Kuang Si Waterfalls

A trip to Luang Prabang is not complete (it seems…and I would have to agree) without taking the opportunity to visit Kuang Si Waterfalls. 29 km south of Luang Prabang sits the beautiful tiered falls and, great for the kids, home to the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre.

Our day started with a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride to the falls, passing through the Lao countryside and seeing some amazing scenes along the way. It was a bumpy ride and Josh and I were both anxiously trying not to get travel sick, but we made it, whilst passing the time with mental arithmetic problems – that was maths class done for the day!

We arrived at the falls, which cost 20,000 Laotian kip per person to enter. It might sound a lot, but with the current UK sterling exchange rate it’s only £1.80, a ridiculously small amount for what you get.

Let me tell you now, Kuang Si falls are absolutely stunning. They really do not disappoint!

As you arrive at the park the indications are good and you are led through the bear sanctuary. The boys were so excited about seeing the rescued bears and learning all about them, that we had to remind them after a while that we were also there to see the waterfalls. You can read more about the bears here

After the bear sanctuary, there are well-marked trails that lead up the side of the waterfalls. The falls form tiered pools, the lower ones are all swimmable and we were really excited about being able to swim in the natural pools, which offer the added bonus of being able to cool off from the intense Lao heat.

We got to the lower pool and no-one was swimming. We thought maybe we’d misunderstood and you couldn’t swim there…panic! We carried on up to the next tier where we thankfully saw a few people taking a paddle, and it wasn’t crowded by any stretch of the imagination.

At this point we decided we would head up the falls to the higher end and then work our way back, taking a dip in each pool as we passed by. What can I say, it was simply spectacular.

When we got to the area directly at the front of the foot of the falls, where we thought that we couldn’t go any further, we saw that there seemed to be a path on the other side of the viewing bridge. There weren’t  many people (and by that I mean any!) taking it, but we thought what the hell and off we went.

We were so glad that we did. After a very hot, sweaty, jungly walk up the path to we knew not where, the ground flattened and opened up to the most beautiful river and natural pool that formed the top of the waterfall…and apart from 2 park staff who were there to take you on a short boat trip up the river should you want to, we had the pool all to ourselves! For a short while at least.

It was AMAZING. We sat at the side just looking at each other and randomly saying wow every few seconds. We couldn’t believe we were sitting in the middle of the jungle swimming in a turquoise coloured, natural river pool. What an experience. What an experience for our kids! It was just out of this world. Add to this the fact that the fish would come along and nibble at your feet, giving you a free personal foot spa, and the whole experience was somewhat surreal.

After swimming and taking photos for forty-five minutes, we reluctantly started to head back down to the lower section. We wanted to make sure we had time to swim at all the other tiers as we went and, aware that our tuk-tuk driver was patiently waiting for us just outside the park, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome.

So, that’s exactly what we did. We ambled down and we swam in the beautiful turquoise waters, ticking off the tiers one by one, until it was time for us to leave. Back through the bear sanctuary we went, reluctantly leaving the extraordinary Kuang Si waterfalls behind us and on to more adventures…

 

Luang Prabang

Our two-day slow boat down the Mekong finished in the beautiful town of Luang Prabang. Our first ‘real’ stop in Laos and widely referred to as the jewel in Laos’ crown. It has deservedly gained its name, with its easygoing, back water charm, delightful low rise wooden buildings shouting of its colonial heritage, alongside its plethora of Buddhist temples, the French influenced bakeries offering fresh bread and croissants, the coffee shops dotted along the banks of the Mekong, the plush wine bars dotted along the central street, the daily night market with its vibrant colours and rich smells, its small artisan boutiques offering artwork, jewellery, clothing and more. The former Lao capital, has a rich and diverse history spanning several centuries and we loved Luang Prabang from the moment we arrived and started exploring its labyrinth of little streets.

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These are some of our favourite things about Luang Prabang, or our favourite moments:

The traditional morning alms ceremony. A fascinating insight into Buddhist life and a real sight to behold. As the sun rises in the early morning mists, after chanting and prayers, the monks make their way out of their temples and walk barefoot through the streets, receiving offerings of small donations, sticky rice, sweets and more from local people already lining the streets waiting for them – much like the ceremony we experienced in Pakbeng – but on a much bigger scale. Having been told of recent tourist interference in this sacred ritual, disturbing both monks and locals alike, we respectfully kept our distance and watched  from afar as we would recommend anyone else to do.

A House Blessing. 

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We were also treated to and watched, again keeping a respectful distance, a gathering in the house across the road from our hotel. Led by a handful of monks and the house packed with what we can only assume were friends and family, this was an intriguing ceremony. I tried to get the background from the reception lady at the hotel, but it was difficult to get the details…my Lao is pathetic!! The chanting was comfortingly beautiful and we took a recording of it that you can listen to here if you want to.

The tourist night market. Where lots of sellers tout traditional Lao handicrafts, from snakes in bottles of alcohol, to unique acrylic paintings to clothes, to handmade soaps and organic coffee, the range of goods on offer was immense and most definitely had something to offer for all tastes and budgets. We became proud owners of rings, cakes, sarongs, bracelets and if we’d had more room and didn’t need to carry it around for a year I easily could have bought much more!

The buildings. There is an old world charm in Luang Prabang and thanks to the town’s UNESCO status and UNESCO’s insistence that development of buildings surrounding are in-keeping with the traditional style it retains its lost world charm.

Climb Mount Phusi. 

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Possibly the smallest mountain you will ever climb – in reality more of a hill – a trip to Luang Prabang is not complete without a trip up Mount Phusi. A 150m climb and 355 steps, right in the centre of Luang Prabang town, take you to the temple at the top where you can take in 360 degree views over the town, the Mekong and the surrounding Jungle.

 

Coffee and cake.

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Leftover from French colonial influence, fresh baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolats as well as a range of other mouth watering cakes emanate from the cafes dotted along the streets, the smell of which was enticing us in (me in particular!). Combined with Lao grown organic coffee, served in iced form or hot, in any which way you might want it, a cafe stop is a must. We particularly loved the ‘Saffron Coffee’ social enterprise.

Saffron Coffee’s coffee beans are grown and produced entirely in northern Laos by 780 Lao smallholders/farming families, from whom it is sustainably sourced and directly traded. Saffron guarantees to buy the coffee ‘cherries’ from their farmers at above industry prices and all profit made is then reinvested for the benefit of Lao people making a direct difference to the lives of the farmers and their villages.

So, if you’re in Luang Prabang be sure to stop in for some seriously good quality coffee.

 

Big Brother Mouse. 

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Finally, and probably the most precious experience of our time in Luang Prabang, and to be fair probably deserving of a post on its own, was volunteering at Big Brother Mouse. English speaking tourists are invited along to spend up to 2 hours each evening at the Big Brother Mouse classroom, exchanging English speaking with young Lao students – the students improve their English and you get to learn all about the Lao way of life. It is run as a charity and is free of charge to everybody that comes along.

I spent time chatting to a 16 year old Buddhist Novice Monk and a young 14 year old Lao student who had just moved from the country to Luang Prabang to study, leaving his family behind in their home village. Education plays a fundamental role in the escape from cycles of poverty and it is moving to see at what a young age Laotians understand this, and to hear about the sacrifices that the young people themselves and their families make to be able to provide themselves and their children with an education and the prospect of a better life.

So, would I go back to Luang Prabang? Most definitely. In a heartbeat.

 

Postscript: The three things that I would love to show you photos of  – the buildings, the market and the morning Alms ceremony – will have to remain a mystery for your imagination to resolve. Guttingly, due to an as yet unknown technical hitch I seem to have lost a series of photos! Sorry 😦

The Mighty Mekong – slow boat to Luang Prabang

The Mekong river, the flowing heart of South-East Asia, the Mother river…

The facts:

A staggering 97% of the Lao population live in the Mekong river basin*. The livelihoods and food security of most of the rural population are inextricably linked to the river. The importance of the Mekong to a completely landlocked Laos is immeasurable.  But these facts, incredible as they are, are not the reason we wanted to visit the Mekong…

The fiction:

In my head, the mention of the Mekong river conjures up images of Apocalypse Now. Mystical, hedonistic, haunting. The powerful, flowing muddy waters surrounded by dense jungle vegetation, a place shrouded in ancient mystery with dark secrets, enough to drive man mad, a venture into the unknown. This was my idea of the Mekong, and although the reality these days is slightly different, when we finally got there, I wasn’t left disappointed.

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From Huay Xai in Northern Laos we would take a two day slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang with an overnight stay in Pakbeng. I was SO excited. Although still early on in our trip, it was on my list of particularly special experiences in South East Asia.

Having made it safely across the Lao border, we spent the night in Huay Xai. Although there is little to the town itself, it does have a few places to eat and a few corner shops for picking up snacks for the boat. It turned out to be the ideal place to stay in preparation for a Mekong slow boat trip.

We booked the boat the day before departure and were picked up from our hotel by another ‘truck-tuk’. I would like to say our rucksacks were securely strapped to the roof before we set off, but they weren’t, they were loaded on the roof, then the driver kept one eye on the mirrors as we drove to the jetty, to make sure they didn’t roll off the top and out into the road!

And so we arrived at the jetty. The random guy we had arranged our pick up and boat ticket with disappeared off with our passports, simply telling us to ‘wait here’ – a somewhat uncomfortable moment, but this wouldn’t be the last time our passports were whisked off out of sight in the coming weeks and we rolled with it – our tickets were issued, our passports returned and we got on the boat to await departure…seriously, it couldn’t have been much more straightforward.

Now, you can take some awesome, expensive, private cruises down the Mekong, but that wasn’t for us. No, we opted for cheapest method possible and got the public boat. We’d heard/read some stories of having bad seats, being packed in, no food and drinks on board…thankfully none of this was true for us. Our seats, ingeniously, were recycled car seats and there was a little snack bar at the back of the boat serving all kinds of drinks and basic snacks. It was brilliant!

Our boat was busy, but not overcrowded. There was a real mix of people, from western backpacking youngsters to Lao grannies and granddads heading home after some time ‘up river’ and everything in between (including our crazy family of four). The whole experience really gave us the opportunity to see both the awesome beauty of the Mekong and a side of Lao life that we would not have experienced on one of the private cruises or by any other means of travel.

As we settled in and sailed down river, people were being dropped off at random points along the its banks. Sometimes the boat would pull up to a bit of the shore where it looked like there was nothing but muddy shoreline and jungle, sometimes, but not always, accompanied by a rickety old wooden jetty. People would then emerge from the undergrowth, someone would get off the boat with supplies – we saw everything from from huge sacks of rice to petrol engines being offloaded. Then, as quickly as the people had emerged from the jungle, they would head back into it, where they were headed in that dense jungle was anybody’s guess.

Other stops were slightly more open, a semi-formal jetty jutting into the water, with a few traditional wooden pagodas on the hillside, indicating a village of some form. The fact that the surrounding jungle was so dense still makes me wonder how on earth these settlements had ever ended up there.

And then there was the scenery. There are no other words for it than simply spectacular. The vegetation was everything Francis Ford Coppler had promised me and more. Imposing steep sided mountains covered with jungle trees and plants, so huge that they would dwarf houses.

After a day on the river, wide-eyed with wonder, we arrived in Pakbeng to a throng of people on the jetty bustling for business. The daily boat arrivals carrying the prospect of potential overnight guests is an economic lifeline for this place that is literally in the middle of nowhere.

I shall describe the stop in Pakbeng as an interesting and extremely educational one. Laos’ poverty is on show in Pakbeng for all to see and the boat arrivees are a captive audience for the townspeople looking to earn an income. We had booked a ‘deluxe family room with fan’ at a Pakbeng homestay. Ok, for the price we paid, we weren’t expecting a whole lot of deluxe, but even for our low expectations it was a stretch – a bathroom in which you could hear next door’s conversations (thank goodness conversing was all they were doing!), plasterboard partitions, musty dampness – we had certainly paid less and stayed in much better in other places, but it didn’t look as though Pakbeng was too concerned with quality. Get them in, house them for a night, then tomorrow a whole new load arrive. I guess when you live in one of the poorest nations on the planet, the fact you even have a roof over your head is deemed deluxe and it certainly makes you think. And the view from just outside our room made up for what the room lacked, it was a full on Mekong experience.

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View from our ‘guesthouse balcony’

With not a huge amount to do in the evening, we had a wander up and down the main road, ate our dinner in the homestay, and sat on our plastic chairs in the corridor come/balcony overlooking the Mekong with a beer. A good end to a day of spectacular scenery.

In the morning, we woke to warm mists over the river, the women of Pak Beng all in their best clothes lining the streets, with food, money and other offerings to be gifted to the local Buddhist monks – we had stumbled unwittingly into town on the day of the Alms ceremony. Watching with fascination from a distance, so as not to intrude on this traditional ritual, we discovered another unexpected aspect of Buddhist life.

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And then the journey continued. The scenery was just as imposingly impressive as on day one – we really felt as though we were lost in the depths of Asia with sheer rock cliffs and mountains hugging the river banks either side of us. Then, slowly but surely as we progressed down the river, the terrain mellowed, the imposing mountain sides became more rolling hills until we reached our destination: Luang Prabang.

This really was a once in a lifetime experience (although I’d happily do it again!) that will stay with me forever. As far as I’m concerned, there is no other way to travel through Laos but by setting foot on the Mother river, lapping up the scenery and settling in for the ride.

 

*Source: http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/basins/mekong/mekong-CP_eng.pdf

Crossing borders – Thailand to Laos

Our time in Northern Thailand had come to an end. It was now time to negotiate crossing the friendship bridge into Laos – our first border crossing. It was both complicated and straightforward at the same time. I know it sounds a bit contradictory, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

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Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong

Being a bit anal as I can be, before leaving Italy I had handwritten – yes, handwritten, it still happens around the world sometimes – all the instructions I’d found online for crossing the border. I did it so that we had a reference guide a) because it seemed quite a long winded procedure and I couldn’t remember it all without some notes, and b) so that we didn’t end up getting ripped off by some opportunist border control officer taking advantage of us naive western wannabe travellers. The process went a little something like this:

  • Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong border town
  • Get dropped off at random junction in Chiang Kong where tuk-tuks are waiting
  • Pay Tuk-tuk to take you from said random junction to the Thai border
  • Complete Thailand departure card
  • Go through passport control and pay for official bus across the friendship bridge over the Mekong – there is no other option as you are officially in no man’s land (incidentally it cost us more as we were crossing on a Saturday…out of hours fee apparently, LOL!)
  • Get bused across the bridge to Lao side
  • Withdraw Lao kip from cashpoint in no man’s land (and have slight panic when the first and only cashpoint you can see will not give you cash from any of the four bank cards or credit cards you have with you. We then found another cashpoint that worked fine…phewwww!)
  • Complete visa on arrival application and pay for visa.
  • Once visa is granted go through border and pay another tuk-tuk (again only option) to take you to your accommodation in Huay Xai.

So, having read about the border crossing prior to departure, I thought this complicated procedure was going to be somewhat of a challenge. But it is exactly that…a procedure, and it worked like a dream.

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Over the Friendship Bridge

We said goodbye to Thailand and hello to Laos. It felt rather surreal eating dinner in Laos that evening looking across the river knowing it was another country, a country that we had just come from and a country we had come to love very much.

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Across the Mekong: looking from Laos to Thailand

Chiang Rai

Not initially on our itinerary, but heading to the Lao border from Chiang Mai, we thought we’d break up the journey and booked a couple of nights in a Chiang Rai homestay. Now, I’ve read some people raving about Chiang Rai, but if I’m honest, we weren’t really feeling the town. On the plus side, the food we ate there was superb and great value for money – everything has its positives!

The Homestay, a few hundred metres from the centre, was nothing special, but nice enough – it didn’t quite live up to the standard that Tukki had set for us in Nam Tok. It did give us our comedy moments of the stay though: our easiest route to get to restaurants and bars took us past those nice kind of places frequented by young Thai girls and rather older, more wealthy Western men…you know what I’m saying?! Well, questions were raised by some rather astute young people – why are the men in those bars so old and the ladies so young? Mmm…I think the answer ran into issues such as loneliness, money, escaping poverty…the standard everyday pre-dinner chat!!

There was a highlight though. We took a local bus out of town that we picked up from the bus station to visit Wat Rong Khun (more commonly known to visitors as the White Temple) and the on site Art Gallery. The artwork really was superb. The grounds were stunning and it had the poshest toilets I have ever seen in my life…so much so that before going in to them we thought it was another building to visit!!

Rather unconventionally, this striking temple is in reality an art exhibition, privately owned, designed and constructed by Chiang Rai born artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The original temple that stood on the grounds had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century, with no funding available for it to be renovated. Chalermchai decided to personally fund the project and construction of the White Temple began in 1997. It is open to visitors, but completion of the entire Wat complex that he has designed is not expected before 2070.

So, my overwhelming feeling about Chiang Rai – ok if you’re passing through or if you are heading out into the northern countryside for other adventures, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit.

May be we missed something? Have you visited Chiang Rai and feel very differently? Let me know…

 

Doi Inthanon – Thailand’s highest mountain

Ok, so here’s a thing. You can’t always choose the weather you want, particularly when you travel in rainy season – but, despite the storms forecast for a few days, we couldn’t make a trip to Northern Thailand without heading to the home of Thailand’s biggest mountain Doi Inthanon, located in the (aptly named) Doi Inthanon National Park. It was our first foray into hiring a car in South-East Asia, a feat we undertook with some trepidation: we’d seen the driving in Bangkok and Chiang Mai!

It was a great decision though. We always have to pay for four on organised trips, so our £14 car hire and £13 of fuel was well worth it, as well as giving us the freedom to go where we wanted, when we wanted. I was also really surprised at how well the roads in Thailand are maintained, not crowded and easy to drive on once you’ve left the city (she says as the one not driving – ha, ha!).

So, off Dougie went to collect our car from the airport and returned to pick us up in…the Pimp Mobile…a black Toyota Carolla Sedan with blacked out windows. I really wish I’d taken a photo – rookie mistake!

In just over an hour from Chiang Mai we were at the National Park checkpoint,  paid our entrance fee with nearly all the money we had left (we had intended to stop at a cash point on the way and forgot completely…oops, lunch would be a simple affair!) then headed into the National Park.

What can I say? The scenery was stunning. Dense mixed tropical and temperate forests lined the winding roads as we climbed higher into the mountains. The map given to us at the entrance showed us all the main spots to visit, so we planned a mini itinerary.

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Our first stop was Wachirathan waterfalls – it was just beautiful, we were in awe. There was a little bit of rain when we arrived, but by the time we’d supped what was a very good cappuccino and the boys had polished off a hot chocolate (I know, crazy given it was still about 26 degrees) it soon passed, and seeing the sun come out and shine on the aquamarine waters cascading through the jungle vegetation was spectacular. It was a time just to stand for a moment and admire the immense power and beauty of nature, and so stand and admire we did.

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After the boys had admired enough (five minutes!!!) we spotted a jungle path heading up the side of the big waterfall. This was the slightly muddy, slippery, jungly way to the top of the falls, and being intrepid explorers, of course we chose to take it to see where we would end up…you shouldn’t expect anything less! With some coaxing and cajoling we reached the top and took some photos – only then did we spot the path leading from the road…oh boy, it would’ve been easier to take it!

It didn’t matter, we’d enjoyed our solitary, sweaty climb (we were the only ones up there) and had given the boys a taster of jungle adventure – it would serve us well for later in the day…

20180919_114435Back at the car, we carried on just a short distance to some the Sirithan waterfall – we couldn’t get quite so close this time, but close enough for it still to be impressive.

Next step was a geography lesson, in case cascading waterfalls, rivers, mountain flora and fauna was in itself not enough, we stopped at the mountain side paddy fields to talk about agricultural methods on difficult terrain and the terracing of the rice paddies. Tick that off the geography syllabus!

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A quick stop at the National Park HQ and a chat with the staff had us wishing we’d booked a couple of days accommodation up there…it was so beautiful. Maybe next time…

And then, in our small engined pimp mobile (struggling so much with the steep gradients that there were numerous comments about having to push it, pedal it, abandon it, well you get my drift…) we inched our way to Thailand’s highest point. We parked up, let the storm we were sitting in pass and started walking to towards the peak at 2565m. It was a hard climb of about…30 metres! Call me a traditionalist, but there seemed to be something very wrong with not having slogged our way to the top of a peak to achieve the satisfaction of making it there. However, there we were, standing at the highest point of Thailand…that in itself was good enough for me!

And then the rain came in again. We still wanted to visit the sky forest and we were literally metres away, so not to be put off, donned in raincoats, off into the forest we went. I am sure that had we been visiting on a sunny day we would have meandered our way through. Our trip, however, was more akin to a fast paced gallop round the circuit taking a few photos along the way. We did get to see some spectacular trees and other vegetation though!

Back to the car once more – a quick change from our rather wet bottom halves (I was being a good mum that day: I may not have had money to buy the kids lunch but I did at least have a dry set of trousers for them!) and, in the intrepid Pimp Mobile we started heading back down the mountain to our third and fourth waterfalls (n.b. if you don’t like waterfalls you probably don’t want to come to Doi Inthanon!) Huai Sai Lueang Falls and Mae Paan Falls.

Well, Mae Paan Falls turned out to be a real little jungle adventure. Unlike the other falls that we had visited that day… is not on the beaten track, by a long shot! We were winding our way along the narrowest of tracks, clambering up and down rocks and broken ladders, in the heat and humidity of the jungle, surrounded by gigantic plants and insects of the likes we had never seen before, with the deafening noise of nature at its best all around us. We were just about to turn back when we thought we may have gone off course and we hadn’t seen another single soul in more than twenty minutes walking, but we could hear the water so close to us that we decided to go round just one more corner…and thank goodness we did. Simply stunning.

After a trek back to the car, the final stop of the day was at the Royal Botanic Gardens project. Night was closing in, but we just had time to find this little gem and see some of the work they were doing there. The setting in the misty mountains as dusk was drawing in was so evocative and a particular highlight for me was the beautiful bird of paradise orchid – found in a little bit of Thailand paradise.

We all had a fantastic day of adventures that we won’t forget for some time to come and defy anyone not to enjoy Doi Inthanon!