Tag Archives: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang Escape

Back in November, as the traffic and curfews related to ASEM closed in on us here in Vientiane, and our workplaces closed for a few days, my friend Sam and I decided to escape the capital city for Luang Prabang.  As the country’s crown jewel of tourism, Luang Prabang has no shortage of things to do, but this was the fourth or fifth trip for both of us, so we already knew the usual temples and caves quite well.
LP scenery
So what did we do on this repeat visit to Luang Prabang?

1. Relax.  Although it’s the Luang Prabang cliche (and some apply it to the whole country), it really is “laid-back,” to quote every guidebook’s accurate assessment.  Despite the touristy-ness of some parts of Luang Prabang, especially the downtown, after a few days it was hard to think that I would actually have to leave and go back to work.  Massage, pool, coffee/cocktail/fruit shake by the river, afternoon reading on the bamboo porch  at the appropriately named Utopia restaurant.  After being here a few times, it’s an even better place to relax, without the self-imposed pressure to see as much as possible.

We weren't the only relaxed ones (at the bear rescue center).

We weren’t the only relaxed ones (at the bear rescue center).

2. Eat, drink. Our “must-eat” list was equal length as our “to-do” list upon arrival.  Northern Lao specialties like khai pen (dried riverweed) and sai oua (sausage), and the best French food in Laos, at L’Elephant.

3. Shop. No matter how many times I’ve been to the night market here, it’s always worth a perusal, though now with a more discerning eye.  We also rode out to the OckPopTock living crafts centre to watch weavers in action and get a glimpse at how traditional textiles are made, from silk worms to dyeing.
weaver
4. Follow the signs.  As neither of us had any specific things we wanted to do or see in the city, that left our time open to just following our whims.  We saw that the annual bamboo bridge, which is built temporarily over the Nam Kham river each year during the dry season, was almost finished, so we walked over it.  We saw signs for an ethnic fashion show and hip hop performance, so we sat and watched girls model sinhs transformed into pants, and young Lao guys break dancing.  We discovered that there was an ethnic museum and restaurant that neither of us had heard of in town and tasted Akha meatballs and Tai Leu salad.
bridge seating
bamboo bridge

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5. Revisit. Although both of us had been to Kuang Si waterfall before, we decided it was worth a revisit, but this time rented a motorbike to drive out there, rather than going with a tourist songataew.  It was a whole different experience.  While fighting off numbness caused by the 45 minute ride, instead of car sickness, there was much more to notice in the open air.  Trees opened up into rice paddies ringed with mountains, albino water buffalo crossed the road, and just after 4pm, the road was filled with kids of every age cycling home from school.  Coming from Vientiane, where the Toyota Vigo Hilux is king, or at least a Honda motorbike, it was amazing to see so many bicycles slowly moving across the pavement.
buffalo
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Sabaidee Luang Prabang

After a week in Vientiane, packed with the Falang Wedding, final classes, and some goodbyes, my mom and I traveled north to Luang Prabang–Laos’ most popular tourist destination.  Luang Prabang is a small city (about 100,000 people) north of Vientiane, nestled in mountains, and between to the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful surrounding countryside and quaint colonial architecture, and lately seems to have arisen on the tourist track, thanks to a lot of publicity as a gorgeous and “little-known” place to see.

Although Luang Prabang can at times feel like “Lao Disney”–a perfectly manicured town catering to tourists–it’s still a wonderful place to visit, and its reputation as a charming town is warranted.  The downtown peninsula between the rivers that makes up the main part of the touristed part of town is entirely walkable, with a main tourist drag plastered with tour agencies and an overwhelming night market.  Every possible type of Lao handicraft (and probably some imports from other generic Southeast Asian craft factories) is laid out on the street every night under florescent lights.

Downtown in Luang Prabang there’s not a lot to “do.”  Apart from shopping and dining, the town is largely about atmosphere: the tranquility of the streets, the temple spires rising above the low colonial buildings, stringy-looking chickens pecking around stoops where monks sweep leaves and sleepy street dogs nap.  Though Vientiane is quiet for an Asian capital, downtown Luang Prabang makes it seem bustling in comparison.  Laos’ best-preserved (and restored) temples are in Luang Prabang, and we spent the afternoon exploring Wat Xieng Thong and Mount Phousi.

If there is little to do in town, there is plenty to do in the surrounding countryside.  Nature is something I miss when spending extended periods of time in Vientiane (except for the occasional faint glimpse of mountains in the different, and the plethora of geckos living around our house).  One day, we took a tuk-tuk to the Pak Ou caves, which turned out to be a surprisingly long–1.5 hour–drive out of town.  Luang Prabang receded into the dust and we started to wonder where we were going, but finally we got to the village where the caves were located.  They turned out to be a somewhat disappointing handful of caverns with dusty Buddha statues (or maybe my standards for Buddha statues are just getting very high at this point), but the ride there and back, with an unannounced stop at a snake whiskey shop courtesy of our driver, was fairly entertaining.

The next day we left town again for the Elephant Village, a farm in the mountains that rescues former logging elephants.  Though Laos was once the “Land of a Million Elephants,” wild elephants in the country are becoming increasingly rare.  Many of the elephants in the country today work in the logging industry, which is an unforgiving job.  We spent a half day at the farm, with a one hour elephant ride. Most of the time we rode on the back, while the mahout guided the elephant, but at the end we got a chance to ride on the elephant’s neck.  This looked easy but was surprisingly challenging.  As soon as I sat down, the elephant decided it didn’t need to obey anymore and started to peruse the bushes nearby for a snack.  Once I finally got it moving, it was incredibly hard to hang on, with no handles but flapping ears, and its weight constantly shifting back and forth.

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Village Trek: A Walk to Remember

A few weeks ago for midterm break, I flew to Luang Prabang with my housemates Nanny and Alex to go on a two-day trek in the north.  The trek left from Luang Prabang, which is a fairly sizable city and popular tourist destination, but it crossed through areas of the Luang Prabang province that are still quite remote.  Previously, my only glimpse of the Laos beyond Vientiane was on the motorcycle trip, which opened my eyes to the majority of the country that is still rural and undeveloped.

We decided to go with a well-known ecotourism company here called Green Discovery.  The three of us were joined by five other hikers, all of whom were travelers from Europe or the US.  We had three guides, and each represented one of the ethnic groups in the areas that we would be passing through: Lao Loum (or lowland Lao people, who make up the majority), Khmu, and Hmong.  They provided us with information along the way, some practice speaking Lao, and translation with the local villagers.

Sunrise in Ban Ya Nang.

While learning Lao, I sometimes realize how obscure it is–there are few Lao speakers in the world, and I won’t get a chance to use it much when I leave.  However once we got into the villages, many people didn’t even speak Lao, instead speaking the language of their ethnic group.  Many of the children there learn Lao at school (if there is a school), but it’s still almost like a foreign language, and they may not ever read, write or speak it fluently.

Saying Hello in Laos:
Lao: sabaidee
Khmu: samailuh
Hmong:  nyaw zhong

On the first day, we were driven an hour further north on highway 13 (the road we took across the country on the motorcycle trip), where we began our trek.  The landscape took us gradually up, over hillsides covered in sticky rice paddies (which are dry, and not flooded, like lowland rice paddies) and through many, many streams.  Because it’s the rainy season, all of the streams were high, and my boots remained constantly damp.  The forest we crossed was mostly jungle, and we waded through water, heat, and clouds of mosquitoes, pushing through narrow and overgrown trails, which are only used by villagers and other trekkers.

We arrived before sundown at the village where we would spend the night–Ya Nang, a Khmu village only  about 40 miles (60 km) from Luang Prabang, but a world away in daily life.  As rural villages go, it seemed moderately well-off–there was a school, and two generators in town that provided electricity to some buildings.  Still, most of the people were farmers, and motorbikes and shops that sold packaged goods were almost nonexistent.  We washed off in the river, and then hung out near the house where we would stay, where it seemed as though all of the children in the village gathered to stare and play in the vicinity of the strange visiting falang.  

Although we could barely communicate, since most of them didn’t know Lao, they enjoyed smiling for our cameras and then swarming us to catch a glimpse of themselves in the photo.  Once they had gotten a bit braver, a big group decided to show off by standing and singing seemingly every song they had ever learned in school.  These were in Lao, so we were able to understand parts, and they all seemed to be educational songs about eating right and taking care of your health (see a video of the singing on Alex’s blog).  When night fell, the dancing began, as some older children pulled me up to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to teach me the lamvong, a traditional Lao dance, while singing along.

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On the second day, we continued to climb steeply, this time battling hoards of leeches on the wet leaves below, swaying around blindly until they found a warm foot or leg to attempt to latch onto.  When we finally rose above the leech-infested undergrowth we reached the higher-altitude Hmong villages.  These were a bit different than the Khmu villages we had visited the day before, both in language and style of house construction.  We stayed in one for a little over an hour, to eat lunch and walk around, before continuing on our way down the mountain.

Returning to Luang Prabang after only two days in the woods was a big contrast.  We got out of the bus on the main street, where the night market and happy hour crowds were just starting to pick up, and washed off all of the sweat and dirt before going out to dinner at one of the nicest French restaurants in town.  It amazed me how that morning I could be in a village, watching the children, many of whom had probably never traveled as far away from their homes as I was right now, and by nightfall I could be looking at a menu with foie gras and filet mignon on it.  It reminded me that the Laos that I know so well in Vientiane, where I have Joma, and some of the most privileged students in the country (in terms of both income and opportunity), is very different than much of the rest of the country.

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Lao Motorcycle Diaries, Part 3

Day 3-4: March 7-8

A misty morning looking out from Bangalow.

After a beautiful misty sunrise over the mountains in Ban Bangalow, we were ready to hit the road for the last big driving day, which would end in Luang Prabang.  But, sure enough, when we all started to pull out of the hotel parking area, my bike whirred, hummed, sputtered, and didn’t start.  We were at the top of a hill, so we tried the good old rolling start, to no avail.  Since nothing helped, we pushed the bike to the side of the road, in front of one of the last houses in the village.  The man outside said there was no mechanic there, but we could find one in Phoukoun, a few kilometers away.  Alex and I sat with the bikes and Denali drove on to bring back a repairman, and, just like last time, everyone in the village passed by in order to stare at the new arrivals.

It takes a village to repair a motorcycle.

Some small kids playing under the house took turns peeking at us and then erupting into giggles.  Eventually, they got brave enough to run from our hiding place and yell “goodbye!” (seemingly the only English they knew), and then retreat back to safety.  Finally, their parents decided that it was inappropriate for them to be playing with the falang and whisked them off to the next house with a scowl.  The villagers warmed up to us slowly and warily, but eventually accepted our presence and offered us stools to sit on, and watched us play cards with amusement.  Three hours, three back and forth trips by the mechanic, and one new sparkplug later, we were finally able to drive out of the village and on our way.

A look at the terrain on our last day of driving.

The driving on this final day was breathtaking, but extremely challenging.  Almost the whole day was winding switchbacks up and down the sides of the mountains.  The views of valleys, forests, and small villages were stunning, but we couldn’t spend too much time looking at them, or we’d risk falling off the mountain ourselves.  I found this out the hard way, late in the afternoon.

I was leading the way down some of the many winding mountains we traversed during the day, was momentarily distracted by people working in a stream on the side of the road…and the next second I knew I was sliding across the pavement.

We saw this sign many, many times.

My tire had hit a bump in the road, sent me off-balance as I was turning, and sent the bike and myself flying.  As I, stunned, tried to pick myself off the ground and hobble to the side of the road, the locals I had seen jumped into action, waving to stop an oncoming truck that was rounding the bend, and helping Alex and Denali move my bike to the side of the road.

It finally made sense why we had been sweltering in jeans, gloves and windbreakers the whole way.  I had scrapes and bruises, but nothing had broken the fabric, so they were much better than they would have been.  Alex and Denali, trained in wilderness first aid, were prepared to leap into action to treat my wounds, but the Lao woman who had been watching had other plans.  She disappeared into the brush on the side of the road and came back with a handful of leaves, which she ground to a pulp with a rock, and pressed onto my scrapes before any of us realized what was happening.  After a smile and a khop jai lai lai, she went back to her business, and I tentatively got back on the bike, to press on to Luang Prabang, herbal medicine securely bandaged on.

Small-town gas station.

After the numerous setbacks of the day, we were seriously behind schedule.  The sun was already beginning to set and we had many kilometers to go.  We tried to continue as quickly as we could, but the winding roads and the potholes kept us moving slowly, and soon it was dark.  We had purposely not driven at night earlier in the trip, and this last hour proved most harrowing.  At dusk, clouds of mosquitoes hit my face and eyes, but I couldn’t blink them away because I couldn’t look away for a moment.  The road seemed to deteriorate and potholes were many, sending many other reckless drivers into the wrong lane and into our path to avoid them.  The stretch of road seemed endless by the insufficient light of our single headlights.

Luang Prabang: a sigh of relief.

After an extremely tense ride, we finally, finally, pulled into the picturesque city of Luang Prabang.  The city is known for its monks, temples, colonial architecture, and relaxed atmosphere, and we gladly ditched the bikes outside our hotel for a walk around town.  We had just enough time in Luang Prabang to reflect on the trials and triumphs of our ride, enjoy some Western food, and wash the herbs out of my scrapes before we left.  The next day, after a walk around town, we boarded a flight at the tiny domestic terminal, and went back the way we had come, but this time it took only an hour.  To see more photos of the trip, click here.

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