Part 7: cruising the Mekong

After a tranquil week in Luang Prabang, it was time to hit the road, in this instance: a floating one.

We had researched the different companies doing the cruise from Luang Prabang to Huai Xai and ended up with Luang Say cruises. In hindsight I did regret it a little since they charge around $450 per person when booking in advance online, and when in Laos we found that in their local office the price was almost half at around $250. There is also another company called Shompoo cruises that was around $150 that we saw during the trip that looked fine as far as we could tell. Their boat looked similar to ours.

Anyway, there are fortunately quite a few positives as well with Luang Say. At the morning of departure we were picked up by a tuk-tuk driver and taken the few hundred meters from our hotel to the pier, located below the Callao Hotel. The boat is clean and quite comfy, and we had a super friendly guide that spoke very good English. As the boat was only half full (at best) there was also plenty of space – maybe lower those online prices a bit Luang Say Cruises? 😉

As we began our cruise, breakfast was served mini buffet style at the small bar towards the end of the ship. We had fresh delicious croissants with jam and butter, baguette, boiled eggs and coffee. Meals, coffee, water and tea were included in the cruise by the way, and I do not think I’ve ever had so much coffee.

First stop: the Pak Ou caves an hour or so from Luang Prabang.

Lunch, also buffet style – with mushroom and chicken stew, woked pork, fried fish and rice. Tasty, but not amazing in any way. Since the cruise was pricey (I know, I’m bitter) my hopes for the food was a bit higher.

We visited two villages accompanied by our guide during the cruise. It was quite interesting and at the same felt a bit weird to walk around and stare at people doing there daily routine. We did contribute to the local economy though by purchasing some silk shawls made in one of the villages, and our guide teached us how to spot the difference between locally made and mass produced Chinese which was nice.

And after approximately 10 hours on the river we were in Pakbeng, a small town on the Mekong.

The perhaps biggest perk with going with Luang Say Cruises is that they own a lodge, aptly named the Luang Say Lodge, next to the river, where we stayed the night. This is the view from our room, a small hut connected to the rest of the hotel with wooden walkways. So cool. I’d liked to stay a couple of days here.

Dinner was served and while totally edible not very impressive either compared to all the amazing food we’d eaten in Luang Prabang. I know I am whining, but if you charge a lot of money, why save on cheap basics such as ingredients? Drinks were extra by the way and a beer was $3 and a glass of wine possibly $6 or 7.

Day two was similar to day one. We had breakfast at the lodge and then cruised until lunch where we had another lunch onboard featuring curry and rice.

After lunch we made our second village visit, and after that we were on the final stretch.

The best thing with the Mekong cruise in my mind is the views and the tranquility. You do not really have much choice but to lean back, listen to the sound of the engine and just take in the mostly amazing views of the river, life on the river and the surrounding landscape. I really appreciated this.

Around four in the afternoon we gently docked in Huay Xai. We were then taken by mini bus to the border crossing to Thailand, got instructions how to cross, and then we suddenly walked into Chiang Khong. Thailand!

We had pre-booked a transfer through Luang Say ($85) and our driver was waiting with a sign with our names on. Two hours later we were in the city of Chiang Rai for a week of Northern Thai food and adventures.

Part 6: Luang Prabang

We arrived Luang Prabang and Laos by a comfortable direct 1.5 hour flight from Siem Reap in a Vietnamese Airlines airbus A320 (I do not love to fly in propellered planes that otherwise are common on donestic routes in the region). A top tip is to buy a local sim with a data package in the airport, they had a booth at bagage reclaim and it took like a minute, costed $7 for about 8 gbs lasting a week, and they did all the setting up for me.

Luang Prabang, also spelled “Louang Prabang” is a cozy little city of approximately 50 000 people, situated by the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. It’s old town where we stayed at the excellent Mekong Riverview Hotel, is filled with French colonial buildings, temples, a former royal palace, small restaurants, guest houses, shops, markets and bars. And, importantly, being in South East Asia it’s surprisingly super relaxed. We had just arrived from Siem Reap’s hustle and bustle with crazy traffic, stray animals, thumping music and drunk tourists, and were therefore prepared for something a bit similar. How wrong we where.

There is pretty much a general sense of calm at all hours in Luang Prabang. Of course there will be the odd vendor calling for attention, or tuk-tuk drivers offering a ride, but not that often. You can also walk everywhere as the roads and sidewalks are good and traffic as mentioned is quite calm.

The views of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are everywhere as the old city lies on a peninsula surrounded by them. You can also see large mountains towering in the distance. It’s a super scenic place, and we really loved it.

What to see

Except for eating a lot of food we also climbed Mount Phousi to watch the sunset (as will many others, it’s quite crowded). We also visited the beautiful Kuang Si waterfall, a top tip is to arrive early before the crowds. We hired a taxi driver and arrived just as they opened at I think around 8 a.m.

Much also happen on the river(s) and there are plenty of different cruises and boat trips to go on, for instance to Pak Ou Caves.

[Breakfast in our hotel Mekong Riverview Hotel, on of the best I’ve ever had, especially considering the view.]

How about the food then? Well I can honestly say that we had a few of the best meals of our almost six weeks long trip in Luang Prabang. Lao food is quite similar to the more famous northern Thai cuisine, with shared dishes such as the local sausage Sai Oua, which in Laos is made with pork and herbs – in Thailand they also add chilli and lemongrass. Both are incredibly good. Other shared dishes are the famous spicy herb laab (also known as larb or laap) salad, and khao soi noodle soup. The latter is only similar by name though, and that they both are noodle soups. The Lao version is tomato-y while the Thai uses coconut milk.

Below are our favourite Luang Prabang restaurants:

Phonheuang Café

Make your own spring roll wrapper with crunchy chopped up spring rolls, cold noodles, spring onion and herbs. Put in a lettuce leaf, roll and dip in the amazingly delicious sesame dipping sauce.

The black stuff in the upper left corner is the local specialty kaipen, which is crispy river weed with sesame seeds.

To the right is pork laab, one of the best we had during the trip. This place is quite tiny but you’ll find it using Google maps.

Price: Inexpensive.

Saffron coffee

If you miss your big city latte art hipster coffee, fear not, Saffron’s got you covered. We saw at least two outlets in Luang Prabang and they serve a quite decent cup of coffee. Their tamarind and apple tarte was decent but served icecold.

Price: Medium

The Belle Rive

The Belle Rive is a quite touristy (but not in a terrible way) place which offers one of the best views of sunset over the Mekong River. They also fortunately have very nice food, and given the location, prices aren’t that bad.

We had (from left): Oua Si Kai, lemongrass grilled chicken (so good); Jeow Mak Khuea, smoky eggplant dip, served with veggies; spicy green papaya salad with ground peanuts, and fresh spring rolls filled with veggies & rice noodles, served with a peanut dip.

Price: medium

Xieng Thong Noodle Soup

Only open at lunch time, this place serves a delicious bowl of khao piak sen which includes thick rice noodles, pork, bean sprouts and spring onion in a quite mild salty broth. Finally a pile of crispy roasted garlic is added which gives the soup a really nice depth.

Price: inexpensive, a bowl was around $1,5 or 15000 kip.

Paste at the Apsara

Our first proper fine dining meal of the trip was at Paste Laos on New Years Eve. Paste also has a restaurant in Bangkok which has been awarded a Michelin Star so we were super excited to try their smaller Lao sibling’s fine dining take on local food.

Jaew bong: Mekong river crab, river weed, chilli relish.

Seared scallops, tossed in a salad of mangosteen, lemongrass, young coconut.

Sour River Fish Soup with lemongrass,chili, sugar cane,shrimp paste and fermented fish sauce (pa dek). Finished with young tamarind leaves.

Crunchy cured rice balls with sour sausage, kaffir lime zest, red curry paste, river weed and rose pepper leaf.

Salad of cured eggplant, air dried buffalo, ginger flower with kaffir lime, guava and dry spice mix.

A recreation and slight reinvention of the classic recipe for Laos Duck Curry-Kalee Ped.

Stir fried glass noodle with mixed mushroom, sweet bamboo shoots and fermented bean curd sauce.

Banana with coconut milk cream and fresh jackfruit.

The food was delicious. It tasted exactly like I had hoped, local but with fancy cooking techniques that made it an exciting contrast to the more ‘home cooking style’ restaurants we’d so far visited. Especially the salad dishes were “out of this world” (I’m starting to sound like my mom now- thank you thirties😩).

Price: Expensive, about $140 for two with a shared large beer and one glass of wine each. They pour super small servings of wine so buy a bottle, or stick to beer which was more reasonably priced.

Khaiphaen

Run by the Tree Alliance Group that employ and train former street kids and other marginalized children and youth in hospitality. We had some of the best food in Luang Prabang here with a yummy, spicy chicken laap salad; crispy crackling pork belly with pumpkin puree and the best grilled Lao sai ua sausages on the whole trip.

Price: A tiny bit more expensive than other restaurants we visited, but still very affordable.

Khao Soi Luang Prabang

Located on the main street, Sakkaline Road, towards Wat Xiengthong, we found a great Lao khao soi shop. It’s just a few seats, but usually quite busy with a lady spooning up delicious bowls of the local version of Khao Soi. As you might know, Khao Soi is a famous dish of Northern Thailand, but apart from being soups with noodles in, they aren’t very similar. The Lao version contain minced pork that has been slow-cooked and then it’s added to a spicy, tomato-y broth that kind of reminds me of a South East Asian take on a bolognese. In the soup are rice noodles and the usual “choose yourself” fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and spring onion. Incredibly delicious.

Price: Not much.

Xieng Thong Phonsavanh Restaurant

We found out that our hotel was next door to famous food blogger Migrationology’s favourite restaurant in Luang Prabang, so we though it would be wise to pay it a visit. We tried their (very delicious) fish laap salad; tasty holy basil fried chicken, and, after being told off by the chef/owner for not ordering it, also their super spicy and delicious fish roe dip ”jaew kee pa”.

Price: Slightly more expensive than other restaurants in the area, but still very affordable.

Part 5: Siem Reap

In Siem Reap we had one main goal, and that was of course like most other visitors to visit the famous Angkor Wat temple area.

We used a company called Journey Cambodia, which offered a combination package of a Angkor Wat sunrise tour with a half day trip to the “floating village” on the Tonlé Sap the following day for $59 per person. The Angkor Wat tour was a full day starting with a pick up at 4.10 in the morning, allowing us to buy permits to visit the Angkor Wat park ($37 per person for a 1 day permit) before lining up in front of the small lake facing Angkor Wat and wait for sunrise. Unfortunately, many others does the same and it’s quite a crowd waiting for the perfect photo. So be early, or there will be a lot of people in your pics. After the sunrise you’ll be having breakfast before visiting the other temples in the area. A loooong day, but worth it.

The Tonlé Sap floating village tour was more comfortable though. We were only four people in total sharing a mini bus and as we were early did not see many other tourists during our visit. Unfortunately it was very dry when we visited so the normally floating village wasn’t very floating.

Food and drink in Siem Reap

We had a few nice experiences in Siem Reap when it comes to food and drink.

Pot and Pan

Inexpensive and quite tasty, we had taro spring rolls, chicken Amok and a chicken and peanut stir fry. Total cost with a beer was around $9.

Khmer Touch

Recommended by the New York Times, and when we arrived totally deserted. We initially though we’d give it a miss and go somewhere with people. But then we changed our minds and decided to try it. Fortunately that was a good decision. Their green mango salad with deep-fried tofu; the velvety chicken curry and the beefy Lok Lak were all fantastic. We took advantage of some kind of wine promo they had, so the bill (including a shared dessert) came in at just under $40 for two with all food and a shared bottle of white.

Num Pang Paté

Cambodia’s answer to the Vietnamese Banh Mi. A crusty baguette (Cambodia used to be a French colony) filled with patê, pork, a custard-meets-mayo sauce, pickles and papaya slaw. Can’t exactly tell where this was, but you should be able to find them in the night market.

50 cent beers at Pub Street

Siem Reap’s infamous pub street isn’t so bad if you’ve been out in let’s say Patong, Thailand. But it’s quite lively in the evnings and nights, and yes, a draft beer in most places are 50 American cents, or two beers for $1.

Miss Wong

1920s style Shanghai Bar. Good cocktails, amazing decor. Also a tad pricey (or super pricey compared to the 50 cent beers on Pub Street a stone’s throw away. But worth a visit.

Coffee

We visited four cafés while in Siem Reap and they were all high quality and similar in price so I won’t go into too much detail. I have however put them in order after which I found the best.

Missing Socks Laundry Café. Tasty cheesecake and great coffee.

Brother Bong. Great coffee, dry cookie.

Red Fox Espresso. Also great coffee but slightly more expensive than the others.

Sister Strey, good coffee, nice location. Decent vegan “snickers” cake.

Where we stayed: Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel.

$70 a night with free a la carte breakfast that included eggs benedict, laksa (pictured above) and fried noodles. Room’s were nice, but some nights the volume from nearby bars made it hard to sleep. The small pool and garden are quite nice as well and usually not too crowded. Staff very friendly, but almost overly friendly at times. An extra bonus were free airport transfers in the hotel’s car.

Location is quite good, close to Pub Street and plenty of restaurants, and also a few smaller temples. We walked pretty much everywhere, but tuk-tuks were (extremely) available. 🙂