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.
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.
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.
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.”