The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was not a quick one. The 156km journey took us over nine hours through the windy mountain roads. Thankfully we had great views, sleep-inducing travel tablets, a comfy (ish) bus and a driver who seemed intent on getting us there in one piece – a pleasant rarity in coach drivers these days!
Luang Prabang is a pretty town that sits on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The old town is a UNESCO listed site; the dust, noise and chaos found in other Asian towns is replaced here with vintage cars, whitewashed French style villas and a peaceful, almost village like atmosphere. It is a place to relax, and allow the serene pace to gently envelope you. After falling ill in Vang Vieng, this was just what I needed. I felt like I’d been brought to Luang Prabang to convalesce.
On our first evening, we took a gentle walk (there is no other pace in Luang Prabang; non-gentle walking is positively taboo) through the night market. In keeping with Luang Prabang’s classy image, the souvenirs were some of the most original and high quality I’d come across during our trip. Craig reminded me, increasingly shrilly, that we still had several months on the road and could not afford to be lugging a lamp around.
January mornings in Luang Prabang begin slowly; the cool haze invites you to kick back with a cup of tea and relax with a book while you wait for the warm sunshine to appear. And when it did, we headed out to absorb the pretty alleyways and the Wats dotted around the town. Wat Xieng Thong was a favourite; a temple complex with some stunningly ornate mosaics decorating the walls, which contrasted with the bright pink tree blossom and the orange robes of the monks going about their duties in the yard around us.
We whiled away the warm afternoons sitting in the riverside garden of our favourite spot – JoMa bakery, devouring carrot cake and watching monks cross the bamboo bridge over the river below.
The pretty tranquility of Luang Prabang is not only its greatest asset, but also possibly its downfall. Loved by independent travelers and package tourists alike, Luang Prabang can feel a bit like Disneyland. The Main Street is a repetitive strip dominated by tour companies advertising elephant treks and you can’t help feeling that tourism has pushed local life to being a bit-part in its own town.
In the centre of town, sitting 100m above the rooftops is Phu Si – a hill with a couple of pretty temples and great views of the surrounding countryside. We took a hike up one afternoon, and settled in for a serene view of the sunset. Pretty nice huh?
Except that this is Luang Prabang. Everyone is here to see the pretty as well…
To escape the crowds, we took a day trip out to the Kuang Si waterfalls – about forty minutes away from the town. The cool, shady waterfalls were a very pretty spot and a welcome escape from the heat of the town.
Next to the waterfalls (and included in your entry ticket) is a walk past the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which houses rescued sun and moon bears – often from heartbreaking conditions in bear bile farms, which are created to satisfy the demand from traditional Chinese medicine. The sanctuary has some interesting information on bears, and the cruel industry surrounding bear bile farms. Plus, I got to see my first real live bear!
Back in Luang Prabang, we headed out for what was undoubtedly the most rewarding experience of our time in town – a trip to Big Brother Mouse. Oh, and the most unintentionally hilarious.
Big Brother Mouse was created to tackle the low levels of literacy in Laos. They write, publish and distribute books to rural areas in Laos. A book from Big Brother Mouse is often the first book a child will have ever owned. Given that one of my greatest pleasures in life is curling up with a good book, I wanted to get involved. As well as producing books, Big Brother Mouse also hold a nightly English Practice session and we went along at 5pm so that local students could have a go at conversing in English with a native speaker.
We were impressed at the fluency most of the students had – they were confident and eloquent and we really enjoyed answering some of their questions about particular words, pronunciations, phrases and sentence structure. It turns out that dissecting your own language is surprisingly difficult! I have a newfound respect for any language teacher! We had been there for half an hour when a teenage lad with a rather funky haircut clad in jeans and a leather jacket swaggered in and sat next to me and Craig. We chatted for a bit, and then he asked if we would be able to go through some words he wanted to confirm the pronunciation of. “Of course!” we said, wide eyed and eager to please.
He produced a list. “What is this one please?”
“Oh. Well that is pronounced koh-cayne…”
He dutifully noted this in his notebook. “And this one?”
“Um, that’s ‘her-o-in'”
More scribbles in the notebook. By now we were getting some sideways looks from our fellow volunteers. “This one?”
“I’m actually not 100% on that one. I think it’s ‘meth-am-ph…’ look, why do you need to know these words?!”
“I want to be a police officer”
Sure you do, kid. Despite our unintended contribution to the Laos narcotics trade, we really enjoyed our evening at Big Brother Mouse. It was great fun to meet and chat with some local people, and get involved in such a worthwhile project. I wish we’d bought a couple of books to have as gifts for people we met along the way, such as children of our guides – if Luang Prabang is one of your first stops in Laos then definitely stop by and pick up a couple.
Oh, and if you are in Laos and offered drugs by a Lao version of Danny Zuko with a bit of swagger and a faint north-west twang, tell him Katie and Craig said hi…
If you want to visit the Kuang Si waterfalls
- There are many companies offering a visit as part of a tour. They tend to leave late morning or early afternoon. A cheaper way is to take a shared tuk tuk; we went down to the main intersection in Luang Prabang where there are lots of sandwich sellers and agreed to go with a tuk tuk driver if he found some more people. By the time we’d ordered a sandwich he’d rounded up another four people. We paid ₭40,000 each (about £3.25) for the return journey
- You can bathe at the pools and they look very inviting! There are changing cubicles available near the water. As with the rest of Laos, bikinis will be rather frowned upon. If you want to blend in, take t-shirts and shorts to swim in.