A beautiful town surrounded by even more beautiful landscapes,
Luang Prabang is one of the last places to see French colonialist influence in Asia
If I hadn't driven through the mountains and small villages heading northward from Vientiane, you'd have a hard time convincing me that I was still in Laos (or anywhere in SE Asia for that matter) when I reached Luang Prabang. The streets are paved, there are sidewalks and streetlights, and in place of the small shacks and general grungy charm are bakeries, white tablecloths, and the dozens of temples that make this place a UNESCO world heritage site. The town is clean, quiet, peaceful. It's a town for backpackers and older tourists from America and Europe looking for an Asian vacation minus the unintelligible bus schedules, hectic markets, and squatty potties.
Being here is wonderful but you certainly pay to be in this walk-able, safe, lovely town. There are nice Laos restaurants worth the extra few kip for quality service and ingredients. Cafe Toui is a small spot with just a few servers and one chef serving up local favorites like steamed fish in banana leaf and water buffalo curries. The Khai Paen, crispy fried river weed covered in toasted sesame seeds, is absolutely delicious here. Another restaurant I'd highly recommend is Tamarind, a casual yet refined look into regional cuisine. The waitstaff takes the time to tell you about each dish and, more importantly, the proper way to compose and eat your meal. Tamarind offers an excellent cooking class, which I took, that I really enjoyed. And of course you can't go through LP without visiting Utopia. Tucked away down a series of alleys sits a large treehouse-type bohemian hangout overlooking one of the rivers. Perched up on one of the many comfy floor mats, enjoy a Beer Lao or spring rolls while reading a book, watching the children training to become monks play in the river below, or practicing yoga.
There's quite a lot to do in LP but the rich variety of activities in the area can feel very pre-packaged into neat little day tours. The sunset cruises and elephant visits are great but nothing beats exploring by yourself. One of the best afternoons I've had during my travels came about because Dain was interested in crossing a rickety bamboo bridge. The bridge is made and maintained by a local family and connects the main part of town to a smaller neighborhood. The river is lower and drier this time of year which means there's less current and more beaches, which in turn attracts a lot of kids coming to play and swim.
Almost as soon as we stepped off the bridge and into the soft sand, a group of about six kids rushed over to get a good look at the tall blonde adults. They were playfully rowdy, grabbing our butts, and sweet, running to return our shoes when they thought we'd left them in a bad spot. Dain brought his swimsuit and towel (that guy is a true Californian, always ready to swim) and the kids got a big kick out of getting to swim with him. I dipped my feet in and was able to capture the cutest video from the shore. The little boys kept encouraging me to come in to the water too- I couldn't explain that I can't strip down nearly as easily as Dain could, or that wearing a bikini in a public place is a big no-no in Laos!
While Dain splashed around with a few kids dangling from his arms, some of the others hunted for small flat rocks to skip. One little boy took a particular interest in us, he really wanted to try to communicate even though we both knew practically nothing about each others' languages. At one point he left to go play in the sand, tapped me on the shoulder, and in his outstretched hands was a big mudpie in the shape of a heart. It was the sweetest thing, I melted! I set it down in the sand and drew a heart around that, which the boys prompty proceeded to decorate with little rocks. Laotians have a deep appreciation for aesthetics and symmetry that apparently starts young because they hated how Dain and I decorated! They weren't the right shape or colors I guess.
Every so often, one of the boys would present us with more gifts, like mudpies shaped like hearts and spheres and even a little snowman. They were very proud of the snowman (once they got his head to stay on) and were able to say "Santa" and "Christmas," vocab that I consider pretty advanced. I definitely can't say those words in Laos. One of them even caught me a dragonfly and insisted I hold the poor thing in my hands- surprisingly it stayed.
We passed the time collecting rocks and learning more words in Laos. Our little friend taught us vocabulary for parts of the body like "da" for eye and "ba" for mouth and how to count from 1-10. Just as we were packing up, they were called home for supper, grabbed their shoes and shirts, and with a few loud "bye-byes" they were off up the bridge. Such simple yet genuine and fulfilling interactions. I thanked Dain for his curiosity- every time he has a hunch about something it's usually pretty great.
We rounded out our time in LP with a kayaking trip down a deserted river and a hike up to the tallest temple in town to watch the sun set. The sun in Laos is unlike anything I've ever seen- every night it's intense, electric neon orange and it's breathtaking. We've made so many friends throughout our travels in Laos and like I mentioned in a previous post, everyone's kind of traveling the same route so it's fun to run into friends around town. In the same way we've connected with the locals we've made a lot of great friends here to continue our travels together.