Luang Prabang has a reputation of being a chilled and special place in Laos – but with this reputation comes the growing menace of touts. Even the bus tuk-tuk driver tried to get away lightly by not going where we wanted – so good old GPS sorted him out. And pretty much from every corner you get “tuk tuk?” “boat?” – and even restaurant owners are a bit more pushy. The town doesn’t have a free map, only one for £1 or more which in Asia is hideously expensive. Instantly you get the feel that a lot of the locals just want to milk you for money – an experience not really felt elsewhere in Laos.
Our hotel was good though and we explored pretty much the entire old town on the first day, climbing the Phou Si hill to watch the sun set over the Mekong. The price was steeper than the hill and though the view was good, the sunset wasn’t as special as it could’ve been – and the top was full of tourists. The night market though is nice, lots of arts and crafts that seem worth buying, and no pushiness from the vendors. Not quite sure on the authenticity of some of it mind!
The next day we rented another motorbike (twice the price as everywhere else) and went to Kuang Si Waterfalls. The road was fairly good, hilly and windy, with not much civilisation not the sort of place you want to have a problem. Which of course we did – the back tyre went flat after only 5km. But fortunately I noticed fairly early so we didn’t have an incident, and also it happened only about 1km from a tiny village where I saw someone with a big compressor. I was only going to ask for some air, but the guy took the wheel off and fitted a new inner tube (the old ones valve was split) – and only charged just over £3 for his efforts. He did point out the front tyre was also split waiting to go bang. I did check the tyres for tread, but missed the split in the sidewall. Got the feeling the renter wasn’t completely unaware, and they lied about how much fuel I needed which they drained for themselves.
The Kuang Si Waterfalls though were impressive and worth seeing. Spectacular, though not quite as good as the Erawan falls in Thailand, but probably worth a visit if you aren’t too waterfalled out. Next to the falls is the Free The Bear Fund Laos setup where an NGO charity rescues sun and moon bears from captivity and bile milking – a place Mel has been eyeing up since before we left.
In town we both had a long overdue hair cut, but think some details got lost in translation. Mels hair was shorter than normal and the fringe was snipped off, and I pretty much got a Monks cut. Now I know past 40 I’m due to lose my hair – but not like this!
Our next stop after Luang Prabang is heading towards northern Thailand. The only real way of doing this are by plane (£160), 15+ hour bus on very windy roads, 7+ hours on a speedboat (complete with crash helmets and life jackets) which Mel ruled out, or a 2-day (8+8hrs) slow boat trip. Typically these slow boats are over full, uncomfortable and you can’t move around, and very basic. None of which appealed so fortunately we noticed another option…
A VIP slow boat (for about 3x price of slow boat) takes the same time, but limited to 40 people, has comfy chairs, tables, TV, DVD, toilet (!), 220v power, games, lounge, bar, and even includes a decent restaurant and free lunch. Well – thats what the brochure says and we know how honest they are… But we thought we deserved some luxury so booked this, with the only downside the boats don’t go daily so we’re having to stay in Luang Prabang for a couple of extra days. A tough call especially as our hotel room was upgraded for free so now overlooks the Mekong… !
To be fair, Luang Prabang is a nice place to be stuck in – some very good places to eat and chill, and we even enjoyed spending a day on our balcony watching the world go by. The Luang Prabang old town is a UNESCO site with a French feel and has its fair share of Wats and Monks. There is a famous Alms ceremony daily where traditionally locals would give the Monks food and items to sustain them, but at the moment it is more of a tourist show with no locals (bar the ones selling you stuff to give to the monks) and very inappropriate tourist behaviour. Bit of a shame so we opted to skip it – not least because it also starts at 6am!
We did however visit the Royal Residence and temple which were worth a look around, but the royal residence isn’t as opulent and some – probably highlighting the previous Kings didn’t overspend too much. The temple though was impressive with some detailed gold carvings inside.
Laos, like Thailand, also has its fair share of elephant camps. Some of these have good reputations, some not so good with the internet citing abuse and overworked elephants, but we took our chance and booked a day-ish with some Elephants near Pak Ou caves.
We were pleasantly pleased to find there were only 4 people and 3 elephants, and about 4 or 5 Mahouts (elephant handlers) and guides, so our camp was hardly over busy. We started on a jungle walk with a bench on the elephants back, and whilst not that exciting, it was a good introduction and showed how the young mahouts looked after their animal. For us, the elephants were not regimented in a route, and if they wanted to stop and jump into a bush to eat something they were allowed with rather funny consequences. Ours was a little nervous of vehicles so when we saw a moped on the way back she ran back!
After this, we were given basic training on how to talk to the elephants and get them to go where we wanted, and then took it in turns to climb on and just sit on the elephants neck and guide it around. Clearly we weren’t very good at this but again the mahouts kept control whilst allowing the elephants to have a lot of scope to play.
Finally we doubled up and took them down to the river to give them a bathe – though clearly the consequences were obvious when asked if we could swim…. So with us both sitting bareback on the elephants neck we took them into the river where clearly the mahouts have a command to “shake them off” – which the elephant did! What we can say though is the elephants really seemed to enjoy the bathe and playing with us and their keeper. The keepers were chilled and laughing, and honestly, so was the elephant! Happy for us to climb on and then try and dunk us off rodeo style! The only concern was if we got squashed – but we didn’t.
We then climbed on and went back to camp.
We think we were lucky, the camp really did seem to keep the elephants well. They were always eating and are obviously eating enough judging by what came out of the other end too. They were not over worked, and they looked in good health. And their mahouts were giving them as much freedom as possible whilst ensuring there is income from the likes of us to keep them fed. Far better than a zoo, and probably the best option available as letting them go into the wild here isn’t viable.
After the camp we stopped at a local Whiskey producers where they make rice whisky and wine, but in the whisky bottles they have snakes and scorpions… Hmmm – probably not our taste!
Having done everything we wanted in Luang Prabang, we relaxed Laos style and got ready for our interesting journey to Thailand. Annoyingly, only 3 weeks left now and even more annoyingly we are starting to think about things we need to do when we get back. Argh!!!
For the next “slow boat” installment, click here