Exploring Luang Prabang

Impressions of Luang Prabang

Flying into Luang Prabang felt like something out of a movie — gliding low over dense, lush mountains and seeing sparsely populated towns dotted along the wide Mekong River before touching down on a runway surrounded by red dirt — it was beautiful. We landed on the tarmac just as the sun was setting behind the hills. Justin and I looked at eat other and smiled, thinking we were really going to like this city — and we were right.

Luang Prabang, especially the old town, is charming beyond belief. Everywhere we walked (or biked!) felt safe, the streets were buzzing but not loud, and even the drivers all seemed so patient (which was a first for us on this trip). Temples were scattered and hidden around every block with orate details and grand designs. Thick vegetation and flowering trees lined street and created a canopy above most roads. The warmth brought out the scents in the flowering buds and when the heat died down at night, we were treated to the most magical air for our evening walks or early mornings watching the monks accept their daily alms.

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Luang Prabang was also one of the honeymoon stops where Justin had planned several surprises. He revealed each one the night before and little did I know that we were gearing up for some fun adventures!

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Spending the day with Elephants

Two years ago when we traveled to Thailand together, we spent a day with Elephants in Chang Mai and it was a highlight of my life. When I found out we’d once again have a day walking, feeding and bathing elephants, I was in heaven.

There is something about these magnificent animals that even when seeing them from our van upon arrival, I started to squeal. Justin had taken considerable effort to find a place that focused on humane care and rehabilitation for the elephants and it was great to see how well they were treated. My mahout (elephant keeper) had worked with my elephant for 24 years — he called her his first wife, but said that his (second) wife at home was okay with it.

We had a chance to ride our elephants through the river, bathe them and feed them.

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Bathing them was especially fun once we realized that our two elephants were the jokers of the group — with mine knowing the command for “shower” and Justin’s having lived a previous life as a bucking bronco.

Becoming a rice farmer

Another surprise was spending a day at the Living Land Company a working rice farm, learning about how rice is grown and harvested. We put on our bamboo hats, rolled up our pants and began by wading into the muddy rice paddies. For most visitors, that would mean wading up to their knees, if that. For me, it meant thigh-high mud. I was fortunate at one point to get a ride on the water buffalo who was plowing the field (with Justin’s help) but sooner or later I had to jump off back into the surprisingly deep mud pits (i.e., rice paddy).

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We then tried our hand at each subsequent stage of rice harvesting (planting, cutting, sifting etc.) before indulging in some tasty treats. When it came time to eat the rice, I found myself wanting to eat grain by grain, now knowing how painstaking it was to produce the rice in front of us. Malcolm Gladwell was right when he wrote in Outliers how hard rice farmers work. I am not sure I’m cut out for that profession but it sure was a great day!

Let’s get cooking (and eating)

The surprises continued when I woke up and Justin told me we were heading out to a cooking class taught by one of the top restaurants in town, Tamarind. They showed us around the largest market in Luang Prabang and then we got to try our hand at 5 different dishes they serve at the restaurant. When someone preps all your ingredients and watches to ensure you are cooking it just right, it is pretty hard to screw up (i.e., don’t ask us to recreate the dishes at home). This was only further supported when we ate the same dishes the following night at the restaurant and they were astronomically better than ours. We had a fantastic time, but we’ll continue to rely on the pros.

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In addition, we had some wonderful meals along the Mekong River as well as tons of fresh coconuts. Following from the daily coconuts we enjoyed in Zanzibar, I had become quite skilled at extracting every last bit of coconut meat from the shell (if I do say so myself).

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Helping kids learn English

Prior to arriving in Luang Prabang, I had read about an organization called Big Brother Mouse created to help local kids learn to speak English. Traditionally, many Lao children have never read books other than text books. This not-for-profit publishes books and also creates a space for interaction and practice speaking/reading. They invite tourists to come by to converse with the young people who are working hard to learn English. There is no curriculum or sign-up, just the encouragement to talk and learn about each other. Many of the young people came every day for two hours (after school or in addition to their work) to practice speaking English with tourists. They dutifully wrote down words and phrases that were new to them and Justin and I were both so struck by their commitment to learning. The night we went, there must have been about 50 young people of all ages. Justin and I each quickly had a group of young people surround us with a warm welcome, some plastic chairs to sit on and lots of questions.

For some reason, the first three questions from everyone who sat down to chat with me was always the same: 1) Where are you from? 2) What’s your name? 3) How old are you?

How old am I? When better to answer a question with a question, so I replied by asking them how old they thought I was. Perhaps these young people had mastered the art of flattery (although unlikely they knew it is flattering given they started by asking me how old I was) or perhaps they mixed up their numbers, but when one guessed I was 24, I told him he was exactly right. “Really!?” he said. “No, not even close, but let’s pretend I’m 24. So, were you born here in Luang Prabang?”

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It was wonderful to hear stories about their studies, their families and their many many siblings (often 8-10 each). They had wide eyes when asking questions about Google (pronounced GOOOO-gal) and shared their work aspirations with us. I heard one body recount his first visit to a movie theater in a city a few hours away and the wonder of watching a film on a big screen with sound all around him. Justin spent most of his time talking to a teenager who was a monk in Luang Prabang and learned about his life and studies. It was fun when we ran into the monk the following day on the street and he stopped to come say hello to Justin — it is a small town!

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Waterfalls

There were a few great waterfalls in Luang Prabang and we had a blast exploring them. One, Tad Sae Falls, was an opal oasis of cascading water that fell into small, terraced pools — perfect for exploring and jumping off of!

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We also took a tuk tuk out for the day to see Kuang Si Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls I’ve ever seen (200 feet tall). We arrived early and were fortunate to see the waterfall with no other tourists around.

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We had read about a hike up to the top, so ventured up a very steep and muddy “path” through the woods until we reached the top. The hike was more eventful than the view (or lack thereof, since they need to keep crazy tourists far from the ledge of the waterfall), but on our way down we got to hike through part of the waterfall and were ready for a swim when we reached the bottom.

Not too many people were swimming because it was cool the day we were there. We almost left before one of our frequent moments of, “Oh come on, we’re here, let’s do it!” So we plunged into the icy water and climbed up through some of the cascading falls. It was so refreshing and we definitely started a trend because the pool filled up with tourists after we got it.

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Villa  Lotus Hotel

We had such a lovely stay at Villa Lotus Hotel right in town. We were treated to surprise gifts each evening (hand woven scarves, locally made coffee etc.) and the most incredible breakfasts every morning in the lush garden that smelled of Jasmine.

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Luang Prabang was one of our favorite stops and left us with many wonderful memories.

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