Laos, Part 1

The day after our Valentine’s Day 5k, we were on a short flight to Luang Prabang, Laos! Unlike most other destinations in Southeast Asia, which connect through Bangkok, LPB is just a one hour direct flight from Chiang Mai. We were in a tuk-tuk on the way to the airport at 1:30, and we touched down in LPB just three hours later!

Getting into Laos, for U.S. citizens, is similar to Cambodia – a Visa on Arrival is required. However, we landed and realized we didn’t have enough cash to pay the $35 per person fee. They didn’t take credit card, so what can we do? I asked if there is an ATM nearby, and was told that there was one outside. I backed out of the line, moved in the general direction of where the agent had pointed, and asked again when I didn’t see an ATM. Again, I was told “outside”. As in…outside the airport? But how do I get out there without a visa? We can’t even get past immigration without a visa. Nobody at the airport seemed to care, though. I walked through a few doors that said “no entry” or “employees only” with no escort, and nobody gave me a second look. I got money from the ATM, walked back through those same doors that said “no entry”, walked back to the visa line and paid! Imagine trying to do that in a U.S. airport…

After we were both through immigration, we got on the shuttle that took us to our hotel, a short fifteen or twenty minute ride away.Even though LPB is the fourth largest city in Laos, not even 50,000 people live there, so most of our ride was past modest homes and small markets; a much less developed city than we’ve been accustomed to in Chiang Mai.

We walked into our hotel and checked in with the manager, Phone (pronounced “pown”). Phone is one of the most friendly, warm, welcoming people we have seen in our trip so far – which is really saying a lot, because almost everyone has been very friendly! After checking us in, Phone took the time to sit down with us and show us a map of the city, explaining in detail what we could find at each of the different districts. Then he showed us pictures of each of the most popular tourist destinations nearby, with details about how to get there as well as his personal recommendations! Phone would prove to be incredibly helpful and friendly during our entire stay in LPB. It was funny how excited he got about all the activities in the area.

It was approaching dinner time, so we dropped our things in the room and set out to go downtown. The hotel provided free bikes for their guests, which was great because the main downtown area is a little far to walk, but a perfect biking distance (about two kilometers to the start of downtown). It was getting dark, we were getting hungry, and without a reliable way of knowing exactly where we were (we didn’t bother getting sim cards in Laos), we stopped at the first place that looked good. After a delicious meal of coconut curry and deep fried lemongrass meatballs, washed down with a tall glass of Beer Lao, we started to head home.

Craving a bit of dessert, we stopped off to share a crepe (not sure exactly what the ingredients were – we just ordered the same thing that the previous patron had ordered), and walked to the nearby lit park. Julia heard a group of people that sounded like they were having a get together and convinced me to go check it out with her. We overlooked a group of around seven or eight people drinking beer and playing a game that we would later find out is called Pétanque – a game similar to shuffleboard but played by throwing apple-sized metal balls. We watched for a few minutes, and after we figured out the most basic of rules, we started cheering whenever someone made a good play. After a few minutes, one of the locals, named Bounthong, asked us to come down and play with them! Unfortunately we only got to play for a few minutes, because Bouthong accidentally lost the cochonnet, which the game simply can’t be played without. We still stayed and chatted with the locals for a bit, which was a lot of fun – and very difficult, because their English was pretty poor (and they were also quite drunk). After a little while, we parted ways, but not before agreeing to come back to play again the next night. We had an early day the next morning, so we went back to the hotel to get some rest.

We woke up at 7 the next morning to catch an 8am shuttle to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is considered by many to be Laos’ top tourist attraction. After a delicious (and free!) breakfast at the hotel, we got on the shuttle that would take us to the trailhead. The shuttle was open-air, and it was still early in the morning, so it was actually quite cold – but an hour later, we were walking towards the waterfall. We decided to go early in the morning based on reviews we read on Tripadvisor, saying that by noon, the place is crawling with tourists. We were very glad that we did, because we hardly saw anyone else until we were on our way out!

Before we got to the waterfalls, we walked past the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre, which rescues Asian bears from poachers. The bears had been kept in cages barely larger than themselves for up to ten years, kept alive so that their bile could be harvested for herbal medicine. Once the bear stops producing bile, they are killed. The Rescue Centre has rescued several hundred bears from all over Southeast Asia, and even performed the world’s first neurosurgery on a bear! A dozen or so bears that are too weak or domesticated to live in the wild are kept in habitats at the Rescue Centre to promote awareness of the cause. They were very active while we walked by, and we even got a great video of two bears playing!

We walked past the Rescue Centre and almost immediately saw the lower waterfalls. The pools were very shallow and had trees growing in them, almost like a mangrove. None of the lower waterfalls were very big, but they were quite beautiful.

Then we rounded a corner and saw the *real* Kuang Si Waterfall…

There was a short (but very steep, as it turns out) trail to get to the top of the waterfall, so of course we took it. At the top, we were met with more beautiful views, handmade bridges, and blissful tranquility. We stumbled upon a local who offered to take us on a bamboo raft about 200 meters upstream to a picturesque location and “source” of the water. It was only $0.25 per person (plus another $0.25 for a cold Beer Lao), so why not?

We hiked back down to the base of the waterfall and saw that many tourists were starting to crowd the area. It was starting to get hot out, so we decided to go for a swim! One of the pools had a great tree trunk as a jumping off point. There were a few dozen people around the pool, but nobody in yet. Leaving on my shirt (out of respect, it is a Buddhist country after all) and shoes, I jumped in! I don’t think many people were expecting it, as I heard at least a couple women let out a sharp yelp of surprise before I splashed down in the surprisingly warm water. After a quick swim, I traded places with Julia so we could both get an action shot! We swam around for a bit, then dried up, packed our things, and headed back to the hotel.

This post is getting a little long, so I think I’ll end it here for now. Stay tuned for the rest of our Laos adventures!

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