We had high expectations of Laos. It seemed without fail that when we asked people what country they loved best of their travels, Laos was always a high contender. We’d been told of untouched natural landscapes, of beautiful waterfalls, of hassle-free and laid back locals and been promised that we’d just never want to leave. So after our incredible time in Vietnam we chose Laos as our next destination. We flew from Hanoi to Luang Prabang (this time we decided that the 24 hour, multiple bus overland border crossing option was just not worth the hassle) and arrived in Laos after the sun had set.
It’s never ideal to arrive anywhere in the evening because we always find it so difficult to get a feel for where you are. We had an ok dinner at a highly touted restaurant a stone’s throw away from our guesthouse which served Lao food but a bit upscale. The place was packed with ex-pats and young, western tourists and had a familiar “hip, dimly-lit lounge with funky music” feel to it that you might find someplace in Toronto, except here everything was outdoors. Turns out the owner is actually from Montreal, so it figured. Later in our stay we wound up at another restaurant owned by a Toronto native. So weird! Anyway, Jesse had his first Beer Lao and we tried the Lao “fondue” with buffalo meat. Nothing too exciting but good enough. We figured we’d go in search of better eats the next day. Lao food was new territory for us.
When the next day came we crossed the rickety bamboo bridge that gets blown away and then re-built every year after the monsoon season to the old town. It was really hot out and didn’t take long for the sweat to settle in. We walked along the river front, which is lined with pretty cafes and hotels. Heading a bit further into town, we encountered more hotels, restaurants and many more French bakeries & cafes. There were also several Buddhist temples dotted throughout the city and of course therefore there were many monks as well. Aside from the many beautiful wats, most of the other buildings have a distinct architecture made up of dark wooden houses with a bit of European flair – seemingly all of which have been turned into stores, hotels or restaurants. So our first impressions were mainly of a serene little riverfront town completely catered towards tourists. With the exception of a few smaller streets were we did see some local families (oftentimes attached to a guesthouse) and one group of men who work at the boat dock taking a break to play the Lao version of bocce called Pétanque, we weren’t really sure we were getting much of an authentic “Lao” experience in this town. Street food seemed relatively nonexistent here, with the exception of fruit smoothie and baguette sandwich stands that were clearly set up for tourists. The night market also seemed to exclusively sell souvenirs and “local food” for tourists, but locals were nowhere to be seen. And I think that’s why on a whole Luang Prabang didn’t end up being the most memorable of places for us.
We did have some good experiences though, including finding one little street food lady along the main strip where we ordered a tasty noodle soup. We also loved our guesthouse and the owner, who was a sweet, friendly Lao man who enjoyed chatting with us each day about a variety of topics. He had a fleet of brand new, incredibly well maintained bicycles that we were allowed to use free of charge which we loved taking out for a spin around town. We did some exploring, riding through the nearby neighborhoods away from the main strip and decided that we must have been staying in the equivalent of Forest Hill in this city, because the houses were all mansions and had huge cars parked in their driveways. In the other direction though, seemed like things were a bit different.
Because we were staying on the other side of town, we also were able to experience the alms procession done by the monks each morning on a smaller and more local level than the more famous one done in town. We were thrilled to just be able to wake up at sunrise, walk out to the guesthouse balcony and watch it from there before we fell back asleep. We probably would have missed it otherwise.
We’d read that the Traditional Ethnology and Arts Centre was worth the visit to learn a bit more about some of the many different indigenous groups in the country, so on a rainy day we went to check it out. It was very informative and a little bit interactive too, which made it better for us non-museum lovers (somehow they always suck the life out of us) and we had a surprisingly tasty lemon tart at their cafe after our visit to boot. Behind the museum you can skirt through a few people’s houses and climb to the top of the hill in the middle of the old town called Mount Phou Si. From there you get views of the whole town, which is bordered by both the Mekong and Nam Khan river on either side. It was a nice climb up to the top (luckily it was only drizzling), as we passed by many Buddhist shrines on the way and two temples, Wat Tham Phou Si half way up and Wat Chom Si at the summit.
Our best day was definitely our last, when we rented a motorbike to ride out to visit the famous Kuang Si waterfalls which are about an hour’s ride away. Finally we were able to take in some more interesting views and see a bit more of Laos. It was a fun, winding road that passed by a few smaller villages and some nice scenery. The multi-stage series of waterfalls at the end also did not disappoint. They were a nice turquoise colour (probably would have been even prettier in sunlight) and truly stunning. First we did the hike up to the top of the highest waterfall, but were unrewarded by absolutely no view at the top. After climbing down, we figured it was time to jump in and have a swim. We had already seen photos and videos of this place from when our friends Andrew & Stephanie had gone a few years ago and so we knew that one fall had a Tarzan rope that you could swing on to jump into one of the pools. We went right to that one to give it a go. Nobody else was swinging at the time, so Jesse was the brave one who went first. A small group of people had gathered to watch as he made the walk along the plank to the jump-off point, which I’m sure made it all the more nerve-wracking. He swung in and made a big splash which everyone enjoyed. I went next and even got some applause on my form! Some Malaysian tourists with big fancy SLR cameras took some shots of us and promised to send them our way (though we haven’t received them yet…oh well!) We both loved it and swung in again. It was by far the most fun thing we did in Luang Prabang.
On our ride back we passed by a huge market which our guesthouse owner had told us was where “Lao people actually shop.” So we parked our bike and had a gander. It was like a massive maze and we got a little disoriented, but as usual it was filled with just about everything you could ever need and more. It felt like we were the only tourists there (it would have been a hefty walk from town) and in fact the locals pretty much just ignored us. It was actually very odd because usually the vendors will at least smile or show us their goods but I guess it was sort of a preview of the stereotypical Lao indifference and “laissez-faire” attitude that we would encounter time and time again. This is not to generalize about all Lao people of course, but it certainly was not as welcoming or friendly (or aggressive, for that matter) on the whole as some of the other countries we’d been to. They just don’t seem to care much if we’re there or not.
Anyway, our first impressions of Laos were definitely not quite as amazing as we’d expected them to be. I guess sometimes when you listen to other travelers’ advice without really knowing of they have similar interests or travel styles as you, you can feel a bit mislead. We decided to head out to a smaller village a few hours away to see if we could see a bit more “untouched” Laos next.