Luang Prabang: The French City on the Mekong

Laos has an interesting history. The country was under French colonial control from up until peace conventions disbanded most European colonies in 1945 at the end of World War Two. The French influence is definitely still present in this city in everything from the small quite streets and their architecture to the French style baguette breads found all over the city. Interestingly one of the cheapest meals to find is a Laotian sandwich of tofu, fried egg, and veggies on French bread for around 10-15,000 kip.

However even after the end of French rule the 73years since have had many different twists and turns for this land. Multiple regime changes, from an essentially a monarchy to today the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), enduring through foreign interference along the way (namely the second Indochina War, more on that later), and on top of all of that the country has only been open to international tourism for approximately 7 years. All of this means Laos is an interesting place with rich history, resilient people, and a truest trashed economy and all together quite different than its neighbor Thailand.

We got into Luang Prabang after the tuk tuk from the slow boat and got to our hostel and pretty much crashed. If you’ve read my last post you’ll know I got off the boat after a rather good time with some folks on the back of the boat and now I just needed some calories and a nap. A long nap.

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Stumbling off the slow boat outside Luang Prabang

We woke up the next morning an gathered our thing a to head to our next hostel. The place we stayed wasn’t bad but we typically only book for one night when we get to a new place to decide if it’s in the right area/right vibe and if not we’ll find something else. We were about to check out when they asked us why we didn’t want breakfast? 1st difference, many of  the hotels and hostels in Laos come with a complimentary breakfast unlike in Thailand. So we stayed and it was a feast! We walked over to our next place “Chill Riverside Hostel” which was very funky, set back in these little alley streets and had a great view of a river. It was also right next to this pretty epic bar/early morning yoga/fire pit hangout area called Utopia.

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Aka backpacker heaven…too bad I forgot to take a picture of the inside. You’ll just have to go check it out yourself!

That and tempur-pedic mattresses meant we were there for a bit. It’s astounding how hard the mattresses have been at some of the places we’ve stayed. But when you’re paying like $5usd a night you don’t really complain.

The first day in the city was just spent walking around and seeing some of the main sights. We stopped by the old royal palace. Used in the 1700’s when this was the capital but the building and grounds has been preserved even after the royal family left.

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Drive way up to the old royal palace

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In the Laotian flag, the red represents the blood spilt from revolution, the blue the Mekong river which flows the length of Laos, and the white the full moon rising over the river and the reunification of Laos after its civil war. 

We hiked or more climbed the straight up staircase to the top of Phou Si mountain and got some absolutely incredible views of the city over the Mekong and the surrounding mountains. While northern Thailand is definitely mountainous there’s something about the shear limestone hills here in Laos that are spectacular.

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The steps just kept going…and most were much steeper than these.
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Once at the top there’s a small temple (of course there is) with this pretty dope steeple 
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The town over the Mekong. View from the top of Phou Si

 

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My lovely lady in her natural self with the city and mountains making an excellent backdrop

We took the way down on the backside which meanders back and forth and crosses a few temples and Buddha figures along the way. Including the infamous Luang Prabang giant buddha footprint. What do you think? Worth of the infamy?

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The teeny tiny gateway to the mystical “giant foot”
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Sadly no banana for scale, but its about 10 feet across

In our long walk that day we made it down to this place called Ock Pop Tok, a free weaving museum and restaurant. The names means East meets West and for the last 14 years this riverside vista has been offering classes in traditional Laotian weaving  and giving tours explaining the processes behind harvesting silk, creating dyes, and the cultural meaning of weaving in Laos. It was a pretty cool place about 1.5-2km south of the main city and a great spot to grab lunch.

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Lunch with a view at Ock Pop Tok
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River boats cruising by at Lunch

Back in the city we decided the top of Phou Si had such a great view of the city during the day we should go check it out for sunset. So we grabbed a beerlao to split at the top and started the climb up. Near the top we realized we and everyone else in Luang Prabang that day had had the same thought. The top was PACKED!! But the view was incredible and the sunset spectacular. A prefect place for a beer and a moment to relax after a long day of walking around.

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Sunset from the top is just magical

That night we went to the main night market in town and got some cheap food and did some light shopping, it’s crazy how even small relatively cheap souvenirs for family and friends can take up so much space in a tightly packed 35L bag.

The next morning we woke up and ran into our friend Jimmy, an Australian lad we’d met on the slow boat. He was talking about how yesterday he’d gone up to the Kuang Si waterfall and it was a great place to swim so we decided to rent a motorbike and check it out. This was our first interaction with Laotian road and let me tell you, boy are they sh*t. I had taking the well paved roads of Thailand for granted because here potholes popped up at every corner, and straight, and turn. And they were all like half a meter deep (1.5 feet for those playing along in the backwards mother country). Dodging and weaving across busted roads was a hoot. You’re never going very fast because the next one could pop up at any second or better yet the whole road would just turn into a gravelly mess for a couple hundred meters at a time. 25km and about 45 minutes later we made it to the falls. We parked, got our tickets, since you need tickets for literally everything in this country and made our way in. I had done a little research before hand so knew what to expect but right as you enter before you get to the falls you walk through a moon bear sanctuary. And these guys are like the much derpier cousin of NA black bears. They saunter around and chill in trees all day. These bears are also known as singing bears and are routinely captured by poachers in the wild were they’re sold to live the rest of their lives in cages singing in front of businesses in Russia or being exploited for “bear bile” a huge thing in eastern medicine. But here they get to live and be happy. We got the chance to see two of them playing/fighting? just inside the chain link fence that blocked us from them. Hands down the least intimidating bear I’ve ever come across.

But then the falls. Oh man the water is this wild blue from all the CaCO3 (calcium carbonate AKA limestone) dissolving as the water flows over it. There are multiple tears that the water beautifully cascades over. The picture do I more justice than words could.

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The main falls is some 30 meters tall

The main pool (biggest and best for swimming) was packed when we went past so we continued on up to the main falls and then climbed up about 100m straight vertical to the top. On top there’s a smaller pool with a cool rope swing and much fewer people. We decided to take a second and enjoy a beerlao and take a dunk.

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So peaceful
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Just coolin down from the Laotian heat

Before we left I’d heard about a cave about a 3km hike in from the top of the falls. Many people opt to take a mini bus from the city to the falls but that was only like 10,000 kip ($1.17) cheaper than renting motorbike. And when you take the bus you’re on a fixed time schedule meaning you can’t explore, and so most people don’t get to make it all the way back to the caves. The hike there was pretty flat and pretty through back dirt roads and once you get to the cave and pay you 10k kip entrance fee they give you a head lamp, and a banana and say go. So we went down a little hole and explored around in this cave by ourselves for a bit. It was pretty cool I got to say. After that we headed back down to the waterfalls and since the main pool had cleared (a minuscule amount at best) we went swimming there two. There was a log that you could climb up that protruded over the pool and was super fun to jump off. Athena had fun the with action sport setting on my camera and got some hilarious pictures.

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After all of this it was already 4:30 so we headed back to our motorbike and navigated our way back to town before it was dark. That night we went to utopia bar where we grabbed a drink and ran into our friends from the slow boat. A merry lot but when they tried to convince us to keep up and move along with them to the next place we decided in favor of being able to move the next day.

Also at utopia we ran into some friends we’d met way back when at Juno hostel in Pai. Alex and Alie are from the U.K. and we’re taking a year to travel the world now about 7 months in they were doing SEA. And while I said we ran into them at utopia bar, that’s not really fair….we’d run into them at least once every single day for the last two and a half weeks from Pai, Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, on the slow boat, and now here in Luang Prabang. It became the running joke of tag, your it. I think by the end of it they were getting sick of us but more importantly it illustrated a remarkably important fact of traveling (at least here) to me. Back home before we left so many people would say “oh wow, you quite your job!? And you going to travel…for 9 months!?! Wow you’re so adventurous and wild”. But the simple fact is traveling the world isn’t that hard to achieve. You just have to get out of your rut and do it. And to the “you’re so adventurous and unique” people out there, backpacking especially in SEA has become so easy and routine that frequently you’re just running out the motions of a similar itinerary as the 50+ other people who started at the exact same time as you and who you’re bound to run into a few times over. None of this is to say it’s not fun, or there aren’t hard times, or definitely not that it’s not worth it but just that traveling in our day and age has become sooo much easier than it ever was for our parents or the generations before them. So if you can take advantage of that and get out and explore.

We decided we’d had a good time in Luang Prabang but wanted to head south the next day so we woke up and booked a 2:30pm mini van ticket to Vang Vieng. Having the day to kill we decided to take a slow morning and walk over and check out the UXO Laos visitor center but that will have to wait for now because that truly deserves a post of its own.

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