The 12-hour bus from Houay Xai left me dazed as we were stirred to wake by the bus driver. It wasn’t a smooth ride for the sharp twists and turns of the road made me dizzy. The supposedly air-conditioning system of the bus wasn’t working. We spent one whole day crossing the Thailand-Laos border and we were dead tired. My eyes adjusted to the early morning light as I climbed down the steps. Daylight was creeping into the town as we started the walk to our home in Luang Prabang.
It was a warm summer morning and the streets were close to empty. We ditched the offers of the tuk tuk drivers to bring us to our resort so as to save a few bucks for our two-month backpacking trip around Southeast Asia; with our heavy backpacks dragging us on our two-kilometer stroll we carried on.
We spotted a procession of men garbed in orange robes as we arrived at the resort; it was the traditional alms-giving ceremony for the monks. It was six in the morning and it was too early to check-in but Le Vang Bua Villa gladly accepted us and ushered us to our room for four days.
It was our first time in the Land of the Million Elephants and with three weeks to spare, we’re totally not in a hurry. Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos and was placed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 under the category of World Heritage City, the first one in the whole of Laos.
Our first day was spent inside our room getting some much needed rest for this last leg of our trip. Simultaneously, people all over the world were glued on their TV sets watching the Pacquiao-Mayweather boxing fight. We had it on our TV and watched as our country’s pride lost via unanimous decision. We slept the whole afternoon feeling the grief and exhaustion.
|Crossing the Nam Khan River|
We passed by an old bridge that were only used by motorcycles and bicycles. There’s a walkway for pedestrians and you could literally feel the shaky state of the old bridge. As we’re trying to balance ourselves, we’re taken aback by the rural sceneries; Nam Khan River with its almost dried up streams and the verdant greeneries were highlighted by the late afternoon sun that was almost ending its day.
We exchanged our Thai Bahts and US Dollars to Lao Kip on a money exchange somewhere. The rates were competitive all around at 807,000 Kip = US$ 100. Bear in mind that you have to estimate your spending very well for you couldn’t exchange your Kip outside Laos.
We then checked out the restaurants and small eateries in town but were surprised on the price ranges. A decent meal will get you two full meals in Thailand. Also, there were no international fast food chains everywhere in Laos. Our almost depleted funds was a major problem at this point.
We roamed around and chanced upon the Night Bazaar being set up along Sisavangvong Road. We window-shopped a bit and ended on hawker food stalls at the far end of the road. We grabbed something to eat (the cheapest one) and then followed it through with some bottles of Beer Lao (10,000 Kip | US$ 1.24). Upon knowing that we’re Filipinos, everyone was expressing their disappointment on the recent loss of Pacquiao. They were all saying that they’re rooting for him because they consider him as Lao and because he's a nice guy. We consoled them. Yes, it was us consoling them, not the other way around. These stories went on all around Laos while we were there.
We devoted the next three days on exploring the town with our free bikes from the resort. We visited the heritage city of Luang Prabang and the breathtaking Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Hearing that Kuang Si Waterfalls is one of the must-see spots outside the city, we dedicated half a day on visiting this site. Booking on travel agencies around town may cost you big bucks so we ended up haggling with songthaews outside the tourist information center. Luckily, there was a songthaew heading to the same direction with four other tourists. We got the round trip ride for 30,000 Kip each (US$ 3.72). A German couple kept us busy during the ride. Stories about world travels and stuff dominated our chit-chats.
|Lower tiers of Kuang Si Waterfalls|
The pathway leading to the waterfalls will pass by a bear shelter. I don’t like seeing animals in captivity but well, it was good of them to take care of these not-so-cute-as-teddy-bear giants.
We got into the falls and trekked all the way up to the main tier. Upon reaching the topmost part, I was amazed on the turquoise bluish water that falls from the 50-meter drop of the main waterfall. It was breathtaking and this was by far the best one I’ve seen.
There were some areas dedicated for swimming. With the intense summer heat around Laos, people flocked on the natural pools and tree shades from the streams. Water is my element, and as my buddy was busy taking hundreds of beautiful photos I quickly stripped off and jumped into the refreshing cool water. The dip lasted for hours, as expected.
We went back to town and continued our bicycle explorations. The Mekong River and Nam Khan River surrounded the city. Traditional Lao houses and traces of French-inspired architecture lined the narrow streets and alleys. Buddhist temples dotted the whole city. Lush greeneries and tropical flowers gave a rural feel to it. Along the banks of Mekong were restaurants that offered a nice sunset view. We combed the alleys in search for a legit Lao neighborhood, but to no avail.
We were quite disappointed on the influx of tourists and tourism industry itself on this seemingly quiet town. Almost every house was already turned into a guest house or boutique shop. Tuk tuk drivers usually swarm the tourists for day tours and stuff. We were upset for it felt like the whole place was transformed into a big museum where there were more tourists than locals roaming around the city. So we went further and looked for a quiet spot, away from the crowd.
Our food hunt was also a big fail. It was so hard to look for a cheap place to grab a bite, cheap in Southeast Asian standards. It was written on some website that Luang Prabang has one of the must-see street food markets in Southeast Asia which I have to disagree. Almost everything was boring and relatively pricey. It saddened me for I thought that our budget for our three-week adventure in Laos would suffice with the luxuries of beer sesh and all. So we always settled for the cheapest grilled stuff and sticky rice every meal, which was just okay. There was once a peddler who’s selling French baguette with veggies and meat fillings; that was just the remarkable foodstuff we had in town. Even bottled water was expensive here and restaurants don’t usually offer service water. We brought water bottles with us everywhere and refilled it on our resort’s restaurant to save some money.
During those four days, we ended up hanging out along the banks of Mekong and Nam Khan while watching Lao people’s day-to-day activities. We met nice people who considered as one of them for they really care about their Southeast Asian neighbors which felt really good.
Beer nights were usually spent on the private balcony of our room. There’s a strict curfew in Luang Prabang and at exactly 11:30 pm, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol drinks were closed. Backpackers usually head outside the town and party at the Bowling Alley after the curfew (prevalent around the major towns in Laos).
The morning market is also one of the visited spots in town. We spotted some quirky stuff like crickets and frogs. I have to say that Luang Prabang, being a touristy town, can be expensive, again, in Southeast Asian standards.
If you want a quiet time in Luang Prabang, just go to the other side of Nam Khan River where small local communities were located. We had a leisure bike there one morning and were captivated on the complete seclusion of the area. We also had fun time chilling along the banks of Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
During the course of our stay, we felt safe even when we’re staying up late chugging bottles and bottles of Beer Lao. People were generally friendly and helpful in spite of the language barrier. I just wished that the charm of the whole town, with its rich cultural traditions, wouldn’t be completely erased with the boost of tourism. Overall, we had a chill four-day stay in Luang Prabang. If not for its gentle people and the quaint rural feel, we would’ve moved on right away to Vang Vieng on our second day.