Dirt Roads and a Dirty River Find the Way Home [Laos]

[This is the third of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Sizing Up to Nature’s Biggest [Thailand]]

November 12, 2016 – Welcome to Low-Key Laos

Arriving in Luang Prabang, Laos, late at night felt like landing in a remote region of the world, with fewer night lights than most cities and not much going on. The airport might be the least developed that I’ve seen in all of my travels, but I won’t complain of simplicity. Grabbing a cab seemed a bit confusing, with several men loitering the exit of the airport, not soliciting rides at all. We approached a kiosk and ordered a nice van cab to the outskirts of the city in a rural area to our Airbnb perched on the shores of the Mekong River.

The drive was rural, dark, ambiguous. Navigating through gravel and dirt roads, we arrived and were greeted by a white dog named Max. An Austrian woman named Monica came to welcome us and gave us the skim. The Airbnb was a nice wooden lodge, and our bedroom was upstairs with one big bed on a wooden plank. After relaxing and chatting with Monica for a bit, we settled in the un-air-conditioned room, put the mosquito net in place surrounding the bed and got some much-needed sleep.

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November 13, 2016 – Kuang Si Falls, Night Market and Getting Night Lost

Waking up the next day reminded me of growing up in Kansas: not much to wake you up besides birds chirping, a dog barking or the sun beaming in the room. Robyn and I made our way downstairs to the bottom of the guesthouse to have some fresh scrambled eggs, toast, homemade jams and coffee. The view from the guesthouse was incredible – a clear look at the Mekong River with long wooden boats making their way across the wide currents.

After showering in the cozy bathroom and getting ready, a tuk-tuk driver picked us up and took us to the city (Luang Prabang). Nothing better than sitting in the back of an open “truck” and your hair blowing by the speed! Once we got to town, we switched drivers before making our way to the Kuang Si waterfalls about an hour south of town.

Many times I find the transit time some of my favorite travel memories. The drive along the rural jungle with little villages along the way really allowed us to see daily life in Laos. Little kids would wave to us along the way after scurrying out of the street for safety. Several cows grazed on the edge of the road, and we approached many one-lane wooden bridges.

Once we had entered the park, there were many food and souvenir vendors awaiting the first tourists of the day. We made our way through the park; first was a bear sanctuary of rescued Lao bears. We continued to the bottom of the waterfall pools, which were clear, light blue in color. As we continued to walk uphill, there were different pools of water. The closer you got to the main waterfall, the quicker the currents.

The main waterfall is magical with a wooden bridge that crosses the front.

Little did we know, but there was an option to walk to the very top of the waterfall (the source). We started to make our way up an easy path and then got to a point that was nearly straight uphill, all dirt. I looked at Robyn and shrugged, and continued up. It literally felt like rock climbing, but instead our “rocks” were tree roots and vines. We nearly gave up, however, we finally made it to the top and got to overlook the mountain range. The source of the waterfall is actually really calm. There was a wooden swing there that I climbed on like a 7-year old, bouncing from tree to tree.

The way down the waterfall was much easier. In the tourist area, we grabbed a refreshing Coke before heading back to Luang Prabang.

After returning to town in the early afternoon, we browsed the city before the famous night market was set up and open. There’s a huge temple in the city that overlooks the market called Haw Pha Bang.

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We had worked up quite an appetite so we went to a small cafe and got fried rice and two fruit shakes for a total of $7. We tipped the young girl waitress appropriately, about the equivalent of $3. She gasped with delight and awe, and thanked us like we had just saved her life. This really melted my heart. To think that one-third of Laos lives on less than $1 a day, it was the least we could do.

Around the city, we saw great views of the brown-colored Mekong River, several art markets, monks playing ceremonial drums and kids playing in the streets. The fruit stands were interesting – they put all the fruit in a cup to display what all will go in your drink. There were so many fruit combos to choose from!

People started to set up for the anticipated night market. We first browsed to get a sense of the types of things people were selling and the prices. There was so much to buy but blankets, scarves, art, pillowcases, kids toys, coffee, whiskies, teas, Buddhas, bags, lamps, woodwork and clothes were the majority of the items.

I somehow was hungry again and went to a side alley where vendors were making fresh food in woks and grills. I ordered a rice noodle bowl with chicken – it was incredibly spicy but delicious!

Back in the market, Robyn purchased a nice indigo handbag, drawstring bag and coffee. I bought a luminary and a pillowcase. In the market, it is common and good to bargain. Ask for about 70% of a given price. Negotiate a little, but realize that the more you negotiate, it cuts into their margins. It’s easy to get caught up in the bargaining fun, but you have to pinch yourself that bargaining over $0.75 is nothing to you but so much for them!

Prior to heading home on a tuk-tuk, we snagged one of those fruit smoothies. We didn’t have the address of our Airbnb handy, but we were able to direct the driver to a street about a block from the place. We got out and walked in the dark. We assumed we were on the right path but must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in an alley that was unfamiliar. We walked back to retrace our steps, and in the dimly-lit area, we were confused how we couldn’t find the huge guesthouse. We made our way back out to a main street where the tuk-tuk had dropped us off. Frustration (and a little bit of anxiety) started to set in. In the rural area, we were approached by a man who was yelling on his bike. He did not speak any English, but I was trying to get him to point us in the direction of the guesthouse. Instead, it seemed like he was soliciting for something (not quite sure, to be honest). We quickly walked away and found some neighbors to the guesthouse who were able to point us in the right direction. Robyn later told me that the man on the bike had a large knife strapped to his handlebar. We weren’t sure if that was just used for his work or something, but definitely made me be a bit more vigilant the rest of the trip! We settled in for the night under the mosquito net breathing in the humid tropical air.

November 14, 2016 – A Day on the Mekong and Its Shores

Breakfast the next day was nearly a carbon copy of the first morning, except we were joined by one of Monica’s young friends. He was visiting Monica, and told us that he had spoke during President Obama’s official visit to Laos. He also explained his sustainable non-profit project that he was working on; a really impressive young man.

Instead of going to town to jump on a river boat, we were lucky enough to have one of Monica’s friends pick us up at the shores of the guesthouse for a day on the Mekong River. The long wooden boat is common in Laos for both transport and fishing. Our boat wasn’t in top-shape, but it definitely worked for a casual ride for three. The Mekong River is super murky, dirty-looking, wide and plentiful with fish. People were growing crops on the riverbank to take advantage of the wet soil.

After about two hours on the boat, we reached the Pak Ou caves. The caves are significant because they host hundreds of miniature and varied-size Buddha statues. It is a common place of worship in the area.

We walked back to the boat and made our way to a small village along the lake. These Lao villagers were weaving garments and blankets, making pottery and selling other goods. Everyone there was in awe of our height and difference in looks. Kids playing soccer would stop in their tracks to give us a good stare 🙂

We made our way back to the guesthouse on the boat. We had not yet had lunch, and there weren’t really any options besides going back to the city. So, we walked along the rural roads to a cafe for a drink. The sun was so sweltering hot, that we sat in the cafe for a while to cool off. On the walk back, I was quite hungry so I stopped by this shack along the road for some pho (noodles and meat). I’m not sure how much business it really gets because there is virtually nothing around it. A woman had broth already prepared with some vegetables sitting out (more to come on this in the next blog post). I slurped down the soup, and we fast-walked back to the guesthouse to get ready to head back to the low-key airport.

Our next destination was Hanoi, Vietnam, a large and bustling city. Laos was an incredible break in the trip. The people of Laos were incredibly nice, welcoming and grateful for our time there. It reminded me of home – quiet, rural, local and a slow-moving life. Our next stop in Vietnam would be quite the opposite.

-Michael

[See my next post to learn more about Vietnam]

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