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From the Ground: Lao Home Cooking

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin

We have a new cooking class option in Laos, and this is not your typical cooking course.  Our guests will have the chance to spend time in an authentic Laotian kitchen, and learn how to cook traditional dishes the local way. Anthony Bourdain recently was in this exact home learning to cook Lao-style by your hosts, Por and Mae Keo.  The tour is completely private so it works very well for small groups and families.

What to expect from this tour:

This morning you will be picked up from your hotel by your guide and transferred by private van to meet today’s Homestyle Lao Cooking instructor at the Phousi Market. You will stroll through Luang Prabang’s largest fresh market and learn about traditional herbs and spices as you pick up the ingredients for today’s menu. Once you have finished shopping at the market, you will head 15 minutes outside of town to Nong Kham Village. With the assistance of your guide, the instructor will go over the day’s menu and demonstrate some of the techniques useful in traditional Lao cooking. Then, just like a typical Lao family, you will be responsible for cooking one of the dishes for lunch. Don’t worry, your guide and Lao chef are nearby to provide any assistance needed! Once the staple dish, Lao sticky rice has finished cooking you will help to set up for lunch. Finally, enjoy your fruits of labor by having lunch the typical Lao way by sitting on the floor and eating family style from a small rattan tray. After lunch, sit back and relax under the breezy wooden and bamboo outdoor sala and enjoy some homemade rice whiskey with your hosts. Once you have had your fill of the pungent Lao Lao you will say goodbye to your hosts and be transferred back to your hotel.

Guest Review from Susan Fossum

An editor asked our guests for comments on whether they felt that travel agents are still relevant.  For us this is a bit of an existential question, but our guest and ambassador, Susan Fossum, sums it up very well – thank you Susan!

Dear Editor,

I am someone who has used the services of a travel agent and since I heard that you were looking for information on the subject of whether the use of these type of services were still relevant I thought that I would respond to you.

Honestly, until this past year, I have not used the services of a travel agent, but I must tell you that the services that I used this past year with Journeys Within were invaluable and I would use their services again.  In fact I have referred them already and they are being used by friends of mine as they also are impressed with what this company offers.

I am a frequent traveler -as not only do I love to travel- but I am also an RN who goes on frequent trips with 2 non-profit organizations, traveling throughout the world providing free reconstructive surgical care to children with cleft lips/palates and burns.  This past year I traveled with teams to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Tanzania.  I also am involved in organizing and putting on international nursing conferences around the world, last year one being held in Glasgow, Scotland and previous ones in Canada, Ireland and Denmark.  So lots of travel to the dismay of my 3 dogs and horses!

This past year my surgical trip took me to Takeo, Cambodia – a small village in the southern part of Cambodia.  My husband wanted to join me at the end of my 2 week surgical trip for a vacation in Southeast Asia.  As this was a different part of the world that we had not explored before, and the fact that I would be very busy up until the final day of surgery, we decided to look at using a travel agency to help us plan our trip.  Our plan was to travel not only to Cambodia but also to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  My husband happened on information in a travel magazine that mentioned Andrea Ross and her company Journeys Within.  In reading about this company we found that Andrea had spent many years in Cambodia, was familiar with the land and culture and also was supportive of the people and agencies that helped the local towns and villages.  This was impressive to us – so we contacted Andrea to find out about her travel agency and whether this would be a good fit for us.  As I mentioned, we have done most of the planning and organization of overseas trips for many years – over 20.

We came up with an itinerary that we were looking at and then sent that off to Andrea – our goals included not only sightseeing, but adventures out in the countryside that would allow us to mingle with the local peoples and cultures.  The itinerary that we ended up with was perfect for us.  All aspects of our tour were covered – we were met at airports by our tour guides, movement through the airport was smooth, all transportation, cultural events were taken care of.  Our accommodations were beyond what we had expected and supported the local communities.  And – a plus – Andrea and her staff worked with me to coordinate my surgical 2 week trip schedule so it would coincide with flights and lodging for my husband.

Using Journeys Within saved me (us) much needed time and energy.  In looking at costs, which are always relevant, for the time in country, airline flights and the experiences that we had – our trip was within a budget that we had expected.

This is a long letter and probably more that you were expecting – but I wanted to get across the point that for someone who has not used a travel agency in more that 20 years of travel – using the expertise of Andrea Ross and her staff of Journeys Within exceeded my expectations.  Thank you for the opportunity to write you and provide feedback on my experiences.

Susan Fossum

Photos provided by Susan Fossum

How would I decide between Laos and Northern Thailand?

The view from Mt. Pou Si in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

One of the hardest parts of planning any trip is choosing between dozens of wonderful options among destinations, activities, tours, temples, and even restaurants.  I tend to have a very difficult time narrowing down my own wish list to a feasible itinerary – there are only so many hours in a day after all!  This blog stems from having that conversation with myself – if I was to go back to either Laos or Northern Thailand – two similar destinations, which would I choose and why? 

I love Thailand – the culture, the food, the friendly people, the elephants, the scenery, the temples, and of course, the unbelievable beaches.  As it turns out, so does everyone else – Thailand was ranked the most visited country in the world in 2016, and even when it doesn’t top the charts at number one, it is consistently listed among the world’s most popular destinations.   Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, was also ranked as the most visited city in the world for 2016.

Luang Prabang is a charming town – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

What does this mean?  I found that parts of Thailand, for all of its charms, can be crowded (especially over high season).  While I’ve met many people (including my stepdad) who visited Thailand 10 – 20 years ago, and spoke of having a grand adventure, in person, I must confess that although I had a lovely time, I found that Thailand felt developed, modern and packaged when compared to some of the neighboring countries.  None of these are attributes are bad, and all are reasons why many of our guests prefer to travel to Thailand on their first trip to Asia – it can be a more user-friendly experience for new travelers.  However, while our guests who travel to Thailand very much enjoy their trips, the feedback we consistently receive from our guests is that Laos was the highlight of their tour, and was the one place they wished they could have spent more time.  Here are my list of reasons why I would choose to head to Laos rather than Northern Thailand on my next trip:

Looking across Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Availability: Thailand welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, and Laos, by contrast, welcomed 4.3 million in 2015, which with a modest increase in 2016 – roughly a sixth of Thailand’s tourism traffic.   If peak season, (I.e. – the weeks immediately surrounding the winter holidays) is the only time you can get away, finding rooms available in Thailand that fit your taste and budget can be a challenge, especially if you find yourself planning a last-minute trip.  Laos doesn’t receive the same press that Thailand does or the hordes of other travelers to match, so you may have better luck finding accommodations.  If you find yourself traveling during the shoulder season, you’re also likely to find low season promotional deals in Laos.  Hotels in Thailand are less likely to offer deals because they have no trouble filling their rooms.

Looking across Luang Prabang from the Luang Prabang View Resort – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Elephant Experiences – Many people flock to Northern Thailand in order to fulfill the bucket list goal of spending time with elephants, and the best centers can become booked months in advance.  Travelers can also have incredible elephant experiences in Laos – check out our blog about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, where you can witness and interact with elephants in their natural environment.

A resident mother and calf at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The scenery: Thailand is famous for being picturesque but Laos is stunning – there is no getting around it.  Steep mountains covered in mist plunge into the mighty rivers carving their way through the jungle, and a wide variety of flower species and native butterflies call Laos home.   You’ll also find beautiful sunsets, small wooden villages, golden temples, verdant rice paddies and orange-robed monks.

Some of the many limestone pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Food: If your taste buds are craving an adventure, Laos may hold surprises in store for you including delicious local delicacies such as stuffed bamboo shoots or the famous Luang Prabang sausage.  As a legacy from their time as French colony, Laotians have retained a love of coffee shops and amazing French pasties, and I can never resist a good ‘pain au chocolat’.  Our favorite cooking class in Luang Prabang is the Tamarind Cooking School.  We always offer our guests a list of our favorite restaurants to provide a delicious and stress-free sampling of Laos’s culinary delights.

Sone enjoying a delicious desert at the Silk Road Cafe alongside the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Markets & Shopping: If you love to shop, you’ll love Luang Prabang.  The Night Market here is legendary and you can find excellent deals on incredible hand-made jewelry, fabrics, clothes, bowls, lamps, etc.  Laos is also renowned for the skill of the local master weavers. Be sure not to miss a trip to Ock Pop Tok, where you can learn how silk is made and watch the local artisans at work, creating their incredible pieces.  On my last trip, most of the gifts and souvenirs that I brought home for family, co-workers and friends came from Laos – this was where I found the most unique and meaningful gifts for the best prices.

Some of the beautiful handcrafted silk weavings made by the master artisans of Ock Pop Tok – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Festivals – If Loi Krathong has long graced your bucket list, you may be interested to learn that Laos has its own version – Awk Phansa, or the Festival of Lights. Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes.  The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions.  The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.  There are other Festivals throughout the year as well – check out our Festivals page for more information.

Haw Pha Bang near the Royal Palace – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spirituality – While you can find orange-robed monks and beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is particularly famous for having numerous historic temples, decorated with beautiful glass mosaics.  At dawn you can witness the ritual of alms-giving or you can partake in our Evening Chanting and Meditation tour.

One of the many beautiful glass mosaics in the temples around Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The local people – I’ve found the locals in Laos to be very warm and friendly, and I really felt that personal connection that the guide books boast of.  Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and a ‘Sabadee’ (hello).  I don’t speak more than two words of Laotian and I found that ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ was enough to make many new friends, and I never felt stressed or worried.  One example of the warmth I experienced here, was the impromptu Mekong Sunset Cruise and BBQ dinner I enjoyed with Onkeo, Anan, James and Pet.

Some locals live on their boats on the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

From the Ground: New Luang Prabang Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin,

 Luang Prabang is known for its many beautiful and historic temples, and for the hundreds of monks collecting alms around dawn each morning.  For guests who want to enrich their experience by stepping into Laos’ spiritual world, rising before dawn is no longer the only option.  We now offer a new evening mediation tour!  This tour makes an excellent add-on and can easily combined with any itinerary.   We find that our guests love the chance to learn more about the life of the local monks and participating in this activity will add to feeling of serenity and peace that accompanies spending time in Laos. Participating in this Chanting and Mediation tour also gives travelers the opportunity to help give back to the local community through the temple donation included.

Here’s what the new Evening Chanting and Meditation Tour looks like:

This evening, at approximately 5:30pm you will join your guide at Wat Nong Temple for the monks’ evening chanting and meditation. You will have the opportunity to absorb the sounds of the monks chanting as you take in the splendor of the gold stenciling and woodwork of Wat Nong, located in the heart of Luang Prabang’s old town. After chanting, the abbot of the temple will lead the monks in meditation. Your guide will help translate if needed for your introduction to their meditation practice. At the end of the session, you and your guide will give a donation offering to the temple before departing for dinner at a local Lao restaurant.

Laos summer “Green Season” hotel specials

By Courtney Ridgel

We love the ‘green season’ in Laos – particularly August. This time of year is considered a shoulder travel season so there are fewer travelers, the scenery is particularly lush this time of year, and the hotels tend to offer incredible deals. The Green or Rainy Season typically occurs through July, August, September and October, and low season hotel pricing in Laos is tends to run April – September. So – to catch the best of both the lush scenery and the low prices, we recommend traveling July – September.

Here are a few of the deals that hotels around Luang Prabang are offering over the 2017 Low Season:

Kiridara Hotel: Travelers visiting during this low season can expect to save around $30 per room per night compared to this year’s high season pricing, or save around $125 per night compared with peak season pricing.  The hotel also offers different promotional rates for guests that book at least a 4 night or 5 night stay, and they also offer a variety of ‘early-bird’ booking deals for guests that book 90 days, 60 days or 45 days in advance.

Kiridara Villa: Travelers visiting during the 2017 low season can expect to save around $100 per room per night, in comparison to booking the same room over high season.  When compared to this year’s peak season pricing, travelers can expect to save closer to $200 per room per night.  On top of that, this property is offering different promotional rates for guests that book at least a 3 night, 4 night or 5 night stay, and they also offer a variety of ‘early-bird’ booking deals for guests that book 90 days, 60 days or 45 days in advance.

Villa Maly: Travelers can expect to save around $100 – $135 per room per night, depending on the room type, if they travel over the 2017 green or low season, rather than over high season.

Luang Prabang View Hotel: Visitors to this property can expect to save around $45 – $60 per room per night during this low season, depending on the room type.

Sala Prabang: This property is offering ‘Stay 3 nights, pay for 2’, and ‘Stay  4 nights, pay for 3’ promotions through the end of September 2017.

Azerai Luang Prabang Hotel – This new property is offering travelers an average savings of $50-$80 per room per night this low season, compared to the 2017 high season rates.  This property also offers special deals for guests who plan a minimum of a three night stay.  Guests who book through Journeys Within may also receive special complimentary bonuses such as room upgrades (depending on availability) or massages.

Parasol Blanc HotelThis new boutique hotel is offering travelers savings of around $30 – $50 per room per night for stays during the 2017 low season.

Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo credit: Courtney Ridgel