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Getting away: Driving to Luang Prabang

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Kunming resident Colin Flahive recently drove from the Spring City to Luang Prabang, Laos. His trip—through Mengla and the Mohan/Boten border crossing—provided culinary surprises on both sides of the border. If you have a story to share with GoKunming readers, please get in touch with us via our contact form.

The drive from Kunming to Luang Prabang takes about 16 to 20 hours under normal circumstances, so it is best divided into two days.

The border crossing, which lies about eight to 10 hours from Kunming, closes to foreigners at 5pm. Therefore, travelers planning on making it into Laos on the first day will need to get an early start.

There is, however, no need to rush across the border. The city of Mengla (勐腊) in Xishuangbanna prefecture, a 25-minute drive north of the border, is a great overnight stopping point.

Mengla's major draw is its Dai minority cuisine. One of the more adventurous culinary experiences can be had at Xiaomaocao (小猫草), a small family-owned, back-alley operation.

Some of Xiaomaocao's signature dishes include raw heirloom eggplant salad (凉拌茄子), banana flower pork soup (芭蕉花红烧肉) and sapie, a local specialty of seasoned ground beef eaten with raw greens (撒撇).

After crossing the border at Mohan (see more information about procedure and visas below) the drive to Luang Prabang is between eight and 10 hours.

After arriving in Luang Prabang and working one's way close to the banks of the Mekong River, the city's UNESCO World Heritage status becomes evident.

Quality accommodation options are plentiful and the city has some of South Asia's best shopping. The night market teems with interesting snacks, art and all sorts of souvenirs.

Luang Prabang has many Western dining options and it's easy to make the mistake of missing out on local delicacies. One of the best spots for eating and drinking is the elevated banks of the river, a beautiful spot to catch the sunset while sipping on cocktails.

Along the river, visitors will also find a row of restaurants with Lao hotpot, a unique hybrid of the Chinese style with open flames to grill seafood and meat. Ask the servers for help as the techniques involved take a bit of practice.

Other highlights in Luang Prabang include sunrise atop Wat Phu Si, a massage at one of the many spas, and hiking the Kouang Si Waterfalls 30 minutes south of town. For Kouang Si, be sure to pack a lunch, bring your swimsuit and be prepared for water fights.

Spending a day or two in Luang Namtha, located one and a half hours southwest of Mohan, is a pleasant stopover on the return trip to China. The road to Luang Namtha is in excellent condition because the Chinese government recently paid to have the route to Thailand repaved. It's a beautiful drive and a place where the benefits of having one's own vehicle are evident.

We parked our car at the Zuela Guesthouse just off of the main road, where the staff can provide visitors with a map of sites in and around Luang Namtha. Motorbikes are also available for rent.

The town of Luang Namtha has built a new town square just across the street from the guesthouse. It bustles at night and offers some of the finest delicacies in Laos.

This is the last chance to fill up on Lao food before the long drive back to Kunming. Along with a sampling of the unique cold dishes sold be street vendors, the whole rotisserie duck is not to be missed.

Travel information:
Roads: The highways in Yunnan are in good condition, but watch out for the speed cameras dotting the median—a 200 yuan fine awaits speeders. The road to Luang Prabang is in poor shape in some sections, but appears to be under repair.

Visa: Travelers from many countries can get a visa at the Mohan border crossing, but those wanting to err on the side of caution can get a visa ahead of time from the Laos consulate in Kunming, which has recently moved from inside the Camellia Hotel to Caiyun Bei Lu.

Border crossing: Travelers driving their own vehicle must register the vehicle on the second floor of the customs building where Chinese vehicle registrations are exchanged for temporary Lao ones. Chinese citizens are required to purchase malaria medication and mosquito repellent at the border.

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I'm interested in your experience because I am considering a similar 10-12 day trip in late December/early Jan. with my family (wife, two young adult sons). I live in Hong Kong, love Kunming, but have not travelled in Southern Yunnan or Northern Laos. My main questions are these: 1) if I am not bold enough to drive, do you recommend we hire a car, and if so, will we need to change drivers/cars at the border? 2) since we don't like to be on the move daily, what are the main places in Yunnan and Northern Laos, ending in Luang Prabang, that you would advise as a base for multi-day exploration? And if we have 10-12 days total, how much of this would you allocate to LP? Thanks. Ted

We must leave China to fulfill our Visa requirement by Aug. 18. We've driven to HeKou and walked across to Vietnam before. The Vietnam Visa cost 600 yuan iirc. (We'd pay for same day at the consulate in KM because we live in Dali, and that's cheaper than the cost of extra nights in KM to get a Visa not 'same day'.)

Does anyone know the cost of the Laos Visa for Americans at their border? Is this drive better/quicker than going to Vietnam? I've also heard that a new road has opened to Vietnam since our last trip (2006). Don't know whether that is true or not, either. It would be nice to see Xishuangbanna anyway.

@Colin no problems as a foreigner getting your car into Lao in regards to permits, drivers license etc? And how about the Lao police? Any trouble driving with Chinese plates?

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