Day 26-27: Luang Prabang, Laos

by - May 24, 2011

 Day One: Kuong Si Waterfall

After last night’s frantic arrival I didn’t really feel up to having an early start.  Fortunately I had two and a half days in the town, so was able to have the morning in bed and still spend the afternoon at one of the main sights.  I booked a day tour to the nearby waterfalls at Kuong Si.  I had been told that the tuk-tuk would leave at half 11, but arriving back at my hostel ten minutes early after a wander around town, I found that they were just leaving.  Luckily I managed to jump in, but the driver wouldn’t accept that I had already paid at the hostel - it was $4 but annoying nonetheless.

Bears at the sanctuary
I shared the tuk-tuk with a bunch of friendly English people who I would end up spending the day with.  The journey to the falls took about an hour and was a pleasant drive through the hilly Lao countryside.  Lots of people had made a day of it by cycling the 35km route that is described in Lonely Planet as a ‘gentle ride through rice paddies’, but actually included a whole of of hills - I’m glad that I took a tuk-tuk.  A village near to the waterfall had cashed in on its nearby attraction and set up a carpark and several shops, so we started off by browsing through these and picking up supplies.  I hadn’t realised that there was also a bear sanctuary at the waterfall and it was an added bonus to see some of the great Sun Bears and Malayan bears that were being looked after.  We arrived at the waterfall at about half 12 and had three hours in which to swim and explore.

Khong Si waterfall
Kuong Si Waterfall (and Luang Prabang itself for that matter) was full of ecotourists and hippies - to the point where I wander whether so many ecotourists can be sustainable.  The six of us non-hippie Brits headed for one of the more popular pools which had a rope swing and a place for diving.  It was a wonderful place to chill out and spent the afternoon out of the heat in the relatively cool waters.  I split my time between swimming, reading and exploring, though the latter activity was somewhat curtailed by the fear of walking alone in jungles that I have acquired since Singapore.

View over the Mekong from Luang Prabang
After three pleasant hours at the waterfall we made our way back to Luang Prabang.  The tuk-tuk ride took a slightly sour turn as a hornet found its way inside and stung Kim, a girl from Liverpool, in the thigh.  We all sat and watched as the swelling increased and having seen it later in the evening I can say that most of her upper leg is now huge.  I arrived back in Luang Prabang and realised that I hadn’t looked around the town yet, so after a quick wash and change into my freshly cleaned clothes, I went out for an explore.  The town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated on a hill at the confluence of the rivers Mekong and Nam Khan.  It is a fantastic setting and is by far the most chilled out place I have been.  It is also very classy, with french architecture and lots of expensive hotels and restaurants.  From what I have heard it is a real bubble though and doesn’t give much of an indication of the rest of Laos, which is one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world.  I visited the night market and met up with some of the people I had met in the day for dinner at the food stalls in the night market, and then drinks at the amazingly chilled and quirky 'Utopia’ bar.  When I got back to the hostel I found out why I had had confusion earlier on regarding the pick up times for the waterfall - it turns out that two trips to the falls had been booked, one at 20 past and one at half past and I got on the wrong one (but paid for both).  Just one of those things really and it was nice to know I hadn’t been ripped off.

Day Two: Elephant Riding and the Old Town

Me and Bungam
Back before the French arrived, Laos had been known as 'Lan Xang’, which translates as the 'Land of a Thousand Elephants’.  From what I have read it seems that humans have taken their toll on elephant numbers, but there are still enough left for elephant trekking to be an easily viable expedition from Luang Prabang, with tours ranging from half a day to over a week.  My tight schedule meant that I could only really afford to do a morning, but that seemed to be better than nothing.  I was picked up from the hostel and taken out into the countryside along with four Americans and two French girls.  The former group were a real pain - they had all just finished university and were heading off to become investment bankers.  They therefore dominated the conversation with economics and 'how much Goldman Sachs was making’.  The answer is probably an amount similar to the entire wealth of Laos, but that is another story.  They also referred to me as 'Australian guy’, which was further salt in the wound that was their company.  But anyway.

View from the neck
Having said that Luang Prabang is a bubble of relative prosperity, the elephant sanctuary was far enough away for the paved roads to run out.  It made me glad that I chose the 1 hour flight from Hanoi, rather than th 24 hour bus journey - even if it was far, far more expensive.  On arrival at the elephant sanctuary, after the rather bumpy journey, we were able to climb straight into the 'mahout’ - the wooden chair on the elephant’s back that serves as a saddle.  All of the others were in pairs, but I was able to have an elephant to myself (along with my guide).  My elephant was a 32 year old female called 'Bungam’ and I was soon able to take control as my guide jumped off to take photos.  I think that the Lord of the Rings has warped my appreciation of how big elephants actually are, but sitting on the animal’s neck I would keep having to remind myself that I was sitting on a living creature.

View over Luang Prabang
We trekked for about an hour and a half with the elephants - possibly not enough time to really get to know them, but enough time to get to appreciate them.  Mine was very docile, but the one behind was a bit temperamental so there was lots of stamping and snorting, which was interesting to see from the comfort of a distance, but probably not a lot of fun for the rider.  That said, it was all a real life experience and ranks up there with the best travel moments of my travelling career.  We arrived back at the hostel at about midday and I decided to have a siesta - the heat at midday means that taking a sleep is a pretty sensible idea in order to keep fresh.  My plan for the afternoon was to make sure that I explored Luang Prabang properly.  I started, after getting lunch, by climbing the Phu Si hill that is located in the middle of the town and climbing up to the temples at the top.  At night, in a city with a fairly sparse streetlight arrangement, the golden spire of the temple is lit up and seems to hover in the sky.  In the day the hill serves as a great look out point.

Temple at Phu Si
The temples were also pretty cool and there weren’t many people around beside the monks, who were playing traditional local music.  There was also a 'Buddha footprint’ at the site, but I was a bit skeptical considering that it was about 2 metres long - at no other stage of my travels had I been told that Buddha was a giant, or had hideously oversized feet.  My gentle amble through the old town, past the old French style houses and Lao temples took up most of the afternoon and after I had finished I found a restaurant with a view over the Mekong for me to have my last meal in Laos.  Walking along the river for a while, I found a slightly more isolated spot where they served traditional Mekong fish 'laap’ with sticky rice, which I ate along with Laos coffee and a view of the setting sun.  My trip to Laos wasn’t quite over yet - I still had another morning in Luang Prabang, but I was able to reflect that I had only just scratched the surface of the country and that another visit would be well worth it.

Sunset over the Mekong River

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