Laid Back in Laos

There I was, sitting on a rustically built bamboo bridge with my feet dangling in the water of a pristine pool, fed by three different waterfalls, when I’m struck by the thought, “Is this my life?” This place is magical. No wonder it’s flooded by thousands of tourists everyday, packing the hiking trails to take pictures in front of the three different sets of large falls, swimming in the pools, and eating in the restaurants and picnic areas set up around the park. But yet again, Dean and I have diverged from the masses and managed to find a deserted piece of paradise that we have all to ourselves.

Since arriving in Laos, I have been thinking about my life and how I’m choosing to live it. It’s been just over two months since we left the US and up until now, it’s felt like we were on an extended vacation. We’ve seen the two places that we wanted to share with each other (Nepal and India), and now we are traveling with no major plans, choosing destinations that appeal to us as we research different countries.

Our only current commitment is in Thailand on December 29th – January 3rd, as we are going to be scuba diving four times daily, living aboard a boat in the Andaman Sea. So we decided to visit Vietnam and Lao in the 2 weeks prior to our liveaboard. Instead of traveling to multiple destinations, barely skimming the surface of each place, we decided to spend a week at one location in each country.

The main reason is that it allows us to really get the feel of a place, exploring new areas and things to do. But also, traveling can be an exhausting business. We’ve learned that moving from place to place involves a large time commitment. Think about it, you have to:

  • Pack bag & check out of hotel/AirBnB
  • Travel to the airport, bus or train terminal
  • Wait in line to check-in for your flight
  • Go through security
  • Board & Deboard
  • Pass immigration & customs
  • Travel from the airport/bus or train terminal
  • Check in to hotel/AirBnB & unpack your bag

It’s a commitment of at least 5 hours, not including the actual time it takes you to travel from Point A to Point B. And going through that process every couple of days means a lower percentage of your time is spent enjoying each destination.

So when researching where to go in Lao, we happened upon Luang Prabang. Roughly 25,000 people live in this World Heritage site, recognized for it’s outstanding examples of the fusion of colonial French architecture and traditional Lao building. It is known for it’s countless Buddhist temples, some dating back to the 16th century. It’s nestled in the mountainous highlands of Northern Lao, where the Nam Khan River joins the Mekong, providing a port for travelers taking the slow boats from upriver Thailand. The numerous streams that feed the Nam Khan have left lime deposited on the hillsides, creating numerous waterfalls and the Laotian people have capitalized on the natural beauty by marketing tours to visit the attractions.


Young Monk at the Mekong River

Earlier in the week, we had taken advantage of a hiking/kayaking tour to the smaller Tad Sae waterfalls. We left the tour office at around 9:00am, packing our group of 10 into the back of a tuktruck – the bed of a small, single cabbed pickup with seats and roof welded into the sides. We then drove 45 minutes into the mountainous countryside, arriving at a bamboo bridge spanning the river, leading to a local village. The locals rebuild these rickety bridges after the rainy season each year and make no qualms about slowly motoring scooters to cross.


Bamboo Bridge over the River Nam Khan

We then received a tour through the village which housed roughly 84 different families from three different tribes; Hmong, Lao and Khmu. On the far side of the village, we happened upon a group of men, burning the hair off a freshly slaughtered pig. Three men held lit bamboo twigs and were charring the hair while another man used a hoe to scrape the skin clean.

During the Hmong new year, members of the outlying villages travel to Luang Prabang to celebrate, dressing up in traditional clothing, cooking traditional food, and catching up with relatives. The unmarried girls and boys participate in a number of games, with the intent of finding a mate. According to our Hmong guides, many young people will find someone from the opposite sex who catches their eye and they will exchange phone numbers. Courtships can last several years but many are very short, lasting only days in order to take advantage of the auspicious dates just after New Years. These gentlemen were preparing an age old custom where the groom’s family will kill and butcher a pig to then serve to the bride’s family as a gift. Upon hearing this, I gently nudged Dean and told him that my mom is still waiting for her bacon.


De-hairing the Wedding Pig

We then kayaked several minutes down the river and walked up a steep embankment to enter the park housing the waterfalls. The locals have built this place with the intent of taking advantage of every tourist dollar available. There was an elephant village, where a handful of pachyderms were standing under a sheltered roof, harnessed into their riding platforms for the day so that tourists can ride them through one of the pools. Understanding that most of these animals are treated poorly as babies in order to be “tamed” for tourists, we quickly moved past this attraction to the actual falls themselves.

Several permanent structures have been built to house the many restaraunts, shake shacks and convenience stores selling snacks, cold beverages and beers. A coffee shop sporting a hanging bridge and large deck is built over the lowest pools and a number of wooden walkways and covered huts are provided for the picnickers. Most of the walkways have stairways to provide access for swimming in the different levels of pools and it appears that many a tourist spends their time in these initial stages of the falls.

Upon arriving in the main area, our guides had the group agree on a time to return and eat a communal lunch. We decided on 12:30, a little under an hour. Not particularly interested in swimming, Dean and I decided to explore a trail that led further upriver. The trail was a narrow track, meandering up the hillside in the jungle and then back down to the river for several smaller pools and two sets of falls. I looked at my watch at 12:15, thinking we should turn back. But we could hear another set of falls just ahead of us so we continued onward.

Walking up a quick section of steep trail, we came out on a flat area with a handful of picnic tables covered by large trees that overlooked the largest set of waterfalls yet. Dean and I both stood, marveling at the beauty. Unfortunately, it was now 12:30 and not wanting to make our kayaking companions wait for us, we quickly took pictures and headed back.


Tad Sae Waterfall #3

I had noticed on the map at the entry of the park that the trail was a loop and therefore took the track on the opposite side of the huge pool. The trail led nearly straight up, taking a much more direct route back to the first set of pools. This time, we didn’t dally at each set of the magestic watering holes, instead glancing as we hoofed past. We made the hike back to our lunch spot in just under 15 minutes.

After lunch, we had 20 minutes before needing to leave so Dean and I sat on a walkway, overlooking a large pool that glittered in the sun. We talked about the beauty of this place and how we wished we had more time to spend. We both agreed that it was simply a reason for us to return.

We spent the next 3 hours kayaking down the river, getting a close up view of the jungle leading up to sheer mountain cliffs. At the end of the trip, we fist bumped and agreed it was a great day.


Paddling Down the Nam Khan

Because of our short experience at Tad Sae waterfall, we decided to go to Kuang Si waterfall unguided. Everything that we had read online had mentioned that this waterfall was much more heavily touristed so we decided to wait until later in the day to take the 45 minute tuktruck ride in the hopes that the crowds would have dispersed. We got out a little later than anticipated as we’d spent the morning at a coffee shop, overlooking the river and playing several rounds of epic cribbage. The afternoon sunshine was golden as we sped through the mountain countryside, enjoying views of rice patty valleys surrounded by heavily jungled hills.

Upon arriving at the parking area to Kuang Si, we quickly realized that maybe we hadn’t timed our arrival to miss the crowds as there were people everywhere. What we didn’t realize is that they were leaving the park, walking down a narrow lane that was bracketed by restaurants and vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. We quickly bought tickets, hurrying to get in front of a large pack of Chinese tourists and started working our way up the path that followed the river, leading up to the different sets of falls.

We stopped for a photo at the first bridge we encountered, and instead of continuing on the heavily trafficked path, we decided to cross the river and follow a narrow goat track leading into the jungle and appropriately labeled “Trekking Trail” on an old wooden signpost.

We followed the meandering path, dodging low branches and walking through spider webs. Clearly this path wasn’t heavily used. Which was shocking to me as we continued to find little inlets to the pools below each set of falls, completely devoid of another human being. For the next 20 minutes we hiked along, taking pictures and marveling at the beauty of this place. We encountered only one other person on the path, a middle aged German gentleman who like us, was remarking upon our luck at getting to experience this place alone.


Kuang Si Waterfall

Eventually we came upon another bridge that was built over the river just below a particularly large set of falls. The bridge was crowded with huge groups of people who had obviously come up the trail on the other side of the river. We joined the throngs of people taking pictures and decided to continue on the far side of the river, however the trail here was a little more heavily trodden and we encountered a handful of couples coming down from the top.

After climbing a flight of stairs, we finally had reached the top of the hill and the entire river opened out in front of us. The edge of the falls themselves have been fenced off but several narrow bamboo bridges cross the river and allow for an uninterrupted view of the valley surrounded by mountains and the falls below. Several wooden dams have created artificial pools for swimming and a large group of Japanese teenagers were hooting and hollering as they jumped on a rope swing, trying desperately not to touch the water.

Actively trying to escape the noisy crowd, Dean and I decided to walk back through the forest, along the main channel and quickly found ourselves alone again. And here is where we found our solitary pool, fed by three streams. And where we sat, talking about the beauty of this place and our gratitude for the decisions that led us to this place.


Paradise Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

The late afternoon sunshine reminded us that we were hoping to see the sun set on the Mekong in town later, so we decided to forgo a swim in the pool and explore a little. We happened upon a signpost pointing to a cave, and decided to follow the trail through a forested hillside. The slanting sun shone through the trees, which were highly reminiscent of light filtered by Aspen, and again, I felt so content. We held hands and walked, enjoying the magic of our surroundings.


Hiking Through the Forest Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

When a sign on the trail marked that the cave was another 2.5kms along the trail, we decided to turn back. Remember, we were really committed to seeing the sunset on the Mekong and with time running short, we decided it was time to head back.

We decided to go down on the other side of the trail, and enjoyed the change of scenery. In one area, the trail leads to a set of wooden stairs that are built on the rocks of the falls themselves, allowing the water to run over the wood. Again, we encountered only a handful of groups heading up the trail however we found the hordes at the wooden bridge overlooking the second waterfall. This side of the river was heavily trod and there were people everywhere – taking pictures on the bridges, spreading across the trail in groups, and swimming the pools. We quickly dodged through the crowds, excusing ourselves when we encountered groups walking 5 abreast, completely oblivious those around them.

On our tuktruck ride back to town, over two large Chang beers which I had purchased as we walked out (because I’m a genius), we talked about our experience. I still marvel that we keep finding these hidden places by simply being curious and willing to try the road less traveled. Which sounds cliche, I know, but keeps proving to be true.

There were so many people at the lower sets of falls but so few at the top and again, no one when we chanced to follow a small track into the woods. Now it’s possible that the hordes that thronged the lower falls had already visited the top and were slowly working their way down but given their enthusiasm at the second falls, I don’t think so. I think that many chose not hike the trail to the top and therefore only saw a small portion of the beauty of this place. A huge score for Dean and I, but limiting to the masses.

A few days later, Dean wanted to spend some time drawing around town so I posted up at a restaurant and back-packers haven called Utopia. The space houses a covered bar area and garden that leads to a large wooden deck, scattered with low tables and reclining lounge cushions. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an assortment of non-alcoholic and boozy drinks. Patrons are invited to grab a chaise and hang out for however long they like, flagging a waiter if they want anything.


Old Town Luang Prabang

I ordered a cup of ginger tea and sat at a low table, overlooking the river and mountains beyond for several uninterrupted hours of writing. I’ve been practicing my writing in several different places. First, keeping a journal where I capture the details of our travels as well as any insights or feelings. I’ve also been writing TripAdvior reviews for the different restaurants, tour companies and attractions that we visit. And finally, the blog.

In the journal, I captured my thoughts about our journey so far. We’ve seen a countless number of amazing things, met so many kind people, and really gotten to spend some great time with each other, improving our relationship. However long-term travel can be exhausting and there are periods of downtime littered within all of these experiences.


The View from Utopia

In the days leading up to Christmas, I’d been having several bouts of homesickness. Severe homesickness. We had planned to be in Luang Prabang on the 25th, however we didn’t want to gamble on low speed internet making FaceTime calls home impossible. So instead, we decided to cut our time in this beautiful paradise short, and head back to Bangkok on the 24th, ensuring smoking fast wifi and the ability to text and call our families. While I knew I was going to get the chance to at least talk to the family over the holidays, it wasn’t the same as actually being there.

It’s an interesting conundrum. Here I am, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and all I want to do is go home. I reminded myself of why I wanted to take this trip in the first place; to get out of my comfort zone and have a bunch of unique experiences to learn and grow as a person. The problem is that change takes time and unfortunately, you can’t see it from day to day. I know that I’m already a much different person than who I was two months ago. One example is that I’m much more patient (I know that will shock some of you!), particularly when waiting in the countless number of lines required when traveling. Therefore, I can only wonder at what additional changes will occur over the next 5 months.


Paradise in Laos

This is why it’s so important for me to recognize these feelings. Being away from home during the holidays is difficult; it’s ok to miss your family. But more importantly, I need to remember that we’re on a once in a lifetime journey. Oh, we’ll definitely plan to prioritize traveling throughout the remainder of our lives. But if there’s one thing that my father’s passing taught me, it’s that you don’t know how much time you have. So many people plan for a utopian “someday” – this nebulous date in the future when the stars will align and they’ll be financially able to retire and live life on their own terms. We constantly rationalize all the reasons why we can’t do it now, always betting that we will be granted the opportunity to reach that “someday.”

But sitting here, I can’t help but think how fortunate we are that we made this decision. And I also can’t help but chuckle at the serendipitous coincidence that led to writing about this utopian someday, at Utopia today.