Northern Laos (Luang Prabang)

The 6-hour bus ride up into the mountains from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was not a fun experience! As usual, I got a bit carsick, but even Chris had never gotten carsick before…until this ride. We arrived by late afternoon and spent the remainder of our day settling in and figuring out what we were going to do for the next four full days (May 22-26). We lucked out on our lodging—for $15 per night at Salakphet Guesthouse, we scored the most comfortable bed and pillows we ever slept in during our entire trip, which was fantastic during all the hot afternoons.

On day 1, I woke up early and left Chris in bed to climb up the stairs to Phou Si Mountain. This “mountain” was more of a hill, which housed a number of temples, worship spaces, and monks. IMG_4424

Already at 7am, I was wishing I woke up earlier since I was sweating profusely. On the way up, a 16-year old monk stopped to speak with me. Young monks in Luang Prabang love to practice their English with Westerners. IMG_4409IMG_4410

Once at the top, I was rewarded with views of a city quickly awakening from slumber. IMG_4413

I returned to the guesthouse to start the day with Chris. Within minutes of stepping out of the guesthouse together, we were eagerly approached by a man who called out, “Hello, waterfall!” — the traditional daytime greeting of tuk-tuk drivers in Luang Prabang.  He was trying to offer his minivan services to take us to the famous Kuang Si falls, 29 km outside of the city. Luckily for him, Kuang Si Falls was actually the attraction I wanted to see the most while in Luang Prabang.  A couple hours later, we were off in his minivan with other travelers to see the natural limestone waterfall cascades.

And what a beauty it was! The crystal blue waters were brisk and refreshing, making it the absolute perfect place to spend a sweltering hot day. There was one fall after the other, with plenty of pools to relax, swim, and jump into. DCIM103GOPRO DCIM103GOPRO DCIM103GOPRO DCIM103GOPROIMG_4461DCIM104GOPRODCIM104GOPRODCIM104GOPRO

We hiked a short but steep trail to the top of the falls, where breathtaking views of rolling green hills awaited us. This was the true beauty of Laos.  IMG_4468

In the evening, we went to Big Brother Mouse, a nonprofit organization focusing on the distribution of books to children in Laos. Apparently most Lao children have never seen a book or even owned a book. The mission of this nonprofit is to introduce books to children, show how books can be fun and rewarding, and promote literacy throughout the country. Every day from 9-11am and 5-7pm, English-speaking foreigners are encouraged to come to Big Brother Mouse and have casual conversations with locals.

At Big Brother Mouse, we were able to speak with some locals to learn about their childhood and current lifestyles. The majority were 18-22 year old Hmong men who each had 6-10 siblings! One 22 year old I spoke with grew up in a rural village, didn’t learn how to read and write in Lao until he was 13, and only recently moved near the city for school. He currently lives with 3 other guys in a single room (like a studio apartment), with a bathroom shared with everyone else living in the same hallway. His rent is $500 USD per year. Another 18 year old I spoke with currently lives with his brother in a small house his parents had built in Luang Prabang. Apparently his parents tried to move into the city from their village. They built a house, did not like the city life, and left again to another village.  They would go back and forth between their village and the house in Luang Prabang for visits. Before there were roads and motorbikes (which are fairly new in Laos), his parents would set off at 5am, walk from the village to the house, and arrive at dusk. Keep in mind that this place gets unbearably hot by 10am…I won’t even describe how it feels at 12-3pm. Now with road infrastructure and the luxury of a motorbike, the commute now only takes 2 hours.  I ended up visting Big Brother Mouse two times during my stay in Luang Prabang. IMG_20140522_180239

On another day I got up even earlier (5:15am) to watch the traditional alms ceremony that takes place every day from 5:35-5:55am. Once again Chris stayed in bed as I went out to watch the locals provide offerings of rice to the monks. Sadly, this has become a tourist attraction in Luang Prabang and there are even locals trying to sell food to tourists to feed the monks! As expected, there were offensive tourists who disrespected the monks by sticking their phones, cameras, and even tablets in front of the monks’ faces for a snapshot. There were even 5 tourists who were part of an organized “monk-feeding” tour group. I couldn’t help but laugh inside when I watched the monks donate the food given to them by the tourists to the beggars in the streets. Despite the annoying tourists, it was still a beautiful procession to witness.IMG_4937

Monks walked in order from oldest to youngest. IMG_4915IMG_4935

When the monks are finished collecting offerings, the locals turn around, place a ball of sticky rice upon the walls, and make a final prayer.  IMG_4939

One Laotian woman proudly poses in her traditional dress with a bamboo container earlier filled with sticky rice. IMG_4943

Every evening when the weather became slightly tolerable we strolled the night market for dinner. IMG_4491

Our favorite dessert in Luang Prabang was a small serving of mini rice cakes filled with coconut milk. They were warm, soft, and fluffy, with a warm, gooey sweet center. I miss these already. IMG_4494 IMG_4495

Utopia, a bar, restaurant, and lounge, is the #1 spot frequented by backpackers. During the day, it provides a Zen place for lounging. IMG_4520

By night it became a sexy lounge with music, drinks, candles, snacks, lounge chairs and cushions filled with tourists, all under the stars.

Unfortunately the curfew for Laos is 11:30pm, so after Utopia closes, all the backpackers pour onto the tuk-tuk lined streets. “Hello, bowling!” they all cry out, competing against each other for business. Apparently the thing to do after Utopia closes is bowling, since the bowling alley is the only place open after hours. It’s not a surprise that the government owns the bowling alley.

Chris and I of course spent an evening at Utopia with Stan, Alex, Liz, and others, ventured into the streets after they closed, and found our way into one of the tuk-tuks that took us to the bowling alley. After some bargaining, drunken jokes, and a quick, bumpy ride in a packed tuk-tuk with friends and other foreigners, we arrived at the bowling alley within 15 minutes. It was so ridiculous and awesome. IMG_4499

Our final day in Luang Prabang was spent escaping the heat. Chris finally woke up early with me at 6am so we could explore some nearby villages. IMG_4512 IMG_4516

Laotian cuisine is simply delightful. We devoured buffalo sausages, sticky rice, bean-paste filled leaves, and a variety of noodle fishes. For our last dinner, we enjoyed our favorite soup, khou soy, a spicy pork-based soup that resembles something between pho and bun bo hue. IMG_4529

We left on Monday morning via Lao Airlines to Pakse, the largest city in Southern Laos. Tickets are normally $150 USD but they were on sale for $47 USD. SCORE! IMG_4533

There is no argument as to why the entire city of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World-Heritage site. Like Hoi An in Vietnam, it is a beautiful river city, a skinny peninsula nestled between the Mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan River. Its charming architecture boasts features from its French colonial days, which serves as a lovely backdrop behind tuk-tuks and street markets. Temples are everywhere (perhaps a bit too much), and plenty of monks roam about. However, Luang Prabang is designed for tourists. There are tourists everywhere, buying unauthentic souvenirs and inflating the rates of food, entrance fees, transportation costs, and hotel rates. Although a beautiful city, there isn’t anything pure or authentic about it. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out to experience the true Laos in the South.

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