Luang Prabang rests between the Nam Ou and Mekong River in northern Laos. Upon our arrival, we walked along the palm tree-lined streets to the Mekong River for our first taste of Beer Lao. We immediately decided that we liked this city. We settled into Luang Prabang which would be our home for the next six days (partly because we found the city to be so welcoming and partly because we were waiting on our Vietnam visa). Our first to-do was to take a tuk tuk out to the Kuang Si waterfalls.
The Kuang Si Waterfall Park is an incredible sight to see. Beautiful turquoise water cascades from one pool to the next creating a matrix of waterfalls and swimming holes to explore. One of the pools is very popular because you can jump into it from a waterfall or rope swing. Unfortunately, we neglected to charge our only camera we took with us that day so the only photos I have are the ones above. The following photo was taken from Google images and I can vouch that the waterfalls look exactly as they do in the photo below – they are so beautiful.We spent a few hours admiring the different size falls and then decided to climb to the top of the largest waterfall for a pretty view before heading back into the city.
To celebrate eight months on the road, we checked into our hotel, Maison Dalabua, just a few streets away from the center of the city. We walked through the hotel gates and were greeted with big smiles and fresh squeezed juice while our bags were whisked away to our room. The hotel is situated around a massive lily pond which covers most of the grounds. It’s completely serene and tranquil.We were so excited to find that we had our own porch to enjoy unlimited tea and coffee, quick WiFi, air-conditioning and a flat-screen television with HBO. Our bathroom was even fitted with a rain drop shower-head. Chris declared this the best shower of our entire trip. We were living the life! Our days would typically begin with a delicious breakfast at Maison Dalabua. All reservations include a belly busting brekkie starting with fresh squeezed juice, coffee/tea, cereal, cakes and warm baguettes accompanied by any flavor of homemade jam you can think of (banana jam, tomato jam, pineapple jam, tamarind, etc.). Next came fresh cut fruit salad topped with yogurt followed by your choice of a main breakfast dish. Chris had fried eggs and bacon and I had the omelet with tomato and onion each day. So good! Luang Prabang is a small city that can easily be mistaken for a town because it’s so compact and quaint. Thanks to Maison Dalabua, we were able to use their complimentary bicycles to leisurely get around each day. And so began our pattern of eating, biking, eating, exploring and eating that would last for the next few days. On a typical day, we’d hop on our bikes and ride into the Old City. We found a restaurant along the Nam Ou where we could take in the river views while enjoying a delicious fruit shake (the best we’ve had thus far)!In the evenings, the main street would close down and turn into a huge night market. Tents filled with street hawkers made it almost impossible to walk through. On several occasions I was tempted to buy a few things, but instead of souvenirs, we only bought food…lots of food! As soon as the sun went down, the most delicious street carts would set themselves up for the night. Every evening, we’d head to the night market to indulge in various items such as coconut cream puffs, chicken baguette sandwiches, more fruit shakes, fresh spring rolls, pot stickers and baked goods. If we weren’t in the streets, we were in the alleys eating sketchy all-you-can-eat buffets where you fill your entire plate as high as you can stack it for 10,000 kip ($1.20). It was like playing stomach-bug roulette but every night we came out a winner. To wash it all down, Chris would leave the night market with a bag full of fresh banana bread to eat on the way home. In the center of the old city is Phu Si, a steep hillside where several temples rest. One afternoon, we climbed hundreds of stairs before reaching the top of the hill for great views of the temples, Nam Ou River and surrounding cityscape. Our goal for this excursion was to have a “monk chat” on Phu Si. At some point in their life, most Laos men become Buddhist monks and many of them come to Luang Prabang to study. Some monks like to chat with travelers because they are very curious about tourists and they find it a prime opportunity to practice their English. Just as we were admiring the views, a lone monk stood next to me and struck up a conversation. We learned that Thit was 17 years old and has lived in Luang Prabang for the past three years. He spends most of his time at two different temples and also attends school. We talked about his monk clothes, school, other destinations in Laos, etc. At the end of our monk chat, Thit said, “I wish you happiness in your travels.” It warmed our hearts to receive a blessing from a monk!We ended the evening taking in the beautiful sunset on top of Phu Si (along with every other Western tourist in town). On our last day in Luang Prabang, we woke up at 5 AM to see the giving of the alms. Monks only eat twice a day. Thit had told us that he usually wakes up at 3 AM to start studying so their first meal is at 5:30 AM. Their entire meal is provided by the town’s people each morning. The monks line up from eldest to youngest and in a meditative state, they accept food offerings from the locals. The locals will give a handful of sticky rice, a banana or something similar to each monk that passes. Unfortunately, what is suppose to be a very sacred ritual has turned into a disgraceful exploitation of the monks by tourists and tour agencies. Instead of inconspicuously observing from across the street, many tourists treat the ceremony as an exciting photo op. They’ll get right up into the monks’ faces with their cameras and their flashes (which they aren’t suppose to use) will be going off like crazy. It is so sad to watch. It was such an interesting and beautiful moment to witness but at the same time, we were shocked at the disrespect shown by fellow travelers. If you do see the giving of the alms, make sure you behave appropriately!
It was hard to leave Luang Prabang. What made it even harder was checking out of Maison Dalabua. The staff was super accommodating and full of smiles (even at 5 AM when we wanted to take the bikes out to see the giving of the alms). It’s no surprise they are a winner of Tripadvisor’s Travelers Choice Award for 2013. The amazing breakfast, lily pond, shower and complimentary bikes will surely be missed! If you visit Luang Prabang, book with Maison Dalabua for a truly relaxing and peaceful stay.
After leaving the comforts of Luang Prabang and Maison Dalabua, we decided to head further north to try to get off of the beaten path and to eventually make our way into Vietnam. Set on the Nam Ou River, Nong Khiaw is even more easygoing than Luang Prabang. The town was so quiet and laid back that it felt more appropriate to whisper than at to speak at normal volume.One of the main draws to the area is the 100 Waterfalls Hike. We were picked up from our guesthouse by a longboat and were taken an hour upriver for a village visit. The village visit turned out to be the best part of the day because we were able to interact with the local children, see their school, view their homes (which were made completely of straw and bamboo), learn about their harvests (tobacco in the dry season, rice in the wet season and whiskey all year round) and appreciate their simple way of life. We visited a second village where the trail to the 100 Waterfalls Hike begins. To make our way to the falls, we walked through farmland, dried rice paddies and along a few streams.In one of the streams was a makeshift “hydroelectric dam” which powers three light bulbs within the village.Since we visited the 100 Waterfalls in the dry season, most of the falls were dried up so there wasn’t much to see. The main waterfall had a small pool below it that we enjoyed swimming in for awhile, but again, the highlight of the day was really the village visit and hike to the waterfall.After a couple more days relaxing in Nong Khiaw, we hopped on another slow boat which took us up river to a town called Muang Ngoi. If you can believe it, things are even slower in Muang Ngoi than Nong Khiaw…so slow that if things went any slower, we would have moved backwards. We found a decent bungalow with hammocks, a great view and prime access to take a dip in the river for $6 a night. The small town had a few restaurants right on the water where we enjoyed fruit shakes and our first taste of the Laos local dish called “laap,” which is generally a mixture of ground beef, cilantro, lime juice, onions and other herbs and veggies served with sticky rice. The town only has electricity from 6-9 PM so we tried not to think about how the restaurants keep their meat refrigerated during the day… Our last stop in Laos was supposed to be eight long hours on a slow boat up the river to town called Muang Khua, but luckily, the boat only took us four hours (a small travel victory). We spent one night in Muang Khua, which was more than enough, before starting our long overland journey into Vietnam.
It’s been 19 days since we first entered Laos and we fully enjoyed our time here. Officially, LPDR stands for Lao People’s Democratic Republic but on the traveler circuit, LPDR can be referred to as “Laos Please Don’t Rush” because of the country’s slow travel mentality. We’ve really appreciated our relaxing days in Laos and are well rested to experience our next country!
Disclosure: We received a complimentary stay at Maison Dalabua in exchange for sharing our experience. These thoughts and opinions are completely our own.