April 16, 2014

Fun to Say, Fun to Stay - Luang Prabang, Laos

You guys, it's been almost year since we were in Laos. A YEAR! And I'm just now telling you about it. How embarrassing. How ridiculous! But there's no time like the present! It's never too late! Yadda yadda yadda. (Click here for my favorite "yadda yadda yadda" moment.)

In any case - I'm telling you now. I'm writing it now. Whether you want to read it or not!

Remember how much we LOVED Vietnam? (Read our wrap-ups here and here.) I could have stayed there for a year. Or more. But, with flights to Australia less than two weeks away and with a desire to still see Laos, we knew we had to leave Vietnam (skipping several places we wanted to visit) so that we could squeeze in 10 days to explore another country. We decided to head to Luang Prabang (loosely pronounced Lahng Prah-bong) to start our time in Laos.
Luang Prabang Sneak Peek: They leave out busted coconuts to attract ants and then collect the ants to eat!

I'm sure you've realized that, when possible on The Trip, we preferred to use ground transportation (busses, trains, tuktuks) for transportation. It saves money. It gives an up-close-and-personal experience with local culture. And it often provides a hilarious story. (A few of those can be found here, here, here, and here.) By this point in our trip, we were pretty seasoned travelers when it came to dealing with nasty and/or unpleasant and dangerous transport. No big deal. One thing I think we've mentioned a few times is that, for some reason, the general bus experience in SE Asia was largely affected by....barfing. I don't know why but, in our experience, SE Asians puke a lot when they're in a moving vehicle. Several times, we found ourselves surrounded by parents and children and monks puking their guts out. When they filled a little plastic bag with sick, they'd tie off the top and throw it out the window and start on a new bag. (Something to note: this never seemed to deter people from eating. The same people who would be puking like crazy would get off the bus at our rest stops, get one last barf in on the roadside, devour some spicy noodles with mystery meat, get back on the bus, and start puking again the moment we hit some turns. SMDH.) So when we were told by many even more seasoned travelers than us that the 24+ hour bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang was the worst thing on Earth, we pictured trying to sleep in a rickety bus while swinging precariously close to the edge of mountain roads, all while an entire family puked into tiny plastic bags around us. (Seriously, just Google "bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang" and the first two results are "26 Hours of Gruelling Bus Trip from Hanoi to Luang Prabang" and "Nightmare Bus from Vietnam to Laos"...her trip took 38 HOURS!) We had been told that it sometimes takes 2 DAYS due to road conditions and border crossing issues. So I firmly put my foot down against Tom's wishes ("It will be an adventure," he kept saying. "Eff off!" I'd reply) and demanded we fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Best decision ever.

When we landed at the airport, we found a tuktuk (or maybe it was a taxi? I can't remember) and headed to Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang, though a backpacker haven, is a lazy little town. It's hot and sunny and the muddy Mekong River flows through the town and meets up with the Nam Khong River on its way to the South China Sea. The big draw in Luang Prabang is watching the monks receive alms every morning. We were looking forward to seeing this, but cautiously, as we'd read many times that tourists had become disrespectful during this very special daily ritual - getting too close to the monks, touching them, taking photos directly in their faces and, generally, treating them as zoo animals. We vowed that, if we were going to experience this, we would watch from afar and take only a few photos - and only if we could do so without being distracting. Unfortunately, we arrived in Luang Prabang when most of the monks were on some kind of break and were visiting their families, so each day there was only a handful of monks collecting alms. We were disappointed, but not too much. (The below pic isn't mine, but I thought you'd like to see the alms giving.)

We were still feeling a little burnt out and tired in general, so our days in Luang Prabang were pretty relaxed. We walked slowly around the town and tried to find relief from the heat, we visited the Laos spas for massages and long sits in the sauna and steam huts. These spas are unlike anything we'd experienced (and we got A LOT of massages in SE Asia). When you arrive, or after your massage, you're given a sarong and a small towel. You strip naked and then, wearing your sarong, enter the gender-specific steam room. They are the hottest steam rooms I've ever been in. In the steam room, the ladies rub a river stone over their skin to exfoliate. After 5-10 minutes, you step out of the room to cool off. Many women slather yogurt or other creams on their entire bodies between sessions in the steam. Outside the actual steam rooms, the genders mix and it is a very social scene. Tom and I were usually the only Westerners present, and everyone tried to help and instruct us on the best way to experience the spa (which was only a few dollars). Most people spend about 2 hours total visiting the spa. Obviously, we went almost every day!

We really loved visiting markets during the day and the MASSIVE night market every evening. During the day, we strolled through the stalls full of vegetables, fish, and practical items. At night, when the night market opened, the local goods were mixed with touristy scarves, paper lanterns, and kitschy junk. Knowing that our time in SE Asia was nearing an end, we bought tons of little gifts and tchochkes!

Most days, we would rent bikes and cruise around the area, stopping to look at wats (temples), taking in the sights, and enjoying long lunches in the shade at an expat-owned bar/restaurant called Utopia.

Lazing about at Utopia
Our biggest day in Luang Prabang was when we hired a tuktuk to take us to Kuang Si waterfall and then hiked to the top of the huge hill to get a view. Unfortunately, the view from the top was not nearly as impressive as the view from the bottom, so we wasted a lot of effort and sweat. But from the bottom, it was a gorgeous sight! Afterwards, drenched in sweat, we swam in the mineral-rich and chilly water at the base.

It looks like we're naked, but we're not. I promise.
Outside the falls is the Bear Rescue Center - part of Freethebears.org. The Asiatic black bears and sun bears at this sanctuary are rescued from illegal poaching and trading. Many of them were headed to bile farms. It's horrible to read about what happens to these bears. They are kept in small cages so that bile can be extracted from them and then used for traditional medicine in China. (Click here to read more about bile farms.) Maybe the bears knew just how lucky they were to be at this sanctuary because it was some of the most active wildlife we've ever seen. They were playing with each other, climbing trees and structures, swimming, and swinging around on whatever they could find. We loved watching them.

Unfortunately, I got food poisoning while in Luang Prabang. Surprisingly, the food poisoning came from some pizza I ate at an Australian-owned pizzeria. So I spent the next 36 hours violently vomiting in our bathroom and probably keeping the entire building awake. Our time in Luang Prabang was winding down anyway, so we spent the next day or so relaxing and teaching English to monks at the Luang Prabang Library. At night, we chowed down at the night market on delicious local food (that never made me sick). A super nice Thai family sat with us one night and even invited us to stay at their home in Bangkok. People can be so lovely!
Yummy, shiny MSG!
Check out that plate of chicken heads and organs!
Our Thai friends!

After four days, it was time to leave Luang Prabang. We loved our quiet, relaxed time there. (Except the puking part.)

You can check out all of our Luang Prabang pics here. A few more of our favorites are below:

The scene from Utopia: a lone boat on the Mekong, Tom relaxing, bright trees across the river.
Tom enjoying the local fare... A grilled sticky rice skewer (sticky rice, egg, and pork) and some noodle soup
Luang Prabang Street Scene
Some advice from a local tour shop on how to enjoy Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang Street Scene
Night market happenings
(In the bottom pic, you'll see that Tom had to stoop over to fit in the tents.)
The very hot hike through the jungle to the top of Kuang Si falls
You can check out all of our Luang Prabang pics here.

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