Originally our plan was to travel from Cambodia to Laos overland, visit the 4000 islands and see the south of the country along the way. After spending so much time on various types of buses around Cambodia we decided that enough was enough and we could do without relaxing on islands in the Mekong. Instead, we booked our first flight since the beginning of December from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. This also meant leaving out Vientiane and Vang Vieng.
Getting the Laos visa was straight forward and simple. The counter has a price list for every country but they add $1 service charge per person. From what we heard in the past, travellers only had to pay this for them to scan the passport photo, if people could not provide a photo.
When our taxi turned around the corner into the high street we immediatelly liked it. The street was lined with small shops, bars and restaurants all with some lanterns or mood lighting outside and people wandering around. The whole atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly.
We spent our first days and two evenings in the town catching up with our friend (Matthias fairly normal twin) and his friend Janna. For dinner we tasted some local food at the night market. At the souwthern end of temporary walking street is a row of food stalls which serve pretty much everything you might want: local dishes, baguetts, crepes and the ubiquitous fried rice or noodles. The atmosphere is relaxed prices very reasonable. During our time here we ate there every day. Shakes are not only available with fruits but also with oreos, nutella or whisky. Laos also seemed to be obsessed with avocado. On two pages of sandwich choice (which all come in baguettes) at least half of them come with this tropical fruit. If you really want to go crazy you can even combine them with nutella.
The next day we rented two scooters between the four of us, and drove to Kuang Si waterfall located 30km south of Luang Prabang. The roads were good and so we reached our destination after roughly an hour. Before you get in to the Kuang Si nature park there were loads of stalls and street food options. Just after the gates was a bear protection center with a group of moon bears which were playing around. We and Ted spent some time watching them and enjoying how active and seemingly happy they were. After a short walk we got to the bottom of the chain of waterfalls were the river flows through a number of turquoise pools with small cascades inbetween. Just upstream of them is the small Kuang Si waterfall which, overall, is maybe 5m in multiple steps. This area was full of tourists and quite crowded. People bathed in the pools, had picnics or took hundreds of photos (selfies). As always, the Chinese stood out; not just because of their numbers, but also because they ignored all the signs and did exactly what they were told not to. There are reasons why you should stay away from certain parts of the waterfalls but getting a special selfie was evidently more important and caused sporadic illiteracy.
We ignored all the crowds and kept on walking. From the first pools the bridge right beneath the big waterfall it is only a relaxed 500m walk. There were a few pools with bathing/swimming opportunities along the way.
When we got to the bridge we were wowed by the impressive waterfall. The river drops down maybe 25m and despite the dry season was a view to behold. Quite understandably and rightly this spot is super popular. It is also the end of most peoples visit to the falls. If you have time (maybe got there with your own transport) and don’t mind some exercise you should keep walking. We hiked up to the top of the waterfall where we found some great views over the surounding tree tops in the valley. You can go on a bamboo boat ride to the source of the river, or go on a swing over the water. Slightly away from the edge we found a nice and quiet swimming spot and dived into the refreshingly cool water. What our friends had not done yet was walking to the spring restaurant and cave about 2km away. The walk was lovely under shady trees and the restaurant setting was very nice, but the cave was disappointing and only a hole in the rockface.
We had a jolly good day around the waterfall and really enjoyed the walking around. On the way out we tried a saussage and some chicken from the street barbeques and stopped at the roadside stall of a buffalo farm for some ice cream. It was not the cheapest ice cream but the scoops were big and the cream very tasty. They featured some interesting flavours like black sesame, lemongrass or rosella (hisbiscus) beside the usual suspects.
For the evening program our friends found a silent movie screening of a 1922 film called ‘Chang’ (Lao for elephant) about a family living in the border area beteen Laos and Thailand. The movie was about their struggle to protect their small jungle farm from predators like leopards but also elephants. We saw them hunting with traps and snares and an entire village capturing half of a big elephant herd after the protagonist’s farm was destroyed by a mother elephant rescuing her baby. Reading the filmmakers comments about how the jungle always resists mens advances and will never be ultimately defeated left a sour taste considering how much of it had been irrevocably lost in the last decades. After the film we were all hungry and decided to walk down to the river and visit one of the restuarants lining the Mekong. The food was good even if the waitress owner was a little grumpy.
Sadly our friends had to leave the next day so we were back to only eachothers company and decided to spend the day sightseeing.
Our first target was Phou Si mountain. It is the highest point of Luang Prabang and offers great views. Making your way up is easy via good stairs. The top is adorned with numerous temples and buddha statues. One small shrine coveres a footprint of buddha which is nearly 1.5m long and half a meter deep imprinted into the rock. Nearby is also a big golden reclining buddha. To get to the temple at the very top visitors have to pay 20,000 Riel but it is definitely worth it.
At lunch time we walked back down to the national museum which is housed in the former royal palace. The most impressive sight in the grounds is the recently restored Haw Pha Bang temple with its elaborate gold leaf decoration. We both fancied some culture and so we bought two theater tickets for the same evening. The phalak-phalam or royal theater was perfoming a section of a classic hindu story. The show was just over one hour plus some dances before and after. We read the story before and were surprised that apart from three songs there was no vocal story-telling by the actors. The custumes were very elaborate (for the godly and royal characters). Their dancing style was new to us; without fast or wild body movements but with a lot of gesturing and hand moving. Overall we enjoyed the show, which was accompanied by a small orchestra.
The next morning we visited the traditional arts and ethongraphic center (TAEC). Within the three rooms the displayed a diverse and exquisite exhibition about three minorities and their typical dress style. They also offer crafting courses and handicrafts in support of local artisans. Zoë really wanted to learn more about it and so we signed ourself up to an embroidery class.
Because the day was very hot, we took it easy and spent the midday hours in a bakery enjoying some long overdue coffee and cake. In the evening we went to a drop-in session at the Big Brother Mouse, an initiative working to improve literacy rates by supplying children with books and pens as well as opportunities to practice and improve their English. Every weekday morning and evening they hold drop-in practice sessions where expats or tourists can talk to the locals, learn more about country and culture and help them practise their English. We went there twice; the first time there were at least 50 people both foreigners and locals. It seemed that the Lao are very keen and educaton is important to them. Visitors come from all backgrounds. There were highschool students, adults and also some monks. Those who want to do more than that can go on a day trip to nearby villages and play games and talk to natives there.
Following the recommendation of another traveller in our hostel we went the next day to see the UXO visitor center. Lao PDR (peoples democratic republic) bears the unglorious titles of not only being the most heavily bombarded country on earth, but also having the highest number of unexploded ordanance. Beside the displayed remnants of bombs, guns and various types of grenades, we watched a well made movie highlighting the impact of these items on the local day-to-day lives.
We decided to also make another meaningful contribution to the locals and went to donate blood. The ‘blood drive’ took place in @myLibrary; a small library with internet café and a good reputation of hands on training of locals and activities. The blood donation was organised together with the local hospital and the red cross. We turned up two hours after it started and were number 20 and 22 on the list so the turnout seemed to be rather good. The staff collecting the blood and checking us seemed to be doctors from the hospital and very professional. Unlike donations in the UK we did not get tea and coffee but received an even better deal: we got two drinks and some sweets each plus a buy-one-get-one-free voucher for Saffron artisan café, a 20% discount offer for elephant tours and a free sunset cruise with SaSa Cruise. Not to mention the free T-shirt. Everything went seamlessly and trouble free and soon after we found ourselves in the café enjoying two amazing iced mochas. Saffron prides itself with supporting and educating local coffee farmers thus contributing a lot to local communities. They introduced robusta coffee beans to Northern Laos, providing an alternative cash crop to opium or ampetamines. Their coffee is really good and their cakes too.
Around 4pm we headed to the meeting point for the cruise. A young and energetic French man called Adrian welcomed us and signed us up for the boat trip. We created some confusion when they found out that the blood-people were using his free cruise offer to everybody who donated (only at the library; not in the hospital) rather than using it as a last incentive for indecisive candidates. Regardless of this we sat down enjoying a cold beer and Mekong river views until boarding the ship.
The sunset cruise was lovely and relaxing. Our captain drove upstream past fields and houses on the river banks before turning around. After passing Luang Prabang we continued downstream for another few kilometers while enjoying our delicious complimentary mojitos. As a small snack we ordered some of the bbq skewers which were freshly cooked on board and tasted delicious. Two hours boating later we were back on dry land for proper dinner before walking to our new accommodation.
Our main activity for our last full day in Luang Prabang was an embroidery class in the TAEC together with a short museum tour. We were the only people plus one TAEC employee and one teacher. The tour was disappointingly short and we did not learn anything we didn’t already know from our first visit. For the embroidery part we got shown a selection of different patterns to chose one to recreate. All consited of cross-stitches on special material with big holes to make it easier. Coincidently we both chose the same pattern but opted for different colours. After a quick introduction we were away with the needles. Zoë with her knowledge and previous sewing experience was faster and better while Matthias ended up with some mistakes in the pattern (counting stitches correctly is definitely advantageous). About two and a half hours later our time was up and the teacher had to leave. It felt to us like she never did very much apart from helping Matthias and stringing thread on needles for us. We had hoped for more than learning cross stitches and being watched doing them for 2 hours when we signed up for the class. At least we continued in a café for a bit afterwards before turning our focus towards future travel plans.
The next day we got up early for our bus to Nong Khiaw which turned up so as we sat down for breakfast. It was sandwiches up the bus then; but not before Matthias raced back from the bus station to the guesthouse in a tuk tuk retrieve the bag of shoes he forgot.