Thursday, February 14, 2008

Helpful Hints: Laos Edition

We're just over halfway through this marvelous adventure, and although we've posted some great stories (more to come, I promise), we haven't really contributed much in the way of lessons learned on the road. So here are a few helpful hints for traveling in and around Luang Prabang.

Forget the guidebook.
So you've decided to take the slow boat from Thailand, good for you. Unless you've made reservations ahead of time, you're going to be one of hundreds of people trying to find a room at the same time. While on the boat, you may have noticed everyone reading a copy of their (and your) favorite Laos guidebook. Unfortunately, they are planning the same thing you are: the backpacker shuffle from one guesthouse to the next. This is a time when a little bit of an adventurous spirit goes a long way. Skip the guesthouses in the Lonely Planet, because that's where everyone who got off the boat first is headed too. Keep your eyes open for guesthouse signs; they are on the main road that parallels the river. You may be surprised at what you'll find.

Timing is everything.
After returning from our trek in the hills around Luang Prabang, we needed a place to stay. It was early afternoon, a couple of hours before the slow boat was scheduled to arrive. We started the backpacker shuffle, dragging a poor tuk-tuk driver along with us, instead of schlepping our bags from place to place. Unfortunately, the guesthouses in the guidebook were booked or way too expensive (another example of what LP doesn't always tell you). After our third guesthouse and another shrug and serious eye-roll from our tuk-tuk driver, we welcomed the tout who roared up on his motorbike. He directed us to a guesthouse. After Lizzi conducted a quick white-glove inspection of the digs, we agreed on a price and settled in.

Ok, so what did we learn from this. First, we haggled on the price. We actually got a nightly rate that was $10 less than the published rate. We probably could have gotten more, but it was technically high season. Second, timing was everything. The slow boat hadn't arrived yet, so we were able to haggle. When we left our room to forage for food, the slow boaters arriving at the door were greeted with a firm price equal to the published nightly rate. These lessons go hand-in-hand. Good timing leads to a good price.

Early to rise, early to bed...
One of the interesting things about traveling to Luang Prabang is the government-mandated curfew. Technically speaking, the curfew is 11PM, but many guesthouses close their doors up to an hour before. Believe me, our host was not a happy camper when we came banging on the door at 11:15PM. He'd gone to bed an hour earlier.

The curfew means that most of the nightlife happens long before 11PM. Except one bar on the back side of Phu Si. Don't worry, all the tuk-tuk drivers know exactly where it is. But if your guesthouse won't open the door, imbibing until midnight may be a moot point.

Despite the curfew, you can still tie one on pretty easily. They have these things called "Happy Hours", and unlike the U.S., they actually want you to show up and drink freely. Beerlao is cheap and goes down easy. Beerlao is definitely one of the highlights of our trip thus far. I even bought the T-shirt!

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