We arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos after a harrowing 24+ hour journey from Vietnam. Our trip started with a relatively uneventful 9 hour night bus from Sapa. Next, we transferred at Dien Bien Phu in the middle of the night to the mini-bus that would take us over the Lao border. After a few hours parked at the station, sleeping on our new bus and getting to know the others, it was time to leave.
Legally importing goods into Laos is expensive since it’s landlocked, and it quickly became apparent that our bus driver had a side hustle smuggling things over the border from Vietnam into Laos. We spent the first hour and a half of the trip picking up huge amounts of goods from various vendors. Our driver was hyperactive (and clearly on something), climbing the truck to strap on new items, or yelling at passengers to rearrange so he could fit something else inside. The amount of crap he managed to stuff onto our mini passenger bus was incredible. Bags of rice lined the floor, sometimes stacked two high, in the aisles and under our feet. Enormous boxes of who knows what were stuffed into the back seats, until those in the back were forced to lean forward for hours. On top of the bus, our luggage was haphazardly strapped below a pile of exports, making the bus frighteningly top-heavy. We tried to protest but we were at his mercy.
We had barely made it in to Laos, after a complicated border crossing procedure, when we came upon another mini bus like ours that had tipped over into the ditch against the mountain.
What did we do? We stuffed all of their passengers, their bags, and extra cargo, on to our tiny bus too. For the next nine hours or so (this leg of the trip in total was 13 hours) we sat two to a seat, everybody uncomfortable, tired, sick, and hungry, as a lunatic whipped us around bend after bend.
On the bright side, this made for a great bonding experience. We exchanged contact information with new friends from England, Canada, Sweden, Germany and more.
A few of us headed to the same hotel, which we had booked on the way via booking.com. It was called Sabaidee Guesthouse. We paid about $12 a night and we were very comfortable. The place has a nice outdoor eating area where they serve free breakfast, a fountain in the front, and bikes to rent. The rooms were clean with nice bathrooms.
We woke up the next morning, had breakfast, rented bikes from the guesthouse, and got a lay of the land. First, we stopped for delicious juices at Le’Etranger. This places sells and lends a good selection of books, in addition to serving tea, fruit drinks like shakes and smoothies, and food. They also have a great movie line up!
Biking on, we got cheap SIM cards and explored neighborhoods. When we were hungry, we headed down a winding little side road to the tucked-away Utopia for lunch. This place was majorly hyped and walking in, the ambience was everything we could have hoped for. You can sit in a beautiful garden with missile casings (I think?) cleverly used as ornaments, or on a beautiful deck with tables and cushions that overlooks the tree-lined Nam Khan River. As we sat there we saw monks bathing in the water. So far, so perfect! When we got our food, things went a little south, as none of it was very good at all, from the coffee to the main courses. I recommend you definitely come here for the vibes, but maybe just get an appetizer and a juice. They also do yoga classes here, which I can only imagine would be sublime.
They provided this Dos and Don’ts list on the way in, for what it’s worth:
Afterwards, we biked along the Nam Khan River. There are beautiful parks lining it, as well as outdoor cafes.
We walked through a pretty area right where it meets the Mekong River, and paid a small fee to cross a rickety bridge. The woman said that the money went to the family who rebuilt the bridge multiple times a year out of bamboo.
Exploring the banks of the river on the other side, a man standing on his long-tail fishing boat called out to us. He had a little shack there, and was offering his services if we needed a boat ride. We had planned to go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls the next day, and in a split second decision, decided we’d rather go with this charming, toothless guy named Mr. Four than one of the many tour agents offering the trip in town. We sorted out pricing and shook on it, promising to be back the next morning, before heading to the night market.
The jewelry stood out to me most at the night market. Although it many ways it was just another Southeast Asian tourist market, there were really great, unique earrings and necklaces for good prices throughout. After a walkthrough, we met up with a couple of our bus friends and ended up finding a few more by chance! In the food area of the market, I discovered Sai Oua, a lemon grassy, herby, crumbly pork sausage that I have been obsessed with ever since. The food alley also had a number of vendors who set up buffets with more ten amazing looking dishes, each in their own bowl. You could take a styrofoam box and fill it as full as possible for a very low price. Some allowed for refills, some didn’t. After having already eaten spring rolls and sausage, I was too full to try this, and my biggest regret as that I didn’t make it back. Our friends tell us it was great.
Utopia’s tagline is “Zen by day, groovy by night,” so we had to go back with our new friends to what has to be the most popular nightlife spot in town. The place was packed with foreigners, and we were immediately offered opium by a local upon walking in. Music was playing and people were doing acroyoga and dancing. We got a beer tower and partied until 11:30PM when it shut down. Yes, unfortunately the town has a pretty strict curfew. As we straggled out, a local man walked by us and said “bowling?” We only half registered what he had even said when a girl we were with remembered that her friend had told her to go bowling, without giving any more detail. The man was gone now, but as we walked out to the main street there were tuk tuks waiting to take us. We hopped on and headed to the outskirts of town, getting a little nervous as we got further and further. Sure enough, we walked in to what looked like a frat take over of a small town bowling alley.
Everyone was here now, as it was one of the very few places that was still open and serving liquor. The catch was that they only sold alcohol by the bottle, which meant we ended up with a full bottle of whiskey and a two-liter of Coke on our lane. Also, thank god, there was pizza. We bowled one game, amidst more acroyoga and some incredibly wasted 23 year olds with no boundaries. It was fun, mostly as a novelty, since most of the elements of the experience are generally my worst nightmares. When in Rome!
When we got back to our guesthouse around 2am, we had to deal with the fact that it had been closed since curfew. The gates were locked, but luckily it was easy enough to climb over the fence on the side. We crept up to the lobby where a security guard was sleeping in a tent right in the middle of the floor. Quietly, we passed him and made it in to our room. If you don’t want to deal with this, do some research to a place without a curfew. They do exist.
In the morning it was time to meet a man about a boat. We had invited the three British people we sat in front of on our bus ride from hell, and sure enough, they showed up, lack of land marks and all! We all got on the boat and Mr. Four immediately offered us a big plastic water bottle of what he called “beer kamu.” It seemed to be a home brewed rice wine. He took the first chug and we passed it around on our ride until it was gone.
Shortly after taking off, we hit a rock and he stripped down to his briefs to push us off. We knew this was going to be a good day. We had a gorgeous ride on the Mekong for about half an hour before getting off and into the back of his friend’s pick-up truck. Finally, we arrived at the Kuang Si Waterfalls. We walked in through the Free the Bears Laos Black Bear Sanctuary before we got to the falls themselves.
This place is like something out of a dream, and probably the most magical place I have ever been. There are tiers and tiers of pools, which you can follow up to the top. For the last leg, you can take the trail to the left for a bit of an easier time, or to the right for more of a challenge.
Once we saw the whole length of it, we jumped in and swam in the cool, incredibly blue water. One of the pools had a tree to jump off of, which we each did over and over again.
When we were hungry, there were prepared foods like spring rolls for sale. We never wanted to leave, but after a few hours, Mr. Four was trying to take off.
Back on the boat, he asked us if we wanted dinner. Yes! He took us to a small fish farm on the Mekong, where nets separated different kinds of fish in the water. We gave him cash and he got what he needed before hopping in the boat and taking us back to the shack on the banks where we had met him before. We thought this was his house, but instead he took us on a long walk through a village we had not even known was there, as it was across the Nam Khan from everything touristy. He showed us where he kept his small livestock and where his son lived before we arrived at his house. His son came along and spoke great English, so we started to learn more about this man. He got his name Mr. Four because he has four houses, four boats, and four motorcycles. Ownership means a lot in a place where there is no credit or payment plan, so it is a great source of pride. Outside, two women started preparing food. We sat in his house talking and offered us homemade whiskey that was some of the strongest stuff I’ve ever had. The beer kamu was flowing as well, and Mr. Four was insisting on shots regularly. When the food was ready, Mr. Four’s wife sat with us and we shared some soup and insanely delicious fish laap (or larb), our new favorite dish. By the end of the meal he was insisting that we come back and stay at his house, and we all requested his son on Facebook. Best day ever.
The next day, the guesthouse helped us arrange for a bus to take us to Vang Vieng later that afternoon before we met up with my friend’s brother, Son, for lunch. He suggested Coconut Garden, a restaurant owned by L’Elephant, because he said it was risky for us to get real local food on a travel day. The sandwiches were good and the back patio was nice.
Son’s family immigrated to the United States, where I met his brother, but he moved back to Luang Prabang and has been there for ten years. He founded Lao Project Group and wowed us with his work in rural communities. The organization is helping communities become self sufficient through training in education, nutrition, health and more. I was extremely tempted to join and run off to the Lao countryside for the next six months.
Son also filled us in on a haunting situation we had heard the day before. Tour busses were being shot at on the route we would take that day from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Multiple people had died. News sources were encouraging people to avoid the road, but we didn’t have anywhere else to go if we wanted to see the rest of Laos. Son explained that people living in the mountains were angry at Chinese developers for building on their land and giving nothing back. Some had taken it upon themselves to shoot up Chinese tour busses over the previous few months, but he thought we would be safe in our Lao bus. He suggested we sit in the aisle seats with our bags between us and the window, which we did.
It was sad leaving Luang Prabang after only three days. There was so much more to do, and it would have been the perfect place to take it slow and relax for a while. It was by far our favorite place in Laos, and one of my favorite places, if not my favorite, on our whole trip. I could have spent two more days just going back to the waterfalls. We continued on to Vang Vieng and Vientiane, which were both great in very different ways, but they did not compare to Luang Prabang. What I’m saying is, take as much time here as you can.