Stunning waterfalls and beautiful bears in Luang Prabang…

After the madness of Vang Vieng we headed over to the chilled out ex-captial of Laos – Luang Prabang. This was an 8 hour bus ride away through the winding mountain roads, with the spectacular scenery we’d witnessed in Vang Vieng continuing on for the entire journey. It was so lush and green that it reminded us very much of Nepal, just without the insane altitudes.

We arrived at the city’s bus station at around 6.15 and hopped onto a shared tuk tuk to the centre. We were dropped by the riverside and could walk to the main guesthouse area pretty quickly. We found a couple of decent ones but settled on one with a/c and a tv for 80,000 Kip per night. It had a great location – right in the middle of Sisavangvong Road where the bulk of the restaurants, cafes, travel agents and shops were located. We had dinner in a quiet little cafe on the main road who played Mariah Carey on repeat, but luckily had really nice food!

It was quite dark by this time so we didn’t wander around much, instead we took a wander through the night market which runs every day from around 4.30ish. The market takes up most of Sisavangvong Road and takes ages to walk through but it was really very cool. There are loads of stalls selling handmade handicrafts, linens and jewellery, as well as a ‘food’ area with fruit juice and pancake stalls. A dedicated ‘food alley’ also sells noodle soup, rice, bbq’d chicken and fish ‘on a stick’ and is a great place to mingle with locals as well as other travellers who all flock there to sample some local dishes and indulge in a few Beer Laos.

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The next day we decided to spend some time seeing the city’s ‘sights’ so after a pancake breakfast we headed over to Phousi Mountain – a big steep hill leading up to a temple which has some fantastic views of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers as well as the beautiful surroundings of Luang Prabang. The steps up to the temple start from the centre of the night market on Sisavangvong Road and you have to pay 20,000 Kip each to get to the top, but it’s well worth it once you get there!

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After that we walked down to the riverside, past Wat Mai – the most photographed Wat in the city (it’s not very pretty to look at but it’s location on the main street probably accounts for its most-photographed status) and Wat Xieng Toung – the oldest monastry in town. Simply wandering the streets in Luang Prabang is a pleasure – its picturesque tree-lined streets and attractive builings have earned it UNESCO status and its obvious that the local government there works hard to keep it looking so good. There are a lot of swanky looking guesthouses being built along the riverside, and the bank is lined with continental-style cafes and restaurants.

We were struck by just how ‘un-Lao’ the city is – in fact there were several occasions when we forgot where we were completely and could have sworn that we were somewhere in Europe such as Bruge or Heidelburg. Everywhere has a distinctly European vibe – evidently a left-over from the French rule and people mainly spend their days sipping coffee or fruit shakes, eating French baguettes and reading books. It’s definitely a place you could linger in for a week or so but we only had a couple of days there so couldn’t allow ourselves to be tempted!

The Mekong is joined by the Nam Khan River at the north of the town, so we decided to do a loop and walk past the Mekong then up the smaller river so that we could take in some more of the sights. Walking past the Nam Khan is a nicer experience than walking past the Mekong as you are out of ‘tuk tuk zone’ and your view is less obstructed by the trees. We saw men building a new bridge as well as fishermen and farmers growing crops on the opposite riverbank and the rest of the scenery was, as usual, beautiful.

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Once we got a bit further out of the city centre however, ‘Laos’ came back to life and the UNESCO style wooden signage disappeared from the fronts of pretty buildings. The rest of the city is like any typical Laotion city – a bit run down, busy and not particularly attractive. We got the feeling that the parts of Luang Prabang we’d experienced so far were probably a little bit synthetic and perhaps just there for the tourists?

Later that evening we went to the Green Discovery office to finally book our trek in Luang Namtha in the North of Laos. We’d been debating which one to do since Pakse but finally decided to do a one day trek in the Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area). We told the agents in the office to put us down for the one we wanted under the condition that at least two other people also join (that way the price goes down!) otherwise we’d do our ‘second option’.

Looking forward to that, we then went to book our transport to Luang Namtha and settled for a minivan which would take 7 hours for 110,000 kip. Before calling it a day we went back to the night market for some BBQ chicken on a stick, then fell asleep in front of the telly watching ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

We were up bright and early the next morning as we’d planned to go out of town and visit the Kuang Si Waterfall Park – about 30kms away. After having some more pancakes for breakfast we managed to negotiate a price of 30,000 Kip each with a tuk tuk driver, who then persuaded two other couples to come too. We drove out past villages, mountains and rice fields before pulling up at the Park around an hour later. The tuk tuk would wait for us for three hours to give us enough time to explore, then take us all back to town.

The entrance fee to the Park is 20,000 Kip, so we paid that, grabbed a couple of baguettes for lunch from one of the stalls outside the gate and then headed off down the forest trail into the park. Kuang Si Waterfall Park is also home to the Free the Bears Sanctuary – a company that rescues Asiatic Black Bears (Moon Bears) and Sun Bears from poachers as well as rears cubs who have been left motherless. They have a great big enclosure in the forest with about 8 bears living there so they were are first stop! The bears were big, fluffy and gorgeous and looked really healthy. Their home is great, with hammocks and swings to keep them amused as well as clear streams running through their enclosure from the forest. We watched them for about half an hour before making our way through the forest towards the waterfalls.

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We first came to a small pool created by Kuang Si Waterfall where the water was so clear that it looked almost torquise with the clear skies reflecting down on it. We decided to stop here and have our lunch before moving on.

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Next, we came across a trail which took us all the way around the edge of the forest – past other crystal clear ‘swimming pools’ and mini waterfalls. The trail kept climbing up and up and we wondered a few times whether we’d taken the wrong turning but we soon came across the impressive Kuang Si Waterfall. It was huge and the sound of the water was very loud. The rays of sun shine peeking through the trees above, made it look almost heavenly and we tried to take enough photos to do it justice!

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After standing underneath it to cool off after our walk through the forest, we took another walk up the trail leading right up the waterfall’s edge. It was incredibily steep and we soon wished we hadn’t worn our flip flops! We were practically rock-climbing for around half an hour until we finally reached the top. Here, we waded through the shallow pools and streams that made up the waterfall until we reached the centre of the fall – looking right down it’s flow. The height of it was pretty dizzying but the views were amazing!

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Once we’d taken it all in and wondered just how much it would hurt if we fell down there, we headed back down the ‘cliff’ – taking a slightly different route down to the bottom. We decided it was then time to go for a swim in one of the natural pools. We found one with only a couple more people around and took our clothes off ready for a dip. The sun was quite low by now but we didn’t really think much of it, but as soon as we dipped our toes in the water we knew it was going to be freeeezing!! Freezing it was, but we forced ourselves to jump in. The middle of the pool was so deep that we couldn’t feel the bottom but it meant that we could have a proper swim rather than a paddle. The water was so refreshing and clear – we accidently got a few mouthfulls but it tasted just like drinking water! After about 20 minutes we decided to get out and try to dry off in what was left of the sun.

We then headed back towards another pool where lots of other people were swimming and jumping off a rope swing. This was evidently the ‘Vang Vieng Crowd’s’ favourtie swimming area. We were tempted to join them and give the rope swing a go – or even jump from one of the waterfalls itself as some were doing, but we just couldn’t face that cold water again!

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It was then time to meet the tuk tuk again, so we said one final farewell to the bears before heading back to Luang Prabang!

We really enjoyed this city and loved the relaxed, continental atmosphere it had. If it wasn’t for our schedule we’d have probably stayed at least another day but we were really excited about our upcoming trek in Luang Namtha, so were happy enough to leave when we did.

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