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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.