I just had the privilege of watching this beautiful video of Laos. I came across this film on vimeo. Created by Vincent Urban for a series titled “In Asia,” this video on Laos is the third out of five films from his trip to Asia in the fall of 2010. The song playing throughout the video just might become one of your new favorites and the footage is beautiful and captivating. The video starts in a native village in Laos and from there, the scenes change. Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Don Khong and Khone Phapheng are all explored and captured thereafter. Enjoy.
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.
Luang Prabang is lush, quaint, and improbable. This magical town of butterflies and baguettes seems to exist on dreamlike terms – an island of civility in the savage jungle of Laos. Sometimes a pinch is justifiable to confirm the reality of it all. The green hills, gorgeous colonial buildings, and kind villagers all combine to form a thriving UNESCO heritage city that is Southeast Asia with the charming vestiges of a distant French occupation.
High in the clouds, Luang Prabang holds many treasures for the travelers willing to make the trip. Aromas from fresh bakeries mingle with the crisp mountain air along quiet streets lined with quaint guesthouses and colorful noodle stands. The easiest route to Luang Prabang is on a flight from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways, though domestic flights from Vientiane near the Thai border are also possible on Lao Airlines. Another popular route is by bus from Vientiane. A Laos visa can be obtained upon arrival and costs $35 for U.S. citizens.
Three days is barely enough time to take in the full experience of Luang Prabang, but if planned correctly, you will have time to ride elephants, swim in waterfalls, and take a lazy trip down the Mekong river.
Day 1 – Rent a bike and explore
Arriving in Luang Prabang by plane from Bangkok or Vientiane feels like landing on another planet. Green and misty like Endor, I half expected to be whisked away to my guesthouse on a speeder bike. But no, you have two basic choices for transportation in Luang Prabang: tuk tuk or car. After arriving at your guesthouse in your chosen mode of transport, rent a bike and explore Luang Prabang. Daily bike rentals should cost no more than a few dollars. It is impossible to get irreparably lost in the small UNESCO Heritage city, and locals are happy to guide your exploratory whims. Discover gold roofed temples like Wat Xieng Thong, lazy stretches of the Mekong river, and guesthouses with brightly painted shutters that retain their 19th century colonial charm. Drop by an open air restaurant along the Mekong for some fresh noodle soup.
In the center of Luang Prabang is Phou Si hill. It affords majestic views of Luang Prabang and the surrounding valley. The trek up the hill passes a number of interesting features like a dark cave filled with statues, Buddha’s footprint, and at the summit, the temple of That Chomsi.
After a day spent exploring, duck into Tamarind for a tasty and educational modern Lao meal. This small eatery is committed to providing authenticity, and their menu explains the finer points of Lao cuisine in an insightful manner. If you show up around 5:00pm and sit on the patio, then you will be treated to the echoing chants of monks from a nearby wat. Wash down the spicy dishes with an ice cold Beer Lao.
As far as lodging is concerned, Lotus Villa is a great somewhat inexpensive option with huge rooms, a lush courtyard, and a delicious breakfast. Guesthouses can assist with the logistics of all your adventures.
Day 2 – Elephants and a trip down the Mekong
The old name of the Laos, Lan Xang, means land of a million elephants. While the numbers have dwindled significantly since the age of the old kingdom over 500 years ago, many elephants still roam the dense forests of the countryside. On the Nam khan river outside of Luang Prabang is an elephant sanctuary called the Elephant Village. The scenic location in the misty hills provides a perfect place to interact with the pachyderms. You can ride an elephant down the river or even learn how to be a mahout – an elephant trainer. It is a fantastic experience and strolling down the river on a lumbering beast is memorable indeed.
Most of the elephants have been rescued from logging operations that threatened their lives. One of the resident elephants, Mae San, was given massive doses of ecstasy and amphetamines so that she would stay up all night and day logging. It seems the elephants are well cared for by the sanctuary, and tourism revenue keeps them well fed.
Upon return from your morning elephant adventure, head to the Mekong and enlist the service of a boatman to take you downstream to check out river life. Lao boatmen ply the rivers in long narrow boats, and the sights along the river include a whiskey village, river life, water buffaloes, and the Pak Ou caves if you have the time.
The Luang Prabang night market is a great final stop to any day. Stalls sell an assortment of offerings from opium pipes to crepes to snake whiskey. It is not a dull scene.
Day 3 – Morning alms, waterfalls, and bears in hammocks
In order to catch the morning alms, you will need to rise with the sun. At around 6am, orange cloaked monks take to the streets by the hundreds to collect morning offerings, or alms. They clutch small bowls that villagers fill with sticky rice, candy, gifts, and other offerings. If you stay at Lotus Villa or another guesthouse along the monks’ path, then they can arrange mats and sticky rice for you to donate. They will also instruct you on the details of the procession so that you commit no major faux pas.
After the monks return to their wats, arrange a driver to take you to Kuang Si Falls. The waterfall complex includes a number of falls and ponds ideal for swimming, so bring your bathing suit. Be sure to try your hand at the rope swing at the blue natural pool near the entrance. If you are feeling brave, follow the “do not enter signs” to unearth a hidden natural infinity pool. Located at the top of the main falls, reaching the unbelievably cool hangout requires climbing a hill, snaking back around through the jungle, and finally pulling yourself up over a small waterfall. As you sit in the pool, overlooking the jungle beyond, you will be thankful that you found your way to this small paradisal enclave. It is one of the coolest spots on the planet. Ask around to get hints on the path.
Near the entrance to Kuang Si Falls is an Asiatic black bear sanctuary and rescue center. Stop by to observe the marvelous creatures that are sadly a popular target of poachers. Most of the bears have been rescued, and they lounge around in hammocks, which is splendid indeed.
For dinner on your last evening, drop in to Blue Lagoon or L’Elephant. L’Elephant has one of the best French/Lao fusion kitchens in Luang Prabang. Both restaurants are smart bistros, and Blue Lagoon has an open courtyard teeming with tropical plants and romantic lighting.
If you have some extra time in the region, then a plethora of options exist. Mountain biking, kayaking, trekking, and visiting hill tribes are all popular possibilities. Also, if you are taking ground transport back to Vientiane, stop off in Vang Vieng for a few days. Here in the middle of Laos, thousands of backpackers visit each year to inter-tube down an especially lazy stretch of the Nam Song river. The river jaunt is serviced by many shoreline bars serving ice-cold beers, and the experience has become a rite of passage on the modern banana pancake trail.
All photography by Justin Delaney