Luang Prabang is a city tucked in between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan river, surrounded by forested mountains and full of temples. Our first morning there, we woke up feeling fresh and recovered from our two day boat journey, and eased ourselves out into the city. This was our first true destination in Laos, and we were excited.
We spent our first day in Luang Prabang walking through markets and exploring wats (temples) in the sunshine. One of the first thoughts we had was this: Luang Prabang has been discovered. The city is full of foreigners, and the town has adapted to them. Unfortunately, so have the prices. When we asked about the costs of various items in markets and guesthouses, we were almost always given the price in US dollars first. Now don’t get me wrong, the prices aren’t as high as, say, most of Europe. But to compare it to Vang Vieng, our current location in Laos, let’s compare motorbike rental costs: In Luang Prabang, it was 150,000 kip (about $18) for 24 hours, and in Vang Vieng the same bike is 60,000 (About $7). Of course, it’s hard to blame the residents of Luang Prabang for capitalizing on this influx of tourism. Wouldn’t we do the same back home?
The old wats scattered through the old part of the city are beautiful. There’s a certain sense of calm that permeates the grounds of the temples, and this is only heightened by the sight of silent, orange-robed monks walking by. The buildings are adorned with gold, mirror, and a multitude of colours and metal-work. When the sun hits them, they are radiantly beautiful. I especially like the shape and proportion of the roofs, which have a beautiful silhouette against the evening sky. I was inspired to do some sketching again, which I hadn’t made time for since Greece.
For dinner that night we went for a Lao BBQ at Lao Lao Garden. The restaurant is a very atmospheric, tiered garden set along one of the busier streets. Although there is a definite party atmosphere here, due partly to a large Beer Lao costing only $1.25, there is an eleven-thirty curfew in the city for all bars and restaurants, in an effort to maintain some sense of calm in the city. Still, we felt like we were in the thick of the nightlife here — our dinner was accompanied by a free shot of Lao whiskey (terrible, terrible stuff) and a bucket of beers. The BBQ itself was the highlight. The center of our table was removed and replaced with a ceramic bucket of hot coals. Over this was placed a kind of upside-down bowl with a gutter around the rim. Our server brought out plates of meat, vegetables, noodles, eggs, and a bowl of broth, and set to work showing us what to do. He filled the gutter with broth, into which he tucked noodles, vegetables and egg. The meat was laid over the bowl part, where it sizzled away in a mouth-watering fashion. As the various elements cooked to perfection, we removed and combined them in bowls to create a noodle soup. It was fantastic, and so much fun. We kept randomly running into other people that had been on the same slow boat as us as we ate, so even the company was interesting.
The next day we rented a motorbike and headed out of town. We rode 30 kilometers through some beautiful countryside to reach Tat Kuang Si, which is a series of waterfalls cascading through the jungle on the mountainside. We parked our bike near the food and souvenir stalls at the base, paid our admission fee, and started our walk up.
The first thing we came upon was a rescued bear sanctuary in the forest. Over a dozen Asiatic black bears (or Moon bears) were being housed here, mostly as a result of being saved from poachers or animal traffickers. The bears were so playful! They wrestled and chased each other around, they splashed and rolled in pools of water, they lolled on their backs and chewed sugarcane. They were healthy, happy looking bears. It was fun to watch them.
Next we reached the lower pools and cascades of the waterfall. Wow. I told Meghan that I felt like I was actually in one of those tropical desktop wallpaper photos. The water was a surreal turquoise blue colour, not exactly clear, but somehow clean and translucent at the same time. It poured from tier to tier over white-streaked limestone formations, forming deep pools where you could take a refreshing swim. The water was surprisingly cold. Hiking further, we reached the main falls. The jungle opened up to the sky, and the water plunged from above over even more intricate rock outcroppings. We followed the path up beside the falls and reached the top, where we waded knee deep through the cold water to peer over the top of the falls. It was otherworldly. After hiking back down, we put on our swimsuits and took a swim in the lower pools. I took a couple of turns on the rope swing. Meg almost did — she got as far as the ladder, then chickened out. So I went once more for her.
We drove back to Luang Prabang happy and tired. We intended to leave the next morning for Vang Vieng, but unfortunately we both woke up feeling quite sick. Meg was especially under the weather, and with cramps and gurgling stomachs we decided to take a sick day. We spent the day mostly reading and making trips to the washroom, and sleeping when possible. We woke up feeling improved enough the next day to make the journey, so we bid farewell to Luang Prabang and crossed our fingers that the bus ride would be smooth.