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.

 

Hmong Night Market and Wat Ho Pha Bang

Hmong Night Market and Wat Ho Pha Bang

 

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.

 

Morning Alms Collection in LP

Morning Alms Collection in LP

 

LP Morning Alms Collection

LP Morning Alms Collection

 

Monk and Buddha Statues

Monk and Buddha Statues

 

 

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.

 

Middle Cascade at Kuang Si 16x9

Middle Cascade at Kuang Si 16×9

 

Kuang Si Waterfall Upper Cascade

Kuang Si Waterfall Upper Cascade

 

Kuang Si Waterfall Middle Cascade

Kuang Si Waterfall Middle Cascade

 

Kuang Si Portrait

Kuang Si Portrait

 

Kuang Si Middle Cascade 16x9

Kuang Si Middle Cascade 16×9

 

Near the entrance to Kuangi Si is a rescue center for sun bears that have been saved from poachers.

 

Sun Bear at Kuang Si

Sun Bear at Kuang Si

 

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.

 

Monks Collecting Alms in LP

Monks Collecting Alms in LP

 

Monks Collecting Morning Alms in LP

Monks Collecting Morning Alms in LP

 

Handing Out Morning Alms in LP

Handing Out Morning Alms in LP

 

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.

 

Storm Damage in Luang Prabang

Storm Damage in Luang Prabang

 

Buddha Statues after Storm

Buddha Statues after Storm

 

Older Monk Collecting Alms

Older Monk Collecting Alms

 

Alms Bowls in Luang Prabang

Alms Bowls in Luang Prabang

 

After my time in Luang Prabang I felt relaxed and ready for the faster pace in Hanoi.