In case, you missed our earlier blog, this is our second visit to Luang Prabang in three years. In that time, it has become one of the hottest travel destinations in Asia. It has become quite sophisticated too, with some excellent restaurants, cafes and crafts shops.
There are essentially three sorts of tourist attraction in Luang Prabang. Firstly, the small city itself contains historical, cultural and spiritual activities, including the famous temples and monasteries. Next there is the excellent bargain shopping, both in shops and at the famous night market. Outside the city, one finds all the adventure activities, including cycling, hiking, kayaking and, of course, elephant riding.
For us, one of the highlights on this trip was a full-day trek to the Tad Kuang Xi Waterfall, taking us to two ethnic minority villages and natural sites in the countryside, before entering the thick forest surrounding the waterfall. Our driver and English speaking guide Lee picked us up at our hotel in their 4X4. After driving for an hour in the hills west of Luang Prabang, the trek started with a visit to the Khmu village of Ban Longlao Nung and the adjacent Hmong village, Ban Longlao Song. We were extremely fortunate as it was the Lao new year for these villages and everybody was in traditional dress and celebrating. It was wonderful to see children have so much fun with simple ball games; the one that drops the ball must say ‘I love you’. We were able to get a glimpse of the lifestyles of these two culturally very different minority groups. Despite their differences, the villagers work together and share the same school. Both minorities live in bamboo houses that will stand for about three years before needing to be rebuilt. The Khmu tribe have a two story house, with the upstairs devoted to family living and the downstairs for animals and storage. The Hmong community, however, only have a single story with two doors, a front and back, the front door is the general entrance and exit, the back door is only used for weddings and funerals. Both of these communities farm the land and specialize in many crafts, such as woodwork and embroidery.
Our guide Lee was Hmong and grew up near the border with China. His mum died in her early thirties – she’d given birth to eleven children but only five survived. His father remarried a much younger woman and Lee disliked her immensely. Lee got a scholarship and read English at university. His girlfriend is a lawyer but he can’t afford the dowry to pay her parents in order for them to marry.
Soon we left the rural setting, and were provided with spectacular scenery, starting as the trail traversed rice fields and vegetable plantations before reaching the heavily forested mountains, with some serious climbing to steeper parts. The previous day, it had rained extensively and the trail was very muddy and dangerous in places. Lee our guide gave Alf two bamboo poles for additional support and he held Marilyn’s hand when necessary, which was most of the time! We lunched by a tropical pool. Alf asked Lee what he was eating (different from us) and he replied ‘jungle rat’ – at that moment, Marilyn struggled to swallow her lunch, concerned as to what she herself was eating! It was amazing to be having lunch at the edge of a jungle, beside a spring water pool that meanders along to the waterfall.
After lunch, we climbed to the top of the majestic Kuang Xi Waterfall. This the biggest waterfall in the area, with three-tiers, leading to a sixty-meter drop into spectacular pools. After admiring the beautiful falls, we descended steep jungle steps to meet our 4X4. Our hiking sandals and trousers were thick with mud but we’d had a truly memorable day. We chose not to swim in one of the pools as it was too cold.
Probably, the second highlight on this trip was two memorable boat trips on the Mekong. The first lasted a couple of hours and we were able to watch the sunset behind the mountains, creating a magnificent reflection on the river. We were not alone, there were some half a dozen boats, all jockeying for the best position. The next morning, we went with the same boatman on a 4.5 hour round trip to the Pak Ou Caves. The two famous caves are cut into the limestone cliff and contain thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, most having been gifted from Buddhists in various countries – many are quite spectacular. It was necessary to climb hundreds of steps to reach the entrance of the cave and, of course, from here we had a spectacular view of the Mekong River. The circular boat trip contains some wonderful scenery along the Mekong; this includes fishermen in the middle of the river and farmers carrying water from the river to cultivate their crops, people including monks washing and water buffalo on the banks. In places, the banks are steep and one can guess the height of the river in the rainy season but on shallower banks one is reminded that they are completely covered with water. The scenery is spectacular with mountains, cliffs and beautiful flora and fauna, making the Mekong river a very special experience.
To be continued