Asia Farewell Tour: Laos

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You know when you see photos of beautiful places on Pinterest or Instagram or wherever, and then you go to visit those places yourself and they’re certainly still beautiful, but not as striking as the heavily enhanced shots you saw on social media? Well, Luang Prabang, Laos is not one of those places. It is every bit as breathtaking as you would imagine, and it was by far my favorite stop on our Indochina itinerary.

IMG_8674_20170502111011We flew into Luang Prabang from Siem Reap just before dusk set in, as the flaming, fireball sun burrowed behind the mountains. We checked into the darling Belle Rive Boutique Hotel, a colonial-style inn nestled on the banks of the picturesque Mekong River. The entire town of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its French colonial style had me practically drooling in excitement. A friend had described Luang Prabang as a mix of Charleston, a French town, and an Asian village, and I’d say she nailed it.

My priorities in Luang Prabang were focused on the natural realm, rather than monuments and museums. In fact, the alluring Kuang Si Falls were pretty much the only reason I insisted on including Laos on our itinerary at all. I’ve always had a thing for waterfalls. This waterfall in particular is known for its three tiers, cold turquoise water, and photogenic qualities. Since Laos is a relatively less frequented tourist destination in the region (compared to say, Thailand), I thought it would provide a less crowded, more peaceful experience.

Nonetheless, we took the advice of other travelers and woke up early to beat everyone else to the falls. By the time we arrived via tuk tuk – after passing the loveliest mountain scenery along the way – we shared the area with only a few other tourists. We walked the pathway to absorb the imagery and take photos, gradually making our way to the main fall with a 200 foot (60 meters) cascade. Along the way, I jokingly reminisced aloud about Chuck’s hilarious spill at the Monthathan Waterfall in Chiang Mai. He smirked and chuckled back, with slightly less enthusiasm!

Now, I will let the photos speak for themselves:

After walking around, we returned to the smaller pools and stripped to our swimwear. Chuck splashed right into the bright, chilly water, while I took my sweet time, inhaling sharply as the water inched icily up my rib cage. Once I finally submerged myself, it was beyond refreshing, and my body adjusted quickly. Chuck and I both laughed at the tiny fish that nibbled at our skin. It sure did tickle!

We then climbed towards the tree limb off of which other tourists were gleefully jumping into the water, and that’s when Karma quite literally kicked me in the butt. Chuck was ahead of me, and he looked over his shoulder to say, “Careful, it’s slippery here.” I was wearing Toms and did heed his warning, but it didn’t stop me from slipping… hard. I landed right on my buttctheek, which throbbed for what felt like 10 minutes before I could move again. Initially, I was grateful I landed on the fleshy part, but as it turned out, I actually hit my tailbone. It was sore and bruised for weeks. Seriously, I couldn’t even sleep on my back, or sit comfortably in a tuk tuk, a car, or an airplane. Once everyone was sure I was okay, Chuck grinned at me and said, “That’s what you get for laughing at my fall in Thailand!” I grimaced… but had to agree!

While still on the premises of the Falls, we visited the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, or moon bear sanctuary. These bears have been rescued from the gruesome and cruel bile harvesting industry. It was depressing that these beautiful animals still have to live in captivity, but it keeps them safe and protected from a life of suffering. The centre is working diligently with Lao authorities to strengthen wildlife protection legislation and enforcement. Maybe someday, we will no longer need sanctuaries.

Speaking of sanctuaries, it is time to discuss our next big adventure in Luang Prabang: a visit to Elephant Village!

My long term followers may remember that I visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and while it was a lovely place that no doubt provided the elephants with a life much happier and healthier than their previous lives in the logging and tourism industries, I was unsure about riding them (bareback.) It created a great deal of cognitive dissonance for me. Now, it’s not that I think I’m hurting the elephant by riding it bareback. The riding contraptions often strapped to them are bad for their spines, but I know that my 116 lb self, positioned on the stronger part of their neck rather than backbone, is not harmful in and of itself. However, what most people don’t realize is that the means used to train the elephant to allow humans to ride it are incredibly cruel. You can (and should) read all about Phajaan, or “crushing” here and watch the heart wrenching video here. I’m ashamed that I didn’t learn about the crush until 2016, and I’m ashamed that I rode elephants in Thailand.

Anyway, I found that simply interacting with the elephants was much more enjoyable and rewarding than riding them. I wanted another chance to look them in the eye, spend time with them, and apologize for their pain, without making them carry me on some pointless trek. While sanctuaries without rides do exist, they were few and far between in Laos, so I settled for a visit to Elephant Village, where I had the option to skip the rides and simply pay $10 to hang out with them. I like to think that made somewhat of a point…

Elephant Village gave me unfettered access to the elephants in the morning, before the tourists showed up. I touched them, fed, them, sat with them, and like I had wanted most of all, looked them in the eyes and shared my heart with them. They are such beautiful, intelligent creatures, and you can see right into their souls through those soft brown eyes ❤ It was an experience I will never forget.

The remainder of our experiences in Luang Prabang were lovely, though nothing can beat the elephants and the falls. We did climb the spectacular Phousi Mountain, where we encountered the most lovely views and exquisite shrines – and also survived some intense heat!

We enjoyed delicious Lao meals on the scenic Mekong, with one excursion to the Tamarind restaurant for a particularly savory Lao larb tofu.

We even scored a free sunset cruise on the Mekong and made a new friend, courtesy of the Belle Rive Hotel. The sunset over the river was hypnotizing!

All in all, I couldn’t get enough of Laos, and it was the only stop on our itinerary at which I wish we had more time. If you find yourself in the region, make Luang Prabang a must-see!

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