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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Luang Prabang, Laos

LAOS | Wednesday, 28 November 2012 | Views [4842] | Comments [1]

Welcome to Laos! The Land of a Thousand Elephants!

Making new friends
Making new friends in Laos!

Here's a little background for those of you who (like us before this trip) know nothing about Laos.
1. Laos is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam to the East, China and Myanmar to the North, Thailand to the West, and Cambodia to the South.
2. Laos has about 7 million people, most of whom live in extreme poverty-- it is one of the world's 20 poorest nations.
3. One of the reasons Laos is so poor is because of all of the Unexploded Ordinance (UXOs) still littering the country. Laos was declared a neutral country in 1954 but the United States conducted a "secret war" there, sending multitudes of CIA operatives to train local Hmong hill tribes who were familiar with jungle survival as anti-communist fighters. This was because the Viet Cong were funneling their supply routes (Ho Chi Minh Trail) through the mountains of Laos in an attempt to skirt around U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in Vietnam. From 1965 to 1973, the U.S. carpet-bombed northeastern Laos nonstop- an estimated plane-load of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, one-third of which did not explode. Laos is the most-bombed country in history! After the war, all of the rebuilding and aid efforts were focused on Vietnam, since that's where the "real" war was... Laos was forgotten, underwent a civil war, and emerged as a communist nation that brutally surpressed all of those hill tribe peoples who had aided the U.S. Today eco-tourism and development projects are spreading like wildfire, thanks in large part to funding by the Chinese who are keen to reap Laos's plentiful natural resources like timber. However before any land can be developed it has to be cleared of all of those unexploded bombs, a slow and unfortunately often deadly process. Give it 10 more years and the Laos we experienced on this trip will be a thing of the past... for better or for worse.

Remnants of Laos' past
Remnants of Laos' turbulent past... at a bar in Luang Prabang

This being our first time in Laos, we were not sure what to expect. In Hanoi we debated whether or not to fly or take the bus to Luang Prabang (the biggest city in Northern Laos). The bus was the cheaper option, but that's because it takes 30+ hours. Yes, that's right... the bus can take DAYS. And that's if nothing goes wrong. According to just about every tourist blog we read, something always goes wrong. Even our guidebook advised against it. The nicest thing they had to say was that the buses are "ancient and seemingly made of wet cardboard." Combine that with unpaved, winding mountain roads and psycho drivers... well, we decided against it. And while Laos Airlines doesn't have the best safety record out there, a short and sweet 2 hour flight in a rickety plane was still preferable. We landed in Luang Prabang's new airport, safe and sound, paid our entrance fees, and had the friendliest cab driver ever take us to a cute little hotel within walking distance of the market area or Old Quarter. After a good night's sleep on what was the softest mattress of the entire trip, we were ready to explore!

Laos Landscape
The type of landscape we'd be driving through in Northern Laos

Spoiler Alert... Luang Prabang was our FAVORITE town of our whole trip! Not that there aren't plenty of awesome experiences still to come, but there was just something in the air here. It was a perfect storm of beauty, culture, nature, food, and friendliness. We wanted to stay here forever. We might move here permanently someday. But for now, we will just have to be content with remembering it as the most peaceful, beautiful, surreal place on the trip. Not to quote our Lonely Planet guidebook too much, but this gives you a good idea of this town:

"There are places that linger in the imagination long after you visit them. Mekong-bordered Luang Prabang, with its Unesco-protected peninsula of gleaming wat (temples) and crumbling French villas is such a place. This once-inaccessible Shangri La is an absolute must for its Buddhist architecture, the tangerine stream of monks taking alms at 6:00am, and its vast array of shopping and cuisine. Between eating your way through a global smorgasbord of Scandinavian cafes, French cuisine, and authentic Lao, you can ride elephants, take a cooking course, visit waterfalls, or just hire a bicycle and pedal your way around what may be the most beguiling ancient city in Southeast Asia." Intrigued? We were too.

Charming Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang Charm-- are we still in Asia!?

With the exception of the cooking course, we did just about everything that the guidebook listed. We explored the Old Quarter of the city on foot, walking around countless ancient temples full of brightly-robed monks of all ages. There were more monks in this town than tourists! One of the things Luang Prabang is most famous for is the daily alms collection mentioned in the quote above. Every morning at 6am the monks line the streets and proceed single-file past the locals, who sit with their feet pointing behind them (as one is always supposed to do when in a Buddhist temple or, apparently, when giving alms). The monks collect a little ball of rice from each villager in metal pots they wear around their necks and they live entirely off of these daily offerings. We saw this taking place in a few other towns, but nothing to this extent! In this way Luang Prabang still provides a daily demonstration of an ancient tradition that is being upheld by a seemingly dwindling number of people.

Morning procession of monks
Daily procession of monks collecting alms

One of the most famous temples, Wat Phu Si, is located on the top of a 100 meter-high hill in the center of town. We climbed what felt like endless stairs to get up to the golden spire at the top, and were rewarded with a breath-taking view of the town below, nestled between two rivers and surrounded by mountains. It almost looks like a town you'd find in the Swiss alps (thanks to the mix of French and Lao architecture left over from colonial times). The hill was covered with golden Buddha statues in different positions (each signify a different moment in his life/journey to enlightenment). There was also a supposed footprint left by Buddha in a small enclosed building, although the size of it meant Buddha would be as big as King Kong. As we took in the views of the landscape below and climbed up and down this trail we were greatful for being up in the mountains where it was cooler and cloudy. This trek would have been brutal on a hot sunny day.

Luang Prabang from Wat Phu Si
Luang Prabang from Wat Phu Si... beautiful no?

The climb up to Wat Phu Si
The Climb up to Wat Phu Si

We also toured the Royal Palace Museum- built in 1904 for the Lao King, Sisavangvong. He died in 1959 and his son's reign was short-lived: the Communist revolution in 1975 overthrew the monarchy and he and his family were exiled to the nearby caves of Vieng Xai. The palace was converted into a museum and the throne room, or Golden Hall, is one of the most interesting and beautiful rooms we've ever seen. Unfortunately no photography allowed :-( It was decorated with hundreds of thousands (millions?) of brightly colored glass pieces to form one massive mosaic. The whole room sparkled. Gold objects were everywhere, including a golden throne. Someone snuck a picture and posted it online here. They had many works of art and royal treasures on display throughout the palace, including a room dedicated to all of the gifts given to the king by other countries. The gift from the United States? A moon rock on a plaque given by JFK! Cool.

Laos Royal Palace Museum
The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang

Besides temples and the museum, we took part in some of the local nightlife. This includes drinking the national beer, Beer Lao, while sitting in sidewalk cafes or in one of the many family-run bars that line the riverbank. It also includes checking out the incredible local night market, known as the Hmong Night Market. Every night, the main street in LP is closed to traffic, hundreds of tents are strung up, and local villagers and hill tribe people from the surrounding area sell their crafts and goods. Ambling through the night market, ducking under the flaps of tents, and observing all of the beautiful objects for sale (some authentic, some not) was one of the best parts of our visit. Occasionally we'd barter for and/or buy something as well. They sold everything from silver to textiles to meat on a stick. The latter happened to be our favorite food while we were in Laos-- pretty much any type of meat you can imagine can be found, in one form or another, on a stick. We happend upon a lively food alley, just off the main market, where we indulged in a buffet-style meal of mixed dishes that was so cheap and delicious that we thought we might never leave. We also got several chances to sample the traditional national Lao dish: laap. Hard to describe it, but it's basically a spicy salad of minced meat mixed with spices, lime juice, mint, rice, and usually some veggies thrown in there. We got it several different times/places in Laos and it was always a little bit different.

Meat on a stick! Our favorite
Meat on a stick! Our favorite!


As if the charming town of LP was not enough, it is also a major attraction because of the surrounding province's wealth of natural beauty, wildlife, and easy-to-reach hill tribe villages. Eco-trips are all the rage, and during the day the main street in town is over-flowing with tour companies touting their adventure treks and authentic experiences. It is really hard over here to tell when something is a scam, versus when it is actually helping people, and we have learned that becoming educated on the difference is fundamental to responsible tourism in countries such as this. The same goes for "eco-friendly" or "green" tourism. Everyone claims to do it, but whether or not that is the reality is often hard or impossible to tell. In cases like this you just have to go with word of mouth from locals, experienced tourists, or the guidebooks. We were not always the greenest of visitors, but we did make an effort.

For our first excursion, out to the Tat Kuang Si National Forest, we chose to go on a tour offered by our hotel. They promised us it would only be about 5 people and we would have plenty of time to see all the sites. Wrong. Our van kept picking more and more tourists up until there were no seats left. After about a 30-40 minute drive, we reached the park, got past the entrance gate, and our driver recieved a call on his cell phone. Apparently two more people had decided last-minute to book the trip (even though we'd already gotten there). So he turned around, drove us the 30-40 minutes BACK to LP, picked up 2 girls who had to squeeze in on top of us since there were no more seats available in the van, and then we drove 30-40 minutes AGAIN to the park. Lame. This meant that by the time we got there we only had 3 hours to explore the whole park. This might sound like a lot of time. However, not only is the park home to both a bear and a tiger rescue center, but it also has one of the area's most beautiful waterfalls, the Kuang Si Waterfall. Getting to the base of the waterfall requires a little bit of a trek, and climbing up to the top requires a LOT of trekking. Like, both hands gripping exposed tree roots as we scramble up a steep muddy cliff kind of trekking. Not to mention that the trail leading up to the waterfall runs along cascading pools of water flowing through the jungle in which you can swim and rope swing to your heart's content. So no, 3 hours was not enough time.

Happy Rescued Bear
Happy Rescued Bear in the Kuang Si National Forest

Swimming Hole!
Swimming hole! Look closely at the main branch of this tree and you'll see boards forming steps to get out to a rope swing.

We sadly did not get a chance to swim or see the tigers, but we did enjoy watching the rescued Asiatic black bears run around. We also made the slippery and muddy climb up to the top of the waterfall- one of the greatest feats of the trip! Once we reached the top, we spent about 20 minutes searching through jungle for the fall itself-- it was nowhere to be found! Other tourists climbed back down without finding it and told us not to bother, but we were determined. After removing our shoes and wading through water containing God-knows-what kind of bacteria and leeches and other creatures, we found it! A rush of water streaming over the side of a cliff, with nothing but a rickety little wooden fence for you to hold on to in order to not get swept over the side. Of course Joe walked right out to it and after a little hesitation, Sarah joined. Leaning out over the fence staring straight down from the top of this massive waterfall was exhilirating!

Joe wading out to the top of the waterfall
Joe wading out to the top of the waterfall, which falls down hundreds of meters just beyond that little fence. Sarah ditched the camera and joined him out there after taking this picture.

The barefoot journey back down the mountain-side was also exhilirating, but in a less fun and more we-are-super-late-because-this-climb-took-us-longer-than-we'd-planned sort of way. We ended up being about 30 minutes late back to our van, but we figured the driver owed us at least that much time for his earlier trick anyways. On the trip back we stopped at a very touristy and kind of depressing hill-tribe village on the way home. The van pulled up to a cement path that looped through the village and back out again. The driver said "10 minutes" and waved us out of the van. Children lined the path singing a well-rehearsed song about us "buying something" as they displayed their little collections of hand-made bracelets made from neon string that is probably from China. The whole thing felt very fake and uncomfortable. So this trip was a bit of a mixed bag.

Kuang Si Waterfall
The Kuang Si Waterfall from the bottom: you can't even see up to the top... it keeps going

For our second excursion, we decided to go with a well-established tour company that was recommended in our guidebook as being less money-hungry and truly ethical, called White Elephant Adventures. For around $50 each, we booked a full day tour that included pick up and the drive out of town to a river, a morning hike through jungle and rice paddies up to a legit hill tribe village, kayaking, and a visit to the Tad-Se Waterfall, where we could swim, ride elephants and/or do a jungle zipline through the canopy for an additional charge. All of which was led by a local Hmong guide. Now this was more like it. We had a group of only 10, made up of friendly Europeans and Australians. We drove quite a ways out of town in a bouncy little tuk-tuk before we had to take a little local ferry across the flooded river. This being the rainy season, the water was moving so fast that the boatmen didn't have to paddle or steer or anything- they just strung a line across the river from one bank to another, then tied the boat via a second line to a sort of pulley wheel attached to the first. We pushed off from the bank and swung out into the current, still connected to the main line. The momentum just slid us across the river-- kind of like a zipline but via the water instead of the air. Hard to describe, but a fascinatingly simple way to beat the current and ferry people across the flooded river.

Our river transport
Our river transport: it took them 3 trips to get our whole group across.

For all of your sakes, we will not go into the pages' worth of detail that we could when describing the secluded hill tribe village, treking and kayaking through some of the most beautiful scenery we've ever witnessed, swimming in the aqua pools of the Tad-Se Waterfall, or best of all, riding elephants into a waterfall to bathe them. We'll let our pictures talk for us. We will just say that this day was one of the most amazing of our lives. Just like the wonderful excursion we went on through the Phong Nha Farmstay in Vietnam (see our earlier blog post), this trip was a perfect combination of history, authentic local culture, nature, friendship, and adventure. Did we mention we got to bathe elephants in a waterfall? Sarah compares the experience to feeling like a 5 year old again... truly. For 30 minutes we had the feeling of complete and utter joy- nothing in our busy lives back in DC can quite compare. These were ex-logging elephants who have been rescued and socialized and they seemed to be having just as much fun as we were!

One of the mahouts (elephant trainer/rider) showing off! (Yes, he just jumped off that elephant's head). You can barely see Sarah and Sam's elephant- they kept diving underwater!

Frolicking with elephants in a waterfall
Frolicking with elephants in the Tad-Se waterfall- Sarah is behind Joe's brother Sam (plaid shirt). Our elephants liked each other.

Tad-Se Waterfall
Swimming holes and water slides abound at the Tad-Se waterfall!

So to wrap it up, Luang Prabang. Go there. If there is one place we'd recommend above all others in Southeast Asia, this is it. And as Laos develops and more and more tourists flood the region, it won't stay this perfect for long. We will never forget our all-too-brief time here. The locals are welcoming, friendly, laid-back, and just plain happy. It would definitely do us all good to take a page out of their book.

Two cuties in the Hmong Village
Two cuties in the Hmong Village

We love Laos!

We love Laos!

Tags: elephants, hill tribe, hmong, kayak, kuang si, laos, luang prabang, tad-se, trekking, waterfalls



Hi Joe and Sara,
Thanks for the great review about White Elephant Adventures. We're all glad you had a fantastic time on our tour. Come back and visit again some day!
Brett and all the team at White Elephant Adventures, Laos.

  Brett (manager at White Elephant Adventures) Nov 28, 2012 11:30 PM



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