Visit the far side.
The Mekong is a pretty large but easily surmountable barrier to travel, yet it seems tourists never venture across. I had hired a scooter and did just that, and I thoroughly recomend it to anyone. A mere 15 minutes on one of the numerous ferries and you really are in another world compared to Luang Prabang.
I had read in my guidebook that on the far bank of the Mekong there was a waterfall called Tad Hoykhua (Tad being waterfall). It suggested it was 14km West of Luang Prabang in Ban Pakleung. No problem. I will quote exactly from the guidebook as to the instructions I was given, "cross the Mekong by boat at Tha Heua (boat station) in Luang Prabang to Xiang Men village and then travel the rest by road. What could be simpler?
I took myself to the rather good Tourist Office in Luang Prabang to ask about directions or maybe a map, and the young man there admitted quite candidly and smilingly that he did not know anything about the other side of the river. I found this a bit odd but determined myself to go anyway.
I arrived at the boat station and the well meaning security guy was not going to let me onto the pier thinkng I had taken a wrong turning presumably. I mimed that I wanted to go over with my bike to Xiang Men and he looked at me slightly oddly. I was beginning to get the impression that this is not a trip often undertaken by tourists. Having been thus admitted, it was the work of minutes to get onto the "car ferry" and across to the other side. It may as well have been the other side of the moon, never mind the Mekong. After negotiating the almost vertical track from the boat on an underpowered machine I arrived in the village and it was obvious I was right, this is not tourist country. No paved roads, no road signs (in any language) and astounded looks all round. Halfway through the village one lady nursing an infant started shouting with glee and encouraging the child to wave at me and say "Saibaidee (hello / welcome)". I had to stop the bike and do the waving thing, it was very heartwarming and yet another of the wonderful travel moments I have had in SE Asia..
So then I had a problem. No map, no signs and no idea where I am going. Ideal, my favourite way to travel. I worked out West easily enough due to the position of the sun (old Boy Scout trick) and immediately proceeded to head East on the principle I had lots of time, I had a bike (of sorts) and I might see something interesting. The further I penetrated into what is effectively traditional rural Lao, the more incredulous did the looks on the other road users faces become. I use the word road loosely because it was a boneshaking dirt track. I felt so totally alive. It is hugely liberating to be away from any sort of support network, completely self-reliant. If I had had a mechanical failure or even something so prosaic as a puncture, which would not be unlikely on those roads, I would have had to sort it out myself one way or another.
I had sort of hoped to find a village but as the miles went on it was looking unlikely so I turned back knowing I would have to retrace my steps. Back to Xiang Men and off the right way, West. Off the other road out of town, past the police station and then the road forked. What to do? Well, they say "ask a policeman" so I went back there and sat outside as there is no obvious public office or anything. Eventually a cop turned up (at least I think he was, he might have been the cleaner for all I know) and I hailed him. Asked for Tad Hoykhua - blank look. Ban Pakleung - blanker look. Maybe it was my pronounciation, maybe something else but he eventually settled on telling me where Ban Pak was. Thinking this to be a local way of saying Pakleung, I followed the directions, assisted by the fact he mentioned "resort" and I knew there were a few bungalows for rent at the falls.
I went along not a bad road for about two miles and the road forked again. With no-one to ask, I decided on the right fork as I thought the falls were more likely to be towards the hills than the river. Half a mile on and the road stopped. Now I don't mean it became rougher or petered out into a dirt track, I mean it stopped. One minute decent hard dirt track, the next jungle. OK, only half a mile wasted. Back to the fork and took the left turn, which led me to a village. After a few dead ends I met a smiling old man. "Pakleung?", I enquired and he smiled, nodded and pointed confidently along a track. I followed it and it led to, well, the same dead end as before. As I had not seen any other roads going West, I decided the fates were against me and I wasn't going to find my waterfall.
Back into the centre of the vilage to find all the youth of the town gathered and playing petanque / boules (they call it petanque in Lao) in what would pass as the village square. Well, sensing if nothing else a good photo opportunity I stopped the bike and wandered amongst them. A quick Beer Lao was secured and I sat down to watch the game. There was much shouting, friendly argument and general good humour about the games that followed.
Obviously I had not fathomed the rules (still haven't really) and eventually the inevitable happened. You must have guessed what is coming next. They thought it would be great fun to watch the foreigner make a fool of himself and I was dragged into a game of doubles. My partner was a youngish Lao guy and we played two other Lao guys. The women also play (very well) and mixed games are common but this was an all male affair and taken very seriously although with a lot of laughter. I was terrified I would make a complete mess of it but to my great surprise I found I have some small sort of aptitude for the game. Shall we say I didn't make a complete fool of myself and played a couple of shots quite close to the jack (or whatever it is in French / Lao). It was great fun.
Many more games were played and the system, should you be asked, is this. The losing team buys a big bottle of Beer Lao. Now, this is not merely for the winners but a single glass is available and the beer is distributed in mouthfuls to victors, spectators and apparently any passing stranger! This is the Lao way, eating and drinking are always communal affairs, and they found it most odd that I wanted to drink a whole bottle of beer myself. By the end I felt a little odd doing it and resorted to the local practice.
I mustn't have messed up too badly as I was invited to play several more times and we even won a few games. I got quite into it by the end but a glance at my watch showed that it was four o'clock and the bike was due to be returned by five so back down the road amidst many fond farewells, on the boat and back to Luang Prabang where the venerable old machine was returned.
If you are of an adventurous frame of mind, I thoroughly recommend you go across the river. There are no "sights" and indeed I only saw one Wat (temple) which appeared closed, but it is a great opportunity to glimpse the rural way of life in Lao.
Update February 2013.
I cannot believe I have overlooked this so ong. I was only putting one image to accompany each tip when I was writing them incountry as the internet connections were pretty slow and the idea was to add other images later on. somewhow or another I managed to forget about it and it was only whilst tidying up tips and photographs (my computer is much like my desk i.e. complete chaos) that I have today remembered what I need to do. Apologies for that.
Before anyone writes to castigate me about the small child seen with the beer, I should note here that I did not give the infant that beer, it was given to her by an elderly female relative and that mouthful was all she had. I certainly don't condone giving infant children alcohol. She seemed quite happy about drinking it and I suspect it was not the first time she had had a drop of beer. It wasn't for me to tell these people how to conduct themselves and I merely took the photo.
- Adventure Travel
- Budget Travel
Ban Xieng Maen
It's a short boat ride across the Mekong to this very traditional Lao village. After you've reached the other side, simply turn right and follow the sign for "Temples" and you'll come across a few, including Vat Chompet which is worth climbing up to in order to see the great view back over Luang Prabang. Walk further along the river to another temple and a cave. The village itself is rather poor with wooden bamboo stilt houses with children, chickens, dogs and cats running around.
Visit the village.
Most visitors to Luang Prabang will visit the Pak Ou caves about 25 km upstream from the city and rightly so because they are a very famous sight hereabouts. The vast majority of these wll travel by boat because that is what the guide books tell them to do. A smaller proportion will go by jeep - minivan / tuktuk to the village of Ban Pak Ou (literally vilage at the mouth of the Ou (river)) where they will be hustled by the driver straight down to the riverside and onto the boat of whichever boatman they have an arrangement with.
I visited the place under my own steam, well, more precisely the steam of a clapped out Honda 100cc scooter which indeed looked as if it belonged in the age of steam! My tip would be this. Stop and have a look at the village. There are no incredible ancient wats (temples), not much on the way of places to eat or drink, although I recommend the little coffee shack at the parking place, and little of significance save the caves on the far bank. It is, however, a good glimpse of rural Lao life, for the most part untouched by tourism as they all tread the same path to the boats. I spent a lovely couple of hours here just wandering about, saying hello to the local people and, on one occasion, nearly exhausting myself in the afternon sun kicking a football with a couple of apparently inexhaustable youngsters.
Don't follow the herd, do yourself a favour and have a look round.
- Budget Travel
Ban Xieng Mene
Crossing the river to the Ban Xieng Mene will probably cost the average foreigner price of 10,000 kip per person (locals pay ~2000 kip). With a little negotiation, we paid 7000 kip for two and could probably do much better than that.
Just opposite the Mekong from downtown Luang Prabang, the quiet town of Ban Xieng Mene is stuck back in time from the lights of the city. The only crossing is by river boat. The ferry pier is typically a few bamboo floating rafts at the bottom of the river access stairs. If a car needs to cross, they must manage a muddy landing on both sides while getting on the ferry.
The temple that the town is named after is a small but quaint temple (must pay entry). The town is a small step back in time with narrow walking streets, mostly dirt paths. Take a few hours and stroll the town perched on the river banks.
The other side of the Mekong
There are a few villages and temples on the side of the Mekong. You can catch a fast boat to go across. Need to negotiate the fare a bit. You'll pay more than the locals -- suck it up!
The other side is not quite gentrified like LP itself. There are a few temples there as well. Wat Chom Phet gives on the Mekong with a nice view of LP town.
In the Pak Ou caves area, in the opossite bank of the river, there are some restaurants that serves good fish. Most of the visitors just visit the caves and returned to Luang Prabang, so there are few tourists. Great food and views.
Watchout for White Elephant Adventures!
We were looking for a little trek and some kayaking and stumbled upon White Elephant Adventures, we thought we might do a trip with them but we ended up getting a little weird vibe from them so we checked out other options. We decided to not do their tour and the Canadian owner completely and inappropriately freaked out. He came over to our hotel the night before and told the workers that he was our friend so that he could get our room numbers. I called his business and home phone to let him know that we were not going on the trip. The next morning he still came to our hotel, I had left with my girlfriend for breakfast, but my other two friends who are going to go with us was still there. He yelled at them and threatened to call the police on them.
They were confused and left. I thought maybe there was just a miscommunication between the staff, the owner, and my friends. So my girlfriend and I went to find the Canadian owner of White Elephant Adventures who had yelled at my friends to try to tide things over with him. This was not to be. He completely lost is cool and began to yell at us in the street (which incredibly culturally inappropriate in Laos (or anywhere for that matter)). He yelled at us that we are shorting is Laos staff that depended on us to go, I offered to pay for myself for the trip and split it evenly with the Laos staff. He refused the offer and by the end, he threatened our lives. He said that he paid the Laos police to retrieve his money from us, and if they do anything else he is not responsible. He also told us to not come crying back to him if the police take us. Arrest us for what? We didn't even do anything wrong!
Please, anyone who is traveling to Luang Prabung do not go on White Elephant Adventure Tours!!! There are many other good adventure tours there...Enjoy your trip there great place! Just stay away from White Elephant Adventures!!!!
- Hiking and Walking
Mount Phousi from the Back Entrance!
The backdoor entrance to Phousi - as opposed to the usual route from Sisavangvong Road is via steps from Kingkitsalat Road - along the Khan River road. We found this quite by accident, and didn't know we were going to end up at Phousi! I am not recommending this as a shortcut back to Sisavangvong, unless you have serious mountain goat genetic links. Although its not straight up like the other side, it is, nontheless, just as hard work! Mind you, there are some interesting things to see enroute, and its a good alternative way down.
Walk the Bamboo Bridge to Ban Xiengleck
Traversing the Kham River, on the southern side of the main town of Luang Prabang is this rickety old bamboo bridge - with posts weighed down with baskets of rocks! A small fee of 4000kip (.50c) is payable to tourists crossing, + an extra 2000kip if you have a bicycle, which is obviously largely for the purposes of either maintenance or a complete rebuild after the wet season.
We spent a few very leisurely hours wandering around over here through the village, the monasteries and along the dirt roads - very easy to feel completely transported from the increasingly busy Luang Prabang.
There was a lot of industry over there - including weavers and the lovely gardens along the river as you arrive across the bridge.
One feature of this visit was having a lengthy conversation with some young soccer playing monks - and leaving them with a great new stash of pens for their studies.
- Arts and Culture
- Road Trip
Pak Ou Caves & Whisky Village
25 km north of Luang Prabang. Ride a boat through the mightly mekong. see hundres of buddahs inside the two caves. after the cave trip, the boat will take you to Whisky village to buy some exotic sovenir and or to see the simple rural life of the Lao tribe. it's a great tiring experience.
- Historical Travel
Stopping at little villages
Stopping at the villages that weren't on the tourist circuit - ie. brewing or weaving villages, which were really just wall to wall shops - proved to be a great part of the visit. We were usually greeted with a bevy cavorting naked boys (the girls tended to be much more modest) enjoying the water. Our driver took us up to his own village, and we left our purchases for the day in the boat - which was surrounded by children - safely there when we got back.
Our driver's house was a tin shed, which he said he built for US$1000 - loan from the bank. Very basic, but clean and clearly a source of much pride. We were given a drink which I though was possibly iced tea before tasting, but then realised that it was the colour of their water they had to drink. Politeness prevailed and I did survive!
- Budget Travel
Prison with a view
When we took our boat trip along the Mekong and surrounds from Luang Prabang, just happened to ask what this building was, and turned out its a prison. Not sure if its the ONLY prison in Laos, or just in this area. But, communication with our host was that this is where drug dealers and smugglers end up. Has a view, but a prison is a prison! This was only a few minutes away by boat from the town.
Experimenting in the Great Outdoors
White Elephant Adventures is a small nature sport company run by a Canadian man, Derek, and his Lao wife. The collection of other companies that bring you into the striking landscape outside of Luang Prabang offer fun and challenging activities, but White Elephant Adventures offers customized trips, allowing groups to get together and combine various activities into multiday outings.
I wandered into Derek's office in search of a basic waterfall visit with some kayaking or light trekking involved and he was in the process of getting a group together for an experimental outing including mountain biking, hiking, and rafting/kayaking. The focal point of the three-day, two-night tour, would be an overnight in an ethnic village that had only one previous contact with Western visitors, which had occurred only days before. I joined up and it turned out to be the most physically taxing outing I've ever undertaken and the most rewarding.
Please see my travelogue for more details.
- Budget Travel
Un siglo atras - Back one century
Cuando hicimos el rafting paramos en un pueblo aislado donde vivian cinco familias cargadas de ninos en unas codiciones muy basicas
Los ninos parecian anfibios pues no salian del agua y se reian por todo , especialmente cuando les ensenabas sus fotos
When we did the rafting we stopped in an isolated village where five families were living with a lot of children in very basic conditions
Children looked amphibious becausethey are all the time in the water and they were laughing for every thing , spetially when we showed them their photos
From both That Phusi and Wat Chomephet you'll easily catch sight of the golden top of this temple standing on top on the other side of Nam Khan River. You could hire a bicycle (1$/day). Ride across the old bridge and turn right when you come to a wide crossroad. Ride ahead then through a stone bridge. When you see a slope on the left an entrance is up there. There's no time limit for the yard however the temple is open 8-10am & 2-4pm Mon-Fri.
- Budget Travel
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