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MichaelBKK Mar 19th, 2010 06:59 PM

Lao Notes
So, I find out late Monday night that I need to go to Laos on Tuesday for a little scouting trip. Score!

First stop Vientiane. We got there the 'usual' way (for me) - flew to Udon Thani and took the airport van to the bridge. Those of you worrying about the queues in Bali should consider yourselves lucky. When I get to the Lao side of the bridge, there's no queue at all at the visa counter (no other westerners needing visas) but the wait for a visa is still 15 minutes. The people I'm visiting with have a car waiting on the other side of immigration.

By the time we get to Vientiane it's well after noon, so first order of business is lunch. I suggest Makphet, the Friends International restaurant employing street kids. They've moved since my last visit, but the food is still wonderful. I would say it's the best modern Lao food there is, but since I don't know of any other modern Lao restaurants, that wouldn't be saying much. My favorite is Sua Gai, a sort of salad of finely shredded chicken breast and bean sprouts, tossed with a larb-spice 'dressing'. The other good dish was a sort of green curry served as a stir-fry rather than a stew. Makphet is a pretty good reason to visit Vientiane in itself.

The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at locations. Dinner was at Kong View, a large riverside resto west of town. It was good, but nothing really outstanding.

In the morning, we hang out a little at Joma, checking out the traffic (these market surveys are hard work, people!) The coffee is good, as are the muffins.

We have a noon-ish flight to Luang Prabang. Vientiane has a relatively new international terminal, but we're using the old domestic building. My first impression is that it has all the charm of a provincial bus station, but on reflection I think that might be a little unfair - to provincial bus stations. Fortunately our flight is more or less on time.

Lao Airlines has a fairly bad reputation, so I'm pleasantly surprised to see several new looking ATR's on the tarmac. Our plane is, in fact, brand new (mmm... new plane smell) and the 35 minute flight to Luang Prabang is smooth and uneventful. It sure beats the nine hour drive by road. Although it's only one flight, I'm now much more comfortable with the idea of flying Lao (now, to plan that trip to Phonsavan).

Our hotel in LP is Maison Da La Bua (I think they meant to name it De La Bua, but the Thai owner and his Lao wife obviously have a limited knowledge of French). The first thing you see on entering is a large scum-covered pond. Not my idea of the perfect water feature for a lobby, but it is eye-catching. I find out later from the owner that the ponds in the compound are actually city property, and he can't do much with them without permission from the authorities. The rooms here are very large, with roomy bathrooms. It's all quite nice, although I'm not sure how it will age. There's no restaurant, but breakfast is included, although you do need to order breakfast the night before. Your choices are American, rice porridge, pho and a couple other things.

The hotel is not in the middle of town. It's a block or so south of Maison Souvanaphoum. It's a long walk from the center of town, but walk-able and they do have a few bikes you can use. After checking in, we have lunch at Indochina Spirit, a short way from the hotel. It's set in and under an old house, and serves SE Asian cuisine. They have Lao fried rice and Thai fried rice. We ask the waiter what the difference is. "There isn't any" he tells us.

We wander up the main road. Not much has changed in LP, but I guess that's the idea behind world heritage status. A few shops have moved or closed, but it's all very familiar. We have dinner at one of the few new places, Coconut Grove, owned by the same people as L'Elephant. It's mostly outdoor seating, with a large terrace out back. The food was very good.

Having looked at everything we need to see in LP, we decide to take a boat to Pak Ou the next day. The Mekong is unbelievably low this year. It appears from some of the exposed rocks that it's around a meter lower than it normally gets. The boat hugs the shore to avoid strong currents, but then has to weave through a maze of rocks and exposed sand banks. It makes for a long journey up, but a quick trip back.

Our Bangkok Air flight back to Bangkok is delayed an hour the next day, and the plane is a tiny bit tatty compared to the Lao plane a few days ago.

Hanuman Mar 19th, 2010 07:08 PM

Great little trip report Michael - thanks.

rhkkmk Mar 19th, 2010 07:15 PM

not a coffee chain for LP???? sure is mcdonalds...

Kathie Mar 19th, 2010 07:28 PM

Thanks for your report, Michael. In the past, Lao Air used those awful old Chinese (or were they Russian?) planes for the flight to Phonsavan. So see which planes they are using before you book!

kuranosuke Mar 19th, 2010 08:50 PM

thanks mike for the report. planning to go to laos next year, and checking all the laos reports. thanks to the others for posting their trip reports to laos.

rhkkmk Mar 19th, 2010 09:10 PM

ken, maybe you can get some coffee coupons before you go

MaryW Mar 19th, 2010 11:02 PM

Michael - couldn't agree more with you about Makphet. I think its great.

MichaelBKK Mar 20th, 2010 12:21 AM

We wouldn't be the first coffee chain in LP. Joma (which I love) already has a branch there. We did find a nice, very old, building available on the main road. It's in the middle of the section where they have the night market - not the best area but good enough. The trouble is, the owner wants to sell it rather than lease. Asking price? A mere $1.5 Million. It would probably take another half million to restore it.

Kathie, as best I can find, Lao has eight planes, all ATRs. They're apparently thinking about jets in 2012.

Gpanda Mar 20th, 2010 01:38 AM

Thganks Michael. As always, you're on the ground view provides insight that is unavailable to us interlopers. Prompt report, no penalty.

MichaelBKK Mar 20th, 2010 02:16 AM

Thanks Andy. How are you holding up?

BTW, Friends' Phnom Penh operations are featured on the BBC this weekend. I just got the tail-end of it. Quite impressive.

kmkrnn Mar 20th, 2010 06:32 AM

Why did you fly to Udon not directly to Vientiane? Lao air?

kuranosuke Mar 20th, 2010 07:56 AM

bob, i'm not a coffee fan, but i always make it a point to go to black canyon for their fried seafood curry. i think its the best everyday type meal in bangkok. its simple, and very tasty.

Kathie Mar 20th, 2010 10:08 AM

Thanks, Michael, I was hoping they had gotten rid of all of those old planes. I've wanted to visit the Plain of Jars but was unwilling to fly on those planes. That's info to make note of for another trip.

Smeagol Mar 20th, 2010 11:02 AM

i flew on Lao Airlines on all three of my flights,planes were new with excellent service.
Michael - what programme is it on the BBC?

Gpanda Mar 20th, 2010 11:38 AM

Doing great Michael. Thanks for asking. It's very comforting to see our BKK agents vontinuing to produce. Our vicarious lives are enhanced. Even if the BKK agents are off in Vientienne.

Any chance you'll be in Bali in late May? We can stick Bob with the entire dinner bill. How sweet would that be? No math at the end.

barefootbeach Mar 20th, 2010 01:10 PM

Was it smoky, Michael? Please say yes to justify my switching Luang Prabang to Koh Lanta!

MichaelBKK Mar 20th, 2010 06:54 PM

Re flying to Udon. Even going Thai Air, the price to Udon is around 2,000 Baht pp, while flying to Vientiane is 10,000+. That's a huge difference, and the van trip from Udon to the bridge is only an extra hour - which you save by not having to get to the Bangkok airport in time to go through immigration.

The BBC program is Alvin's Guide to Good Business.

It was hazy on our last day in LP, but not overly much.

Andy, I thought this whole thing was simply a ruse to get out of spending time in Bali with Bob. In any case, yes I've arranged to be in Ubud the last week in May.

Gpanda Mar 20th, 2010 07:06 PM

MBKK-Bob is like that least favorite uncle to hom it is always impossible to say no. Reason is ineffective. Pleading falls on deaf ears. If he wants to sit outside in 40 mile an hour winds when it's raining and 35 degrees, you're going to get wet. And old. And pneumonia.

rhkkmk Mar 20th, 2010 07:20 PM

and love every minute of it...

Vientianeboy Mar 21st, 2010 12:04 AM

"Lao Airlines has a fairly bad reputation"
Michael,this is incorrect, and comments like this are unfairly damaging to the airline. Lao Airlines has an excellent safety record now and is one of the better regional airlines. The "bad reputation" you write about is at least 8 years out of date and so is unfair. Look up the article on Travelfish. LA has also outsourced its servicing to a french company, which I think is based in Vietnam
For what its worth, I am not a fan of Makphet and neither is any Lao that I know. We think the food is westernised, not authentic and expensive. If the first two points don't bother you, fine, as long as you enjoyed it. Kua Lao and Tamnak Lao are far superior restaurants, cheaper and have better ambience. But "De gustibus non est disputandum.". For what its worth most expats are not Joma fans either. It is overpriced and the coffee is not that good. (The little corner shop in Talat Sao is FAR better). Also Joma is full of tourists running around clutching their Lonely Planets and we try to avoid these.

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