Luang Prabang: UNESCO World Heritage Site
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is one of Laos’ most beautiful cities and most popular for foreigners. The city is located right where the Nam Khan River feeds into the much bigger Mekong River. The surrounding area plays host to numerous tiny villages who specialize in the production of anything from rice wine to textiles. Luang Prabang seems to be the city in Laos, like Chiang Mai in Thailand, where foreigners come and never leave. Understandably so, as the city is small enough to feel quiet, large enough to have plenty to do, and has a nice atmosphere.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Most waterfalls look similar. They’re a nice flow of water falling down from rocks, some larger than others and some with more force. Some you can swim in and some you cannot. Generally, they’re great to see but can get repetitive. Because of that, I try to keep my expectations low when going to see a waterfall.
Kuang Si is the most popular site to see in Luang Prabang. When you tell people that you’re heading to Luang Prabang, they almost always immediately ask if you’re going to the waterfall. I heard a lot about it even before going, but I still kept my expectations down.
There are a few options of getting to the waterfall, which is about 30km (18 miles) outside of town on hilly rural roads. One popular option is to go by tour, which gives you about 3 hours at the waterfalls and costs $10-$15. A second option is to hire a tuk-tuk, a shared taxi which holds about 8 people in the platform attached to a motorbike. This depends on how many people, but it usually costs about $5 per person and gives 3 hours of time at the waterfalls. A third option is to rent a bicycle ($2.50) and bike there. Finally, there is the option to rent a scooter, which costs about $20 for the day. Because we hadn’t done this yet on our trip, we went for this option. Cruising through these rural windy rural roads was very fun, and it was actually Chika’s first time driving a scooter.
We arrived at the waterfall pretty early, at around 9:45am. We intentionally did this since we knew that the waterfall gets very crowded later in the day. Getting there without the crowds was perfect. We walked in and only saw a handful of people taking in the beauty of the various waterfalls. When you enter the place, you’re at the bottom of the many different falls. Here, water is falling from a 10 foot tall rock and has created a large swimming area of clear blue water. As you walk up, you find the next one up, another swimming area below a waterfall of about 8 feet. This one had a tree overhanging the water, making it perfect to jump in. Up one more level and you find several small pools of water created by falls of only a foot or two high. Finally, towards the top, there is a much higher waterfall which falls about 80 feet. Each waterfall is unique, but all were surprisingly stunning. The water was refreshingly cold to swim in, and the tree in the second waterfall was great for jumping off of. As expected, the Sunday afternoon meant that the place became very busy. Many Laotians brought picnics, a great place to do so and spend time with friends and family.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the waterfalls. Maybe it’s a lesson that I can take from the experience; never set your expectations too high for something like this. High expectations give room for disappointment, whereas low expectations makes for a higher chance of being happy with the place.
Kayaking the Nam Ou River
With the abundance of rivers, kayaking is a popular activity around Luang Prabang. Tour agencies all throughout the city offer tours, often combining kayaking with cycling, elephant riding, or caves. Because we wanted to focus more on kayaking, we decided to do the full-day kayak trip with stops at caves. We looked around and found the most economical trip to be about 250,000 kips ($31) for the tour. We saw prices up to 400,000 kips ($50) for seemingly the same tour.
We were picked up at our hostel at 9am and drove 45 minutes north to the Nam Ou River. We started with a group of 10 of us, kayaking down the Nam Ou. The scenery was pretty good, although all the burning of farmland and other things in the countryside make the air a bit hazy in the distance. We kayaked right by these enormous limestone karsts. After about 2.5 hours of kayaking, we arrived to the Mekong River and crossed to visit the Pak Ou Caves.
The Pak Ou Caves have been turned into temples. The higher and lower caves both contain many Buddha statues. The lower cave has as many as 3,000 small Buddha statues, brought in by locals. The caves were small and somewhat unimpressive, especially when dodging all of the visitors while trying to walk around.
After a lunch break, we continued down the Mekong River. This part of the kayaking was uneventful and lacked excitement. The Mekong River is busy with boat traffic, whereas the Nam Ou River had no motorboats whatsoever (only local fishermen on canoes). We kayaked for about an hour with the strong current until we arrived to what is known as the Whisky Village. For whatever reason, this is a popular stop on all the river tours. It’s essentially just a tiny town who produce some whisky and rice wine, and they sell it at a few of the stores in the town along with silk and other souvenirs. Because they don’t show how they make anything, one might as well just buy it at the night market in Luang Prabang.
We arrived back in Luang Prabang at about 4pm. I would call the kayaking tour just about average. Besides the kayaking on the Nam Ou River with the limestone karsts, the rest of the tour was well below mediocre. We had a tour guide who rarely spoke a word. No information about the area or surrounding villages was given to us. If we could’ve, we would’ve much rather have just rented our own kayaks and paid for transportation. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an option and the tour was the only way to go to get on the river. Looking back, I’m glad that we kayaked but I wouldn’t say it was worth the $30 that we had paid for the trip.
Other than these activities, Luang Prabang doesn’t have a whole lot more to offer than to just walk around the well-kept city. It’s one of those places that is fun just to walk around and admire the architecture, take pictures, and relax.
We had our fair share of fruit smoothies in Luang Prabang. In the center of the city, there is a line of about 10 different stands all selling the same fruit smoothies and sandwiches. A hotspot for travelers. A mango, pineapple, and banana shake costs about $1.25, a good deal compared to the same product in the US. I ate about two per day in our time there.
We also tried a barbecue grill place right by the Mekong River in the city. For $7 a person, you get a charcoal grill right on your table and a buffet of raw meats, fishes, and vegetables. You take your plate of raw food to your table grill it up yourself, as much food as you want and for as much time as you want. It was a nice splurge on a very popular restaurant.
Getting to Vietnam
Originally, we had planned on taking buses to Hanoi from Luang Prabang. After arriving in Luang Prabang, we realized that a direct bus to Hanoi takes at least 24 hours and costs about $50. We were planning on sacrificing this day until we looked at flights. We found a pretty decent deal with Vietnamese Airlines. For a 45 minute direct flight to Hanoi, we ended up paying $110 each. The higher price was well worth the easy trip compared to the long-haul bus ride.
We were also able to get our Vietnamese visas in Luang Prabang at the Vietnamese consulate. It was simple, relaxed, and very easy to get, although a bit pricey. We paid $70 for the 1-day waiting time. The 2-day waiting time was $60, but we didn’t know our plan for leaving Luang Prabang so we went with the pricier but quicker service.