Luang Prabang – The historic downtown of Luang Prabang looks more like a beautifully renovated European town than an Asian city. This historic area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the beautiful French colonial buildings serving now as cafes and restaurants. Because of the number of tourists that visit Luang Prabang, there are many good restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries serving cappuccinos, croissants and wine.
The colonial downtown lies at the junction of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan River. The city takes advantage of this setting and developed a very long, tree-lined river walk. It’s one of the nicest cities in SE Asia.
There are several wats in town, a few of which are part of the UNESCO designation. One of them is a 16th century teak temple, Wat Xieng Thong. It has an interesting exterior with coloured tiles being used to depict scenes from the founding of the temple.
Another wat, Siphoutthabath is a very old temple with different architecture than we’ve seen before with its large wooden pillars at the entrance and simplistic design.
In the center of town is a small hill, Mt Phousi, with a wat on top. There are 410 steps to the top and it is a popular place to take sunset pictures. We weren’t as impressed with the view as its glorified reputation would suggest. Instead, we found a much nicer river location. Along the edge of the Mekong, we had a great view of the fiery-red sun, reflecting off the Mekong as it set behind the mountains.
One morning at 5:45 am we observed the monks’ alms collection ceremony. It is a religious ceremony that has been occurring on the streets of Laos for generations. The monks silently walk in a long row through the neighborhoods of Luang Prabang collecting food donations from devotees. They then take this food back to their monasteries where it is used to cook their 2 meals of the day.
Kuang Si Waterfall – This waterfall is so popular that in Luang Prabang it is simply referred to as ‘the waterfall’ even though there are others nearby. This time, the glorified reputation was accurate. The waterfall has several tiers that you pass on your way to the top. Each tier is more beautiful than the last.
The water slowly falls over large cream coloured limestone ridges forming aqua-blue pools. At each tier you can’t imagine that the next will be nicer, but it is.
After 20 minutes you reach the final, amazing cascade. Dozens of small waterfalls drop from a shear cliff, 100m above, beginning and ending at different levels in the surrounding jungle. The water has a final large drop into a deep pool, which is surrounded by a limestone ridge with a slow stream of water falling off its edges. Its one of the most spectacular waterfalls we’ve seen.
Nong Khiaw – This small mountain town is becoming popular with tourists because of its beautiful mountain setting. It’s four hours north of Luang Prabang, but years away from modern Laos. There are several guesthouses and locally run restaurants in town, and it has a very rustic charm.
One morning we took a boat trip up the Nam Ou River. It’s a wide, slow river bordered by jungle-covered limestone mountains. We passed a few fishermen on the river and saw farmers bringing their buffaloes to the river’s edge.
The boat stopped at a small village where we saw bamboo houses and villagers drying fruits and flowers in the hot sun. From here we hiked through rice paddies and then along a creek and up a hill to come to the Tat Mork Waterfall. It’s over 10 meters high, with a straight drop into a deep pool. It had rained in the day and was a little cool, so we didn’t swim, but some people we were with did.
After the waterfall, the boat dropped us off a little further downstream and we kayaked back to Nong Khiaw. It was a really peaceful kayak down a gentle river, passing large mountains with spectacular limestone cliffs.
Back in Nong Khiaw, we hiked 500 m up one of the mountains to a cleared-out area with a bamboo lookout. There, we had 360° views of the Nam Ou, Nong Khiaw and the mountain landscape. There were mountains as far as we could see in all directions.
Laotians love music, loud music and they love to party, drink and sing. Each night in Nong Khiaw we were ‘entertained’ by locals singing very loud and very off-key karaoke at near-by outdoor parties, most likely due too much Laou Lao (moonshine)! These parties occur most nights in all of Laos. In a small town such as Nong Khiaw they are more noticeable without the din of a city to cover the noise.
Maung Ngoi – An hour boat-ride up river from Nong Khiaw is the quaint mountain village of Muang Ngoi. It’s a river- access only town set in the valley with mountains on either side. The village has only 2 dirt roads with homes, shops, restaurants and guest houses set along the road. The people were very warm and welcoming which added to the villages’ charm.
At 6:30 in the morning the 18 resident monks leave their monastery for their alms’ collection ceremony. They silently walk barefoot on the gravel streets of Muang Ngoi collecting food donations from devotees. Maggie joined a group of local women to donate money to the monks. The ladies seemed pleased that she joined them, explaining in Lao and with hand signals what she needed to do at the ceremony. As each monk walked by, the ladies each gave a handful of sticky rice into the alms jars and Maggie put money right on top of their food. (!) After passing the group, the monks stopped and chanted a mantra while the women held their hands in prayer and then poured water on the street while silently asking for a blessing. It was such a great ceremony to experience.
Atop one of the small mountain peaks above Muang Ngoi is the Phanoi lookout. It’s approximately 200 m above the town. From there we had great views of the town, the river and surrounding mountains.
The boat ride back to Nong Khiaw was a bit more adventurous than the ride up. Part way through the 1-hour boat ride we noticed a significant amount of water coming in through the side of the hull just below water level. Through hand gestures we let the driver know. His solution was for 2 people to change to the other side of the boat to keep the hole above the water. At least it worked, but we kept our eyes on the hole for the rest of the ride!
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