(As published in the July issue of Expat Parent)
Rusty runner Carolynne Dear flies to Laos to complete the most laid-back half-marathon of her career.
Seduced by a trip to a country I had never been to before and the promise of some great restaurants, interesting night markets and a massage, I bravely signed up for the Luang Prabang half marathon last summer.
After months of drawing up training schedules, discussing training schedules and occasionally actually getting out and actioning a training schedule, a group of us – all friends from Hong Kong but now living across Asia and Australia – nervously met at Chek Lap Kok one October morning, each clutching a pair of Asics running shoes and a Laos Lonely Planet guide.
First stop was Bangkok. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang – the options offered by Cathay were changes in Hanoi or the Thai capital. We opted for Bangkok and spent a night carb-loading and pretending not to drink alcohol (one beer couldn’t hurt, surely?) at the Hotel Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The next morning we were up bright and early and nervously sipping lattes at the breakfast bar. Too late now to regret not going on that final training run.
We jumped onto a two-hour Bangkok Airways flight to the Laotian capital, which afforded gorgeous views as it jetted over the hills of northern Thailand.
Walking across the baking apron to the airport terminal in the midday heat, I did wonder what I’d signed up for, but as we arrived at our boutique hotel, all fears temporarily evaporated at the site of a sparkling pool, landscaped gardens and a fabulous French colonial-inspired guest room.
Luang Prabang is variously described in the guidebooks as “languid and lovely”, “a unique place where time seems to stands still” and “a Unesco-protected gem… that has gained mythical status as a travellers’ Shangri-La”. It turned out to be all of those things and more.
Our gorgeous hotel, the Apsara Rive Droite, was located on the banks of the fast-flowing Nam Khan – Luang Prabang is at the sacred confluence of the Nam Khan and the mighty Mekong River.
The quickest way into town turned out to be on a tiny little motor-powered boat that spluttered against the current until it reached the opposite bank. It was quite a feat crawling in and out of the tiny vessel (particularly when you’ve just run 21kms), but it was also fun, and only broke down once during our visit.
The run itself is a relatively tiny event, organised by local volunteers, both Laotian and expat. There were just 17 participants registered in my category, five in another, which meant that some of us were guaranteed a podium position before we’d even started – not something we could say about most other running events we’d attended.
This year, monies raised are going towards Friends Without A Border, a non-profit organisation committed to providing free healthcare to children. Last year it built and opened a hospital in Luang Prabang, the Lao Friends Hospital for children, which has so far treated over 15,000 children.
There are three run distance options, as the course cleverly weaves through the town in 7km loops. Some of our group ran just one loop, some did 14km, but I had committed to 21km. We began at 6am after a cool and cloudy night, so conditions weren’t as hot as I had been fearing.
The course took us past crowds of cheering school children, bar owners proffering trays of drinks, beautiful old buildings and the swirling waters of the Nam Khan. It was hugely enjoyable with a really local vibe. It felt as if the whole town had turned out for the event, with middle-aged expat ladies frantically re-directing rickshaws and shop owners touting their wares on the roadside. There were gentle inclines and downward slopes to break the monotony and all in all it was a pleasure to run.
A couple of hours later we crawled back onto our river boat and were met on the other side by our cheery hotel manager. A beautiful al fresco breakfast table had been laid out for us overlooking the pool, with warm Laotian omelettes, baskets of French pastries, and yummy homemade papaya jam.
Later that morning and after a short snooze, the hotel arranged a car to take us up to the dramatic, menthol-coloured waterfalls of Tat Kuang Si.
We enjoyed lunch back in town at the Victoria Hotel overlooking the Mekong River and then it was time for our well deserved massages at the Dhammada spa.
That evening we staggered back across the Nam Khan for a delicious “mod Lao” dinner at chic eatery Tamarind and a wander around the Handicraft Night Market. When you’ve been used to haggling cut-throat discounts on Temple Street, the Laotian stallholders are positively dreamy in comparison – I had to patiently explain to one young girl that she had given me too much change.
But it’s a very gentle, sleepy town overall. Life ambles its way calmly along the dusty streets, the food was fabulous (and amazing value) and the locals very friendly. And the town’s Indochinese architecture is entirely deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
There was just time the following morning to quietly regard the monks taking alms at sunrise and then we were back on a flight to Bangkok.
Luang Prabang is one of those unusual places that lives up to expectations and to all that is written about it in guides and brochures. I might have been cursing having to change flights initially, but part of me hopes this stunning town stays off the well-beaten tourist trail a while longer. It is absolutely charming and I shall definitely be back – possibly without my Asics next time though.
This year’s half marathon takes place on Sunday Oct 23. Sign up at luangprabanghalfmarathon.com.
Monies raised this year will be going towards the Lao Friends Hospital for Children, fwab.org.
The Apsara Rive Droite boutique hotel can be contacted at theapsara.com.
Bangkok Airways flies from Hanoi and Bangkok to Luang Prabang, bangkokair.com.
Laotian restaurant Tamarind can be booked at tamarindlaos.com.
The Victoria XiengThong Palace Hotel can be contacted at xiengthongpalace.com.
The Dhammada is among one of the best massage spas in town, dhammada.com.