Luang Prabang is a beautiful little town in mountainous northern Laos. The center of the city is a small peninsula, three blocks by ten blocks or so, surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It has a distinct French influence and cafes line the streets giving off smells of coffee and bread. The European architecture is noticeable walking down the street. It just looks different even to the untrained eye. Shops along the street with rooms above. Small alley ways between white buildings with orange shingles. It is a relatively clean place and pleasant to walk through and explore.
I forgot how good bread was! I had a baguette with jam and coffee every morning in Luang Prabang. And it was so good. Laos has plenty of western food - particularly sandwiches. But it also has its own local Asian food too. Delicious noodle soups, classic fried noodles, lots of meats on sticks, and their own version of khao soi, which was definitely a totally different dish than northern Thailand, but still good and nice and spicy. To my relief fruit shakes were readily available and especially good in the very hot midday sun.
Northern Laos is also known for its rice whiskey. I was getting an early lunch at a small sidewalk restaurant when a local dude came up and felt like chatting. His English was good enough for a conversation - not that it takes much. I've been getting pretty good at having entire conversations with maybe ten English words. One of these conversations may be completely different for the two parties involved but that's beside the point. Anyway he had some family in Seattle and was happy to talk and share his rice whiskey. It was only 10:30am but it would have been impolite not to accept. It was actually pretty smooth. I don't know if whiskey is the right term. It was a clear liquor made from rice, but they called it whiskey. There are probably some people from Tennessee who would disagree. The nice, polite guy that I am, I accepted three shots before he finally had to go. Thank goodness.
During my three and a half days in Luang Prabang I rented a mountain bike. It was nice to be on a bicycle again although it made me miss my old ride back in Alabama. There was some good mountain biking to be had around the area though.
One day I went across the river to the rural Chomphet area. As soon as you cross the river on the ferry you notice how different this area is. Much more rural and poor and spread out. No tuk-tuks, no cars, no paved roads, hardly any concrete building. Here it's all farmland and dirt roads which makes for some fun biking, especially in the rainy season. I did a big loop around the country side. I had to ford two rushing streams and cross a couple flooded roads. I didn't even lose my shoes. Guess I have learned since Maine. It rained really good a few times. The roads were nice and muddy. And by the end I was nice and muddy too. On the ferry back I tried not to touch anything or anyone since I would have left my hand prints in mud everywhere.
Another day I rode out to Kuang Si waterfall, a popular spot about 35 kilometers out from Luang Prabang. The trip was nice. Paved roads winding around the Laos countryside. I only had to go up and over one mountain, but it came with a nice view so I didn't mind. The traffic was pretty minimal, and they drive on the right side of the road in Laos. It's amazing how quickly you become used to something different, like driving on the left. I had spent the last month in left hand side driving countries so I had to remind myself to stay on the right side sometimes. Not that any of the other drivers stayed on their side of the road anyway though. But I was only run off the road once by a truck making an unnecessarily wide turn into my lane. At least I had a helmet.
Kuang Si waterfall kept surprising me. It's a long waterfall. Keeps continuing in stages as you walk up river until you finally reach the big one at the top. By that point I had already stopped several times to relax and cool off in the chilly pools of lots of smaller waterfalls. I wasn't expecting a huge fall at the top, but it was a good surprise. And impressive. The rainy season rendered the water more of a tan color than the impossibly crystal clue that you see if you google image "Kuang Si waterfall". It was also flowing very high. Water was flooding picnic areas, which I only know because I could see picnic table islands in the river.
There was a bear sanctuary right next to the waterfall too. It's a place where bears are taken when they are rescued from the hands of poachers. Some are missing paws or whole limbs from traps; others are rescued from small bear-sized cages where they lay everyday with tubes injected into them to extract bile. All of these bears would be killed as soon as they were no longer useful to the poachers. They are all too traumatized or ill equipped to return to the wild so they come here. They all seem as happy as they can be, climbing around on three legs or laying in bear hammocks. There are even rescued cubs there. They were super playful. I got a "Free the Bears" shirt. It's pretty sweet.
The best sunset spot in Luang Prabang is on top of Mt Phousi, and it's pretty damn good. Mt Phousi is a medium sized hill with a temple up top really, but it's right in the middle of a very flat Luang Prabang so you get an awesome 360 degree view of the city and surrounding landscape. The sun sets behind mountains with the Mekong picturesquely running down below. When the clouds are right, it's brilliant.
Luang Prabang is famous for the procession of hundreds of Monks the leave their respective temples at dawn to take alms from respectful and caring locals. Maybe this is a bad thing - the famous part. I went out one morning at dawn and the whole scene was a little sad. There were tourist unapologetically getting right in the face of the monks walking down the street to take pictures. There were local vendors set up on the street selling rice and other foodstuffs so that tourists could take part in the ceremony even though they most likely have no idea what it means or how to correctly and respectfully take part. Monks took all the offerings from everyone, but then I would see them throwing away some of it as they turned the corner. It was much cooler seeing this ritual in small towns or rural areas in Thailand where it wasn't a tourist attraction; it was a way of life. Where it wasn't a monk parade; it was a few monks walking along small roads to eagerly awaiting families.
Luang Prabang is a nice place to spend more than a few days. Have some coffee and ice cream. Do some biking and swimming. See friendly bears and monks. Enjoy baguettes and sunsets.