Luang Prabang – UNESCO World Heritage Site

Luang Prabang, Laos

You won’t travel far in South East Asia before hearing about the charms of Laos’ premier destination, Luang Prabang.

We made it as far as booking a flight the last time we were around this way, before Asia fatigue kicked in and propelled us Oz-bound in search of pseudo home comforts.

And having just spent a month in Thailand we almost did it again. “how different will Luang Prabang be?” we asked.

Well if I’m being absolutely honest. Not that different!

But that’s certainly no reason not to go.

If you were to take the best of Thailand’s inland treasures and squeeze them in to one small town you would pretty much have Luang Prabang.

The ancient town lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The sublime natural beauty is augmented by French Colonial architecture, an abundance of sparkling temples and swathes of saffron wrapped monks who parade the streets.

Mount Phousi

At the centre of town 350 steps scale the 150 meter Mount Phousi, caped by Wat Chomsi the summit offers spectacular views of the whole town as well as the Mekong and Nam Khan. About half way up you will find the Wat Tham Phousi shrine. Make sure you don’t miss the not-so hidden cave.

Kuang Si Falls

Another must see attraction is the Kuang Si falls. Just 30Km south of Luang Prabang the spectacular 50 meter waterfall feeds a number of stunning cascades set amongst beautiful azure bathing pools and tropical jungle. There is a hiking trail to the top of the falls for those feeling adventurous and bathing is allowed in some of the lower pools for those who fancy a refreshing dip. Just how refreshing the water is can be a little bit of a surprise when you first get in and watch out for the slippery stones and the little fish that like a nibble!

At the entrance to the falls is a bear sanctuary where you can see some of the bears rescued by the organisation. You can also buy a souvenir or make a donation to help the good cause. www.freethebears.org/

Free the Bears Luang Prabang
Rescued bear

Entrance to Kuang Si falls is 20,000 kip (£2) at the time of writing and this includes entrance to the bear sanctuary. Our private hire tuk-tuk cost  200,000 kip (£20) for half a day.

No place for a party

Despite the divine beauty, and its well-earned reputation Luang Prabang remains a remarkably peaceful place. The nearest thing to a crowd you will see is at the nightly market on the main road and little noise escapes the restaurants and bars which are bound by a strict curfew that sees their doors closed at 11:30pm. We were told most locals go to bed early as they get up each morning to give alms.

Alms Giving Ceremony

The alms giving ceremony takes place daily at sunrise where a procession of monks numbering in the hundreds collect offerings from locals and visitors alike.

It’s one of those unusual “attractions” that forces you to question the ethics of picture-taking. Is it disrespectful to photograph this ancient spiritual ceremony? Should I be content to witness the spectacle and record it only in memory? Well after the 3rd consecutive night of being woken up at 6am by gong-bonging and bell-ringing I moralised that if they hadn’t woken me up I’d be still tucked up in bed rather than giving them the fat end of a 200mm lens. Karma! They can’t argue with that!

Luang Prabang Alms giving ceremony
Alms giving ceremony

Get Out!

As beautiful as the old town is, and there is no denying its beauty, for us, as is so often the case, the best part of Luang Prabang was to be found outside the tourist epicentre. Across the Nam Khan river via the bamboo bridge lies the real Laos. Endless leafy villages and weathered temples to explore and hardly a farang in sight.

Isn’t Luang Prabang expensive?

The one negative we kept hearing about Luang Prabang was that it was expensive. And I guess this one is subjective. We stay in mid range hotels, and ate in decent restaurants. Decent, not expensive. And we found the prices very similar to those in Bangkok. Sure there are plenty of fancy restaurants on the main strip that will  easily make a hole in $100, but how is that any different to the Thai capital? An evening meal for 2 cost us $15 – $20, which is pretty much what we spent when we were in Thailand. And if anything the beer is slightly cheaper, so that’s a result!

We are glad we went through with the visit this time. Luang Prabang is only a small town, and it’s easily explored in a couple of days. But it’s a small town with a lot of charm, and one of the most beautiful places we have visited in South East Asia.

 

 

 

Phuket Old Town – The cultural gem of Phuket

What to see in Phuket Old Town, Thailand

Phuket.
Jewel of the Andaman sea.
A world-famous playground of white sand beaches, blue skies, and crystal clear water. Resplendent with every modern amenity a tourist could desire.
Welcoming over 20 million visitors per annum Phuket is well and truly on the tourist trail.
But how many of these visitors make it to Phuket Town?
Judging by our recent visit, I’m going to say not many. And let me tell you, they are missing out.
Missing out on the best food.

Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant
Braised Pork and Crab Curry at One Chun Restaurant

Missing out on the best architecture.

Baan Chinpracha Phuket Town
Baan Chinpracha

Missing out on the real Phuket.

Phuket Old Town was built on the riches of the tin mining boom. Beautiful Sino-Portuguese buildings house chic coffee shops, boutique stores and excellent restaurants. The mining industry also attracted a large population of Chinese immigrants whose influence is evident. Shop houses and intricate shrines add to the splendour of the town.

Despite being the provincial capital of an island slap bang in the heart of Touristville, Phuket Town is remarkably laid back. A beautiful place to amble around and marvel and the stunning colonial mansions and elegant temples hidden around every corner.
And when it’s time to refuel an extensive array of dining options await. Everything from food carts to opulent restaurants serving 5 star cuisine from around the world. Mostly at very reasonable prices.

On Sunday the main street, Thalang Road, hosts a night market. Closed to traffic this usually sleepy street suddenly becomes a hub of activity. Stalls offering food, beverages, clothing and all sorts of Knick-knacks throng with tourists who materialise out of nowhere to create a cacophony of noise and bustle. Fortunately this burst of life soon subsides, and long before midnight the peace and tranquillity of Phuket Town is restored.

Once adequately nourished by the culture, heritage and remarkable food that old town has to offer don your comfortable shoes and take a trek up Monkey Hill for some great views of the city, and some interesting company…..

And if you still have the urge to dip your toes in the Andaman you can reach some of the most beautiful beaches that Phuket has to offer for just 40 baht from the South Bus Station conveniently located at the edge of Old Town.

Monkey Hill – Phuket Town

Toh Sae Hill in Phuket Town also known as Monkey Hill

A short but steep walk from Phuket Old Town, Monkey Hill Viewpoint offers impressive views over the whole of town and out to sea. But it’s not the vista that draws people here. It’s the large troupe of cheeky macaques that are the star attraction.

From the Provincial Hall, Toh Sae Road climbs sharply. The road has plenty of shade and a couple of decent look out spots, as well as more than it’s fair share of sleeping dogs. (Just let them lie)

There’s a little Chinese shrine and a small shop about half way up. A good place to take a short break in the company of more dogs, now joined by goats and roosters.

The monkeys have commandeered a small exercise park about 1km up the hill and appear to enjoy using the cross trainer as a swing.

It’s said that several hundred macaques inhabit Monkey Hill and though I can’t vouch for that what I can say is they were certainly not in short supply during our visit.

Monkey Hill Phuket Town
Stacks of Macaques

I’d read some older articles that said that the monkeys were quite shy. Clearly constant human contact is having some impact on this. Though certainly not as boisterous as the muggers at Monkey Forest Ubud, they are far from shy, and will approach you even if you do not have food and think nothing of stealing your bottle of water. Little ******’s.

A little further up the hill just before you reach the TV & radio stations you will see the viewing platform. There’s little point progressing any further as this spot offers the best views available.

Monkey Hill Viewpoint
Monkey Hill Viewpoint

If you are visiting Phuket Town, we would certainly recommend a trip to Monkey Hill. Although the climb is steep, it’s a pleasant walk with plenty of opportunities to rest along the way. But be warned local dogs have already taken all the best spots to relax in.

Doi Mae Salong – The most beautiful Chinese village in Thailand

Santikhiri village, better known by it's former name Mae Salong

Nestled between tea plantations and rolling mountains 70km north of Chiang Rai, a stone’s throw from the Myanmar border, lies the beautiful village of Santikhiri, more commonly known as Doi Mae Salong.

Doi Mae Salong
Doi Mae Salong

Founded by Chinese settlers following the Chinese civil war, Mae Salong has retained much of its Chinese heritage. Yunnanese voices escape shop houses and red lanterns adorned with Chinese symbols illuminate the streets.

In fact there is little to remind you that you are still in Thailand other than the smiling faces and warm and friendly nature of the people.

Mae Salong has been called the Switzerland of Thailand and although I’m not sure I’d go that far, the splendour of the stepped tea plantations did remind me of the rice terraces in Ubud, Bali. Any comparison to Ubud is fine praise indeed.

Tea houses line the undulating streets. Many offering tea sampling with eye-popping views of the plantations.

Coffee Doi Mae Salong
High Tea

The best view in town however requires a little more effort. Accessed via a flight of 700 steps reaching skyward from Wat Santikhiri temple, Phra Boramathat Chedi is an impressive monument in its own right. However that’s not the primary reason to make this pilgrimage. The breath-taking panorama of Mae Salong and the surrounding mountains are what make the heart punishing climb worthwhile.

Back at ground level a small but interesting market marks the centre of town. Distinct from markets to be found elsewhere in Thailand, it has an unusual mix of Chinese and Thai products as well as decorative items made by the Akha, a local hill tribe, who can be seen around the market wearing their traditional attire.

If you’re thinking Mae Salong sounds pretty nice so far, just wait until you sit down to eat! The food is reason enough in itself to visit. A mouth-watering fusion of Yunnanese and Thai flavours, that result in a taste sensation that far outweighs the sum of its parts.

So, in summary, Mae Salong is an exceptionally picturesque village which boasts sensational surrounding scenery, and sublime food. But despite this it appears to be well off the tourist-trail and is almost completely farang-free by nightfall.

And I’m not surprised! Having spent almost 4 months in Thailand including a week in its more famous neighbour, Chiang Rai, we would have known nothing about Mae Salong had it not been for fabulous YouTube vlog by super-foodie Mark Wiens at Migrationology.com a recommendation we are truly grateful for.

White Temple – Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai's number one attractions The White Temple, Wat Rung Khun

The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is unlike any other temple in Chiang Rai and probably in the whole of Thailand. Built by

Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist from Chiang Rai, it is more an art installation than a traditional temple.

Wat Rong Khun The White Temple
Wat Rong Khun The White Temple

The entrance fee into the temple grounds is 50 baht. Once inside, the main temple is reached via a bridge which crosses the sea of suffering, where grasping hands reach up in desperation from below.

Sea of Suffering - Wat Rong Khun
Sea of Suffering

The intricately carved temple is strikingly beautiful. The pure white façade brought alive by light and shadow in the midday sun.

Inside the temple colourful artwork contrasts sharply with the exterior. Swirling clouds and demonic faces juxtapose pop culture imagery including Neo from the Matrix, Bumble-Bee from the Transformers and the scary tricycle riding doll from the Saw movies.

The stylistic clash of old and new continues in the temple grounds, where the pretty manicured gardens are home to a semi buried Predator and the decapitated heads of movie characters hang from trees, alongside Buddhist shrines.

Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Temple Gardens
Predator - Wat Rong Khun
Predator
Head Tree - Wat Rong Khun
Head Tree
Wat Rong Khun Gardens
Wat Rong Khun Gardens

Even the toilets had gargoyle guardians.

Wat Rong Khun Gargoyles
HIs and Hers Gargoyles

Getting to the White Temple

You can take a non air-conditioned bus from the old bus station in Chiang Rai, for 20 baht. Leg room not included.

Songthaews are also available on a private hire basis from the bus station. We found the cheaper option was to flag down a taxi. Reluctant to use his meter the driver agreed a still very reasonable 150 baht fare.

A word of warning. Our driver tried to take us to the wrong temple. Make sure you’re heading for Wat Rong Khun, not Wat Rong Suea Ten. The latter being the blue temple, despite our drivers initial insistence to the contrary.

When your visit is over skip the lurking tuk-tuk and taxi drivers directly in front of the temple and walk to the main road where you can flag down a songthaew, for a 20 baht return journey.

Even if you’ve explored all of the traditional temples in Chiang Rai and are feeling “templed-out” you should make the effort to put this one on your list. Its only 15 KM from town and is different enough from the others to make it worthy of your time.