how rural Lao people live.
The setting for Elephant Village is stunning, particularly the separate Shangri-Lao hotel, restaurant, and pool. Our package included a buffet lunch, although drinks were extra (they have a full bar). There are good restrooms, as well as shady areas in case you need to wait for your elephant ride. A classic car collection is housed on the property. Elephant Village has eleven elephants, although their website only claims nine elephants. We first visited the feeding station, where the elephants were eating and had been already "saddled" with the howdah riding benches. Guests are asked not to smoke on the grounds, although there is a smoking area set up near the parking lot. (We did see elephant mahouts smoking while on top of their elephants, however.) Elephant Village has six rooms/accommodations, as well as the Elephant River View Restaurant, where we ate lunch.
Our elephant (we do not recall her name; although all their elephants are females and have the first name Mae) did NOT want to walk with us on her back. The pathway leading down to the river is incredibly steep, and our elephant took a long time to get there. The howdah is not that comfortable; your outer leg just hangs from the bench. There is a sort of wooden safety bar, although you hold it in place yourself. We did not expect the elephant ride to be terrifying, but it was! We have done some adventure activities that others might find terrifying (downhill mountain biking, paragliding, whitewater rafting, rappelling, canyoneering, zip lining), but truly, the elephant ride was the scariest of all the activities we have ever done! Perhaps we were unprepared because it looked so relaxing and serene in the photographs!
After our initial ride on the elephant seat, we went back to camp, where we were given a short 10-minute lesson on commands to control the elephant, as well as taught how to get on and off the elephant (not in the howdah seat). We were then allowed to mount the elephant and ride on its neck around the camp area itself. I took the short ride, but my spouse had enough fear instilled on the ride on the howdah that he did not want to try again.
Because it was not time for lunch, we took a short 15-minute (one-way) boat ride on the Nam Khan River to the Tad Sae waterfall, which is unreachable by land/car (you can get there by hiking or by riding an elephant from one of the nearby camps, though). In February (the dry season), there was not much to see - just a few limestone pools filled with water, but there was no water falling. It is a short 5-minute hike uphill to the falls area, and there is a restaurant and snack bar nearby. Supposedly, elephant rides are available near the boat docking area, although we did not actually see any elephants there. We saw photos on-line of the falls in the rainy season, and they are worth a visit then, although not in the dry season. We enjoyed the short 10-minute boat ride (sort of a motorized canoe) to and from the falls more than we enjoyed viewing the falls themselves.
When we arrived back at camp from Tad Sae, we ate a buffet lunch on the Elephant Village grounds. When we did our jungle/river walk on our elephant riding in the seat, we passed the restaurant for the ShangriLao, and we had mistakenly assumed that was the place where we would have lunch. But Elephant Village has its own restaurant building, with outdoor seating overlooking the river. Our lunch was fine, but the restaurant was not as luxurious as the restaurant that we saw nearby at the Shangri-Lao. They set up a small buffet with four dishes: a very fresh salad, white sticky rice, two hot entrees (one vegetarian with fresh vegetables and one chicken curry-type dish), with fresh fruit for dessert. The food was tasty and plentiful, and the restaurant was clean. Drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) cost extra, although bottled water was complimentary. There are a few bound booklets in the restaurant area that explain more about the village, their goals, and their elephants. The elephant information is quite detailed, including details about where the elephants came from and also about the mahouts, their backgrounds, and whether they own their elephant.
After lunch, we changed our clothes to prepare for bathing the elephants. My spouse opted out so that he could take photos of me with my elephant. It was another harrowing journey down the steep dirt hill into the river; it was even scarier riding on the elephant’s neck than it was riding in the elephant seat because there was nothing to hold onto (except her bony, hairy head), and again, although I was on a different elephant, she was not cooperative in walking down toward the river. I kept thinking that if she fell over the side of the cliff, that I hoped I would be able to roll away from her so that her great tonnage did not crush me. I also kept thinking about how isolated we were, and how very far from a helicopter or other vehicle to lead me to decent medical care should something go wrong! But things went fine, although I did not find the ride or bath enjoyable (the elephant did not seem to enjoy it either!)
Before we actually took our elephant excursion, we had heard about a company in Luang Prabang that offered multi-day elephant adventures, where you are camping (luxuriously) in the jungle at night and traveling by elephant during the day. Although this sounded romantic and adventurous and something that we might like (if time ever permitted), we now realize that such a journey is not something that we plan to do in the future.
February 23 (Saturday): Luang Prabang Alms Giving, Pak Ou Caves Tour
We began our last full day in Luang Prabang by participating in Tak Bat, the alms-giving ceremony. We were picked up at 6:10 am at the Hotel de la Paix and transferred by car to their sister hotel, 3 Nagas, where there were little mats and cushions set up out front for each of the participants, along with a wicker basket (covered) for each of us filled with hot rice. (We think the alms-giving begins at 5:30 am in other seasons; the starting time must depend on the time of daybreak.)
The driver told us that he would wait in the car whenever we were ready to return to the de la Paix. Prior to the alms giving process, we expected to receive a briefing with information/instructions on what to do and how to distribute the rice. We even went into the 3 Nagas hotel and asked the clerk who was seated at the front desk, and he told us that someone would be out to speak to us, which never happened. Fortunately, there were three other guests who were also participating who seemed to know what they were doing, so we just followed them.
We were each given a white sash to wear over one shoulder, but we were not told the significance. The procession of monks happened quickly - it was probably over in 15 minutes. We then had breakfast at 3 Nagas, which had a menu similar to what was served at the Hotel de la Paix, however, instead of all options on one page, there were several pages of set menus (each menu included fruit and a bread basket, plus an entrée). We paid about $18 per person (including tax) for the alms-giving and the breakfast (the breakfast was probably unnecessary since breakfast at our own hotel was included, and we were therefore paying for a second breakfast when one was already included). It would have been easy to do the alms-giving ourselves, because local women on the street sold and other items suitable for giving to the monks, but without the benefit of staying at a hotel located truly in town, we did not know ahead of time what to expect. In retrospect, we wish we had seen the process twice - once as participants and once as observers/photographers.
After the alms-giving ceremony, we planned a full-day tour to the Pak Ou Caves, including a boat ride on the Mekong River and a visit to Kuang Si Waterfall and Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary. We arranged the tour via e-mail through our hotel, the Hotel de la Paix, a few days before leaving home. (Please see my separate review on the Pak Ou Caves.)
On our boat ride back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a local village (Xangkong), where our car and driver picked us up. We did not have interest in seeing the paper-making or the weaving demonstrations by the local people, so we quickly walked through the village and got in the car.
Our next stop was supposed to be Kuang Si Waterfall and Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary, but when we learned that it would be a 40-minute drive each way, and because it was already 2:30 pm (which meant that the earliest we would arrive back to the hotel was 5:00 pm), we decided to cut the day short and go back to the hotel to relax. We really wanted to see the bears, but the waterfall was questionable after what we had seen the day before at Tad Sae. Instead, we enjoyed our private pool in the afternoon.
We had happy hour at Phakdee Bakery Cafe, which serves more than just bakery items, has a full bar, and seating both indoors (on the street side) and outdoors (on the riverside). We got a 1-hour foot massage nearby for about $5 per person; there are several massage shops right next to each other, and prices are all similar. We ended our day with a great dinner at the Coconut Garden. (Please see my separate review of Coconut Garden.)
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Coconut Garden - Great Value, Great Location, Pretty Courtyard
My spouse and I dined at Coconut Garden on Sisavangvong Road for dinner in late February 2013. The restaurant is a large, attractive property, with seating in a front courtyard adjacent to the main street (but separated by a picket fence). It also has outdoor seating in a rear courtyard that is open to the elements yet enclosed on all sides by either a fence or other buildings. It is very pretty and serene in the back garden, as opposed to the more noisy and busy street side, but be forewarned that there are a number of steps to reach the lowest level of the patio. We saw a tour group being led to the back garden, with many elderly members, and they had great difficulty navigating the steps. The bathrooms are in the basement, and there did not appear to be an elevator (it is Luang Prabang, after all!), so that may prove problematic to those who are mobility challenged. You can smoke in the outdoor gardens. The second floor of the property contains tables that overlook the courtyard, most of which are indoors, although the walls and doors are open to the elements so that you do not feel that you are completely inside. Our dinner totaled $13 for two appetizers, one shared entree, and two rounds of drinks. Our meal at Coconut Garden was a tremendous value for the setting and he quality of the food and service, and we wish that we had arrived there more hungry so that we could have tried more dishes. (A day previous, we attempted to dine at sister restaurant L’Elephant, and the experience was not as successful as our meal at Coconut Garden.)
February 24 (Sunday): Luang Prabang to Bangkok
We chose to fly Bangkok Airlines from Luang Prabang to Bangkok. The hotel recommended that we arrive at the airport two hours prior to our flight, which allowed us more than enough time. The check-in window opened at just that time (two hours prior to the flight, even though it was an international flight), but we envision that things get pretty crowded if many people are trying to check in at the same time because the area for the check-in counters is quite small. We were unable to pre-select seats when we booked our flights, but at check-in time at the airport, we requested (and received) two adjacent aisle seats on the flight (the configuration is 3-3).
We spent some time at the restaurant across the parking lot from the terminal, where there were also two small shops. You are allowed to smoke on the patio of the restaurant, but not in the Luang Prabang Airport. Bangkok Airlines has a small departure lounge (outside of security) that is open to all passengers and serves drinks and snacks. (We did not go inside, but it seemed that the refreshments were complimentary.) We were not allowed to bring more than 3.3 ounces of liquids through security, and there is nowhere to buy anything like bottled water inside the secure area.
BE SURE TO USE ALL OF YOUR LAO MONEY BEFORE DEPARTING THE COUNTRY, BECAUSE YOU CANNOT CONVERT IT BACK TO THAI BHAT, US DOLLARS, EUROS, OR ANY OTHER FOREIGN CURRENCY.
Bangkok Airlines flight PG0942 departed Luang Prabang (LPQ) at 12:20 pm and arrived in Bangkok (BKK) at 2:20 pm. We did not receive a full meal on this short 1-hour flight - just a snack and a drink (beer was complimentary).
We landed in Bangkok on time, and because we had recently transited through the same airport the week prior, we breezed through immigration and passport control. We had checked our luggage for the flight, and it was delivered fairly quickly even though Bangkok Airport is large and has many baggage carousels.
Because of flight back to the United States departed at 7:10 am the next morning, we spent the night in Bangkok, again choosing the Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport for our 1-night stay, as we did on the inbound portion of our itinerary. We spent the afternoon relaxing by their attractive swimming pool.
Instead of dining in the Novotel that evening, we walked back to the airport and ate outside of security at Kin Ramen for about $48 for two entrees, one house sushi roll, and three rounds of drinks. (We used our credit card to pay at Kin Ramen both inside and outside of security.) There are several dining options outside of security at the airport, but because we enjoyed breakfast at Kin Ramen (inside security) a few days before, we decided to return there and were pleased with our dinner choice.
February 25 (Monday): Bangkok to Tokyo to Newark
We walked from the Novotel to the Bangkok Airport using the underground walkway. We arrived at the airport approximately three hours prior to the departure of our international flight, which was approximately 4:00 am. We checked in at United using the premier lines, but there was almost no one waiting in line at that early hour, and there were plenty of agents available. As normally happens when you fly to the United States from a less-secure country, an agent checks your passport, asks the usual questions [Did you pack your own luggage? Has it remained in your possession?], and applies a small sticker to the back of your passport before you check in with a desk agent. We had checked in on-line the evening before our flight and printed our boarding passes, but we still checked in again with a live agent because we needed to check our luggage.
We cleared security with no problems, then passed through immigration and passport control with just a short wait. (If you hold a Thai passport, rather than waiting in line, you can use a kiosk similar to our Global Entry, whereby you scan your passport and provide your fingerprints.) Bangkok Airport provides 30 minutes of free wireless per person if you go to the kiosk on the main floor, provide your e-mail address, and pick up a slip with access information. You can smoke in the Bangkok Airport in designated smoking rooms (which are on the level below the main floor, yet on the level above the departure gates). Before we could board the aircraft from Bangkok to Tokyo, there was a secondary security check, and we were not allowed to carry any liquids over 3.3 oz. on the plane, even if we had purchased them in the airport after the initial security check. (The United representative pre-warned us about this when we checked in.) There was a separate line for premier members of the frequent flyer program, which allowed us to bypass the longer line where most customers waited. We boarded the aircraft via a jetway.
We flew United back to the United States, departing on flight UA0838 from Bangkok (BKK) at 7:10 am, and arriving in Tokyo Narita (NRT) at 2:50 pm. Our flight time was 5 hours: 40 minutes, on a Boeing 747-400, in seats 33C/33B (premium economy, exit row/bulkhead). We had a 2 hour: 55 minute layover in Tokyo. We spent our layover time in the Avion Restaurant in Terminal 1, which serves food and drinks and allows smoking.
United flight UA0078 departed Narita (NRT) at 5:45 pm, arriving in Newark (EWR) at 4:35 pm. Our flight time was 12 hours: 50 minutes on a Boeing 777-200 in seats 32J/32K (premium economy, exit row/bulkhead). Our flights to Narita and then to Newark were uneventful.
Our trip to Laos was fantastic! It was just what we were hoping for: a country relatively unspoiled by tourism, yet having luxurious hotels, delicious (and cheap!) food, and beautiful sights. Another trip to Southeast Asia is definitely in our future: we loved Cambodia, we loved Laos, we enjoyed the small portion of Thailand that we have seen (Bangkok and its outskirts), so a trip to Vietnam is at the top of our list as a potential vacation destination in February 2014.
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