14.06.2014 - 19.06.2014
We were told the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang departed at 10:30am daily so the goal that morning was to catch a taxi from our hotel in Chiang Khong, cross the border and get on another taxi or tuk-tuk to Huay Xai in time to get a good seat on the boat - our research indicated this was very important because arriving late could mean getting stuck in the back breathing toxic exhaust fumes for 6-7 hours.
We exited Thailand with 20-25 other backpackers who were presumably on the same mission. We all got on the mandatory shuttle bus to the Laos side of the border, paid for our visas including the additional dollar charged on weekends and public holidays for overtime which we even got a separate receipt for (?), and made our own way to Huay Xai as the backpackers seemed to have booked their transfer through an agency. The tuk-tuk driver didn't want to leave with just two passengers but I was eager to keep going to avoid getting there last. I looked around and noticed that a family had just been dropped off in a pick-up truck so I asked one of the ladies if it would be possible to get a lift to the city for the same price the tuk-tuk driver was charging us. With a big smile, she responded "no problem, he take you for free", pointing at the man who had dropped them off. Brilliant! We got in the car and just as we were about to pull out our tuk-tuk driver started making a scene and our new friend was left with no choice but to ask us to go in the tuk-tuk. We were held hostage! I had flashbacks of our Srinagar experience and if I could have slapped him I would have. But losing our temper was not the answer (it never is!) so we just waited somewhat patiently (we may have let out a few huffs and puffs). Luckily a couple hopped on the tuk-tuk and we were on our way before the group of backpackers.
Tuk-tuk ride to Huay Xai:
The departure time was actually 11am so we arrived in Huay Xai with plenty of time to spare. The 2-day journey to Luang Prabang includes an overnight stay in Pak Beng, a small village on the banks of the Mekong River, so we grabbed some fruit smoothies and ordered take-away sandwiches for lunch knowing we would arrive in Pak Beng in time for dinner.
A welcome break from the heat:
The slow boat docking area:
Our fellow passengers:
A relaxing and scenic journey:
We arrived in Pak Beng shortly after 6pm and were met by many touts offering "discounts" on accommodation. We were used to this by now and did not feel overwhelmed. One of the touts was offering rooms at a riverside lodge we had noticed on arrival for $12.50.
Arriving in Pak Beng - hmmm, that lodge looks nice....
We tried to negotiate but she wouldn't budge. She said that the normal price was about $35 so she couldn't discount it any further. At that price, we weren't going to try much harder. Sold!
We bumped into a French couple we had met on the boat whilst looking for a restaurant and ended up having a very nice dinner with them. Our host was very gracious and seemed to be in a great mood...or drunk...or high. Turns out he was both. He offered us a shot of banana whiskey to welcome us and came back with more when we were done eating. He then proceeded to sit at one of the tables next to ours to smoke some opium, as you do, and ever the good host, asked if we wanted to try some. Tempting but no, thanks.
The second leg of the journey went very smoothly and we safely arrived in Luang Prabang at around 4pm. We shared a tuk-tuk into town with our fellow travelers and walked around in search of accommodation. We settled for a hotel on a great little street near the old city. Nothing amazing but it had the essentials, AC and en-suite bathroom. Plus it was steaming hot and we didn't feel like walking any further at that stage.
Picking up a few more passengers along the way:
Our hotel street:
Feeling renewed after a cold shower we headed for the night market just a couple of blocks from our hotel. But first, we had to appease our bellies. Two days of bland sandwiches had them begging for flavor.
We found this food stall just at the entrance of the night market and went for it.
So simple yet absolutely delicious: spicy minced pork, rice noodles, broth, green beans, spring onions, soy sprouts, as well as chilli, lime, fish sauce and a variety of fresh herbs to add to taste. Yum!
You know it - mango for dessert:
The night market had the usual tourist souvenirs, t-shirts and food vendors but something about this market was different though. Maybe it was the absence of motorcycles beeping their way through or the surrounding temples and street cafes; there was just something very charming and magical about this city that got to us from the moment we set foot in it.
Haw Pha Bang temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum and below it, the street market:
Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers and it is surrounded by mountains covered with lush green vegetation. As if this wasn't enough to entice visitors to this ancient capital, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of "its exceptional architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the French colonial era". It's no wonder all the articles we read online had nothing but praise for Luang Prabang's beauty and charm.
The next day, we hit the main sights including the Royal Palace Museum and Wat Xieng Thong monastery but were literally roasting from the moment we left the hotel. By 12pm we were drenched in sweat, dehydrated and certain we would pass out if we didn't find shelter immediately. We were saved by Tamarind Restaurant. Laos doesn't have the culinary reputation of Thailand or Vietnam but this riverside restaurant certainly makes a good case for it.
Haw Pha Bang:
Wat Xieng Thong
The streets of Luang Prabang:
Our delicious meal at Tamarind Restaurant - the freshest ingredients and most amazing flavors:
Parked outside a boutique hotel:
Snake whiskey - yes, it's a real snake and they threw in a scorpion for good measure:
Beautiful colors found at the night market:
We had read that the sunset views from Phu Si hill were great so we saved that for last.
and a few games of backgammon later:
Our sweaty selfie at the bottom of the hill:
That evening, we strolled through the night market again, found a decent restaurant for dinner and went to a great riverside bar for drinks and a sheesha. Utopia is tucked away at the end of a labyrinth of small alleys and is obviously doing something right because the place was packed. They were playing random YouTube videos on a big screen which we watched from the comfort of our floor loungers. A great way to end the day.
We rented a scooter the next day to check out the waterfalls we had read about when we first started planning for this trip. Greg had learned about a scooter rental scam in Luang Prabang whereby the rental companies arrange for the scooters to be stolen with a spare key and then demand payment of about $2,500 to replace the bike or withhold your passport. We decided to rent one anyway since we were not staying in the city where most of the scams happen.
Kuang Si and Tad Sae are the most famous waterfalls in the area. We headed 20km southeast of Luang Prabang to the smaller Tad Sae falls first where we were hoping to bathe with the elephants from the nearby camp.
10-minute boat ride to Tad Sae:
As luck would have it, we were informed on arrival that "no water in the falls, not enough rain, July better".
What they are supposed to look like - borrowed from Trip Advisor.
Ok - "What about the elephants? Can we still swim with them?" "Yes, in the river ok". We had come all that way, we were going to do this.
And it was so much fun!
Kuang Si waterfalls are located 29km southwest of Luang Prabang so it took us about 45-55 min to get here from Tad Sae. The ride was very scenic and quite similar to the countryside we had seen around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai with lush forests and winding mountain roads.
This cutie laid under our table while we had lunch just outside Kuang Si Waterfall park:
A visit of the Kuang Si Falls begins with a stroll through the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, established in 2003 by Free The Bears Fund Inc., an Australian based non- profit organization.
Asiatic black bears are an endangered species targeted by illegal hunters for use in the traditional medicine trade, restaurant trade (e.g. as bear paw soup) or as exotic pets. The bears at Tat Kuang Si usually arrive as very young cubs taken by hunters after the mother has been killed because they are easier to transport and conceal. Learning about these bears was simply heartbreaking. We'd already heard so many horrible stories about illegal poaching in almost every country we visited that we couldn't help but wonder about their future. There is just so much ignorance, greed and corruption in this world, it's hard to feel optimistic despite the inspiring efforts of the many NGO's like The Bears Fund Inc.
On a lighter note, the falls were amazing, one of the most beautiful we've seen. The water collects in stunning turquoise blue pools as it flows downstream making them incredibly inviting for a refreshing dip...that is, if you don't mind fish nibbling on your feet unexpectedly .
View from the top:
Just a few kilometers outside Luang Prabang:
A quick stop at a local market:
We crashed early so had no excuse not to wake up early to witness one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving ceremony at 5:30am. As the sun rises, Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal prepared by locals who wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts.
It was 6:15am and I was wide awake, a very rare occurrence, but as much as I would have liked to join the 7am riverside yoga class, the thought of a fresh toasted baguette with butter and jam dipped in a steaming latte won me over (to Greg's tremendous relief!). We went to Le Banneton Cafe, the best French bakery in town. Childhood memories of family summer holidays in France came rushing in and I was in heaven. Greg's amused look as I dipped my baguette into my coffee, milk dripping everywhere, said something along the lines of: "I love you but why are you such a goof?". I feel so misunderstood
We jumped back on the bicycles we rented from the hotel for the day and explored the charming city further.
Bamboo bridge that is rebuilt every year after the rainy season:
Later that afternoon, we joined some locals for a game of petanque - the French equivalent of bocce. Same same but different. We were allowed a brief warm-up but no briefing on the rules due to the language barrier. With ice-cold beers at stake, the tension was palpable at 5-0 in favor of the tourist duo but we somehow managed to squander our lead and lose 5-7 to the local pros. A crushing defeat. Greg blamed our lack of knowledge and experience so we played one more game. And lost again 2-7. If I hadn't stopped him we would have played again as we had finally figured out the tactics. Instead, we picked up the beer tab for the winners and a few local fans, and sipped ours while watching the pros battle it out.
Trying to ask questions about the game but all we managed to understand was that we needed 7 points to win or we would pay for beers:
Watching the pros with a few Vietnamese fans:
We got back on the bikes and headed in the direction of our spicy pork noodle soup stall for dinner. Soon after we took off, a group of 10 kids or so suddenly appeared beside Greg and chanted the usual "hello, how are you?". I was slightly ahead and thought it would be fun to race them for a few hundred meters. I yelled "race!" and it was on. But I turned around 5 seconds later and couldn't see the group anywhere. "What on earth is going on??" I back-tracked and found them all huddled around Greg's bike behind one of the parked vehicles, some of the kids having a good laugh. Greg informed me that his chain had derailed under his pure power (ie weight) and one of the kids was busy fixing it. A few minutes later, we were all back on our bikes and in our slightly buzzed state, decided it would be a great idea to resume the race. Exemplary mature behavior from two thirty somethings. Sure enough, 3 seconds in, I turned around to find Greg on his back with the bike on top of him. The chain again but this time, apparently with more "power" and without the balancing effect of the alternate pedal stroke he was thrown to the tarmac. Luckily, it looked worse than it was and he bounced back with just a few scrapes and bruises. He even looked disappointed claiming he was ahead of the lead kid by a wheel. He says he slid for about two meters, but I'm not so sure, although his shirt did have a few holes around the shoulder, his knee was bleeding a bit and the leather belt now has some character after saving his back from a roasting. The kids went to work on the chain again and we all had a laugh at the situation.
Showing his battle wounds:
We were now starving and couldn't wait for the delicious spicy pork soup. No such luck, it was the ladie's day off. Things were taking a turn for the worse.
We biked in search of another local soup vendor and found one near the hotel, however it wasn't quite the same and we overloaded our soups with chili paste thinking it was some of that spicy pork sauce. We struggled through it blowing our noses every 5 seconds and somehow managed to finish while laughing at a fellow local customer who had obviously made the same mistake and was trying to cool his open mouth in front of the fan. Our faces and stomachs on fire, we cycled back to the hotel to return the bikes and walked to the fruit stalls nearby for a mango shake to appease the burning. So a great day that ended with defeat in petanque, a bike crash, a bloody knee, torn clothes and chilli burns.
Sweating it out:
Back at the hotel, I nursed Greg's wounds and although he wasn't suffering from manflu, it sure sounded similar: "love, won't you please pack my things? I can't bend down and my left side is dying...". Aaahhhh, the things we put up with for love
Our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam was scheduled for 4pm so we used our last few hours in Luang Prabang to get lost in some of the areas we hadn't been to yet. We stopped for snacks and lunch along the way and had just enough Kips (Laos currency) left to buy a few spring rolls and a mango shake on our way to the airport. We were sad to leave one of our favorite cities of the trip but excited for our next adventure in Vietnam.
Another beatiful street, coconut lady and watching a world cup football game over lunch:
On the way to the aiport:
Vietnam, here we come!
We have just arrived in Bangkok from Siem Reap, Cambodia and will be posting the first of three updates on our Vietnam adventure next.
Greg and Issy