125 days travelling and I might have slightly overdone it on the coffee front.
24th January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)
We started our day with a casual walk down towards the bamboo bridge at the edge of town. The bridge is washed away every year during the monsoon season and diligently rebuilt every year by several families in the area. We decided to sit by the bridge and do a bit of people watching over the river (we didn’t feel like paying to cross it), when a tuk tuk driver sidled up to us. We normally have at least 20 interactions with tuk tuk drivers on a daily basis, so we had our guard up as he started a conversation with us.
Although we were pretty sure he was subtly working his way towards making a sale, we proceeded to have a interesting conversation with him for the next half an hour overlooking the river. He told us about his family and the village where he was from, as well as his Christian faith (a minority religion in Laos and he’d converted from Buddhism). He seemed quite disappointed when we informed him we weren’t Christians, but it was a really nice spontaneous conversation that we had just by being in the right place at the right time.
After finishing our conversation with the tuk tuk driver (and declining his offer of a trip to the waterfalls as we left – I knew it) we decided to go and visit the Royal Palace back in the centre of town. The palace itself also has a spectacular temple in its grounds, which we honestly thought was more impressive than the palace itself, which just looked like a grand stately building. Once inside, there were a couple of intricately decorated rooms to walk through and a few artefacts on display, but not a lot else. As this was the most we’d paid for an attraction in Laos so far (still only around £3 per person) we were expecting a bit more from the place. We would have liked to have seen some more information on the history of the Laos royal family and the current situation, as there wasn’t really any information that we saw while we wandered around. It was still a nice place to have visited, but we felt we probably wouldn’t have missed out on much if we’d just stayed outside and looked at the temple and explored the garden around the palace for no fee (my wife toned this down a little, as I was much more critical of it to begin with).
That evening we made our way to a local restaurant called Khaiphaen. On the way we stopped by a local street food vendor selling what looked like sticks of bamboo with tree bark stuffed in the ends. We had been told by our guest house owner that this was actually sticky rice cooked inside a piece of bamboo. After our failed attempt to hunt down a very similar snack in Kuala Lumpur, I decided to buy one. After struggling slightly with working out how on Earth you’re meant to eat it, I managed to tear away the bamboo on the outside to eat the delicious sticky rice on the inside. It was a bit like the mango sticky rice dessert that we love in Thailand. I made sure to hide down a side street so the locals couldn’t judge me with my poor attempts to get into the bamboo. I can see how it is easily overlooked by tourists, as it doesn’t look like something you can eat at a first glance.
Once we had finished the sticky rice, we arrived at the restaurant. Khaiphaen is a social enterprise restaurant consisting of students and teachers. The students are young people from disadvantaged areas who are hoping to get into the hospitality industry. They are trained at the restaurant by the teachers, who help them on all aspects of running a restaurant. It was a really lovely concept which we were pleased to support. The food was delicious too – we tried our first fried Mekong river weed with tofu and traditional Laos sausage.
25th January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)
Today we finally decided to visit the famous Kuang Si waterfalls around an hour away from Luang Prabang. The waterfalls are one of the top attractions around Luang Prabang and get extremely busy, so we made the decision to join a small group heading to the waterfalls at around 9am in order to beat the crowds. The journey there was typically bumpy and windy while we sat in the back of a large tuk tuk, but we managed to get there about an hour later without any issues.
As well as the waterfalls, the area is also home to a small bear sanctuary where bears have been rescued from poachers or bear bile farms – something I knew nothing about beforehand. We walked quickly through the sanctuary on our way up to the waterfalls, with the plan to come back once we’d finished. After a short 5 minute walk through the forest, we reached our first turquoise blue pool. The waterfalls are famous for the cascading blue pools that collect all the way down the side of the mountain from the towering waterfall at the top of the mountain. We had been told by the couple we met on the bus to Luang Prabang to walk up less popular right hand side of the pools, where we would be able to see more secluded pools with less tourists.
We set off along the winding dirt path and weren’t disappointed by what we found. There was pool after pool of clear blue water, with the occasional rushing waterfall plunging into it. We carried along the path for around 15 minutes before deciding to head back down to where the path started and make our way up the other side of the pools (with flip flops on, I hadn’t come best prepared for hiking on wet ground). We managed to walk to the base of the spectacular waterfall where we simply sat and admired it for a few minutes. After a quick dip in one of the very chilly pools (there were only three other people who braved it with me), we decided to make our way back down to the bear sanctuary for a few minutes before we had to get back to the tuk tuk. The bears were incredibly cute and playful, although we were quite glad there was a glass pane separating us from them. They look really well looked after and seem to have a lot of fun playing and relaxing. Kudos to the team at Free the Bears for setting it up and maintaining it.
26th January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)
Our day started by visiting Big Brother Mouse, a literacy project situated in the middle of Luang Prabang. They run language sessions every day to give children the opportunity to practice their English with foreigners who are visiting the area and it is completely free of charge. We were unsure what would be expected of us, neither of us having ‘taught’ before. Feeling slightly nervous, we headed over to the small bookshop at 9am for the session to begin. When we arrived there were only two teenage boys there, who we sat down with at the nearby table. The first boy spoke very good English and was a practicing monk, which meant my wife couldn’t speak to him as monks are not allowed to speak to women. The second boy had only been learning English for 3 months and found it very difficult to understand anything my wife was saying to him.
As the session went on, more people started to join and it wasn’t long before there were at least 20 people there. There were only about 6 foreigners there for the children to speak to, so we all had 3 or 4 people we were speaking to at once. There were people of all abilities there and they were all very friendly and super keen to practice English. We hadn’t planned to stay for the entire session, but found the 2 hours went very quickly and we were a bit sad when it finished. We learnt a lot about these young men’s hopes and dreams for the future and life in Laos, which was hugely interesting. I really wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on me. It makes you appreciate everything you have, without being cheesy.
After the session finished, we decided to make our way to the Ock Tok Pop living crafts centre at the other end of town (my wife refused to let me include my lame joke about the shop name, that’s marriage for you). They kindly provided a free tuk tuk shuttle service from their shops in the town centre, which we happily took full advantage of in the midday heat. The centre itself is situated in a quiet and beautiful area of Luang Prabang, away from the bustle of the town centre.
They have an amazing cafe overlooking the Mekong river and you can look around the centre and watch people working on the looms, producing many of the gorgeous items they sell in their shops. They also run several handicraft classes here, which would have been lovely to do if we had been here a bit longer. We ended up stopping there for a quick lunch, taking in the peaceful views over the Mekong and relaxing in the large, comfortable chairs. As a bonus their menu was incredibly coeliac friendly.
After lunch we stopped by the traditional crafts and textiles museum to learn more about the different handicrafts and ethnic groups within Laos. Although small (essentially just a couple of rooms), the museum had a lot of interesting information and it was a nice way to spend an hour or so in the afternoon.
27th January 2019 (Luang Prabang, Laos)
Our final day in Luang Prabang was mostly spent relaxing around our guest house, reading on our balcony and soaking up the last of our time in Laos. We found the time to catch up on the blog, finalise plans for our next destination of Cambodia and sort out general life admin – a necessary essential of life on the road.
That evening we headed back to L’Estranger to go to one of the movie nights we had heard about earlier in the week. They were showing the film BlackKKKlansman, which was a really excellent and moving film. The movie night was very popular, with about 20 people crammed into the small room upstairs, seated on large cushions around low tables.
Our two weeks in Laos had come to an end and the time had completely flown by. Laos ended up being one of our favourite countries we have visited so far, with its friendly people, stunning scenery and laid back vibe. It is still not as popular on the tourist circuit as it’s richer neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, which means it still retains a lot of local charm and has not been completely overrun by tourists yet (although it certainly seems to be heading that way sadly). The country is still incredibly poor, one of the poorest in south east Asia. Although we hope tourism will help to bring in much needed money for their economy, we hope they are able to hold onto some of the charm and friendliness which seems to have been somewhat smothered in similar countries.
Until next time.
P.S. After a lot of internal conflicts we decided against partaking in the morning alms givings. I’ll write a follow up at some point explaining our decision behind this.