Tuk Tuks and Riverboats in Luang Prabang, Laos

After a good 24 hours relaxing into holiday-mode, we decided to book a day-trip to cover some of the key local attractions. The main street is choc-full of tour providers offering an exhausting variety of excursions, but most included elephant riding which Matt and I strongly disagree with so instead we hired private transport – in the form of tuk-tuk and riverboat drivers – and ‘DIY’d’ a tour to the Kuang Si Waterfall and the Pak Oh Buddha Caves, via the Lao Whisky Village.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Our first destination – Kuang Si waterfall – was 29km south of the centre of Luang Prabang; in practical terms, this equated to an hour bumping around in the back of a tuk-tuk over dirt roads dented with gravelly craters, teeth chattering as we clattered over creaky wooden bridges (more fun than it might sound!). Through the dust clouds in our wake we saw lazy buffalo, scrawny chickens, goats, dogs and people performing odd-jobs such as bundling wood or pruning trees. In the background, green as far as the eye could see.

As we approached the entrance to the falls the roadside around us sprung to life with sizzling racks of BBQ meat, towers of fresh young coconut and row after row of ubiquitous elephant-print trousers.

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To enter the waterfall area we paid the nominal 20,000 Kip (1.80gbp) admission fee to a girl in a kiosk in exchange for a ticket which we promptly handed to a guy sat less than 2 meters away, then started up a mud-track under a shady canopy of dense trees. Almost immediately – and quite unexpectedly – we came across an enclosure of black bears snoozing atop wooden towers (I’ll come back to this) and shortly afterwards reached the bottom tier of the waterfall – a paradisaical pool of glacier blue water which, quite honestly, blew me away.

You see, I’d managed my expectations so well before we arrived (seen one waterfall, seen them all right?) and convinced myself so conclusively that the promo photos would have been diligently photoshopped by the Laos Tourisism marketing department (water can’t be that blue, right?) that I completely and utterly underestimated the place. It was genuinely incredible!

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When I’d recovered from my initial shock (and taken 800-or-so photos) we continued to follow the path past successive pools of milky turquoise until we arrived at the source – a 50m vertical drop of frothy white water, crashing against the limestone rocks*. Having arrived early, we were fortunate enough to be among the first visitors of the day and got some great shots before taking a dip.

* nerdy fact – the limestone is what causes the water to be that insane blue colour.

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Despite the ‘no jumping’ signs, I couldn’t resist! The water was deliciously cold and the perfect antidote to the already hot Laotian morning.

Back to the bears…

The enclosure that we passed near the entrance to the falls is a sanctuary funded by ‘Free the Bears’, which is home to 23 Asiatic Black ‘Moon’ bears. Most have been rescued from the ironically sickening ‘traditional medicine’ trade, which saw them kept in suffocatingly small metal cages, unable to move, with a catheter inserted directly into their gall bladder to remove the bile – a substance which has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries.

The rescued bears looked quite content in their new home; the larger bears were lazing around on the high towers of a huge jungle-gym, and the younger ones were play-fighting and eating chunks of pineapple.

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Save the Bears do some brilliant work supporting environmental education projects, and working with governments and local police forces to protect bears around the world.

Although the sanctuary sits in the Kuang Si Falls park it sadly doesn’t benefit from the admission fee so they rely on donations of people passing through, and they sell soft toys and t-shirts to raise funds.

Xanghai ‘Whisky’ Village

After visiting the waterfall we headed back to town, grabbed some lunch and then traded our tuk-tuk for a narrow wooden riverboat. In the welcome shade of the boat’s canopy we zipped along the milky-brown waters of the Mekong, passing grandiose villas which neighbored corrugated iron shacks, amidst towering palm trees and lush forest.

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We passed so many groups of kids playing in the water near the riverbanks; most shrieked and waved when we went by, but these boys seemed more interested in burying back into the earth!
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Another riverboat (similar to ours), against the mountainous backdrop.

After an hour-or-so our driver docked to a wedge of bamboo connected to a flight of rudimentary steps which led us up the riverbank to Xanghai Village – otherwise known as the ‘Whisky Village’.

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Matt and I are huge Scotch whisky fanatics (to the extent that our first holiday together was a distillery-crawl around Islay, and a bottle of Ardbeg 10yr old was tucked away in our luggage for this holiday). At the slightest whisper of the ‘W’ word our ears prick up and our noses scout for signs of peat, so we were looking forward to learning a bit about how ‘Lao Lao’ whisky was produced and maybe getting to sample a cask or two. However, we very quickly learned that ‘whisky’ is interpreted a bit differently in Laos.

At the top of the riverbank a young girl standing by a trestle table laden with glass bottles of various concoctions (some which contained snakes or scorpians or other insects) offered us a drop of purple liquid – sans snake – in a shot glass. It tasted a bit like sweet blackcurrant grappa and not in the slightest like any whisky I’ve encountered before, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The sign below told us everything else we (apparently) needed to know, although failed to explain at what point the poor reptiles were jammed in there – a peculiarity which made me feel a bit queasy, physically and morally.

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The rest of the village showed little sign of whisky… but lots of signs of weaving. Actually, ‘Weaving Village’ would have been more a appropriate monkier (if less enticing!). For 20 minutes we wandered around the small village in the searing heat, a little bemused, politely declining invitations to purchase scarves and blankets.

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Lots of weaving, not much whisky!
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We came across a beautiful temple in the centre of the small town, and there appeared to be some kind of celebration going on with loud music and singing.

Between us we know quite a bit about whisky – both at the production and the consumption end – and while we acknowledge this wasn’t whiskey proper, it also didn’t have enough on show to interest booze enthusiasts. If you are planning to visit Xanghai to see how LaoLao is produced, I’d suggest you avoid it; however, you want to buy some reasonably priced woven goods and see the ladies of the village making it outside their homes, this is probably a good place to stop off!

Pak Oh Buddha Caves

Back on the boat, we zipped along for an hour before docking to a second bamboo deck, above which a whitewashed staircase carved into a limestone cliff signaled our arrival at the Pak Oh Buddah caves. At the bottom of the staircase we handed 40,000 kip to a young guy perched under an umbrella, then climbed the 10-or-so steps into the cave. After the ancillary business of lighting the some incense sticks and wedging them into a pile of ash (another 10,000 Kip “to support the restoration of the caves”), we took stock of our surroundings.

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The cave was small and damp and a blanket of Buddhas camouflaged each horizontal surface. Some were as small as my thumb, others were around waist height; some gleamed gold and others decades old, rusty and crumbling; all were covered in a dust of undisturbed cobwebs. The air was still and cool like a chapel and the entrance to the cave formed a beautiful jagged frame of the river.

A notice explained that while local people had used the caves to worship river spirits since the 8th Century, the Buddha statues only started to accrue much later when Buddhism was adopted by the Royal families of Lao having spread from the West in the 16th Century. From that time until 1975, the King and the people of Luang Prabang made an annual pilgrimage to the caves as part of their New Year religious celebrations and commissioned artisans to create sculptures which they entrusted to the cave.

Given the popularity of this place (the caves feature on almost every Mekong River excursion), I had expected to find something quite grand and breathtaking. Instead, I found myself asking Matt: “is this it? Really? It can’t be, can it?!”.

While the cave had an certain natural beauty and the devoted compilation of Buddhas was sweet, it didn’t really blow me away. On reflection, it probably didn’t help that we recently visited the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, which kind of raises your expectations when it comes to large-scale statue collections!

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After snapping a few photos we climbed back down the steep white staircase and only then saw a sign pointing to a second cave and a second set of steps (I counted 238, although regular interruptions by small children with puppy-dog eyes selling painted snail-shells and sticks of sugarcane may mean that I’m a step-or-two out).

Gasping we reached the second cave, the entrance to which was blocked aside from a small gate. This absence of natural light created a stellar opportunity for the entrepreneurial young girl who sat outside renting torches for a dollar; by this point we were fed up of people trying to sell us things so made do with the iPhone torch and flash photography, but if you don’t like the dark I recommend you suck it up and hire a torch as it really is pitch black inside!.

There were relatively few statues in this cave compared to the one below and it was a bit underwhelming, but it felt good to get some exercise in!

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Post-trip reflections on the caves: If I’d spent 2 hours in a tuk-tuk to get there then I think I’d have been disappointed with what we found; however, the breezy boat ride along the Mekong was such a pleasurable experience that it became the main event and we credited the cave visit as an added extra, an opportunity to stretch our legs and get a deeper insight into what makes this place tick.

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For me this day was one of the highlights of our Laos-Cambodia trip; the Kuang Si waterfall was unlike anything I’ve experienced before; in fact, we made a return visit before we left LP…

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One more blog on LP to come (I tried and failed to keep it to two posts!)

– Emma

Escaping to Laos for Golden Week

Over the last 3-4 months Matt and I have sweated our way through our second Shanghai summer – a particularly brutal one this year where week after week the temperature soared and the damp air seeped into our skin, clothes and everything we touched (imagine an open-air sauna and you won’t be far off). During this time China clocked a couple of record high days, which disgruntled the locals as well as the expats!

For a pair of pallid Brits, nostalgic for summers hallmarked by the transient damp of English drizzle followed by brisk winds and a few treasured rays of sunshine, the inescapable sticky heat combined with air-con-induced pollution proved exhausting. Having said that, we did agree that while last summer (our first in Shanghai) had been a literal shock to our British systems, we both felt more prepared for it this year and therefore more comfortable.

Making travel plans

With China’s ‘Golden Week’ (I wrote about this last year) approaching and our tanks grumbling on empty, our thoughts drifted to holiday planning and on a rainy Saturday afternoon we sat down in front of a world map and circled the places we simply had to visit before we repatriate to the UK.

We made a good effort to explore the China mainland during the first half of our assignment, so for our remaining 18 months (yes, we’re half-way through!) we decided to see a bit more of SE Asia. Listing the countries we wanted to visit was the easy bit. Narrowing the list to one that could be realistically accomplished given our annual leave allowance was a bit harder. Scheduling these trips around South-East Asia’s lengthy monsoon seasons was nigh impossible!* Nevertheless, 5 hours (and a few glasses of wine) later we had cracked it, and quickly booked our next adventure: Golden Week in Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap).

* Coincidentally, October is a great time to travel in mainland China from a weather perspective as the days are cooler and generally dry but it can be extremely expensive and busy if your trip coincides with a Chinese national holiday. This also applies to Japan and Korea, which are popular destinations for Chinese tourists.

From Shanghai to Luang Prabang

Fast forward a few weeks and we were ready to start the first leg of our journey: Luang Prabang in northern Laos. As our flight descended, we caught our first glimpses of the Laotian countryside; a patchwork of luscious wild forest cast over sculpted dunes and valleys, a kaleidoscope of green from luminous lime to and shadowy-green-grey, which mirrored the drifts of thick white cloud above.

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Fortunately, we exited the plane to scorching heat – not a sign of the thunderous downpour which our weather apps had foretold.

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Brilliant blue skies!

After a bit of a chore clearing the entry/ visa processes at the airport we transferred to our hotel, lapped up the complementary mango drizzled in honey (yum), dropped our cases and walked into town to orientate ourselves – just in time for sunset.

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To get into the main part of Luang Prabang town we needed to cross over the Nam Khan river and did so via the ‘bicycle and motorcycle bridge’ (well, via some weather-beaten wooden planks tacked on to the bridge, which creaked and swayed under our weight; my heart was in my mouth the whole time!)
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A Laos tuk-tuk, brightly coloured and omnipresent. As we walk past, the drivers stir to life and call out ”tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk” – it was the soundtrack to our time in Laos and Cambodia!
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An incredible sunset over the Mekong river, which caught us off-guard as we were wandering around deciding where to eat dinner.
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Riverboats moored up along the banks of the Mekong, shimmering like sardines in the fading sunlight. No filter required.

Climbing the Dragon Staircase on Mount Phousi

We had read that the sunset in Luang Prabang was best seen from the 360-degree vantage point of Mount Phousi,  so the following evening as the heat of the day began to wane we began our ascent via the 328 steep stone steps in the belly of a snaking white and gold dragon. Although the temperature had dipped a fraction, the 150m climb meant we were soaked with sweat within 60 seconds, in sticky camaraderie with our many fellow climbers.

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Mt. Phousi is located opposite the Luang Prabang National Museum in the centre of town and you can get some cracking panoramas on the way up to the top.

Halfway up the hill we were met by a band of brilliant-gold Buddhas – half-concealed in a grotto of stone and trees – and just after this we passed a white-walled monastery, home to orange-robed monks going about their business. 

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Huge reclining Buddha statue half-way up Mt PhouSi.

At the top of the hill we found the gilded stupa of Wat Chomsi, which was built in 1804 and is still an active place of worship – Luang Prabang is the former Royal capital of Laos, and still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning.

Unfortunately, trying to scout a clear view was like was like the hunt for a 16″ shirt at the Next sale on Boxing Day. We didn’t fancy our chances of success among the swarm of people scrabbling for a prime selfie-taking position (plus, can a sunset still be enjoyed while drowning in a sweaty sea of elbows and i-phones?) so we took a few pre-sunset snaps and headed back down, happily perched in a bar with wine-in-hand by the time it turned dark.

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Although we didn’t stay for the main event, the pre-sunset vista was pretty spectacular.
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Evidently, everyone visiting Luang Prabang had read the same guidebook tip!

I’d never heard of Luang Prabang before researching this trip to Laos (yes, I know I say this about almost everywhere we visit!), but within a few hours I had fallen head over heels in love with the place. More to come!

Emma