Laos – Beautiful Luang Prabang and (slightly) crazy Vang Vieng

Luang Prabang by Alison
We didn’t know what to expect of Luang Prabang but quickly realised why the town is a Unesco World Heritage site. There are more than 30 Buddhist Temples there, old and new, many of which are ornate and colourful. Back in the colonial age, Laos was ruled by the French who have left a legacy of French colonial architecture in many of the old houses and commercial buildings. The result is a very calm, pretty and stylish town centre, one of the few places we visited where we both thought we could settle down and live for a while. The streets are lined with upmarket clothes shops and others selling artwork and gorgeous home accessories. A lot of the cafes, bakeries and restaurants seemed to be run by French people, or at least along French lines, so there was a lot of wine and good food – we even saw home produced foie gras on offer at one of the wine bars! There was a good night market with food at the end of the main street; shopping and eating here also seemed a well organised and very civilized way to spend the evening.
In spite of being only a few steps from the town centre, our homestay Ssen Mekong Boutique Accommodation was in an even more relaxed area as it was on the quiet street alongside the Mekong with a great view from the small breakfast terrace down to the River. In the evenings, the restaurants along our road lit their terraces with thousands of fairy lights, so eating overlooking the great river was a magical experience!

The French influenced main street
Breakfast in the sunshine overlooking the river
The Haw Pha Bang Temple which houses the famous Phra Bang Buddha, a small but ancient golden statue of the Buddha said to have been made in Sri Lanka in the first century. The Phra Bang gave the town of Luang Prabang it’s name.
Not sure what these colourful ladies outside the front of the Haw Pha Bang Temple were celebrating!
We enjoyed walking around the town in the lovely warm evenings and eating at the night market

A popular day trip from Luang Prabang is a visit to the Kuang Si waterfall. We set out quite early in the morning to avoid the crowds but almost the first people we saw were Florence and Chris from our riverboat trip! We met them on the path which passes through a sanctuary for rescued moon bears (https://freethebears.org). The bears are captured so their bile can be harvested for Chinese medicine although this is an illegal practice. There was no charge to see the bears, but visitors were encouraged to buy merchandise or make a donation. We felt happy to donate, as the bears seemed comfortable and in good condition and they were really cute! The organisation takes advantage of the thousands of daily visitors to the waterfall, and must be doing quite well as they are planning to open up a much bigger bear sanctuary in Laos.
After this we felt we needed a bit of exercise so took the steep 20 minutes scramble up to the top of the waterfall.

Cuddly moon bears!
Kuang Si Waterfall
Further down the waterfall you could swim in the turquoise pools. The beautiful colour apparently comes from copper sulphate which is dissolved in the water
There were many exotic looking butterflies just fluttering wild in the tropical greenery around the waterfall but we took this picture at a butterfly park nearby

We really didn’t feel our few days in Luang Prabang were enough and would happily have stayed there for longer. Lots of people from the UK visit Thailand for it’s gorgeous beaches (will be checking them out in a few weeks – it’s a hard old life!). However as a more adventurous alternative, we can really recommend our recent itinerary, starting in Chaing Mai, Thailand then crossing into Laos to take the river boat down to Luang Prabang before moving on to the fun activities of Vang Vieng, then coming home via Laos’s capital Vientiane and Bangkok.

One thing we have noticed about Laos is that it’s more expensive than we expected – everything is costing around twice what it did in India and we have gone well over budget already. However, we’ve seen and done some amazing things and we’re hoping that some quiet days on the beach in Vietnam during their New Year celebrations will help us rein our spending back a bit!

Vang Vieng by Paul
So on to Vang Vieng in a 5 hour mini-bus ride through the mountains. The reputation of Vang Vieng was pretty bad a few years ago with 22 tourists drowning in the river in 2011. “Tubing” which consists of floating down the very rocky river in big tyre inner tubes and stopping to drink at the many bars along the river was the cause. The authorities decided this needed to be curtailed, and these days you can still tube along the river, but there are far fewer bars and there are many other activities in the town to get involved in. Our adventures were all along the river and were well organised by The Wonderful Tour Co and quite safe!

Kyaking along the river in some great scenery
Passing under one of the few bridges not made of bamboo
The zipline group – mainly South Koreans who were fun and threw themselves into everything
Ali sailing away along a zipline over forest and river
Lining up to tube through some fantastic caves
Some of the amazing stalagtites in the cave complex

Away from the river based activity we hiked up Phangern, a nearby mountain, one day. The path was pretty tough, but the views from the top were spectacular.

Ali on the trek up
Paul at the top after 40 minutes of hard climb
One of the amazing views from the top

After 2 quite contrasting stays in Laos we are on the move again, with an overnight stay in the capital city (Vientiane) and on to Vietnam.

One final photo of Laos – a typical view along a river with stunning scenery

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