A Taste of Laos – March 16 – 23

As our flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia descended into Luang Prabang, Laos, the setting sun quickly disappeared behind a cloud of thick smoke. March marks the beginning of “fire season” in Laos, a time when smoke from slash and burn agriculture blankets the sky. Despite the haze, we spent three wonderful days in Luang Prabang, a town which might just be the most beautiful, laid back place that we’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

Smoky Luang Prabang

Smoky Luang Prabang

Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang’s old quarter sits on a small peninsula framed by lush hillsides. The old quarter itself is full of quiet streets and even quieter lanes which are bounded by Buddhist temples and French-colonial villas. At dawn, novice monks line the streets to receive alms and, at night, a colourful market takes over the main street. Entire afternoons can be spent sipping iced coffee at riverside cafés. Evenings, meanwhile, can be spent relaxing with a beer on a tree-covered patio as a group of amateur musicians play cover songs. Luang Prabang is by no means a party city – by law, all bars must close at 11:30pm so that people can return to their homes (or guesthouses) before the midnight curfew. With a population of only about 65 thousand, the atmosphere in Luang Prabang is truly unique. Moreover, even though plenty of tourists are drawn to this charming town, Luang Prabang never felt too touristy – unlike many other cities and towns throughout Asia, we never felt bothered by vendors, touts or tuk tuk drivers.

Pretty Luang Prabang

Pretty Luang Prabang

A bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan

A bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan

Monks receiving alms

Monks receiving alms

Night Market

Night Market

Admittedly, most of our time in Luang Prabang was spent roaming around at a very leisurely pace, leaving plenty of time for a fruit smoothie or a massage. That said, we were sure to visit at least a couple of the thirty-three Buddhist temples located throughout the town.

A Wat (aka temple)

A Wat (aka temple)

Another Wat

Another Wat

Covered shoulders and knees for temple touring

Covered shoulders and knees for temple touring

From Luang Prabang we also rented a scooter to visit the Kuang Si waterfalls. Although we were treated to some nice landscapes on our 32km ride to Kuang Si, the waterfalls themselves were unquestionably the highlight of our day. With several turquoise pools fed by multilayered cascades, the scenery just kept getting better and better as we made our way along the footpath to the largest waterfall. After a short walk, we made our way back to our choice pool and jumped in. The temperature of the water (which was not too warm, but not too cold) was the perfect way to cool down after an hour-long ride under the hot sun.

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

The big one

The big one

While in Luang Prabang we also booked at two day / one night excursion into the surrounding countryside and hill-tribe villages. On the first day of the excursion, our guide Khit led our group of five on a six-hour hike through the forests and three indigenous villages (two Khamu and one Hmong). The scenery along the way was incredibly diverse as the landscape switched between bone-dry fields and thick forests. Each stop in the three villages was also great – the children in particular seemed pretty excited by our arrival, calling out “sabai dee” (hello in Laos) whenever we passed by. Of course these children had seen tourists before, but their excitement and interest appeared quite genuine. Moreover, we weren’t hassled by anyone to buy handicrafts! Ultimately, this experience seemed much more authentic than our hill-tribe village hike outside of Sapa, Vietnam (where we were literally followed for hours by women trying to sell us their crafts).

Scenery along the way

Scenery along the way

Slash and burn agriculture

Slash and burn agriculture

Lush forests along the way

Lush forests along the way

Hmong children

Hmong children

Definitely not camera shy

Definitely not camera shy

Our group of five ate dinner and overnighted with a family in the third village. The accommodation was definitely basic, but we were the only tourists in the village that night.

Village where we spent the night

Village where we spent the night

Maybe the best toilet in the village!

Maybe the best toilet in the village!

After breakfast the following morning, we hiked another hour and a half to the spot where we would set off on our elephant ride. Unfortunately, the elephant ride lasted less than an hour and we only went around in a small circle (we assumed that we would be taking the elephant from point A to B as part of the overall trek). Nevertheless, it was a cool experience to ride and then feed some bananas to these enormous creatures.

Yee-haw! - but slower

Yee-haw! – but slower

They love bananas!

They love bananas!

After the elephant ride, we jumped into kayaks and paddled our way down the Nam Khan river back to Luang Prabang. Although most of the four-hour paddle was pretty clam, there were a few rapids along the way. At one point we reached a section of the river that was completely whitewater due to a partial dam that was installed for a new bridge. Khit (our guide) noted that the dam was new and the river wasn’t nearly as rough the week before, but after surveying the rapids, we all decided to give it a go. Two of the tandem kayaks (including ours) made it through the rapids no problem, but the last kayak flipped over, sending its two occupants crashing into the river. Once we realized that nobody was injured, we all had a good laugh. All in all, we were really pleased with the hiking and kayaking parts of our two day trip into the countryside. The tour operator that we used (Tiger Trail) had an excellent relationship with the local villagers and truly seemed committed to supporting community-based, responsible tours.

Nothing beats a good hike

Nothing beats a good hike

From Luang Prabang we set off on a two day slow-boat trip down the Mekong River that would ultimately end at the Thai border. While the scenery was nice, two seven-hour days on the boat was a bit much. That said, there weren’t too many other viable transportation options to reach Thailand. So we did our best to pass the time by reading and playing cards. After the first day, we spent the night in a town called Pakbeng which seemed to be little more than a cluster of budget hotels and restaurants, conveniently located halfway between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. Once we reached the Laos border town Huay Xuai on the second day, we immediately crossed into Thailand – this way we could take the first bus in the morning further west to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

Cruising the Mekong

Cruising the Mekong

Scenery along our slow boat ride

Scenery along our slow boat ride

Our last look at Laos

Our last look at Laos

Our time in Laos, which amounted to only a week in the end, was far too brief. Our two day hike / kayak outside of Luang Prabang really offered only a taste of how fantastic a longer trip into the countryside could be – we definitely left Laos with the impression that it would be fairly easy to find yourself in a place well off the tourist trail. So many of these places, however, are so remote that travelling there can be painfully slow. Thus with only about one month left to spend in Southeast Asia, we figured it would be just as well to head on to Thailand.

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2 responses to “A Taste of Laos – March 16 – 23

  1. So glad you two had the opportunity to head to Laos, it was one of our favourite places in Asia! So laid back and beautiful. No mention of Beer Laos though??? 🙂

  2. It is a good thing the trip is coming to end, as their are no words left to describe the incredible adventure you are on. I can only imagine, could thing your detailed stories leave room for little imagination. !!! Cute kids, I guess I shouldn’t complain about our outhouse.

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