Laos Roundup

A tuk tuk in Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk in Luang Prabang

I spent 21 days in Laos and an average of $25 per day. I have been slowing down considerably, largely due to travel fatigue as well as budget constraints. I only saw four places in Laos: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the Kong Lor Cave, and the 4,000 Islands. Highlights include learning about the Secret War, taking a cooking class, and simply relaxing and not worrying too much about my next steps.

I had some difficulties in Laos, most notably losing my ATM card on my very first day in the country. Entirely my fault, I simply forgot to take my card out of the machine after withdrawing money. The experience wasn’t too terrible, though, as it gave me an excuse to linger in Luang Prabang longer than I might have otherwise, visiting sights like the Tad Thong waterfalls. I also had my faith restored in Schwab (the only bank you should use if you are traveling abroad) and FedEx, miraculously receiving a new card less than two weeks after I lost it, virtually halfway around the world.

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Learning about the Secret War

Some larger bombs on display outside the UXO Laos visitor center in Luang Prabang

Some larger bombs on display outside the UXO Laos visitor center in Luang Prabang

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much is that I learn so much about history and politics that I would never understand just reading out of a book or listening to a lecture. Laos was a particularly educational country as I honestly had very little knowledge of the realities there or the country’s role in the Vietnam War, and the lasting legacy that the war has left.

In an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran down Laos, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives between 1964 and 1973. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Worse yet, 30% of those bombs did not explode on impact and there are still millions upon millions of unexploded ordnances (UXO) littering the countryside. Every other day somebody is killed or injured by a UXO, most often a child who is hunting for scrap metal to sell on the black market.

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Learning to Cook Lao Food

At Tamarind's cooking school, decked out in an apron

At Tamarind’s cooking school, decked out in an apron

Cooking classes are extremely popular in Southeast Asia and I made it a goal to take at least a few while I’m in the region. While I didn’t do one in Vietnam, I did take advantage of a cooking class in Luang Prabang with Tamarind, a Lao-Australian owned restaurant. It was not the cheapest day, as the course cost $35, but it was well worth it as I learned a lot about Lao food and eating customs.

The day started with a visit to the market, where we sampled some local snacks and learned about the produce we’d be using throughout the day. Then we were taken to Tamarind’s cooking school just outside the city, which was a peaceful garden with ponds and flowers.

We cooked three main dishes – chicken, fish, and buffalo meat – as well as sticky rice and an eggplant dip. We also made amazing purple sticky rice with coconut for dessert. I met some great fellow travelers, although as usual I was the only one going solo, and tested my culinary skills with some brand new ingredients. Learning how to stuff lemongrass with chicken was particularly challenging!

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Tad Thong Waterfalls and Ban Houay Thong

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

One of the best days I spent in Luang Prabang was visiting the Tad Thong Waterfalls and National Park. The trip is less popular than Kuang Si, but just as enjoyable and far more tranquil.  It’s only 6km outside of the town center and is easily reached by bicycle.

The main draw here is a circular jungle trek which passes several small waterfalls and interesting trees and flowers. However, the best part of the area is the village of Ban Houay Thong, which is uphill from the jungle trek on a narrow, dirt path. There you will find friendly locals and lots of puppies. I wish I had brought some books from Big Brother Mouse to give the children, but unfortunately I was unprepared.

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The Vats of Luang Prabang

Vat Nong in Luang Prabang

Vat Nong in Luang Prabang

The main draw of the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang is the dozens of colorful, gilded vats (or temples) that surround the area. I was a bit hesitant to take lots of pictures while visiting the temples as there are cultural sensitivities regarding the monks, especially as a woman. There are far too many tourists who intrude upon the monks’ daily lives and invade their personal space, meanwhile disrespecting ancient customs. I always make the most conscious effort to not be one of those travelers!

However, the gorgeous architecture was too enticing to resist taking photos entirely, so here are a handful as a taste of what the town has to offer.

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Kuang Si Falls

The Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

The Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’d been excited to visit Luang Prabang and the surrounding area since hearing about it from several travelers in Vietnam, and the UNESCO heritage town certainly did not disappoint. The Kuang Si waterfalls about 35km outside of town are the most popular attraction and are easily reached with one of the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers. While the falls themselves are beautiful, more impressive for me were the smaller, terraced, turquoise waterfalls below which reminded me a bit of Pamukkale in Turkey. There were swimming holes as well and the more adventurous visitors jumped off rocks and trees, doing flips into the chilly water. There was also a fairly challenging hike (at least it was a challenge in the mud with flip flops on!) to the top of the falls and excellent views of the surrounding mountains.

I found a great group of people from my hostel to go with and we had an amazing day hiking, swimming, and watching the bears and the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center which is right next to the waterfalls.

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