Not for the squeamish
Walking through the local markets is an experience even if you are not looking to actually buy anything. You will find locals bartering for items you might not think are of any value. And you might find that what one culture values just might make you sick. I love it myself but Doreen hates the smell of fish markets and the head of a pig is never high on her list of things to see.
Sometimes, you should just say no
I had read about sweet coconut rice inside a banana leaf and wanted to try it but when I asked for one at a local shop, I was surprised at how expensive it seemed for just rice. When the woman brought out my little surprise package with a small clever, I wondered what it was for. When I opened it, I found a piece of meat rather than the expected sweet delight. It explained the price somewhat but what lie before me was a nearly pickled meat mixed with onions. Rather than look stupid, I chopped it up with the clever like I’d been doing it for years. I had a bite and was surprised at how tasty it was but Doreen said I should not eat it. It was obviously only cooked by the heat of being inside the banana leaf and the pickled aspect was probably more like a process of fermentation! Needless to say, I was not feeling all that well that night. Sometimes, you should just learn to walk away from a local delicacy.
Don't end up in jail!
This tip has no photo attached for obvious reasons, insofar as I don't think it is a brilliant idea to stick a camera in a drug dealers face. You will frequently be asked "smoke weed?" and cannabis / marijuana seems to be freely available. Your call whether or not to indulge but I would point out a few things to you. There are strict penalties in Lao for possession and trafficking drugs up to and including the death penalty. Even simple possession can land you in jail. Remember that food is not provided in Lao jails and prisoners are catered for by their families bringing in food. You will not have that facility available to you. I am told the current "gratuity" to avoid jail time is around $500 US which will put a nice hole in your travel budget.
In fairness, the dealers are not persistent and will move on quietly if you decline but remember also that many of them are either undcercover police trying to engineer the situation for the "gratuity", as above or genuine dealers who have an arrangement with the police. In a country where the average wage is $400 a year, it is maybe not surprising.
As I say, your call but you have been warned.
You will get splashed during Lao New Year
The Lao New Year festival, known as Boun Pimai or Pimai Lao, is a very important holiday celebrated in mid-April, especially in Luang Prabang. Just as with the Songkran festival in neighboring Thailand, it is customary during this time to splash strangers with water during the heat of midday. Mostly local youths do the splashing, but rowdy tourists often take part as well. Some are armed with relatively harmless waterguns, but others have large buckets capable of thoroughly soaking their victim. The times when you are most vulnerable and want to be on guard is when you are riding on an open air vehicle of any kind, i.e. tuk-tuk, back of truck, cyclo, as they will wait for you on the side of the road and get you as you drive by. Be especially careful with camera equipment or it may get ruined.
But remember, if you do fall victim to a good soaking, it's all in good fun and just try to laugh it off. I personally got really soaked when I was there.
If you like to wake up late, bring ear plugs
There are many roosters all around, so the mornings here are like a singing contest, each one yelling louder that the previous.
I couldn't avoid a killing glance every time I met one of these f***king animals on the road, LOL
- Budget Travel
UXO (Unexploded Ordnance)
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. During the war against North Vietnam, the U.S secretly (and illegally) conducted a massive bombing campaign of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos from 1964 until the ceasefire in 1973. Over this period more than 500,000 bombing missions were launched, dropping more than two million tonnes of ordnance. The bombing was concentrated in the north and southeastern provinces of the country.
Most of the aerial bombardment consisted of anti-personnel cluster bombs filled with bomblet sub-munitions. Each cluster bomb container was filled with up to 670 individual bomblets, each one about the size of a tennis ball and capable of killing and/or injuring a number of people. It is estimated that up to 30% of these bomblets did not explode.
Extensive ground battles also left a staggering amount of UXO including artillery and mortar shells, mines, rockets, grenades, and other devices from various countries of origin.
Even today, some 30 years after the end of the war, the Lao countryside remains littered with innumerable UXO. In Laos, there have been over 11,000 reported UXO related deaths or injuries since the end of the war. Various government and international agencies are working diligently to clear UXO from Laos, but it is a painfully slow process. The impact of UXO both in humanitarian and development terms, is a significant constraining factor on a country struggling to overcome poverty.
Note: The city of Luang Prabang does not pose a hazard from UXO. This warning is intended to alert travelers who are venturing out into the rural areas of the country.
- Hiking and Walking
Although it is considered illegal to be using different currencies in Laos, in reality, it is done everywhere. US dollars, Thai baht and Lao KIP are accepted in Laos. It is easy to convert USD into Lao KIP at the following rate.
1 USD = approximately 10,000 KIP
However, for Thai Baht, the rate is a bit more complicated. Sometimes, vendors take advantage of this and quote prices in Thai baht to confuse you and you may get ripped off as the conversion is a bit more tricky. I realize that after I bought some tribal goods from the night market. They started quoting me in Thai baht and when I ask them to convert to KIP, the prices were higher than some other similar items that I bought later.
The conversion rate for Thai Baht is 1 Baht = approximately 267 KIP when I was there in June 2005.
Make sure you are familiar with the conversion rate when you are there.
Drugs Drugs Drugs
Coming from Thailand it was quite shocking to be offered drugs so often! From tuk tuk drivers to sweet little old ladies at shops everyone seemed to peddle either marijuana or opium. From what I understand they are both very cheap there and if this is your scene it will be more than easy to acquire what you want. Use caution though peddlers will likely try to take any sort of advantage of you and will likely try and sell you the "not so good" stuff. Be careful!
Morally it also not a real responsible thing to fuel the drug trade in this very poor country so think twice!
Thankfully enough people are interested in this so if you just say "no thank you" you are usually left alone or the subject is dropped.
Don't sit too close to the street!
Another change in Luang Prabang since our last visit was the presence of children wandering along the streets and at tables outside restaurants selling souvenir items and small trinkets. The closer you are to the street, the more likely you are to fall prey to their persistent attentions. If you engage them, you will immediately have 2 or 3 other children crowding around you. The asking prices are always exorbitant! These pesky little critters learn early about extorting money from tourists.
If you definitely don't want anything, just say "no thank you" pleasantly. We watch a lot of tourists who continue to talk and basically ignore them. This usually results in them continuing to stand there - impasse. They will generally leave if you give them a clear message.
- Road Trip
- Family Travel
Holes in the footpaths!
I had read about the holes in the footpaths in Luang Prabang, but I was gobsmacked when I saw them! I saw a few tourists getting around with bandaged legs (true story!), and wondered if this had been the cause.
As you can see in the pic, the street lighting is very poor in the evening - and the second picture was taken at the same time as the hole picture! Can be an idea to take a torch (or flashlight, depending on where you come from!) if you venture out for an evening stroll.
I am pleased to say that during our recent visit to Luang Prabang, all the footpaths have been replaced and/or repaired - so this warning no longer applies!!
- Budget Travel
The official currency in Laos is the KIP. You can only change for KIP in Laos. Although it is considered illegal to be using different currencies in Laos, in reality, it is done everywhere. US dollars, Thai baht and Lao KIP are accepted in Laos. You can change for Lao KIP at Luang Prabang International Airport and also at a money changer in town. You will get a better deal with US dollars. For just one 100 USD note, you will get a thick stack of Lao KIP in return.
Try not to change too much Lao KIP as it is quite difficult or almost impossible to change that back to USD. Make sure you have small denominations of USD with you for use if you run out of KIP. If you use larger denominations, you will get your change back in KIP which you will not need if you are going to leave Laos soon. Lao KIP is worthless when you are out of Laos.
1 USD = approximately 10,000 KIP
There are herds of kids who work as street peddlars on the streets of Luang Prabang. If they find that you are an easy pushover, a horde will descend on you, begging you to buy their wares (usually pendants, weaves and stuffs). The cafes certainly aren't doing their best to ward them off as well, so they do enter cafes and disturb clients.
Don't get me for trying to demonise kids. Wait till they descend upon you and should you survive, you can come and tell me off.
Of course, I am not asking you to be rude. To their credit, most of them will take the hint after you had told them, politely of course, no, a couple of times.
I did see a few ladies getting entangled up with them though, once they purchase something from one. It's hunting season for all now.
So, don't say I didn't warn you.
- Family Travel
- Budget Travel
fast boats to Luang Prabang
Fast boats have the reputation of being dangerous. They travel very fast - from Huay Xhay to Luang Prabang they take about 9-10 hours (18 with a slow boat). fast boats are tiny - they carry about 6 passengers, and very noisy and bumpy. You are given a life-vest and a helmet to wear - and for a good reason: apparently every year several people are killed in fast-boats accidents.. tourists, too. Prices are quite high, so unless you are in a real hurry, please take the slow boat. you'll be safer and will also enjoy more the surrounding countryside
Dollars -- Bring small denominations
Talking with several foreigners doing business in LP, I came to realize that dollars are a very welcome, even routinely used, currency in the area. One european guy said that he rarely used or encountered kip except as change from his purchases. This same guy kept a wallet with American $1's and $5's for his usual purchases @ 1 dollar per 1000 kip. You're not likely to get 'dollar' change back. A dime or quarter is completely unknown, as one would expect.
Given how huge is the stack of kip you get for a $100 or E100 travellers check at the few semi-surly places available to change money, I think I'll bring dollars next time.
I've been told that Thai baht are equally as welcome, although the exchange rate is a bit trickier.
A little scam artist plays his game on top of Phu Si hill. I was approached by a friendly 17 year-old guy who spoke excellent English. After making conversation for awhile, he invited me to have a look at Peacefulness Temple just outside of town.
I went along for the ride and he brought me to a beautiful wat with just a smattering of visitors. He next offered to bring me to his village a short distance away. I accepted and was taken to the Iron Workers Village, which was a squalid collection of shacks on top of each other with lots of litter about. I was introduced to his "mom" and was then informed about her bad liver or something like that. The kid produced some x-rays as evidence of her condition and then started about how it was only ten dollars for medicine, but he couldn't afford it. I was brought to another woman who showed me a photo of her daughter and offered her to me as a wife. I politely declined, informing her that I needed more time to think about it as such decisions shouldn't be reached with haste.
When we returned to town, my guide got started with the expensive school bit, asking me to sponsor his education. Returning to my guesthouse, I saw the kid acknowledge the proprietors. I later asked them if they knew the boy and they informed that they did and that he played this game with guests of theirs quite often. The owners told me the whole thing is a scam, that he doesn't even live in the village. The only contribution I made was paying for some gas for his motorbike, but others have most likely been instrumental in the boy's receiving an "education". He's pictured to the left.
- Budget Travel