It’s only April, but many of us have already switched to iced coffee and put away our sweaters. Now’s the time to start thinking about summer vacation, whether you plan to explore a national park or soak up the culture in a city like Havana. When you’re a kid, summer is all about playing outside and staying cool, preferably with lots of ice cream and water projectiles. Today’s Photo of the Day by Flickr user ahalvoresen is from Luang Prabang, Laos, where some local children are beating the heat with every water source available. Makes me nostalgic for pool parties and Super Soakers, before summer became a time to complain about high electricity bills and humidity. Enjoy it while it lasts, we’ll soon be back to complaining about the cold.
The Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, Laos, are a majestic 3-tier waterfalls that almost looks like a giant natural staircase (and could be, as you can climb the falls). The falls are surrounded by lush forest and myriad opportunities for hiking where you will come across various cascading pools of water, many of which are fine for swimming, as well as charming bridges and limestone cliffs.
Along with trekking through stunning scenery, visitors can visit the bear sanctuary, have lunch at the picnic site, and, my favorite, swing off a tree into the falls. Right next to the pool that the falls cascade into is a tree with wooden plank stairs leading up to a thick rope. You will crawl on all fours to the edge of a tree branch and will have to reach out without falling to grab the rope (while a bit scary, remember that you’ll only be falling into water). Once you grab it, you’ll be able to swing like Tarzan through the air and into the pristine waters below. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll hold on for two seconds and slide right off. Either way, it’s a lot of fun.
While the Kuang Si Falls area is a big site for tourists, my local guide told me that the place is considered sacred by locals, and I did see some monks wandering around. For this reason, I would recommend forgoing the bikinis and tiny swim suits and wearing capris and a t-shirt. While it may be a little uncomfortable, at least it’s respectful, and there are changing rooms so you can get right out of your wet clothes.
An added bonus is the fact that swimming in the waters below the falls is like a complimentary spa treatment. There are thousands of tiny fish that actually suck on your toes and get the dead skin off. Oddly enough, this is a treatment that some people pay big bucks to get at a spa. While I was a bit uncomfortable with how it felt, I will admit my feet were extra soft when I got out.
From Luang Prabang, getting to the falls will take you a little under an hour. You can take a tuk tuk, taxi, songthaew, motorbike, or, usually the cheapest option, a slow boat. Another possibility is to go with a tour company, although make sure you will get a few hours to spend at the falls as there is a lot to explore. The entry fee to Kuang Si Falls is about $1.
While traveling through South East Asia, I had the opportunity to explore myriad temples and religious sites. Wat Po in Bangkok, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, and Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang were all stunning sites of spirituality that I would recommend to other travelers. However, visiting the Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos, was an extremely unique religious site that left a deep impression on me.
The caves, visible through a jagged opening in the waterside cliff face, are located right on the Mekong River, making the views very scenic. Inside the Pak Ou Caves are hundreds of Buddha statues of all sizes, shapes, and conditions. Most of them are donated by locals, who consider the caves to be a very important spiritual site. What’s really amazing is that locals of all classes have been coming to the site for over 500 years to worship and pray, which is pretty apparent when you notice that some of the statues are literally crumbling apart. While the site has become quite touristy, it is impossible not to feel something while being surrounded by so much visible history and culture.
To get there, you can take a boat from Luang Prabang, which is about 15 miles away. There are two caves, a lower and an upper. If possible bring a flashlight, as it can sometimes be dark and you’ll want to be able to clearly see all of the Buddhas. Expect to pay about $2 to enter.
Giving alms is an important part of Laos culture and occurs in many South East Asian countries. When I took a trip to Luang Prabang, I was actually traveling with a Thai woman named Jaeb who asked me if I’d want to take part in the tradition with her. While I shuddered at the thought of waking up at dawn, I was excited to get the chance to be a part of a local tradition and get a deeper look into the culture.
Almsgiving is a religious ritual where the community gathers around the monastery at 5:30 AM to give food to a silent procession of monks. Monks are not allowed to cook or hoard food, so for many this is their only daily meal. The monks do not eat for pleasure, but to sustain their bodies, which are conditioned and trained to live with very little materials things, including food. I was also told that not having to think about food later on in the day clears the mind of distractions.On the sidewalk, women kneel down on mats holding baskets full of sticky rice balls and bushels of bananas while the men stand around them. While the setting is of a peaceful nature, you still need to be careful, as local women looking to make money off tourists will literally throw you down onto a mat and shove food in front of you before telling you to pay a ridiculous amount of money. The problem with this is not only will you be getting ripped off, but you are often given low-quality food. Only the best food should be given to the monks, so buy fresh fruit the night before or have your hotel prepare some sticky rice for you.
There’s some etiquette for women that goes along with the giving of alms, as well. Women should never touch a monk or their pots. Otherwise, the monks will have to go through a purification process. Also, a woman’s head should always be lower than the monks and shoulders and knees should be covered, although this goes for whether you’re in the presence of a monk or not.
So, what can you get out of the experience? To me, it was about more than just feeding the monks. Almsgiving really showed the sense of community in Luang Prabang, and how easy it really is to give to others and let go of addiction and neediness. If you attend with an open mind and make sure to be respectful of the customs, the tradition of Almsgiving can be a very worthwhile and eye-opening experience.
We at Gadling love a good time-lapse video. Whether it’s at a busy airport in Moldova or the many personalities on the streets of Laos, there’s something about seeing life pass by at fast (or slow) speeds that’s entrancing. With Christmas a few days away and Hanukkah in full swing, we especially love feeling festive without the crowds, the cold, and the hassle. Today’s Video of the Day is perfect for getting into the seasonal spirit of New York City without actually being there. Photographer Cris Magliozzi of health, fitness and happiness website Greatist shot the video on a walk from Central Park to Rockefeller Center, taking in some of the city’s best decorations, carolers, ice skaters, and other revelry. Bonus: no holiday music! Think of it as our gift to you.
Want to give us something for the holidays? Post a link in the comments below or add photos to our Flickr Group for our next Photo/Video of the Day.
Hat tip to our friends across the pond at BBC Travel for tweeting the link.