Hidden gems down a dark alley

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Daylight. Another morning waking up to a new city and a new start. There are roads to wander down, new neighborhoods to get lost in, and a new world to discover. The events of yesterday’s unexpectedly laborious bus travel already feel like they unfolded chapters ago. We are in Luang Prabang- what many have professed to be the jewel of SE Asia. A well buried jewel if it is- because getting here is one hell of a process.

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We arrived at 10:30 last night to a bus station 4 or 5 kilometers outside of the center. We found ourselves along a straight, flat road bright with neon lights. Jarring, repetitive beats from house style music emanated from the line of night clubs that the bus station was sandwiched around. We had been scheduled to arrive at 4pm and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We had no plans, no reservations, and no idea what part of the city we were in.

Arriving late is always a pain for me and I try to avoid it. It’s too late to wander aimlessly and the hoards of people hawking their guesthouses know you are at their mercy. They envelop you as you groggily climb off the bus. They stuff signs into your face showing pictures of beautifully clean and perfect hotel suites that were either printed off the Marriott website, or taken 15 years ago when the guesthouse was still new and free of bed bugs. Go with a guesthouse sold to you late at night from a bus station, and you have a high chance of being very surprised with your accommodations upon arrival.

A man presented a map to us showing how close his guesthouse was to the center. I was ready to sharply suggest where he put his map, but Dave managed to quiet my annoyance and patiently begin the interview process. The price was right. The tuk-tuk driver accepted our negotiated price, and we took our chances. One night, no matter how bad the room would be… One night is something we could deal with.

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The tuk tuk pulled into a dark, narrow alleyway and dropped us off at the very end. A pile of brick and wood debris blocked any view of the grounds beyond. The room, shared a wall with the lobby. It was small with a wet cave for a bathroom, but it was clean and free of insects. We were satisfied with the gamble we took and promptly fell asleep for ten hours.

The next morning we set out to see if we could find a better place. I was having visions of a balcony on the river and hoped we might find something at least reminiscent of this daydream. But to my dismay, costs tripled as we walked closer to the center. We walked back to our little room hidden down the alley, and abruptly realized that there were riverfront rooms with sunny balconies on the other side of the same building. Why we hadn’t thought to ask about the other side of the building is beyond me.

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We upgraded- splurging $2 more per night for the added luxury of private outdoor space, wooden lounge chairs, and a river view. The view is extraordinary- it is something that people like us could simply not afford elsewhere.

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It is the luck of the draw to find a guesthouse that is yet to be discovered, and yet to be printed in a guidebook (where its accessibility for the budget traveler will surely become obsolete). This is undoubtedly the future of this place. But for now, this room is ours. I’ll entertain myself with the passing boats, the kids swimming each afternoon on the opposite shore, and the evening twinkle lights that shine along the distant riverfront walkway. This is the unadorned freedom of long term travel- the flexibility to stumble upon a place, and decide to stay.

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