Laos - A few days in the Mekong Jungle

The flight from Vietnam to Laos lasted just an hour, and the modern airport in Luang Prabang facilitated a straightforward arrival process. But it quickly became apparent that my stay in Luang Prabang would be more prolonged than initially planned. 

Before travelling I thought about doing other trips within Laos and not only visiting Luang Prabang. Getting around in Laos is not that easy and I got to the conclusion though that it's best to spend a bit longer in Luang Prabang without rushing, but what that means was another question.

How many days in Luang Prabang is enough?

There are no McDonalds, malls or skyscrapers, this little town is nestled deep in the jungle in a mountainous area. Four full days might seem extensive, but due to limited daily flight connections to Cambodia, alternatives were scarce. There is indeed a lot going on in this town, but if I could arrange again, I probably would not go more than 3 full days.

Even though I expected to see many tourists, I did not expect such a huge amount. It was almost like there is a concert nearby, but there was not. It's cheap to rent a motorbike, but there is not such a big choice of destinations to drive to with a motorbike. Also the idea of rushing from Luang Prabang to the capital Vientiane, the capital, felt overly hectic, especially given my recent habit of changing hotels every third night. So I spent my days in Laos solely in Luang Prabang and a longer pause in one location seemed like a welcomed departure from the previous week's pattern.

Arrival and First Impressions

Flying into Laos was more on the spectacular side compared to arrivals to most other countries.

Immigration procedures were efficient, followed by a standard $4 taxi ride into the city center.

Luang Prabang itself appeared as a quiet town, characterized by its lack of towering modern structures. Instead, it possessed a sleepy charm, devoid of high-rise apartment blocks. While the main roads were well-maintained, the side streets exhibited signs of wear and tear, with many potholes.

At the heart of the town stood a hill adorned with a serene Buddha temple, around which the entire town seemed to revolve. Nearby, the bustling night market and the morning market contributed to the local atmosphere. 

A short distance away flowed the Mekong River, carrying with it all the stuff that comes from the dense jungle.

My initial impression?

A tourist hub, bustling with visitors. The sheer volume of people took me by surprise - I had not anticipated such intensity. 

After some aimless exploration, I opted to rent a motorbike and arrange for currency exchange. The night market provided affordable dining options, transforming into a lively spectacle as evening descended.

Day 2 - Exploring Luang Prabang’s nature in nature

Drove on my motorbike and made my way towards the waterfalls. The morning greeted me with an unexpected chill - a common occurrence it seemed. Cold, foggy, and sunless, it hinted at a day potentially drenched in rain. However, by 9 a.m., the clouds dispersed, revealing a striking blue sky.

Despite the persistent cold, I hadn’t anticipated it being this biting. The thermometer barely nudged 12 degrees Celsius, and the headwind on my motorbike made it feel even colder. 

Waterfalls "Kuang Si Waterfall"

At every stop, there were fees to cough up: parking, entrance, and sometimes a small shuttle to reach the actual waterfall site.

The waterfalls were about an hour away, with rough roads but a singular main route. It was around 9am and it was still cold with 13 degrees. 

Thankfully, my smart investment in a knockoff North Face jacket in Hanoi for a measly $10 proved its worth.

Although this one isn't the largest waterfall I've seen, it is definitely among the most picturesque.

I'm glad I came here in the morning, as when I returned the path down to the parking hordes of visitors came along.

UXO Museum

In the afternoon, I paid a visit to the UXO Museum - an establishment dedicated to dealing with unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War era. Back then, the United States dropped a staggering 2 million tons of bombs, and shockingly, 30% of them failed to detonate, lying dormant in the earth.

This museum painstakingly unearths the remnants of that destructive legacy. The exhibits were enlightening, showcasing the extent of the havoc wrought by the Americans.

Across the Mekong River

Across the Mekong by boat taxi, then driving along the Mekong River on my motorbike, covering numerous kilometers in the picturesque scenery. 

As the sun began its descent, it cast a glow over the landscape. 

The whole tourist crowds waiting for sunset at "Phosi Hill"

For sunset, I ventured up Phosi Hill. The view is fantastic, except for the huge crowds up there.

However, what greeted me at the summit was quite surprising - an ultimate horde of tourists. It felt more like a bustling party up there, strangely crowded.

The sunset, though undeniably beautiful, didn’t entirely justify the frenzy. Perhaps it was the collective sense of wonder or the mystical aura of this ancient town that drew everyone to that hilltop gathering.

Day 3 - Exploring Buddha Caves "Pak Ou Caves"

Once again, I braved the chilly morning air and set off on my quest. This time, I headed north to the Buddha Caves. A one-hour ride along the Mekong River brought me to the boat that would transport me to these mystical caverns. 

Accessing the caves was by crossing the river by boat.

Luckily, I arrived before 11 a.m., dodging the swarm of tourist vans that would soon flood the area.

The caves were interesting, though not exactly sprawling. Their modest size allowed for an intimate exploration. 

Yet, their true enchantment revealed itself when the crowds dispersed, its a rare occurrence in this bustling spot.

Returning to Luang Prabang, I maneuvered through the pothole-ridden streets. The town itself was a picturesque tapestry, with no particular destination in mind. 

Its allure lay in its simplicity - the river's serene views, the weathered buildings, and the peaceful coexistence with temples and monks.

As the day faded away, I found myself perched, awaiting the sunset to have coffee again at the river.

The sight of the majestic Mekong and its magnificence serves as a fitting backdrop to this tranquil town.

Day 4 - New Years Eve in Laos

As the final day of 2023 broke, I took a leisurely stroll through the ancient streets of Luang Prabang. My camera clicked, capturing this historic town. 

As evening descended, the night market came alive with all the people, mostly tourists. Some music. A bit further off, a larger concert throbbed with live music.

Day 5 - Reflections and Departure

Maybe I overestimated how much time Luang Prabang warranted.

But it seems what was once a hidden gem now grappled with an onslaught of tourists. The same faces kept popping up day after day, each weaving their own tales into the tapestry of this place.

Despite the crowds, Luang Prabang maintained it's charm. I did not regret visiting here. The ancient houses blend seamlessly with the nearby temples and the monks' chants. But I made the decision to spend more time in Cambodia and trim my stay in Laos, so therefore I could not see the capital of Laos. 

Will I go back to Laos? I guess no, not here, maybe the capital next time, but probably not Laos again. Time to say goodbye. The journey called, and at 14:40pm, departure to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

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