Laos: Luang Prabang

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Asia » Laos » West » Luang Prabang
January 4th 2009
Published: January 13th 2009
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We arrived into Luang Prabang about 4pm (our plane had propellers! Gosh!) and went straight to the place we were staying. Thong Bay Guest house (pronounced Tong Bay… nothing to do with g-strings or jandals!) When we stepped onto the balcony of our bungalow, we were stunned with how beautiful the surroundings were. Our bungalow was about 10 mins out of town and the balcony - which soon became our favourite place to be - overlooked the large Nam Khan river; opposite us the banks were covered in a variety of local crops and all around were the very scenic mountains of northern Laos. The river, a very important source to all the locals, always had something interesting going on during our stay. Boatmen propelling their long boats down the river, children bathing in the water, women using the water for cooking, watering their crops on the riverside, monks swimming in their full orange garb! It was just a quiet, peaceful way to relax and get a real glimpse into the life of the local Laos people. That night we walked into town, taking a significantly longer route than necessary… on purpose of course…. um not. The night markets were just being set up so we strolled through dozens of stalls all stretched out under tarpaulin roofs. Basically the road they set up on is closed to vehicles each night at 5pm. There were some cool items, all of which were sold at every single stall you passed ;-) We then found the main street in Luang Prabang and got some great local dishes at a restaurant there.

The following day we got up early(ish) and went to see the Vat Xieng Thong - it is apparently the oldest Temple in Luang Prabang and actually all of Laos. It was interesting to see, though not one of the most spectacular we’ve ever been to. We then proceeded to walk back to town, got lost and ended up strolling way out in the opposite direction. Finding town again we stopped to have lunch and book our “VIP” bus to Vang Vieng in a few days time. We also booked tickets on the longtail boats to visit Pak Ou. By then it was early afternoon and we were in some definite need of relaxing on our deck back at the bungalows! We ordered dinner at the bungalow resort and they brought it to us on our balcony - score! That was the majority of our meals sorted for our time there ;-) The weather in Luang Prabang was generally quite hot during the day but got really cool at night and stayed cool in the mornings. A thick mist hung over the whole area until eventually being burnt off by midday - awesome, romantic and inspiring to see… but bloody hard to photograph!! It was near to impossible to catch the thick grey mist without it just looking like crap weather… which it wasn’t! The sky was clear, it was just this thick, syrupy, tangible mist… very cool.

The next day we headed into town on an early tuk tuk and and then walked down to the pier where there were loads of locals lined up in the river with their longtail boats. Finally we were under way, only about 6 people to each boat and headed off down the river. Our driver was a bit crazy, swerving at random (assumedly to stop others passing us - on a 40+metre wide river!) After a bit we pulled off to this old clunker of a boat on the side of the river, confused we had a good look at the boat wondering why we’d stopped…. When we saw it had 2 petrol pumps on board and we were stopping for fuel!! Ha ha… Caltex of the sea. The boat trip took about an hour and a half to get to the Pak Ou Cave. Did we mention they were slow boats? On the way the boat driver stopped us off at a small village on the riverside which sold a lot of the traditional Loas rice whisky. After a few quick shots of sweet rice wine and 50% white whisky (yuck!) we were back on board and travelling on the river again. The scenery along the river was probably all-in-all more exciting than the cave itself. It was pretty spectacular! The river is surrounded by mountains that are covered in the thick mist in the early morning. The crops and jungle surrounding the river is lush and green. It really is quite magical! At the Pak Ou Cave there is said to be 2000 buddha statutes and images inside the cave of varying styles, sizes and colours. It’s pretty cool. We then hiked up a whole lot of stairs to another cave, passing along the way dozens of gorgeous local children…. Who were trying to sell little birds in cages. We’re not quite sure of the significance (or whether there is one?) of setting birds free at the caves but that’s what they wanted…. “$1 sir, set bird free!” they all called out as they held out small birds in flax cages as you passed. And then there was this owl, which was 20 times larger than any other little bird someone had caught but squished in all upside down into a cage not bigger than the ones containing small sparrow-like birds…. ;-( We think they were supposed to be lucky and you made a wish when they set them free….. but of course then the little kids would just catch them again and sell them to the next tourists! We didn’t buy any little birds as we didn’t think it was the right kind of thing to be encouraging! But we did have a laugh with some of the very cute kids! We saw some little traps in trees when we were heading back down…. The trip back to town took about an hour, shorter because of the current. The scenery is quite breathtaking, you can imagine not much has changed there in the last 10+ centuries.

That afternoon we found these little stalls selling great French style baguettes and wicked fruit shakes, oreo shakes and thick Lao Coffee; the fruit shakes you just choose the glass of fruit you want, all sitting there prepared and then they chuck it straight in a blender with ice, talk about fresh - yum yum! After that first time we quite often went back to these 2 stalls and got drinks and baguettes, the Lao people there were so sweet!

The following day we had a leisurely morning then walked into town to find a tuk tuk to take us to Kuang Si waterfalls. Now, we were kind of in two minds about going to see the waterfall. A LOT of towns and villages around the world proclaim a nearby waterfall to be one of the best sights you’ll ever see, the biggest/greatest waterfall etc and so needless to say sometimes you are just a little disappointed……. However, we decided to make the trip out, convinced largely because of a bear sanctuary at the same spot, and found a tuk tuk driver who said he would take us out return for 40,000KIP each if he could find some other people to take out at the same time. Tuk tuks in Laos being anything from a few seats perched on the back of a motorbike to this particular type, being a small open-sided truck. We agreed and an hour later we joined two Portugese guys, a German guy and a Swedish couple to go out to the waterfall. It was about a half hour drive on the tuk tuk to Kuang Si. On arrival we first headed to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which was set up by the Australian “Free the Bears” charity. It is primarily run by volunteers and all the bears there have been confiscated from traffickers and poachers. The setting is really awesome and the bears are obviously well treated because they are constantly playing with tyres and in trees and ponds etc! No walking in circles with dazed looks on their faces!! (see Cesky Krumlov blog!) They are the small Asiatic black bears whose numbers are getting extremely low in the wild. They were pretty cool to see!

We then headed up in the general direction of the famed waterfall. The first we saw was a small waterfall flowing into the most beautiful pool of tranquil turquoise water surrounded by lush vegetation - we were quite awe-struck! It was absolutely stunning. There were signs up allowing swimming but of course, we had not brought our togs(“swimmers/bathers” to dodgy foreigners!)… bugger! We climbed further up and up the hill coming across pool after pool like this, it was absolutely beautiful. The waterfall basically falls into different levels all down the hillside creating these beautiful spots. The finale was reaching the waterfall itself which cascaded from about 60m high above. The whole area was gorgeous. We continued on and find rough steps cut into the clay up the side of the waterfall, we began the steep climb, and were pretty hot by the time we finally reached the top! From there you could walk right across the top of the waterfall, where the water had pooled at the top. We think we could only do this as it was the dry season, there would be far too much water/pressure in the wet season. We walked along the top along trees and rocks and found ourselves at the other side. There was a path in front and to the side, the side one - again rough steps cut into the clay - looked a bit more treacherous for climbing down so we decided to take the other path. Well, we set out and soon were wandering down a narrow path between tall plants, over hills, through paddocks and across fields. We saw no one else on the path, the scenery was spectacular once again, the sun was shining, it seemed like a great place to be and so we just kept on walking - a vast hill-top plateau full of birds and insects and fascinating plant life. After about 40 mins we found a fork in a suddenly dirt track, and decided since we’d largely been walking along flat ground we really should be heading downwards at some point and chose the steeper path down. Well, after quite a few minutes of wandering this path we started to wonder if we were completely lost! We were supposed to be meeting our tuk tuk driver by a certain time at the park entrance and we definitely felt as if we’d been walking too far and in the wrong direction….. but there was nothing to do except keep walking and hoped we would eventually end up on a main road where we could try to navigate a way home! Nevertheless, out of the blue, about half hour later, we popped out - to the immense and amused surprise of the local people - into a small village! There were three delightful kids who got up and ran with us, singing and clapping, they were so excited that these 2 dumb Pharangs(crazy white people) had come out of nowhere and ended up in their little village! ;-) They were so cute, so we played with them briefly and then found our way to the nearest tar-sealed road. From there we established where we were and hiked as quickly as we could back to the waterfall entrance making it in time for our ride home! Phew! The tuk tuk driver stopped off at a small Hmong village on the way back to Luang Prabang town. Here there were loads of cute kids trying to sell their wares, in very melodious chants “you can buy one from me! You can buy one from me!” or “You can have one 5000! You can have one 5000!” Phew, they really know how to sell, putting their cute little kids out to sell for the adults! Kuang Si was definitely worth the trip, we’d recommend it to anyone - just remember your togs!! ;-)

That night we had dinner on our balcony at sunset - Kristi had spring rolls and I had the staple food of Laos - called Laap (pronounced Larp - available in chicken, beef, pork or fish) - this was instantly a favourite - its basically minced up meat served with chives, fresh mint leaves and spring onion and a bucket load of chillies! The cool thing is even as the chillis kick your ass (and they so did!) the cool mint and cucmber cooled the burn - quite a culinary experience - LOVE IT! It was my most significant culinary epiphany yet- yummy!!
The following day we were immensely sad to be leaving Luang Prabang, it’s a great place to visit, to chill out, to wander the quaint streets, to visit the gorgeous Laos countryside. The Lao people are genuinely welcoming and friendly and always have a smile on their face. The people at the guest house were so sweet, we grew close to several of them in the short time we were there, and then they gave us bracelets and Kristi a silk scarf when we left… so lovely  ( and yes we were special… we saw plenty of others people leave and get nada - ha!)

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