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Easy does it, Luang Prabang

Mr Vongsip is the unassuming owner of our small hotel. In a dark blue button-up shirt he greets us with a wave from the shade of the reception area, a steaming heap of noodles waiting for him on the sunlit terrace. “Any time you want to go outside the city, let me know.” We nod, say our kup jai’s and head out the gate, into a wild profusion of greenery.

Ringed by chains of majestic limestone peaks, sleepy Luang Prabang is the kind of place that luxury travellers would dream of visiting. French colonial villas, once tired with age, have been restyled into chic hotels, while upmarket restaurants vie for attention below wooden verandahs and matching deck chairs. Well-heeled visitors – often with their bicycles parked nearby – sip on Lao coffee, nibbling at pastries amid the soaring coconut palms and Buddhist wats.

But in spite of all the trappings of an up-and-coming destination, Luang Prabang still belongs to the resident Lao. Every morning we awake to the sound of a rooster crowing from the yard next door, and the view from our window is dominated by a family dwelling in cheery pink, with laundry hung out to dry and the house dog sleeping contentedly in an open doorway.

Tranquility

French colonial window shutters

Intersection in the old town

Midday scene

Going bananas

Naga serpents at Wat Nong Sikhounmuang

Just outside our hotel a fragrant pillar of smoke rises up from a barbecue grill, manned by a housewife who holds a veritable pile of meat, ready to be thrown onto the fire. Up and down the street chickens roam freely on the asphalt, clucking happily beneath the cables strung overhead.

Soon we hear excited shouts emanating from the front of a family compound. Two women are harvesting mangoes with bamboo rods, tugging them doggedly from the top of the roadside trees. Leaves rustle and laughter ensues as one races to catch the fruit in a large rattan basket. It lands with a heavy, resounding ‘thump’.

Much like our stay in Vientiane, Luang Prabang is conducive to lazy mornings in bed and long, drawn-out meals. From Mr. Vongsip we learn that our visit has coincided with the tail end of dry season, just before the heavy rains from June to August. In the blazing heat of the summer, time is no longer dictated by the hands on our watches but rather by the movement of the sun.

At the gates of the Royal Palace, already closed for the day, stalls are being set up ahead of the evening market. We meander through the wares spread out on red cloth, making a beeline for the steps on the opposite side of the road. Our destination is the top of Phousi Hill, a realm of modest temples and backpackers sitting in motley rows, watching the sunset over the shimmering Mekong.

By the summit a rocky outcrop sports a rusted artillery piece, an unlikely playground for a Lao teenager and her younger sister. A forgotten relic that would have overlooked the Royal Palace, the gun was probably installed during or even before the Laotian Civil War, when Luang Prabang remained a royalist stronghold until it fell in the closing months of conflict.

Wat Sen

Gold stencilling

Silence

Sakkarine Road

Haw Pha Bang, inside the Royal Palace

Above the evening market

On our final day we decide to take up Mr. Vongsip’s offer of a jaunt to the waterfalls at Tat Kuang Si. He takes us through the nearby villages in his brand-new minivan, on roads animated with schoolchildren all donning the same white and blue uniforms. We pass forest creeks, rabbles of butterflies, and terraces carved into the verdant hillside. “Sticky rice,” he says, gesturing with a sideways glance.

By the time we pull up at the park’s entrance, rain has started to fall in a persistent drizzle.  The waterfalls are just a short walk away, through a plethora of smoky stalls offering street food and wooden handicrafts. Even at the end of dry season the cascades embody a certain whimsical appeal, as though they have popped straight out of The Jungle Book. But it seems all too easy to access. In the search for a greater adventure, we heed a hand-painted wooden sign that points us to the top of the falls. Following this invitation, it turned out, would be the biggest mistake of our trip.

Woefully unequipped to deal with the slick and eroded trail, it’s not long before we hear the first of several claps of thunder in the valley. I ignore the nagging doubts in my mind, pressing on past the halfway point and a trio of hikers with their trekking poles. Much to our disappointment, the view at the top is less than impressive, and not at all worth the effort of getting there in the rain.

Unfortunately what goes up must come back down. While it was hard enough to scramble up the slippery slope, the descent is even more of a challenge. Bama, my travel companion, is stopped only from falling by the auspicious placement of a hollow tree trunk. Shoes and trousers caked in mud, we find ourselves locked in an uneasy embrace with the mountain under the intensifying rain. Suddenly I feel my feet giving way, and amid Bama’s worried cries I end up sliding a few metres on my knees, clutching helplessly at the bare rock and wet moss. “I’m okay,” I reassure him. “I’m okay.”

Eventually we emerge from the base of the trail, somewhat shaken but thankfully with only a few scratches to bear witness to the ordeal. Ducking beneath an entranceway in an attempt to wait out the rain, we are joined by two backpackers, members of a conga line that waded through the murky waters at the crest of the falls. Instinctively my eyes are drawn downwards, to the foot of the man now standing to my right. A leech is squirming on his small toe.

Butterflies at Tat Kuang Si

The lower cascades

Tat Kuang Si’s main waterfall

Ascending Phousi Hill

Back in the safety of Luang Prabang, we spend the next two hours under a ceiling fan, drying out in the comfort of our wood-panelled room. A reward for the day’s trials comes in the form of a sumptuous meal at Tamnak Lao, the restaurant that launched our culinary journey through town the night we arrived, legs wobbling after an 11-hour adventure in a beat-up minivan.

The next day we rise before dawn to catch the early morning flight to Bangkok. Once again, Mr. Vongsip is our trusty driver, and at five-thirty he is the one who is knocking at our door. We may have missed the interior of the Royal Palace, but Luang Prabang surprises us with something of a parting gift – a glimpse of the morning alms ceremony. From the minivan we sight a foreign visitor crouching behind the gate to her hotel, inches away from the passing monks with her super-sized camera. I wonder if she’s read the signs posted along Sisavangvong Road, all emblazoned with the same, candid message: “Please respect our culture”.

Across the Nam Khan we cruise down the road to the terminal, before coming alongside a stretch of freshly turned earth. It’s a stark, almost jarring contrast to the lush foliage that surrounds it. Behind the silent diggers the early stages of a new build can be seen, a web of concrete stumps with strands of rebar poking through. “New airport,” says Mr. Vongsip. “More flights, then more tourists will come.”

View from the summit

The Nam Khan River

Sunset over the Mekong

One last look

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. I still remember that afternoon at Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. Definitely not the best decision ever but worth the story, and missing the Royal Palace is a hint to go back in the future! Btw I love that picture of Naga. I wonder how I missed those. 🙂

    June 14, 2012
    • The funniest thing is how we promised ourselves never to go hiking again in the rain… then two weeks later we were doing it in China! I hope you didn’t get put off the Naga after our running joke. 😛

      June 14, 2012
  2. I agree…I guess you regret your decision to climb up the mountain, but it makes a great story and a funny memory! In China, I always catch myself saying things like, “I’m never doing that again,” and then I inevitably do. Right now, my husband and I are planning to visit Xi’An in a couple of weeks before we travel back to the U.S., and we keep telling ourselves, “We’re NEVER taking the slow train again,” after a bad experience we had back in February on a 26-hour train ride with no assigned seats. But if the only thing we can book to get to Xi’An is a slow train, then we might have to go back on our word….

    June 14, 2012
    • You’re right Rachel, half of this post would be missing if it wasn’t for that climb! I came very close to taking a 9-hour bus ride from Guangzhou to Guilin but my worried parents and relatives convinced me to do otherwise. Regarding the slow train – I can only hope (and pray) that you and Justin find a more comfortable way to get to Xi’an! There must be some cheaper flights from Shanghai…

      June 14, 2012
  3. QQ #

    That butterfly shot is beautiful. I’ve never seen butterflies clustered like that before so it must’ve been a sight. Hopefully I’ll have the chance this coming winter in Mexico.

    June 15, 2012
    • It was my first time seeing that happen as well – the clustering came ahead of a rainstorm so perhaps it was a protective instinct!

      June 15, 2012
  4. Another lovely account James. The waterfalls seem off-putting, hate leeches, eew. The alms giving ceremony sounds fascinating. Hope we get to see it too. Love the photos.

    June 15, 2012
    • Thank you, Madhu! I was slightly disappointed with the waterfalls – they were beautiful, but nothing too special in terms of scale. In hindsight I would have preferred exploring a bit more of the town; there was this fantastic bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan that we never got to cross. We’ll have to save it for next time!

      June 15, 2012
  5. I remember the feeling of peace I felt while in Luang Prabang… it’s magestic, just enjoying the pace of the sun while everything else has stopped in time, a while back…
    As always, you have a way with words that makes the reader feel like they were there with you. You’re a very good story-teller, thanks for sharing those fond memories with such talent.
    I’m updating my trip in Laos soon, but it won’t be as beautiful! Another kind of adventure.
    Thanks again for sharing.
    Enjoy everything!
    Jul’

    June 15, 2012
    • Merci beaucoup, Jul! I adored Laos and I know I will have to go back sometime soon, maybe when it’s not so hot. The people were some of the friendliest I met and it was the perfect country for a slow, relaxing getaway.

      I’m looking forward to catching up on your multilingual adventures… take care and stay safe!
      James

      June 15, 2012
  6. If I had one reason to move back to Southeast Asia, it would be for the chance to visit Laos again. Fantastic country.

    June 16, 2012
    • Laos had me wishing to stay – I could have done with an extra week to spend more time in and around Luang Prabang or go south towards the panhandle.

      June 17, 2012
  7. Beautiful!

    June 21, 2012
  8. Ethereal photo of the Nam Khang River, makes me want to travel and never come back. How long were you there?

    June 21, 2012
    • We were in Laos for just under a week, and three of those nights were spent in Luang Prabang. In hindsight I would have liked to stay for one more night!

      June 21, 2012
  9. Wow! That waterfall is stunning! I don’t blame you for risking limbs to try and get a grander look.

    Fact: That many butterflies in one place is terrifying to me.

    Why no picture of the leech?

    June 22, 2012
    • Your comment made me chuckle, Erica! 😛

      I wasn’t really in any mood to take a picture of that leech – I was just overcome with shock and my jaw must have dropped to the ground!

      June 22, 2012
  10. Veo que no has dejado de viajar y realizar fantásticos reportajes fotográficos en todo este tiempo, my dear friend 🙂

    He estado bastante ocupado con exámenes y graduaciones…el verano antes de ir a la universidad suele ser distinto, pero también lleno de tramitaciones y demás responsabilidades 🙂

    Sin embargo, as Aerosmith said, I don’t wanna miss a thing, and I’ll really be on the lookout for your new posts, and the ones I’ve missed , like this one.

    Es increíble, tu blog es, entre muchas cosas, una ventana abierta hacia el mundo asiático, tan lejano para mi, me permite hacerme una mera idea de como es…

    Many people whish to be bit rich to buy great mansions, acquire lavish cars and just to be more full headed… However, if I had that great amount of money, I have no doubt I would use it just for travelling all over the world and see or meet new cultures…and I tell you, Asia would be the first one destination I would go to!

    Someday… 😉

    June 24, 2012
    • Javi, no te olvides que era tu país que inspiró la creación de este blog. 😉

      Muchísimas gracias, otra vez, por tu apoyo. Como te he dicho antes, Hong Kong – y Asia por extensión – está preparado para recibirte con brazos abiertos. El mundo es cada vez más pequeño… en mi viaje más reciente, al sur de China, encontré una familia de mochileros españoles y también un tío de Uruguay! Así que ahorra dinero, busca vuelos pa’ aquí y ya estarás en el camino!

      And someday you will. 😀

      June 24, 2012
  11. Mmmm. Luang Prabang. I loved it there. I missed the waterfall, but I did get food poisoning from a night market eatery.

    August 9, 2012
    • Truth be told, I was a little bit disappointed with the waterfall – in hindsight I would probably have preferred to visit the royal palace instead! As for the food, I didn’t have any problems with the local cuisine or iced drinks… although I did get an upset stomach the day we arrived in Laos, thanks to a greasy breakfast at the airport in Kuala Lumpur!

      August 9, 2012
  12. Hi James – I enjoyed your description of your time in Luang Prabang very much. I’ve been poking around your blog – I like your writing style. It’s a bit more thoughtful than many travel blogs, as I hope ours is.
    We’re currently in Mexico, but I’ve just posted the last of 3 posts about Luang Prabang and area. We spent 12 days there in February of this year. We had the minivan ride from hell to get there 🙂 from Vientiane.
    Off now to read what else you’ve had to say about Laos
    Cheers
    Alison

    May 18, 2013
    • Thanks Alison, I really appreciate your kind words. 🙂 As for “the minivan ride from hell” – you described it perfectly. We went right at the cusp of wet season so the road was already potholed in many places, the first four hours were excruciating and I couldn’t believe how our fellow passengers could sleep right through it!

      May 18, 2013
  13. This has to be one of the most laid back places in the world. I love Laos, for me it was the real highlight of travelling in Asia! You’ve summed it up perfectly

    June 27, 2013
    • Thanks Will, I adored everything about Luang Prabang – the people, the architecture, the food… it was just so peaceful and easygoing. Haven’t made it to Mexico yet but I’ve promised myself I must!

      June 28, 2013
  14. We had a very similar climb, but I just fell in love with Luang Prabang. I’d been keeping much too fast a pace, and this gave me some time to just relax and enjoy. Love the butterfly shot. LOVE IT.

    July 4, 2013
    • Thank you, Mindy! Laos taught me to really take it slow – for the entire week I was there I threw off my watch and rarely cared about the time. It was so liberating!

      July 5, 2013
  15. Let us join all of you who love Luang Prabang and the memories brought back by James’s post. I miss the place, the food, the people… it really is a magical travel destination.

    May 1, 2014
    • Yes, magical is right… I would go back in a heartbeat!

      May 3, 2014

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