29 hours in luang prabang, laos

After being unceremoniously dumped in the dirt outside of Luang Prabang at 5 am, we hitched a ride into town and got to the ‘city’ center just as morning dawned. LP is up in the mountainous region of Laos, and I was freezing in the t-shirt that had seemed too heavy 20 hours prior, in sunny, sweaty Thailand. We stopped for breakfast, and I got vegetables with a traditional Laotian peanut and ginger spread, which looked eerily like earwax. Tasty, but not for the faint of heart, visually.

Luang Prabang is a rich historical cultural site in Laos, with some stating that Buddha used LP as a pit stop on the course of his travels. We figured if it was good enough for Buddha, it was good enough for us. Luang Prabang is Laos’ cultural capital, although its actual capital has flip-flopped throughout the ages- a reflection of the preferences of governing entities. LP was the capital throughout early centuries (14-16th) until 1893 when the French decided it was time to muscle their way in. LP was reinstated as capital again under the reign of King Sisavang Vong, but was permanently dethroned in 1946 when Vientiane snatched up the role as Laos’ capital.

As a result, Luang Prabang is a melting pot of traditional Laotian culture and French colonial influence, supposedly reflected in its variety of architecture. I say ‘supposedly’ because we were, admittedly, a bit more interested in the nature surrounding the city. So, after we dropped our bags off at the first hostel we could find (without determining prior that the dorm room smelled like death), we searched for a tuk tuk to take us into the mountains to the Kuang Si waterfalls.

We found one and narrowly avoided being mercilessly ripped off, thanks to Lauren’s haggling (about 80,000 kip each, RT). Off we went, flying through the backroads of LP, up dirt and gravel roads, past happy dogs and water buffalo who walked aimlessly in the wake of our dust trail. The views were gorgeous. We finally got an up close glimpse at the lush green mountains that LP is nestled between and we zipped past farmers, waving children, roadside snack stands and other windblown tourists.

We were greeted at Kuang Si by about half a dozen sweet faced Asiatic black bears (nicknamed Moon Bears, which is great because they were actually pretty spacey). Luang Prabang is home to the Asiatic Black Bear rescue center, which rescues these sweeties from poachers who capture them for their saliva- a pricey addition to health and beauty serums. We said bye to the bears, who were very nonplussed by our presence, and proceeded to the falls.

I’ve gotten into the lazy habit of not looking up pictures of the places I plan to visit, and it’s perfect because I’m always surprised and never disappointed. Kuang Si was no different. This water was so clear, so blue- the exact color of a Tiffany box. The rocks are limestone and the water is freezing cold and fresh. The falls are gentle and brave tourists waded in, pretending they didn’t feel the cold.

We decided that scaling the side of the waterfall was something we’d like to do, but were startled by the sharp and sudden incline- the trail went from an easy pleasure hike to a near vertical climb on a loose dirt trail with a sheer drop to the left side. I have never been so concerned for my life as I clung to tree roots while sliding down the side of the hill, my water bottle repeatedly falling out of my pack and smacking a hiker below me, who kindly and repeatedly retrieved it for me, even as he slid down the hill himself. And they say chivalry is dead! Well meaning hikers making the treacherous way down saw my panicked face and refusal to move for fear of falling, and dragged me up the hill by my hands, pulling me through the hardest part of the climb and reassuring me that there was an alternate route down. My heroes.

The top of the falls were a lattice of clear blue pools that you could soak in, connected by a narrow bamboo bridge (i.e. piece of wood hovering above the water). The vista was gorgeous and I felt a renewed appreciation for it as I remembered the horrific climb up. Our route down was much easier: a set of stairs built into the side of the falls that we slid down behind a single file procession of orange clad monks. As luck would have it, I met a fellow alumni of my college, who recognized the university logo on my hat. It’s a big world, but a small world.

Our time at the falls came to an end, as we wanted to see LP’s ‘temple on a hill,’ (Pou Si Temple) before the sun set.

Our timing was remarkable. We arrived just as golden hour did, rushing up flights and flights of stairs, passing old women who were selling birds in tiny grass baskets for tourists to release at the top (too sad to support). The temple was beautiful, but the real draw was the view. The light was so rosy, illuminating the sprawl of LP and the misty mountains we’d only recently descended from. The murky Mekong flowed, dark as chocolate milk, glinting the late afternoon light. It was tourist central, and I witnessed the scene, multiplied through hundreds of iPhone screens. As soon as the sun slid beneath a mountain peak, we dispersed, heading through the market in search of...pizza! We are Westerners through and through.

We had ‘the best pizza in SE Asia,’ though we did have to cross an extremely rickety bamboo bridge that was perched over the Nam Khan river. Fortunately, it was dark and I only heard the river rushing under my feet. From there, we stumbled into the tiny, homey Pizza Phan Luang for a delicious individual pie made by a kind Canadian. Cravings satisfied, we tiptoed our way back over the river, through the winding markets and the downtown area of LP, which was still buzzing at nearly 10 pm, and back to the hostel where we collapsed from a full day.

We flew out the next morning, gaining a new appreciation for the dexterity of the bus driver who had navigated the serpentine roads that were now easily visible by air. I waved goodbye to a beautiful, historical and pizza filled place. Maybe one day, I’ll be back.