The flight to Laos‘ Luang Prabang (from Chiang Mai), was a brief hour of floating above puffy white clouds. From 17,000 feet (we flew on a propeller plane), the green mountainous landscape and brown Mekong River severing through was something we couldn’t stop staring at. The landlocked nation was very new to us in every sense. Also unknown were a couple of interesting things about Laos. 1: subjectively, it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth and 2: factually, it’s been ruled by the communist party since the 1970s and was also the most bombed place on Earth (by who? the US). But no time to dig into a history lesson right now.
Getting to Know Luang Prabang & the Mekong River
We decided to stay in Luang Prabang for 4-5 days and take full advantage of the northern cultural splendor of a town, a blend of various influences. Among them, and very much alive today, was the French influence from colonial times. This meant beautiful architecture, several wines bars and the infusion of French cuisine of course. But it didn’t stop there, it seems Laos has adopted other culinary influences from its neighbors as well (China, Thailand, Vietnam), making for vast selections on menus. And on our first night we sampled just that – typical Lao cuisine which comprised of a buffalo meat dish, a sampler local appetizers and chicken stuffed in lemongrass (paired with white wine and Beerlao, the national lager). Delicious overall although the buffalo meat required extra mastication on my part.
The next morning saw us on a “slow boat” tour (long narrow wooden boat), on the mighty Mekong river to the Pak Ou Caves – which are known as a place of worship (for Buddhists). The long and narrow wooden boat motored upstream for nearly two hours as some of the most scenic landscape compositions ever glided by us. Lush tropical rain forests paired with mountains, a bright azure sky and the nebulous brown Mekong. This was to be the highlight of the day, a setting that seemed to wow us incessantly. The caves were interesting and packed thousands of Buddha statues (of all sizes). The higher cave (up the mountain), required a good 5-minute climb but the views along the way were special and worth the extra sweat.
Later that day while back in Luang Prabang, we checked out the night market where local arts and crafts comprised the majority of goods. We found bargaining not to be so much a game of chess as in other places, which was kind of refreshing. Speaking of which, right after the market we paused at one of the wine bars for a chilled glass of white wine – one of many ways to combat the humidity. This was also where we met a lovely Australian couple who was traveling for 3 months (around SE Asia), after having sold their food business. Cheers mates!
Elephant Village & Tad Sae Waterfall
For the next day we had signed up for an adventure at Elephant Village. The itinerary included spending the day with elephants, learning to mount/ride them, bathe and feed them. We figured it would be a great way to bond with the largest of land mammals which have become so endangered in Asia (and almost extinct in Africa). As we had learned in Thailand, they are truly amazing beings and Elephant Village was further affirmation of that. We started out by learning to communicate with them in Lao (“sung” to mount them, “how” to stop, “sy” and “koa” to steer them left or right, etc – piece of cake! Riding bareback (on their necks), was really a “hands and feet on” experience – using all digits to anchor ourselves in tightly. The elephants moved slowly but gracefully and riding them was a privilege. Bathing them on the other hand was all out fun (for them mainly). For us, it meant laboriously scrubbing their thick skin and maintaining our balance while they submerged head deep in the river. It was a one of a kind experience! Afterthought – the elephants we spent our amazing day with were rescued from the logging industry, unfortunately a booming and legal industry in Laos which overworks and maltreats the elephants (resulting in severe injuries and abuse). Each visit to a place like Elephant Village contributes to a better life and the overall wellbeing of the animals which are in dire need of it.
Our day at Elephant Village concluded with a boat trip (sans the elephants), to Tad Sae Waterfall, a beautifully wide and scenic multilevel-waterfall. Taking a dip was refreshing but bittersweet as I lost my sunglasses.. Later that evening we grabbed a very yummy dinner at a local outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong and the beautiful sunset.
Waking up at 5:45am the next morning had purpose. We participated in the traditional almsgiving (to monks), which occurs each morning right around 6am. Single filed and in their orange robes, the monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang and accept food offerings from locals and tourists (mainly sticky rice, fruit and/or candy – later in the day the locals bring them some meat and curry). The monks don’t cook and so they rely on these daily offerings as their food intake (amounting to about 2 meals). It was interesting and exciting to partake in the altruistic ritual – for the locals is just part of every day life and tradition. Also remarkable was the youthfulness of the monks, many appeared just barely 9 or 10 years of age – and impressively already devoted to a life of asceticism.
Tat Kuang Si Waterfall & Drinks at Blue Ice
Later that morning we embarked on a private boat trip to the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall, a trip comprised of about 50 minutes of gliding smoothly on the Mekong. Similar to Tad Sae the Tat Kuang Si waterfall was in the same “step” formation but it’s main drop was an abrupt 80 feet. However Tat Kuang Si shares the spotlight with a group of Sun Bears (kept in a secured and protected area). Such bears are endangered by poachers for their fur, bile (for Chinese medicine), and paws (for food). Although enclosed in a limited living/playing area, the bears can carry out their lives free of dangers posed by the greedy human hand.
Later while back in Luang Prabang we walked around town and checked out a couple of temples. Although the Buddhist faith is highly prominent in Laos, some of its practices are somewhat restricted by the government. Nonetheless it was amazing to see temples dating from the 16th century whose young monks were prepping for the upcoming Awk Pansaa (end of Buddhist lent).
To close our night, we grabbed a couple of drinks at “Blue Ice”, one of the riverfront bars. It was great to parle about life away from home with the friendly Dutch manager and shoot a few rounds of pool with the Lao staff.