Luang Prabang, Laos
Siem Reap had been the first stop on the ‘Greatest Hits’ part of my trip, where I was revisiting three of my favorite places in Southeast Asia. Next up was Luang Prabang in Laos, and then on to northern Vietnam.
Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong on the north and the Nam Khan curving around the east and south. Despite its popularity with tourists, the city manages to retain a serene authenticity. It’s a perfect spot to relax and recharge.
First, though, I had to get there. My flight from Siem Reap stopped for a layover in Pakse, where my connecting flight was delayed for an hour. Then another hour. And another. And then it was cancelled. When the cancellation was announced I pictured myself spending the night on the floor of the hot, tiny Pakse airport, using my backpack as a pillow.
But Lao Airlines took surprisingly good care of us. There were a dozen other stranded passengers, and one of them – a local – was able to translate for the English speakers. We couldn’t get to Luang Prabang that night, but we could fly to Vientiane, where the airline would put us up in a hotel and then get us on a flight to Luang Prabang the next morning. And that’s exactly how it played out – relatively smooth and painless, all things considered.
Luang Prabang appeared mostly unchanged since my visit in 2010. Prices have gone way up, wifi has improved, and there are far more guesthouses, but the city looked and felt the same.
I climbed to That Chomsi for sunset and realized that the haze covering Siem Reap wasn’t an isolated event. The sinking sun dulled to a pale red and then vanished before hitting the horizon. I read later that agricultural fires create a blanket of unhealthy haze across much of Southeast Asia during the dry season. All the sunrises and sunsets I saw in Luang Prabang were washed out.
It had been another day of triple-digit heat and sweltering humidity, and the thought of cranking up the air conditioner back in my room made me giddy. But the AC wouldn’t start. Trying not to panic, I reported the problem to the hotel manager, who resurrected the overworked machine with some kind of Fonzie move. But after struggling valiantly for a few minutes the AC quit for good. “I will call someone to fix it,” the manager said. “But he cannot come tonight.”
Sweat streamed down my face. “Can you move me to another room?” I asked.
“Hotel is full,” he said matter-of-factly.
While I was considering my options, the manager returned. “We move your things to another room.” I asked what had changed but he offered no explanation. It was India-esque.
I slept in a blissfully cool room and woke early the next morning to go see the monks. Luang Prabang’s old town is filled with temples, and every morning before dawn hundreds of orange-robed monks line up to collect alms.
One of the highlights of my first visit to Luang Prabang was a day trip to the Tad Sae waterfall. Given that this time I’d arrived in the middle of the dry season, however, Tad Sae wasn’t flowing. But the Kuang Si waterfall – which I’d never seen – flows throughout the year. I headed there that afternoon and liked it so much I went back again the next day. Kuang Si isn’t a single waterfall but a series of cascading travertine terraces, similar in some ways to Havasupai in Arizona.
Near the entrance to Kuangi Si is a rescue center for sun bears that have been saved from poachers.
Luang Prabang cast its mellow spell on me again and I couldn’t motivate myself to do much other than get up to see the monks each morning. I roamed the riverbanks, worked on photos, and spent a lot of time reading.
Dry season or not, it still rained. One night an angry thunderstorm tore through town, the wind strong enough to split trees and whip the gray-green downpour into a horizontal blur. We lost power and my room went dark. Mesmerized, I watched the chaos from behind the French doors that led to my balcony. Water seeped inside and pooled around my bare feet until a frighteningly close lightning strike sent me backpedaling. On my way to see the monks the next morning I found the street transformed into an obstacle course of broken branches and downed wires.
After my time in Luang Prabang I felt relaxed and ready for the faster pace in Hanoi.