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Laos Letters

Up
Mekong River
Luang Prabang
Luang Namtha
Northern Laos

Luang Prabang

Dear Friends and Family,

For our first morning in Luang Prabang we walked to the information corner where there was a plethora of kiosks making crepes, Laos coffee and fruit shakes.  Having seen that most of the sights in town were far from our guesthouse, we decided to move closer to the river.  At Soutikone I (the original Soutikone guest house run by the parents of our hoteliers, and just one block from the Mekong) we bargained for an air conditioned room for $15/night for 4 nights.  She even took Baht, which was convenient as we had lots of baht.  We had a really lazy afternoon, with lunch on the river.  Then a siesta.  Then dinner on the river again.  We felt like we deserved a day of rest after all the go go go.

The Nam Ou river runs through town
The Nam Ou river runs through town
The old bridge is for scooters & peds
The old bridge is for scooters & peds

We were raring to go the next day, and after a quick breakfast of fruit in the room we hit the tourist office for info on where to go and what to see.  It was Sunday, so we had a day to explore before needing to get our Vietnam visas organized.  It was a bit overcast but that kept the air a bit cooler.

We compared prices of taking a tuk‑tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfall ($12 each) and decided to rent a motorbike for half that.  Timothy (at KPTD  down the road east from Info center, on the right) had a good selection, and he spoke excellent English, but there was no getting around leaving a passport, which we don't like to do.  We left Jon's, chose helmets, and hit the road on a mostly new Honda 110cc semiautomatic bike.

National Museum presiding over the night street market
National Museum presiding over the night street market
Travelers enjoying Luang Prabang sights
Travelers enjoying Luang Prabang sights

We enjoyed the 45 minute trip, using both Timothy's hand-drawn map and the HOBO map from the info center.  We passed through small villages and nice hills and pastoral lands.  The villages weren't very ethnic, just third world concrete homes, some bamboo structures in fields, and people in western garb.  There were both dry and wet rice fields, and some teak plantations, easy to spot with the large green oval leaves and light bark.  Most of the road was paved, and there were numerous small bridges of crossed planks that were a bit of a worry on the motorbike.

Walks through town were lovely
Walks through town were lovely
We usually ate dinner (& some lunches) overlooking the Mekong River
We usually ate dinner (& some lunches) overlooking the Mekong River

Kuang Si Waterfall park is on a dead end road, so it's easy to find.  We sat in the shade of a small outdoor restaurant to have a quick lunch of BBQ chicken and chips, then paid the $2.50 each to enter.  We were surprised to see that the park houses a sanctuary for Asiatic (Moon) bears which have been captured from poachers or taken from the tourist trade.  At first we saw only the huge enclosures (nothing overhead) akin to Seattle zoo with many trees, logs, rocks and climbing platforms.  Not a bear in sight.  But then we heard a growl, and saw men in the enclosures with buckets.  They were hiding fruit and cut up food in barrels, inner‑tubes, logs, stumps, bamboo hammocks, and baskets all through the enclosure.  Once the men left, the bears ambled in.  We watched entranced as these small black bears with white crescents on their chests scavenged for food.  They stood on hind legs to reach up, dug in stumps, and reached into carefully constructed hollow spaces to retrieve the food.  These bears are given medical care if needed, but will not be released to the wild again until poaching has been stopped.  Sad, but heartening to see the good care they get.

Moon Bear, showing off his distinctive crest on his chest
Moon Bear, showing off his distinctive crest on his chest
Food was hidden everywhere
Food was hidden everywhere

Following the shaded jungle trail uphill we came to a series of large aqua blue/green pools falling over limestone white deposits, giving them a Yellowstone-like appearance.  The higher we went, the higher the falls got until we reached the main falls.  The whole area was clean and well kept, unlike some waterfalls on Phuket.  Yes, there were lots of foreigners swimming and clowning around with cameras, but also many locals, probably because it was Sunday.

Kids playing in the wonderful Kuang Si Waterfalls
Kids playing in the wonderful Kuang Si Waterfalls
The big falls, at the top of the park
The big falls, at the top of the park

Thunder clouds loomed above as we scootered back to Luang Prabang.  Our second goal of the day was to see the Pak Ou Caves, about 18 miles (30 km) on the other side of town.  It was so hot we decided to chance the rain.  There was almost no traffic on the back roads that skirted the edge of the Mekong River for miles.  We wound gently up and down as we approached a big mountain and the small bamboo huts that marked the village of Ban Pak Ou.  After a 3 minute boat ride across the river we docked at a sloshing bamboo pier, then climbed whitewashed steps up the cliff to the first (lower) cave, to be met with the sound of monks chanting.  Beautiful!  We gave a donation, then climbed to the upper cave and were offered a torch to take inside.  It was deep and dark, and filled with thousands of old Buddha statues.  They ran the gamut from glittering mosaics to wooden ones rotting away.

Pak Ou Caves from the Mekong River
Pak Ou Caves from the Mekong River
Cave monks chanting
Cave monks chanting
Thousands of Buddha statues in the caves
Thousands of Buddha statues in the caves

Early each morning, all over Laos, the monks from the local monasteries walk through town to receive their daily food from the alms-givers.  We got up at 6am and sat by the side of the road, feet tucked under, to watch the procession of orange‑clad monks who stopped to receive small baskets or banana leaf-wrapped rice from the townspeople.  It was very quiet and sort of other worldly.

Young monk receiving alms in the early morning
Young monk receiving alms in the early morning
Robed monks are very colorful in the noonday sun
Robed monks are very colorful in the noonday sun

We spent our last 2 days taking in the local sights.  We rented bicycles one day to get back and forth to the Vietnam consulate for our visas, and to explore a bit further along the rivers.  We did some Wat hopping and tried out more riverside restaurants, where we had "Luang Prabang salad" with a tangy lemon‑mint dressing and crushed peanuts over lettuce, tomato, and hard boiled egg.

On our 35th anniversary, we climbed the hill in the middle of town
On our 35th anniversary, we climbed the hill in the middle of town
Our 35th anniversary dinner, over the Mekong
Our 35th anniversary dinner, over the Mekong

May 20th, our last day in Luang Prabang, was our 35th wedding anniversary, so we had a quiet day making time for siestas, massage (more gentle than a Thai massage) and a climb up Phu Si, the wat and jungle clad hill that rises in the middle of town.  Not only was the view spectacular from the stupa on top, but we enjoyed seeing the many Buddha statues, listed by day of the week.  At the National Museum we roamed through the coronation hall with its wonderful Japanese glass mosaics depicting the life of the people of Laos, commissioned by the new king in 1959, when he redecorated the entire palace and the throne room.  We ended the day with a food treat at a lovely Mekong river restaurant where we dined on yellow curry chicken soup and stir fried pork with herbs and garlic, steamed rice, and beer Lao.  We splurged for dessert at Jama Bakery with apple pie a la mode.

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon and Sue Hacking

Laos Letters: Up | Mekong River | Luang Prabang | Luang Namtha | Northern Laos

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