Vientiane vs. Luang Prabang
Simply put, I would choose Luang Prabang over Vientiane. I spent some time in Vientiane and was bored after about one day. I stayed several nights in Luang Prabang and feel that I still had things to do. Depending on your international connection (BKK, HCM, Hanoi), all have direct flights to Luang Prabang. Airports in Laos offer Visa on arrival for US cash payment (not available on all land crossings). If you have limited time, and are trying to pick between the two, I'd recommend Luang Prabang. The Luang Prabang National Museum was nice. It was full of old memorabilia from the Royal Family, including library, chambers, throne room, and gifts from other nations. All reference to the Royal Family was dated up to the early 1970's. After that all support is gone and silence... Enter the communist government after the war. Rumor is that the family was exiled to caves in the remote north and eventually died of malnutrition and lack of medical care. The monarchy sought the protection of the French against all their other enemies, foreign and domestic... The French allowed the monarchy to remain and function, unlike what the museum in Vientiane wants you to believe. They are very different presentations of the same story.
Current, Currency, Internet, Visa and Airport Tax
The voltage is 230 Volts and the current frequency 50 Hz.
As for plugs, a variety is being used so you might wish to bring a multi-plug adapter.
-Flat blade attachment plug
-Round pin attachment plug
-Round pin plug and receptacle with male grounding pin
-"Schuko" plug and receptacle with side grounding contacts
The currency is the Kip and it is NOT freely available on the open market.
You'll have to bring a third party currency, usually the US$, the Euro or the Thai Baht and then exchange it into Kip for usage. US$ is accepted (and preferred) for tours and lodging payment but it is wiser to use the Kip to pay for daily expenses.
Circa Nov 2007, exchange rate is US$1 to about 10000 Kip.
Internet cafes/stops are easily available throughout Luang Prabang. The rates are really economical (I forgot what were the actual rates circa 2007; think it might be 100 Kips per minute but I could be wrong)
Visa-on-arrival (US$30) is available at 3 checkpoints:
1. Wattay International Airport @ Vientiane
2. Louang Prabang International Airport
3. Friendship Bridge
....though as a Singaporean, I can visit Laos visa exempted for 30 days under the ASEAN pact.
Laos has visa exempt arrangements with a number of nations, mostly from the ex-communist bloc and within ASEAN: Brunei, PR China, Cambodia, North Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, The Philippines, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and most East European countries.
You have to pay the airport tax of US$10 separately from the flight ticket.
Cost is US$10 per pax for international departure, circa Nov 2007.
There is a counter for collection of the tax in the airports just before you enter customs.
Lao vs. French Cuisine
There are two types of cuisine that dominate in Luang Prabang (and Laos in general), Lao and French. The former obviously being the traditional cuisine of the Lao people, and the latter a remnant from the days of colonial French Indochina.
Authentic Lao cuisine is similar to the Issan cuisine found in the bordering regions of northeast Thailand. The staple of Lao cuisine is khao niaw (sticky rice), which is a glutinous rice that is typically served in small woven baskets with every meal. It is eaten with your hands by rolling some rice into a small ball and dipping into any accompanying dishes. Next to khao niaw, the other essential ingredient in Lao cuisine is pa daek, a pungent fermented fish sauce that is used to flavor and salt most dishes. One of the most common Lao dishes you will find is Laap, which is a combination of chopped meat (chicken, duck, fish, pork, beef) with onions, chillies, fresh herbs, and spices. The Lao prefer laap seua, where the meat is chopped and served raw, but tourists will be served the version with cooked meat (for obvious reasons). In fact, much traditional Lao food is served raw.
As for French cuisine in Laos, Luang Prabang in particular has many fine French restaurants serving haute cuisine, and there are also several upscale places that serve excellent French/Asian fusion cuisine. In addition, several French cafes can be found in the city, serving cafe and patisserie. Invariably, such restaurants cater solely to tourists and expats, as the average Lao could never afford such luxurious dining. Still, even local Lao cuisine has been noticably influenced by the French, as evident by the availability of French-style baguettes, pate, and sausages in the local markets and street hawkers.
Local people on the river
The slowboat trip between Pak Beng and Luang Prabang on the second day is better than the first day as you'll see far more life both along and on the river. We stopped at one village and there were a few families with young children in longtail boats leaving and setting off upstream. The Mekong is a mighty river and serves as a main highway for transportation in this part of Laos.
Football, U Bet
As in many developing countries, football (known as soccer in the US) is the number one sport for good reason. It is an inexpensive one for kids in these poor countries to play. All they need is a ball and they will invent something to kick it through as goal posts. I needed a 300mm zoom lens to catch this action shot.