Luang Prabang is quiet, quaint and polite. It’s the well-traveled librarian older sister of party girl Vang Vieng and loyal, happy Vientiane. Luang Prabang is on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Song rivers, which stretch throughout Indochina. It’s spotted with Wats (temples) that are hundreds of years old and orange-robed monks blend in with the citizens and tourists.
I discovered LP this morning on a bike ride around town. I am an early riser so I was out before any other bikers and had the roads mostly to myself for a good hour. I crossed over the Mekong on a converted railroad bridge, trying hard to stay upright over the uneven plank boards. My seat started to bend and I had to stop on a dirt road away from town. The bike needed a fix that required a wrench, which I didn’t have. A guardian angel in the form of a young man in a blue city worker uniform came over with a large wrench and some time to fix my seat. He left with a few of my thank yous and went back to work.
With a newly sturdy seat, I rode and rode and rode, through town and the touristy areas where every provincial house is a guesthouse, restaurant, or shop and then to the normal Laos every day part of town. That part had vegetable markets, tire shops, pharmacies, and noodle stalls. I rode out of town towards the mountains and passed farms and school children riding on their own bikes, heading home to lunch. I attempted to find a waterfall but instead found a working temple with orange robes hung on laundry lines and no one in sight. I stopped along the way for sticky rice, tea, and then a pineapple shake.
After my bike ride I went to get a foot massage. While being rubbed down by a very talented and hard handed woman, the sky went from bright to gray in minutes. I spied a palm tree through some buildings and it was moving and then whipping with the wind. Rain came pounding down soon after and caused drama around town. Every one hurried into motion to close windows and doors, move signs and stools. The electricity went out and my foot massage continued in semi-darkness. The rain became more even instead of ferocious and it was a nice compliment to the soothing hand kneading.
I had the idea to do a Mekong sunset boat cruise, but the rains prevented any such thing. I walked along the river road and saw tree branches, leaves, and awnings all over the street. Families were mobilized to pick up the debris. The ticket stand I had seen earlier was no where in sight. The road was atop a steep cliff that led to the banks of the river. This cliff was cut every 50 meters or so by stairs down to the edge of the Mekong. I looked longingly at each set of stairs for a boat full of Westerners or a queue I could join. But nothing. There were people at the boats, but unfortunately for them (and to a much much lesser extent, me) they were cleaning up storm messes like ripped off roofs and partially submerged boats.
I’d just about given up home when I saw a Western family of two parents, one grandparent, and three children descend one of these sets of stone stairs. I bounded off after them and asked if they were going on a boat ride. Thankfully for me, they spoke English and patiently paused while carrying babies down steep stone steps to say yes, I could join them.
David and Natasha are tri-lingual (German, Laos, and English) NGO workers from Germany who were hosting Natasha’s father, Manfred, on their last night in Luang Prabang before their work transfer to Vientiane. Natasha spoke American-accented English so well that I had a hard time believing she was German. But she was and spoke three different languages to her three children, Aiden, Dylan, and the baby Elliot. We cruised for about a half hour and witnessed the sky turn pink over the bluffs that sheltered the Mekong. There was more storm tragedy and rescue happenings on the shores. Teams of people were wenching and hoisting whole boats out of the water. At the end, I thanked them for letting me crash their family party and giving me the gift of a Mekong sunset cruise.
This morning, my last day in Luang Prabang, I switched hotels to a much nicer one down the street at a huge discount, which is due to the fact that I am the only guest. I climbed the tallest point on the peninsula to Wat Phousi – over 200 steps – to overlook the entire city, rivers and mountains. Afterwards, I napped until my 1:30 pickup to Kuang Si waterfall and Hmong village tours.
The city left us quickly as the tourist minivan sped through windy roads and passed villages and rice patties en route to the waterfall. In turn, I sped through the parking lot and shop stalls to get to the natural site. The day was very hot and a cool dip was all I wanted. The waterfall went on for four tiers each tier cascading and falling (that’s what waterfalls do I imagine) into a sea green pool deep enough for some rope swings and diving. I slipped a little on the tan mud during entry but then was rewarded by cool, clean light green water.
It was pristine. Vine’s draped from leaning in trees. The water was like crystal curtains over the gray rock. It was a paradise out of the movie Blue Lagoon. I had a few fleeting fears of what was under the green water (snakes, big fish, monsters) so was a little timid to go into the deep waters. I sat on rocks and was amply refreshed from the heat.
We just had an hour and a half there. If I’d been with people I could imagine staying there an entire day with cocktails and a picnic. Then, on the way back, the van stopped at a Hmong village. Earlier that day, I’d read in a book that the Hmong people have a history thousands of years old and have steadily warded off becoming Chinese for just as long. They are stubborn warriors and cling to who they are and way of life. The way of life I saw was what I imagine it was a thousand years ago except without the tourists purchasing handicrafts. Thatch huts, lots of chickens, women and children crouched around both, and no men to be seen. The kids were either playing or selling bracelets, handwoven and stitched.
I will say, my favorite place in Luang Prabang is the Utopia bar. It’s outside of the central town and perches over the river bank so there’s a feeling of weightlessness. I stopped there on my first night in LP and felt a jolt of energy when I say the full moon glowing over the Mekong and framed by the bamboo roof and walls. I spent my last few hours in LP there too escaping the heat and using the Wifi. I flew out of Laos on the very pleasant Laos airlines.