Just recently I have decided that I was finished traveling to only the capital cities of each country. Sure getting to see the highlights of Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, London and the sorts are all beautiful and offer an extensive amount to see and do, but they are also extremely international cities, and with that extremely easy to adapt and usually lacking a bit more culture then the countryside towns. And through all of my travels it really was not until just recently that I have discovered that there is so much more charm, character, and culture in the small countryside towns rather then just the big international capital cities.
So this year for my twenty-fourth birthday I decided I wanted to do something totally more different and unique, and visit some quaint countryside towns in Southeast Asia. And what better place to start then in rural Laos- in Luang Prabang? I have never been to Laos prior to this trip, so not only was I getting to experience a new city, but a whole new country altogether.
I connected through Bangkok from the states (in my usual fashion) and arrived in Luang Prabang late in the afternoon. The visa on arrival process could not have went any more smoother or quicker, and from landing to grabbing a minivan to the guesthouse was probably a total of thirty minutes. On my initial arrival I decided to peruse the booklet of all the tours that Luang Prabang had to offer (as I heard there were many) and book my excursions well in advance, to give provide me ample time to rest and prepare.
I almost instantly decided on a two day trekking, kayaking, and hiking tour to the Pad Ou Caves, a small village outside these caves that housed a elephant sanctuary, the Kuangsi Waterfall and Free the Bears park, and a visit to the Tad Sae waterfall. I know what you’re thinking if you’ve been to Luang Prabang- that is extremely a lot to do in two days. And yes, yes it was.
My morning started with meeting a group of four Japanese university students from Tokyo. We instantly got to bonding, and shared all of our life details as well as travel plans and life goals. They explained to me that next they would all visit Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Vietnam, and seeing that I’ve been to all those countries I made sure to tell them all the highlights of what not to miss. I love being able to speak about Southeast Asia to other people and share experiences, so this was definitely a conversation that ranked high of my list. For those of you that didn’t know, Japan provides a lot of economic support for Laos, donating an extensive amount of money, goods, and services and just recently Japan and Laos marked their sixtieth anniversary of friendship. It’s because of that strong relationship between Japan and Laos that Japanese citizens can visit Laos visa-free, and even participate in internships and work-study programs here (just had to include my usual mini history lesson being as I just learned this information myself as well very recently).
Seeing as we all instantly became friends, I knew right away that this trekking adventure was going to possibly be one of the most exciting I have ever participated in and I could not have waited any longer to get started. We started with driving further outside of Luang Prabang to the countryside of the countryside (if you can fathom that), and first we hopped into kayaks that were not really even kayaks at all (they were canoes but maybe that word doesn’t translate into Lao) which was fine, and we partnered up to what was supposed to be a 45 minute ride down small river. Eventually we would end up crossing the strong Mekong Delta and visiting the Pak Ou Caves on the other side. Although the tour guide said the actual kayaking would take 45 minutes, it felt like hours paddling down the calmest river I have ever seen, especially considering that it was over 100 degrees outside in the beating sun.
When we finally reached the Pak Ou Caves we were given two options to either stop and just visit the Lower Cave or continue climbing a few hundred more steps to the Upper Cave. Of course you all know that I am not going to trek out to some remote cave in the middle of Northern Laos and not go the full mile. And boy, were we all so happy that we decided too. The Upper Cave was dark and eerie yet still had an err of religiousness to it. Although quite far to get to from Luang Prabang, the caves were definitely worth the excursion out if you are considering it.
After lunch we hopped back in the kayaks to cross the Mekong Delta once again (UGHHHHH!), and head to a small village that houses an elephant sanctuary for lunch. The portions were quite large especially considering there was only five of us, and we are in Asia. It seemed as if they were expecting the whole village for lunch when it reality they weren’t. After lunch we wondered around the sanctuary, and played with the elephants. We learned a little bit more about traditional Lao villages and culture.
From the elephant sanctuary we drove (what felt like forever) to the Kwangsi Waterfall, which is definitely not a site to miss here in Luang Prabang. The waterfall is quite massive, and it creates a river that runs for days. I decided to hop in the waterfall to snag some awesome pictures, and partake in the full experience. After viewing all of the sights at the waterfall, it was time to head back home to downtown Luang Prabang and prepare for day two.
In our bus ride back to the hotel, my extremely nice new Japanese friends invited me out to the sauna with them, but I was much too hot from the heat already and tired to go. I walked with them, swapped contact information, and we parted ways.
Day two brought a completely different adventure. It was a solo tour, just me and my tour guide (which I have only done a few tours like this in my life and I forget how amazing the experience they are). The morning started with a quick boat ride to a nearby rural Lao village.
When we arrived my tour guide began to explain to me that this village was comprised of the three major ethnic groups in Laos- Mon, Khmer, and Lao. The Mon people who he happened to be one of, are early descendants from Mongolia. The Khmer people are usually darker in skin and are from areas like Cambodia. The Lao, are traditional Lao natives. He continued to explain that all three major ethnic groups could live in harmony beside one another despite their religious and spiritual differences.
He continued to add that life for most Lao people is quite hard. The government doesn’t provide much for the people, just the roads you see, and they must pay for everything else themselves. From school enrollment fees, to healthcare costs, everything cost the Lao people money and sadly they can’t always afford to pay for everything. He stated that if a family doesn’t have the money to send their child to school, then sadly they can not attend. Most villages are equipped with electricity, but since the price of electric is so high, many families hardly ever use their electric except rarely for light. The average families electric bill is around $3-5 a month. The average income for a citizen who works for the government (which is considered a good job because you get steady work and a pension) is about $200-$300 a month. Working for a good private company a person can earn around $400 a month.
More so he said that the tour agency that he works with is quite a rather small agency and doesn’t always book tours everyday. Therefore, he only gets paid when there is work, which is often only two days a week. Because he is only working two days a week, he doesn’t earn much and he told me he’s actively looking for employment with another larger tour company, that can give him more work.
As we trekked through the mountains and though a few more villages, my tour guide and I continued to talk about Lao culture. A few hours later we finally arrived at the Tad Sae Waterfall. The waterfall, much like the one from yesterday was incredibly beautiful. We watched elephants hike through the jungle, monkeys do tricks, and some random other animals run wild. We finished up our day of trekking with a late lunch at the waterfall, in which my tour guide ordered a bunch of local Lao food for us to share. As we ate he explained to me what exactly we were eating, and how to eat it the traditional Lao way, which was certainly an experience in itself.
All and all in just two days of trekking I have learned and experienced an unforgettable amount. I have dove into Lao culture head first, and I am extremely happy to have been welcomed in by the Lao people to help me learn their ways. In just a few short days of already being in Luang Prabang, I can tell this is special place, and it will always hold special in my heart.
Thank you to all that have added such wonderful memories to my unforgettable birthday trip. Until next time, XoXo.