What is it about travel that leads people to things they would never consider in their “normal” lives? There is no chance Nagu would get on my motorcycle back home (even with helmet, protective jacket, gloves, traction control, ABS, and no traffic on the roads…) yet here in SE Asia she hops on the back of Scoopy, a 125 cc Honda scooter, Aidan tucked in front of me and Kiera squeezed between her parents on the narrow seat. Then off to visit the falls along some beautiful twisty roads, over a mountain pass and through small villages with their rice paddies terraced out of the hillsides. On our return traffic had picked up, and though nothing remotely like the chaos of Saigon, there were still roundabouts and junctions to weave through, picking lines between oncoming and turning traffic without benefit of any form of road signals. Yet Nagu and the kids loved it. What gives?
View from the moto in Laos
On the motorbike tour
Kuangsi Falls is reputed to be one of the most beautiful (and most visited) waterfalls in Laos. It has a bear rescue centre located on the short walk in to the first pools, where Asian black bears have been rescued and nursed to health after crossing paths with poachers. The babies were pretty interested but appalled to learn about how the bears are caged for life to extract their bile.
The azure/turquoise colour of the pools is all natural, the result of the limestone and the mineral content of the water, which also provides the substrate for the incredible rock formations that look more like some kind of living carpet under the flowing water than mineral deposits. This is an example of a travertine waterfall, characterized by these unique limestone deposits and calcium carbonate in the water.
Kuangsi Waterfall, Laos
Kiera in the pools
Aidan up high in Laos above the waterfall
Kiera just had to swim in one of the pools, and after generating a thick coating of sweat and grime hiking to the top of the falls, she found me to be a willing partner. This ride and hike day was one of the highlights for all of us.
Pac Ou caves had been our “cultural” experience the day before – we had taken a smaller longboat up the Mekong for 2 hours to get to a couplet of caves containing hundreds of Buddha icons (and perhaps as many tourists – we had arrived at the same time as some much larger tour boats). The docking procedure was to strategically cut and restart the motor while aiming the very long and narrow boat into a half metre gap between its peers tied up to a floating bamboo wharf, itself loosely anchored to the base of a huge vertical cliff. The skipper would alternately push away the boat on one side then its neighbour on the opposite side as we eased in, gradually opening up a berth. We then scrambled across the longboats between us and the bobbing pier, watching the twins closely and ready to grab them if they slipped off into the swirling water of the Mekong. The Buddhas lining the ledges in the caves are gifts from pilgrims or icons put out to pasture – we couldn’t determine which but the end result is both a tourist attraction and a site of pilgrimage. Across the Mekong from the caves is a village of the same name, and we had arranged with our boatman to drop us there for a lunch after exploring the caves. He dropped us instead at a floating restaurant on the edge of town, but after our quick meal the babies and I escaped from the lunch raft and jogged down the beach to look up at some very impressive limestone cliffs that no doubt would provide challenging rock climbing routes.
Pac Ou village
Pac Ou caves
Buddhas in the caves
Exploring the caves
At Pac Ou caves
Kids boarding the longboat
The twins stretching their legs
Longboat on the Mekong
The trip back downstream was much faster than fighting the rapids and swirls of the uptream journey, though our boatman was clearly a veteran and was taking narrow, fast flowing channels away from the main course and passed many boats on the upstream leg.
Evenings in Luang Prabang are lovely – perfect temperatures, gorgeous light, the night market coming to life and the many restaurants starting to fill up.
Monks crossing the Nam Khan river
Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
Rice paper drying
One day we had superb lunch at Tamarind, on Kingkitsarath Road running along the Nam Khan River side that makes up the other sideof the peninsula that makes up Luang Prabang. Service was excellent, and I had a taster plate with 5 classic Lao dishes, including Sin Savahn (sweetly flaviured dried buffalo meat) and Sa Mak Keua (minced pork, eggplant, banana flower, bamboo and sesame seeds). Delicious!
Another beautiful Lao evening found us walking to a highly recommended Indian restaurant which seemed to have disappeared. An expat Frenchman standing outside his gallery solved the mystery and explained the Indian place had just moved across town, but he suggested the Coconut Garden, another restaurant that would also be top class in any city.
Earlier while strolling along the banks of the Mekong we came upon 3 large jars containing a potent concoction of fiendishly strong home-distilled whiskey in which were floating cobras, scorpions and other critters (one jar apparnetly had a puppy in it but thankfully I never saw that…) Well my timing was off and there was a young guy from California who was contemplating a shot, so of course I joined him. Wow! Talk about cleaning out the pipes! The first taste was delicious but that was chased by a powerful, venomous afterbite. We spent the next 24 hours worrying about side effects every time I felt the smallest twinge in my tummy…Babies thought it was pretty funny but they were a bit worried too.