Probably the most common question I got after my trip was ”well what was your favorite place?” And answering that is just as impossible as it sounds. Instead I replied that the place I would first go again to would be Laos. Because I felt I saw a tiny glimpse of something absolutely amazing and largely undiscovered by many.
I have no idea how Luang Prabang ended up in my itinerary. I guess I wanted to go to Laos but then figured I wouldn’t have that much time so I just thought I’d stay in Luang Prabang for the whole time and it was a good decision. Getting around in Laos (and mostly everywhere in SE Asia) takes time and I also didn’t have the malaria medicine you’d need in southern Laos so I just thought I’d leave the rest for the next trip and rather see one place well (a part of my traveling philosophy). Luang Prabang is the old capital of Laos and nowadays a Unesco World Heritage site, much because of its history as a French colonial town.
I guess one of the coolest things about going to Laos was that I pretty much knew nothing about it when I went. My plane from Chiang Mai landed around sunset and one of the most vivid memories from my entire trip was the feeling of walking down from the plane. The airport is so tiny that you just walk from the runway to the actual terminal building. It’s in the middle of lush green mountains and while the sun was setting, everything was covered in this green kind of gold. It was so incredibly warm and humid and even the smell was a bit unordinary, it had a lot of smoke in it, like a lot in Laos in general as I later found out (because they practically burn everything). And I remember the very first thing I noticed when I got out of the plane was the light. And that’s the strongest memory I have from Laos. The light is so unique and probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I cannot tell where it comes from or why, but it’s very very soft and has a lot of gold in it and I just fell in love with the light. It was especially memorable on sunsets, which you’ll probably see from these pictures. Sunsets in Luang Prabang became my (only) daily routine and besides the ones in Gili Air, they remain the prettiest ones from the trip.
Mekong River runs through Luang Prabang and it felt like life there revolved around it. I just loved walking along the riverbanks and looking at the people running their daily tasks or napping on the longtail boats. The riverbank also became my favorite sunset spot. The mountain in the middle of Luang Prabang, Mount Phou Si, is commonly known as the best place to watch the sunset and I mean yes, it was amazing from up there but the crowd was probably even more incredible. Like hunderds of people crammed in this tiny temple on top of the mountain kind of ruined the experience so I decided that the riverbank was my place. Some of the boatmen started to recognize me since I came every evening.
I didn’t do that many sights in Luang Prabang, not that there are many, but I did go to Kuang Si Waterfall and I’m so incredibly glad I did. I decided I wanted to go early so that there wouldn’t be that many people so I organized it with the help of my guesthouse and there were a few people to share the ride there with. A tip for anyone who possibly may go there: go early, even if it means waking up at 6, go early, and I guess this applies to pretty much any popular sight I saw in Asia. It was a whole different place at 8 am. The sun had just rosen and there were only a handful of people with me when I got to the end of the path leading to the waterfall. The lower part mainly consists of these unreal turqoise pools where you can actually swim. And then a bit higher up there’s the upper waterfall. The water flowing down in different levels while the early sunshine came through the trees I remember thinking that this might just be the prettiest place I have ever been to. Unreal is the only word to describe it, the place somehow seems so perfect that you have to remind yourself that it’s actually almost untouched: the nature made it, the turqoise pools aren’t just made to be there to swim in and there isn’t a waterpump anywhere to keep the water running, that a place like that actually exists.
Looking from the bottom I thought it couldn’t get any better than that but I saw the path sort of continued up on the side and I thought I’d follow it up. About halfway up I almost started regretting the decision since it was like the smallest, steepest and dirtiest ”path” ever, where you had to use all of your four limbs to move upwards. But once I got up I realised I was actually on top of the waterfall. And it took me some seconds to realise it, the water coming from the jungle and flowing over the roots of the trees and then all the way down. It was so early that I was the only one up and it was one of those moments where I just reacted to all that was around me by starting hysterically giggling. I was standing alone on top of a waterfall sweaty and dirty from the climbing and that was maybe the first time on my trip where I just went ”this is so fucking cool and at this moment I have it all to myself.”
One other experience I will forever remember was getting lost into a temple yard. I have no idea how anyone else was not there since it was close to the center. It was so quiet and almost eerie that I wondered if I’m even allowed to go in from the gates. Anyhow I went, and the sleepyness of the place made me tiptoe. In the middle there was this beautiful temple, like one of the maaany you can find in Luang Prabang but this one was closed and it looked like there were people living around it but I saw no one. I was walking around the temple when someone said behind me: ” Where are you going?” I turned around and there was a monk, in one of the windows of the houses. I wasn’t sure if I was even allowed to be there so I just said something like ” I don’t knooow, I’m just walking around” and smiled as nicely as I could. ”Do you want to go in and look at it?” he asked and pointed at the temple. Of course, I replied very surprised and the monk disappeared from the window, put his slippers on and came down. And he opened the temple door for me and told me about it. In 20 minutes we covered all topics from buddhism to wars and from his travels in Southeast Asia to just life in general. He said he had studied and lived abroad as well but just wasn’t happy that way and then came back to Luang Prabang to live as a monk. Just that little talk we had made me understand that way of life so much better than I had before and I find it so interesting how individual people you meet can kind of work as these windows to a different culture or lifestyle. He was also very curious as to why I had come to Laos, all the way from Finland (I tried my best to explain where it is) but unlike many local people I met on my trip, he didn’t seem worried about me or wasn’t horrified how such a tiny girl was there traveling all alone for such a long time. He showed me around the temple yard and the houses where there were only 12 people living, in a small community. Kittens were running around and some young monks were bringing new flowers to the temple for the prayer. The monk wished me a safe journey and life and I said the same, thanked him and continued my wandering in the town.
I also did a 13k trek near Luang Prabang through this one eco tourism agency. Overall when the tourism is affecting the culture in many damaging ways in Southeast Asia and the options for visitors are endless, for me it was really important to know where my money goes when I for example wanted to do some treks (they can be hard to do individually in places like Laos where the infrastructure is very poor and in the countryside there are also lots of old landmines, actually only 0,03% of them have been found…). And it takes such a little time researching and maybe a tiny bit more money (but everything is often much more organised than in the very cheapest companies) which I was willing to pay, knowing and seeing where it went, at least better than in some other options. In Luang Prabang I went through Tiger Trail which I can only speak good of, their guide was really good and super friendly, and through the day I learned so much about Laos’ history which I was super interested in. There were only three of us and we had so much fun, it felt a bit like hiking with some friends. I got the chance to see three villages and how people from different ethnic groups lived there and made their living.
At the end when we got down to the river there were four kids swimming in the river and they got so freaking excited to see us so we played with them for a little while. I’m not even a child person but they were just so incredibly happy, just because of playing in the river which they probably did a lot. This is such a cliche and people are told this all the time but I guess lots of us would be a lot happier with a little bit simpler lives. I really thought about this a lot on my trip.
I was planning on staying in Luang Prabang for a couple of nights less than I acutally did. And I could have stayed in Laos a lot longer. The nature is much more untouched than in other parts in Southeast Asia and it isn’t too crammed with tourists yet, for the most parts. With the mountains and the Mekong River running through it it just felt like I had travelled back in time. It has such a rich and widely tragic history with colonialism and being fought over time and time again and I guess you can really see, especially when seeing some less developed areas, how torn apart it still is. And like our guide said, some of the wounds from the past are too deep to fix.
I guess personally this has something to do with timing as well, but in Laos I really felt I was far away from home for the first time. And at that moment that was exactly what I needed.