The Kong Lor Cave

Boarding the boat to begin the trip down the cave

Boarding the boat to begin the trip down the cave

I’d heard from several people that the Kong Lor cave in central Laos was a highlight of their trip in Southeast Asia, so I knew I had to make it a priority. For a place that is on so many “must see” lists, I was surprised on how truly rural and undeveloped the area around the cave is. The town of Kong Lor is just one long street that has a handful of guesthouses and restaurants, no internet access, and hardly anybody who speaks English. It was a very pleasant and peaceful place to spend a few days.

It wasn’t too difficult to get to, as I took a direct tourist bus from Vientiane that I booked through my hostel. The bus dropped me and the four other westerners off in front of a guesthouse about a kilometer away from the cave.

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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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Walking to Cat Cat

Posing with the Tien Sa waterfall

Posing with the Tien Sa waterfall in Cat Cat

The town of Cat Cat lies just a few kilometers outside Sapa Town, down a valley. It’s rather touristy and filled with cheap souvenir stalls and persistent motor bike drivers, but if you can ignore that then you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of rice paddies and the Tien Sa waterfall. It was a good way to spend an afternoon!

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Trekking with Sapa O’Chau

Posing with the rice terraces in the Sapa region of Vietnam

Posing with the rice terraces in the Sapa region of Vietnam

I spent my birthday doing an amazing 2 day trek with Sapa O’Chau in northern Vietnam. The area is known for its rice terraces and local minority people, including the Hmong and Red Dao groups. Their traditional clothing and cooking are a departure from what I had seen in the rest of Vietnam and I was really glad I took the overnight bus up from Hanoi to experience it.

With Sapa O’Chau I chose the Red Dao homestay trek, which took us north of Sapa Town about 14 km to the town of Ta Phin. The views reminded me a little bit of the Bolivian Yungas and the local Dao people were joyful hosts. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, which tends to be cold, cloudy and rainy this time of year. To top it all off, we ate amazing food that far surpassed my expectations. I’ll always look back on this birthday fondly, and it will be hard to top it next year!

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Tour of Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island

A floating fishing village at Ha Long Bay

A floating fishing village at Ha Long Bay

I was going to skip Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba since I had seen similar scenery in Tam Coc and also was spending more time and money in Vietnam that I had anticipated. However, I had spoken to several people who said that it was a sight not to be missed, so I booked a tour from Ninh Binh for two nights. Unfortunately, I got scammed. I was sold a mid-range tour and instead ended up on an extremely low-budget boat, had to share a room when I had booked a single, and was served inedible food. The people on my boat who had paid less than half what I did were not terribly upset, but as I realized what happened I got very frustrated. To make matters worse, the “guide” on my boat was extraordinarily unhelpful and unsympathetic.

Scams and bad tour experience aside, I did mostly enjoy visiting the Ha Long Bay area. It’s a UNESCO site and has some impressive limestone cliffs and caves, and hiking on Cat Ba was a fun morning. Unfortunately the site is not well taken care of and it’s highly polluted with tons of rubbish. The boats are very unsafe to boot. Hopefully UNESCO can step in and clean up the area before it’s too far gone.

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