After I moved out of my first guesthouse in Laos (we don’t need to get into details, but suffice it to say, always pay the extra $3 because the cheapest room is far worse than the next-to-cheapest room), I lucked into meeting up with some slow boat friends at the night market. They were planning to go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls the next day and invited me to join them, which I was happy to do.
We bounced along the mostly well-maintained road out of town, through small villages, past children in school uniform bicycling home for lunch. Our driver told us what time we had to be back by, and then he set up his hammock in the back of the songthaew for a late morning nap. I bought a sandwich and an entrance ticket, and we went inside the park.
The first thing we saw were signs to a bear sanctuary. Asiatic Black bears and Malaysian Sun bears are threatened native species in Laos, and the center shelters bears confiscated by government authorities from wildlife smugglers. Probably the bears were going to end up in cages, having bile sucked from their bodies for traditional medicines, and now they hang out on tire swings and forage for food the center’s workers hide around the enclosure to keep them stimulated.
A short walk away, we came to the first of the waterfalls. I said in the title of this post that there were four waterfalls, but really I made four stops along the path of many little and some large waterfalls. The water was the bright green of jade, and the pools were calm, stacked on layers of brown limestone, until they suddenly tumbled over steeper rocks in a rush of white foam.
We passed a swimming hole, its main attraction being the rope swing you got to by edging along a tree branch and using a pole to hook it, after which you grabbed the rope and flung yourself into space, letting go before you swung back too far toward the tree. It looked fun, and scary, and I did not do it.
The path was one of the cleanest I’d encountered in Southeast Asia; signs in Laotian and English reminded visitors to refrain from littering, and woven baskets dotting the path served as trash cans. The water also looked clean, which was gratifying. It was so clear and beautiful, I’d hate to see it polluted.
The final waterfall was huge and hugely impressive. We carefully made our way through over the slick rocks to take pictures more or less in the middle of the pool, which was cool. I wanted to linger, maybe write in my journal or read a book with the water rushing past, but other women wanted to make sure we weren’t late for our driver, which is fair, so off we went. It was a pleasant morning, and the only change I’d make if I went back is I’d stay longer.
Another popular day trip from Luang Prabang is a river cruise to the Pak Ou Caves. I bought a ticket from a travel agent in town, as did most other people on my boat. I think you can just show up the day of and get on a boat, but I didn’t want to wake up early only to find all spots taken. It was slightly organized chaos at the dock. I gave my ticket to the woman in charge, and she gave me a number. Later, she stood at the top of the stairs down to the boats and yelled out numbers, which I realized when we got down to the dock corresponded to different captains, so that each captain had roughly the same number of passengers. (Communism at work, for equal pay and equal distribution of weight!)
Unfortunately, I got The Unlucky Boat. We were the last group to leave because it took the captain ages to get his boat untangled from the others and move it around toward the floating dock we waited on. Finally, we boarded the tiny, narrow boat, only to have to shift around to accommodate the guy in the back, who was obliviously moving from side to side, apparently unaware that he could sink us if he weighed us down on one side more than the other. We got underway and stopped after only 30 minutes, at an island populated with incurious cows, so two girls on the boat could pee in the bushes. Restless dude in the back took the opportunity to share a cigarette with the captain. Finally, we arrived at our first stop, the whisky village.
Ban Xang Hai is a village specializing in the production of lao lao, a strong whisky fermented in jars. We spent an awkward 30 minutes wandering around the streets, which were lined with tables piled high with scarves for sale. I stopped near the whisky distillery and made googly eyes at a toddler learning how to feed herself. Her mother okayed me taking a picture of this beautiful baby, and everyone smiled as she shoved noodles in her face.
Now it was time to go to the caves, so we set off again… only to stop ten minutes later, beached on another small island in the middle of the Mekong. Our captain went in the back and tinkered with the engine, but after a few minutes it was apparent it wasn’t coming back to life any time soon. Another boat puttered by, and after a little conversation between the captains, all the passengers in ours shifted over to the other one. We left The Unlucky Boat behind, the captain taking a drag on his cigarette and contemplating the engine.
All these delays meant we had a much shorter time at the caves than other visitors, so I had to hoof it to get to the upper cave. The buddhas in the Pak Ou Caves are either damaged beyond repair or no longer in use, and in recent years tourists have brought their own buddhas to add, although I don’t know what the official stance is on that. The upper cave is lit by a few candles and what sunlight drifts in from outside, so I brought my headlamp in case I found myself in the dark, but enough people were up there with the same that I never did. The lower cave is well-lit, but there’s less exploring to do.
I liked poking around the upper cave, looking at the buddhas of all sizes and poses, made of different materials, ranged about the caves on long concrete shelves. During the Laotian New Year, people flock here to wash the buddhas, but the rest of the year, the statues sit under thin layers of dust, their limbs wearing away or broken off, their Mona Lisa smiles undisturbed by the dark. It must’ve been the luck of all those buddhas that followed me back to town, because the boat didn’t stop once.