We travelled to Laos from Chiang Rai on the slow boat. ‘Slow’ boat, in this case, is not figurative; the trip takes two days with a one night stopover in the tiny town of Pakbeng.
My expectation of the slow boat trip was of a romantic, languorous glide over the earthy waters of the Mekong river, reading the history of Indochina on cushioned seats and eating lunch with a floating view of timeless, wholesome villages. The reality very soon dawned in the queue to get on the boat (you have to buy the tickets beforehand of course), when I very quickly noticed the yawning discrepancy between the size of the boat and the colossal crowd of people waiting to embark. Suddenly everyone was Usain Bolt’s new-found competition, racing to the front to try to get a seat by the water. The runners-up managed a small, wooden bench facing the other passengers, and finally came the overwhelmed and the oblivious, the latter foolishly thinking they could linger over their breakfasts before the long two-day trip to Laos; they got the floor.
Fortunately, one of the best qualities about people – especially backpackers – is that most have a way of making the best of a sweaty, cramp-inducing situation. In the end there was a lot of laughter, a lot of drinking of over-priced, deliciously cold Beerlao, and some engine-deck smoking of the local produce. One French couple even managed to retain the romance like an oasis amongst the dunes of rowdy backpackers, with the boyfriend reading French novels to his serene and closed-eyed girlfriend for almost the entirety of the trip.
The views on the other hand were exactly as I imagined. Tangled jungles gave away suddenly to a village of thatched huts balanced precariously on wooden stilts and occasionally to the tip of an elaborate temple. On one side of the river women washed and children played on the banks, whilst on the other herds of wild water buffalo sleepily grazed while fishermen diligently untangled their nets.
We arrived in Pakbeng just as it was starting to get dark. It was in this tiny half-way town that we had our most memorable Laotian culinary experiences: Lao Lao and Laap salad. The former was voluntary torture, the latter a revelation. Lao Lao is a 45% Laotian ‘whiskey’, except the undertones are more moonshine antifreeze than smoky peat. If you can brave the taste, you can get yourself a bottle for one dollar and have yourself a pretty good time (no guarantees about the following day). Laap salad on the other hand is delicious – you can make it with almost any type of meat but we thought we’d try the local buffalo. Laap is made by simply browning minced meat in fish sauce and then tossing in loads of fresh herbs; usually mint, coriander, lemongrass, lime juice and spring onions.
Luang Prabang, especially if you’ve just come from Thailand, is like Asia in slow-motion. Hidden high amongst the mountains of Northern Laos, it feels like a land that time forgot. Perhaps because of its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Luang Prabang has avoided the kind of rapid modernisation seen by its neighbours, and, to a a degree, other cities in Laos. The hotels are boutique, often repurposed colonial buildings, and the restaurants likewise. The result lends Laos an otherworldly kind of nostalgia. We spent most of our two days there languidly strolling down hot, dusty streets flanked by French colonial-era buildings, visiting whatever glitteringly gilded temple we happened to come across. The French influence is still keenly felt here – so that you might find yourself eating a freshly-made croissant at a Parisian style cafe whilst watching novice monks playing in the Nam Khan river, taking a well-earned break from their daily Theravada studies.
WHAT TO DO:
We went to Kuang-Si falls with the benefit of knowing absolutely nothing about it. Less than an hour’s tuk-tuk drive from Luang Prabang are the most glorious serious of plunge pools and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. They’re not huge, but the texture of the layered levels and unearthly colours make them uniquely beautiful. Topaz-coloured water tumbles from the forest cliff of one single waterfall, feeding a series of smaller falls and swimmable pools below. When we saw the first of these, the lower pools, we were stunned at the beauty – we thought that this was the whole site. Walking further up you’ll come across more plunge pools until you finally get to the surreally stunning main waterfall. This is made up of three tiers – the main fall at the bottom, a middle tier where there is a secret pool which you’ll likely have all to yourself, and the top tier in the jungle where the water originates.
We took a look at the secret pool when we hiked past but since I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, we decided to give it a miss. If you’re keen on braving it past the warning signs then Nomadic Matt has a great guide to finding it here. Past the middle tier, it’s a steep and slippery jungle hike to the top, but well worth it for the views and lack of tourists. Here you can get intimidatingly close to the edge on a bamboo bridge and swing over the surprisingly still water that feeds the rest of the falls.
There are plenty of blogs that cover how to get to Kuang si in detail. We took the tuk-tuk from in front of the post office in Luang Prabang. All the options allow you to take in the scenic rural countryside, but this one is cheap (it should be about 50,000 kip or $6 dollars if sharing), safer than a scooter, and allows you to stay at the falls for as long as you please, unlike the shared minivans.
Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (roughly $2.50)
Opening hours: 8am – 5:30 pm
The sanctuary is dedicated specifically to rescued Asian black bears, who are illegally poached for their paws and bile. You can watch them swing from their hammocks or play on their tires. 1pm is feeding time, when meat is hidden around the enclosures so that the bears can ‘hunt’ for their food.
Consider giving a donation or buying some merchandise as the fund doesn’t receive any money from ticket sales at the park.
With it’s gracefully sloping rooftop and elaborate gold gilding, it’s easy to see why Wat Xieng Thong is the city’s most visited temple. At the back of the temple is a colourful glass mosaic of the tree of life, a Buddhist symbol of the interconnectedness of nature.
Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)
Opening hours: 8am – 5pm
Whether you choose to go at sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, you’ll get amazing 360 views of Luang Prabang – its temples, rivers and across the surrounding countryside to the mountains in the distance. You can even admire the view from Wat Chom, the beautifully simple temple that sits on top of Mount Phousi.
Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)
Opening hours: 5:30 am – 6pm.
In Luang Prabang, the alms-giving ceremony, or ‘Tak Bat’, is a ritual that has taken place for over 600 years. At sunrise, locals will take their place on the sidewalk with their bowls of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and wait for the procession of monks to silently pass. Watching hundreds of monks silently glide through the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang at sunrise has unsurprisingly received attention from tourists, but as countless blogs have pointed out, the tradition is a serious one. If attending, it’s advised to keep a respectful distance, turn off the flash, and avoid making noise.
The night market in Luang Prabang is lively, has amazing street food, and unlike some other markets across Asia, offers some beautifully made, high quality goods. There are bars and restaurants in the area and generally makes for a fun evening.
The market is in Sisavangvong Road, behind the National Tourism Office.
Opening hours: 5pm – 10pm every evening. (Technically it closes at 11pm but most stalls will have packed up by then)
Made entirely out of bamboo, the bridge is such a simple structure that it’s taken down every year before the wet season and put back up for the dry season. Cross to explore the other side of town (or get to Dyen Sabai bar and restaurant on the other side) or to visit the paper and weaving villages.
There is a small fee of 5,000 kip ($0.60) to cross.
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:
Famous with the backpackers, this bar is built on stilts directly over the Nam Khan river, and has cushioned mats and pillows for seats. Admire the river views or join in the daily yoga sessions. We came here one night after too much Lao Lao and went bowling with a group we’d met on the slow boat. For some reason it’s a tradition for everyone to go to the nearby bowling alley after closing time.
This little restaurant was on the way to our hotel and was our favourite place to eat while we were there. Just off the centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we saw, and while the food is basic it’s also deliciously cooked. Try the seafood Pad Thai and chicken in lemongrass.
Amazing food at a good price and is also for a good cause. The menu is full of creative twists on the local food. Try the grilled beef salad with Szechuan peppers and crispy frangipani flowers.
WHERE TO STAY:
I can’t find the name of the place we stayed at. We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere for our trip to Luang Prabang so we just wandered around until we found a local guy that said he could offer us a room for $10 a night. Obviously we took it. The room had a shared bathroom on a separate floor and the only furniture was a bed, but I loved it. Made entirely of wooden slats, the sun would stream through at all hours of the day and the view was of the Nam Khan river. Cold River guesthouse was directly opposite and made a lovely breakfast at a ridiculous price.