Week 29- Luang Prabang, Slow Boat, and the Gibbon Experience

This was my last week in Laos and it was a week full of ups and one down. This post is very long because it was such an action packed week! Sorry! The week started by taking a bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. I had heard many amazing things about Luang Prabang and I was very excited to go.

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Looking out over Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 1 pm and took a tuk tuk from the bus station into town. It still boggles my mind how all of the bus stations are well out of town and you have to pay a pretty high fee for a tuk tuk into town. We arrived at the main square and then started looking for our hostel Downtown Backpackers Hostel. We walked for a long time looking for the hostel because it was not quite in the right position on maps.me. We were basically in the right position a couple of times, but just looking the wrong way. The hostel was really nice with comfortable beds and a good breakfast in the morning. The first afternoon we went for a bit of a wander and found this back alley place for lunch. We were so lucky that we stumbled across this place because it had the best sandwiches that we had tasted in a long time. The French had occupied Luang Prabang for a long time, so it still had French influences in the architecture and the food.

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Luang Prabang

After lunch, we went to the Royal Palace. We walked inside and though the actual building was closed, the grounds were very beautiful. We saw a pond with hundreds of fish and we saw the old king’s carriage. We then returned to the hostel for a bit of a rest and nap. At sunset, we walked up Mount Phousi (which was a mountain right in town) to the pagoda at the top. We didn’t know that it would be a big deal to go up this mountain at sunset, but it seemed like the whole city was in attendance. We arrived early, but there was already a huge crowd on the steps, near the balcony, and even sitting on the pagoda itself. The sunset was very pretty, but it was even more fun watching the people and taking pictures of them.

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Everyone trying to view the sunset on top of Mount Phousi

On the way down, we took a back way to see some of the other sites that the pagoda and mountain had to offer. We found a giant sleeping Buddha on our way down so naturally I had to take a picture in his pose. What was most interesting was the footprint of Buddha. If you walked into this little building, the rock had the imprint of a giant footprint. I was pretty impressed with the footprint and I can see why this is a sacred site for Buddhists.

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Buddha’s footprint

After we reached the bottom, we took a stroll through the night market in town and I saw so many things that I wanted to buy. The market contained different things from other southeast asian markets and the prices were very cheap. Both Nate and I were really sore so we started looking for a place to get a massage. Finally, we found a pretty cheap massage and each got an hour oil massage. It was heaven! My girl pushed really hard, but she did work out a lot of my kinks. Finally, we walked down to the river and found a really good Indian restaurant for dinner.

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Luang Prabang at sunset

The following morning, we woke up relatively early, ate breakfast, rented a motorbike, and hit the road. We wanted to get up early and get to Kuang Si Falls before the falls became crowded with tourists. Kuang Si falls is one of the biggest attractions around Luang Prabang and for good reason. We arrived around 10:30 am, which was a pretty good time to go, and paid our entrance fee to get in. Upon entering, the first thing that you see are many large fenced in areas holding rescued bears from around the country. The bears had their own swimming pool, hammocks, and plenty of platforms. The cubs were in a separate area and had a lot of fun playing with each other. Nate had a funny interaction with one of the cubs who wanted his banana chips.

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Nate with his new friend the bear cub

Then, we started hiking up the falls and what first took me aback was the color of the water. It was a Caribbean blue. We saw some pools as we first entered with a series of small waterfalls cutting up through the trees. It was nice to get there early because it was easy to take pictures free of people. Later, the same falls would be full of mainly Chinese tourists. We continued up the falls until we saw the big one. This was one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen in my life. The size, color, and the way the water fell over the cliff created a stunning image. We tried to take pictures on the bridge, but again there were many people trying to get the perfect shot.

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The main falls at Kuang Si falls

We continued up the falls on the right side. I had heard that you needed to hike up the right side to get to the “secret falls.” As we hiked up, we found that it was difficult because it was very steep and the dirt was very slippery. I saw the turn off for the secret falls, but we decided to continue to the top. I am so happy we did because it was very empty. At the top, we found a series of pools set in a forest setting where you could go right up and see the water flow off the edge. There were some bridges and even a swing over the water. We had a lot of fun taking pictures on the swing because of the gorgeous backdrop.

Views at the top of the falls

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Playing on the swing at the top of the falls

Then, we decided to hike down the other side because we had heard there were steps and that it would be easier. It was another interesting hike down because the steps were in the waterfall. There was water flowing down them and they had put cement on the stairs so you wouldn’t slip. After we reached the bottom, we again went up on the right side of the falls to find the “secret falls.” I put this in quotation marks because they are not so secret and anyone that makes it the falls can see people at these falls and find their way there. I had heard about them from other travelers. They were an interesting find because as you climb up, you see fencing to your left that has been broken. You go under this fence, up a small hill, through a little waterfall, and then descend to the falls using vines. It was worth it!

Stairs in the waterfall

The falls were very beautiful as the rest of the falls and you could get into the pool of the water right at the base. Yet, the water was freezing! Nate got in first and swam up the falls and climbed the rocks. I took some pictures and then joined him in a quick doggie paddle I don’t really want to be swimming type of way. The other interesting feature of the falls is that you could get right up the edge and look down at the tourists below. From below this look really dangerous, but above you could see we had an extra ledge and the rocks were not slippery at all that it would be difficult to fall.

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The secret falls at Kuang Si
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Watch out for the drop off!

After awhile, the sun went behind the falls and so it got colder and we were on out way out. In that moment, we saw some Chinese teenage boys throw a Go Pro camera to each other and it hit the tree and dropped in the water. It was obvious that these kids could not swim and they just left without even looking for the camera. So, we decided to jump back into the water and look for the camera as it is a pretty expensive camera. We searched for 20 minutes and were freezing and we never found it which baffled us. Oh well, it was worth a try.

We had a great day at Kuang Si!

We descended the mountain and saw a bunch of grown Chinese men jumping off a cliff into the water and having the time of their lives. I love the shear joy that comes from Chinese tourists because its obvious that their childhoods were a bit different than those in the US and it seems like as adults they finally get the chance to be kids again. We visited the bears one more time and watched as one dug up a tree to find bugs. Then, we had lunch at a little local spot right outside the entrance and drove back to Luang Prabang.

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Bear just chilling in his hammack

When we returned to town we decided to drive the scooter around for awhile since we had it. We drove around town and we found the most amazing place for sunset. It was down on a beach on the river and you could tell it was THE spot. There were many people down there that had some serious cameras. That night, we had a great find for dinner. There was a little alley near our hostel where we found that you could pay about $2 for a bowl, which you could fill as full as you want. There were vegetable dishes, rice, noodles, fruit, spring rolls, and many other goodies. It was the best deal in town!

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The best sunset spot in town

The following day, we decided that we wanted to explore the other side of the river from Luang Prabang. We walked down to the docks and hopped on a ferry to other side of the river. We reached the other side, turned right, and started to hike because we heard there were a couple of peaceful temples. The first thing we came across was a big crowd of people near a temple. Many people were listening to a monk chant, while others were playing carnival games and drinking beer. It was an interesting dichotomy of people.

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Monk chanting to the people

The games were fascinating to watch as well. There was the Laos version of craps where there were 3 dice with different animals on them. People bet on animals and then they pulled a string and the dice rolled one at a time. Nate also tried to play an air rifle game to hit over drinks. It was a bit of a rip off because the air rifle did not have enough power to actually knock anything off. Finally, Nate played the darts game with balloons and had the crowd cracking up because he missed all three darts. The women were loving it. He redeemed himself in the second game.

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The Laos version of craps

Then, we went to a monastery on a hill that overlooked the city that was very beautiful. The monastery was in a bit of disarray, but the views were great. We hiked a bit further and saw a couple of other temples. Since we had to pay, we decided not to enter.

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Monastery on the hill

We hiked back to the boat and ferried back across the river. Then, we headed to the market. We had decided that we would go on a large shopping spree that night then go straight to the post office and send a joint package back to the US. We rushed through the market looking for everything we had identified previous nights and bought everything we wanted. Then, we rushed over to the post office, which was supposed to close at 6. Unfortunately, at 5:40 they were already closed. This was the first of a series of things that would go wrong. So, we had to cart all of our souvenirs to Thailand before we could ship them. Then, we met up with 2 guys who had met my friend Jen when they were in Pai. We took them to the same food market from the night before and loaded up our bowls again. Unfortunately, I was on the outside and I had my backpack that night because we were going to buy some snacks for the slow boat. I put the bag down between my leg and the table leg, but perhaps I have grown a bit less vigilant in Asia because it had felt so safe. Well, at one point I notice that my backpack was shifted to a table behind me and I panicked a bit. I just had a bad feeling because the alley was very crowded and I was right. Though they left the backpack, my wallet and my phone were stolen. So, that is phone #2 stolen on my trip this year.

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Temple in Luang Prabang

I went straight back to the hostel and quickly tried to use find my iPhone. The phone was already turned off so I cancelled all my credit cards and wiped my phone clean. Then, Nate and I tried to go file a police report for insurance purposes and that was a crazy adventure as well. The guy at the front desk of my hostel told us that the police were closed and that we could not call them to the hostel. We thought this was weird (how could the police station close?) So, we went in search, found the tourism police, and they were indeed closed. So, we asked around and found the main police station. When we walked in and all we saw were 2 teenage boys, not even in a uniform, sleeping. They jumped up quickly and we tried to explain what happened. They went knocking on lots of other doors and finally came back with 2 motorbikes telling us they were taking us to another station. They took us right back to the tourism police station and knocked on the door. A man came out and we explained the situation to him as well and he was not sympathetic. He blamed me for the crime saying that I should have been more careful with my stuff and said that no crime happens in Laos. He said that he could not file a report for 24 hours and then only with the approval of his superior who would “determine if a crime actually happened.” This was our first experience that really highlighted the fact we were in a communist country and at that moment we understood why the guy from the front desk did not want to contact the police. I realized later a report would not get me a refund of my phone, so it didn’t matter, but I wonder what happens if a worse crime would be committed. Also, if this is the attitude of the police, theft is going to become more common in Luang Prabang.

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Slow boat to Luang Prabang

After Luang Prabang, Nate and I woke up, took a tuk tuk, and went north to the slow boat dock. We bought our ticket for the slow boat up the river. We did the experience in the opposite direction than most tourists and so there were no package deals. Yet, I think we got a better deal buying each part of the ticket separately. So, we first bought a ticket to Pak Beng. The boat ride was about 7/8 hours long and you sit on bench or bucket seats taken from cars. It is best to sit closer to the front as the motor is very loud. It was such a peaceful experience because the sun was shining and the scenery was beautiful. It was a much better experience than taking the bus. I just read a book all day and snacked. It was wonderful.

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Our slow boat with old seats from cars

We finally arrived in Pak Beng around 5 pm and set out to find a guesthouse for the night. It was easy because as soon as you get off, there any many people trying to sell you their guesthouse so you can barter for a good rate. Our guesthouse was a bit far into town so they even gave us a ride in their truck. It was very basic with just a bed and a shared bath, but it was so cheap and only for one night that we didn’t even care. We walked around the town for awhile and ate dinner at a nice Indian restaurant.

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Views from the slow boat journey

The following morning, we packed up our stuff and set out to find breakfast. Unfortunately, we made a bad choice of restaurants because we ordered muesli, fruit, and yogurt. Yet, 45 minutes later we still didn’t have our breakfast. It was even more frustrating because 4 Chinese men who had come in after us had ordered a huge breakfast with eggs, toast, and fruit and they had their entire breakfast. We cancelled our breakfast and just hopped on the boat.

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Ready for the second day on the slow boat

The second day was similar to the first, but this time we got a table in front of us. It was perfect for me because I had a chance to catch up on a lot of blogging. I wrote about 3 posts and I read the book Tuesdays with Morrie. Again, the scenery was beautiful and it was nice to see all the local people and the life along the river. Towards the end, the river created the border between Laos and Thailand. It was interesting because it was very evident on this journey how much more developed Thailand is compared to Laos.

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View from the slow boat

We disembarked in Huay Xai which is the border town right before Thailand. We walked into town, found a hostel, ate dinner, and went to bed. There is a special activity that you can do in this town called The Gibbon Experience. I am so glad that I was told about this experience and it is necessary to sign up ahead of time to get a spot. The idea of the company is to protect the national park and preserve the dwindling population of gibbons in the area, which is an animal similar to a monkey. There are not many gibbons left in the area and they employ men to walk around with guns as well to deter poachers. The appeal for tourists is to hike in the national park and perhaps see a gibbon (this is very rare). Yet, the main draw for us was that you would take 21 zip lines through the forest where the longest was 1700 feet and the highest was 900 feet. Additionally, you would stay at the highest treehouse in the world! We even had to zip line in and out of the treehouse.

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Hiking through the woods up to the zip lines

The first day we arrived at their office, stored our luggage, and watched their safety video. We did the express visit which was only 2 days, but they also have 3 day options which require more hiking and less zip lining. We were driven about an hour away where we began our hike. We hiked uphill for a couple of hours, had lunch, and then finally made it to our first zip line. The only thing that was a bit uncomfortable was that they made us wear our harnesses the whole time.

The zip lining  part was amazing! It took one or two to get used to it, but it was so fun! You really had to lean back to get enough speed to get across the really long ones. If you didn’t make it, you had to turn around and pull yourself with your hands called “monkeying.” They even let us go in pairs sometimes, which gave us even more speed and made for better pictures.

We did about 12 zip lines the first day with our last zip line straight into the tree house. The amazing thing is that we couldn’t really see the treehouse until we were zipping up to it. It was exhilarating!

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Our treehouse!

We arrived at the treehouse and then started scoping our spot to sleep that night. They gave us mattress, blankets, and our own privacy/animal deterrent curtains. When we arrived they gave us a snack of fruit and then most of us showered. The shower/bathroom was cool because you are looking out over the whole valley while you shower, but the water was very cold. Then, they came with dinner and tea and coffee. Our guides came back and showed us card tricks all night and then we played a game of mafia before heading to bed. The night, we could hear lots of bugs and tree rats scurrying around the tree house.

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Inside of our treehouse
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Our whole group in the treehouse

The following morning we woke up at 6am, harnessed up, and went out for some morning zip lining. It was a great way to start the day! Then, we came back, ate breakfast, packed up, and headed out again. We did about 9 more zip lines until we reached the end. At the end, you could swim in a cold river and we had lunch by the shore. Finally, we hopped on a truck back to the town. After returning, we sorted out accommodation and bus tickets for the following day, had dinner, and headed to bed.

The following day we were headed back to Thailand! Check out below for more pictures.

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Diner time!
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Our guide and I ready to zip line!
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The view from our shower
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Found a vine so of course I had to be Tarzan

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