Luang Prabang, Laos rivals every other city I’ve been to in Southeast Asia when it comes to its relaxing atmosphere. There’s something about it that emanates tranquility the moment you arrive. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it’s still low season and there weren’t swarms of tourists bustling through the streets, but I get the feeling that this town is always able to retain some sense of peace, no matter the time of year. It’s a pretty small town and you can ride a bike around the perimeter of the main area in about 30 minutes. Everything is a lush green, and the city is flanked on two sides by rivers and on the other two sides by mountains, making it feel somewhat isolated in the most perfect way. Every direction you look, you find beauty. My cousin Shirley and I discovered this when we hiked to the top of Phousi Hill, which stands in the middle of the city and gives you a 360 degree view of the surrounding city, mountains, and rivers. The landscape on every side was stunning. Any place your eyes lingered, there was something to attract them. There were low red roofs, tree-covered mountains, muddy rivers flowing heavy from the summer rains, and the tops of gilded temples standing out with their elegance. It was the middle of the day when we hiked to the top of the hill, and we had to fight the heat to make it to the top, but it was completely worth it.
After exploring the city for several hours, we sought out a popular restaurant near the river called Utopia. This place has laid claim to one of the best bits of land in the city, sitting a bit above the river, overlooking the water, mountains, and the palm trees that line the opposite bank. It’s kind of a hipster place, with people going there to mostly just hang out on the cushions scattering the floor, eat some good food, do yoga, listen to good music, watch some random youtube videos on a projector, and have a couple drinks. We stayed there late into the evening and returned on our final night in the city to enjoy the view and the sunset over the river once again. And yes, the food and drinks were also incredible.
We spent most of the next day on the Mekong River doing a boat tour that eventually took us to Kuang Si Waterfall, the biggest in Luang Prabang. We stopped at a few temples on the bank opposite Luang Prabang where we started the day with a nice workout as we climbed quite a few steps and hiked a bit through the forest to reach the temples. We also had the opportunity to tour a nearby cave with a very kind monk as our guide. The rocks were slippery and I was wearing flip flops, so the journey into the darkness wasn’t entirely pleasant, but seeing the many rock formations and Buddhas that had been placed there by the monks was worth the effort of keeping my footing. Floating down the Mekong was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. It was an hour and a half of uninterrupted views of the stunning mountains surrounding Luang Prabang. I’ve seen many mountain landscapes in Thailand, but the mountains of Laos were unique, perhaps a bit more rugged, and provided a new kind of mountain landscape to gaze upon in awe. When we made it to the local village where we would meet a truck to take us to the waterfall, we were greeted by a group of young children who sat around a tree on the bank on the river, waving and yelling Hello. They couldn’t have been happier to see the two foreigners who arrived at their village that afternoon—another experience that showed the beautiful friendliness and openness that is so often found in Southeast Asia. After walking down a rocky road and trudging through a knee-high creek, we jumped into the back of a flatbed pickup truck and enjoyed the 20 minute ride through the rice fields and mountains before arriving at the entrance to the waterfall. The entrance to the waterfall passes through a bear sanctuary, so we got to glimpse some of the bears being rehabilitated before arriving at the main attraction. The waterfall has three tiers that lead up to the main drop of the waterfall. There are usually pools of bright blue water where people enjoy swimming, but when we arrived at the waterfall we discovered that there would be no swimming that day. Being at the end of the rainy season, the heavy rains of the past few months had dropped an enormous amount of water into the falls. The rushing water was magnificent, but it meant that the water was so deep and flowing so quickly that it was far too dangerous to try to swim. Still, we were able to see an incredible construction of nature, and I even managed to hike the steep and often slippery path to get to the top of the waterfall. Coming down proved to be a bit harder and I got a couple scrapes and bruises when my feet failed to grip the dirt, but I was happy to accept the challenge.
That evening we made our second trip to the night market. While slightly smaller than the night markets in Chiang Mai, I was impressed by the variety and quality of goods they were selling. The best purchase I made at the market was a ring made of metal from bombs dropped on Laos during the ‘secret war’ raged by the US to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. In order to reuse the metal, members of the local villages have collected the remains of the bombs, melted down the metal, and formed it into jewelry and other trinkets so that Americans and other foreigners have an opportunity to ‘buy back’ the bombs that the US dropped. It’s one of the most unique things I’ve seen on my travels, and I was more than happy to support the project. We’ll never be able to make up for all the lives we hurt with that war, but perhaps this is a way to show that not all Americans agree with the decisions of the past.
Shirley and I spent our last full day taking a weaving class in a local village. The women who hosted us had been weaving for many years and they were clearly very skilled. They let us pick the pattern and color we wanted for our scarf and then showed us how to prepare the cotton for weaving and even let us try out the hand-crank machine that separated the thread to make it usable. Then they demonstrated how to use the loom, and we were off. They watched us closely, making sure our feet and hands were moving with the bamboo pedals and weaving boat correctly. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of it. Your feet have to press a different bamboo pedal depending on which side the thread is on, and pushing the boat through the loom thread is a bit awkward at first until you figure out how and where to catch it on each side. To make the pattern on the scarf, our hosts guided us carefully and did some of the work of moving the threads in order to create the correct pattern, all while making us do most of the work so that we could learn. They were very patient when we made mistakes and tried to have conversations with us through the translator that was there. Once I fell into the rhythm of the weaving, it was very meditative. It’s a bit hard on your back and legs after sitting for several hours, but the movements of your hands and feet force your mind to focus and relax. It felt like a very authentic Laos experience, and at the end of the class, we had a beautiful, handmade product to take home with us. It’s a bit short to really serve as a scarf, but it will make a lovely table runner or wall hanging, and it’s something I can be proud of.
On the morning of our last day in Luang Prabang, before flying back to Chiang Mai, Shirley and I borrowed some bikes from our guesthouse and rode around the town. We followed the rivers most of the way and got to take in the beauty of the colonial and Asian-style houses and the surrounding landscape one last time. Those five days in Luang Prabang were certainly some of the most peaceful I’ve had during the past year, and I was happy to spend it with my cousin. It was the first time I’d seen her in about 5 or 6 years. She grew up with her mom in Germany and came to America when she was about 18. We had been pen pals as teenagers, but meeting in person is something totally different. But we found we got along well, and we kept in touch through e-mail when she moved to New York to go to acting school. Being able to meet her again in Laos after so long was a wonderful addition to my time in Thailand and reinforced my realization that experiences are always better when shared.