From the moment I stepped off the plane, I couldn't stop smiling as I had the sensation rush over me that I was finally in a place that felt like a home away from home. Luang Prabang is a small town set in Northern Laos situated between 2 rivers, the Mekong & Nam Kahn, surrounded by lush greenery of rolling hills. I had been craving the setting of nature mixed in with a chilled out backpacker vibe which Luang Prabang fulfilled to the T.
My happiness and excitement for a new town immediately was put to the wayside when I realized in the airport that I had made a rookie traveler mistake... forgetting to write down the name of my hostel and only having a vague idea of directions on how to get there. I had been relying on free WiFi and saved offline pages from my phone/google maps but this time all of them crapped out on me simultaneously. With nothing but error pages & a single road name in the general area of my hostel, I tried to communicate where I was going to a taxi driver who had a condescending look of "seriously? you don't have a clue where you're going?" look on his face.
It was only 10am by the time I arrived to the general drop off point I had told the driver to go, so I felt confident lugging my shit around town in search of my hostel - assuming I'd recognize the name. Rookie mistake #2 - every damn hostel in a foreign country usually has either similar names or ones that make it so hard to pronounce that its easy to forget. Accessing WiFi up to this point had been pretty easy, buy a cup of coffee from a cafe and you're granted the golden ticket of WiFi access. Not this time. For starters, I wasn't in the proper Old Town center area where tourist catered cafes and restaurants were located. Instead, I was surrounded only by local food stands and guesthouses. Thinking a guesthouse would definitely have WiFi, I tried the first 3 I could find to ask (and even offer to pay) for WiFi.
Starting to now actually freak out & sweat profusely (it was 100 degrees out), I bit the bullet and turned on the data on my cell phone and found my hostel, luckily only a 1 minute walk away. This little data session ended up racking up an international bill of over $100 within minutes, which my mom instantly informed me of, although luckily I was able to square it away later on and get it down to $30 - phew.
Feeling better that I at least had a location to go, I encountered Rookie mistake #3 - booking a cash only hostel without having local currency. Thankfully, Laos accepts Thai Baht & Vietnamese Dong (in some places) so I ended up handing over a mix of Baht & Dong which basically looks like Monopoly money, not really knowing how much I was paying. I had only booked 1 night at Souvasavong Guesthouse (see why I couldn't remember it?) and good riddance for it. By far the worst private room I had stayed in with no wifi, a single ratty old comforter on the bed and the bathroom consisting of a toilet with a detachable shower head literally directly over the toilet. After the 1 freezing cold, awkwardly standing shower I took, my entire bathroom was covered in water which basically set the stage for an epic pool party for mosquitoes. I also got locked in here for a solid 5 minutes since the water on the rusty lock to the bathroom had jammed in. Truly thought I was either going to get Tetanus from cutting my hand on the lock or get eaten alive by mosquitoes in my birthday suit. Needless to say, I switched hostels the next morning to Khammany Inn (definitely recommend - super social hostel).
After a stressful hour of settling in, I finally set out on foot to figure my shit out. Once I got to the central Old Town area, right away I noticed how many solo female travelers were roaming the streets. I again had that comforted sensation wash over me of feeling like I was definitely in the right place. I picked up a map, did a money exchange and started soaking in the beautiful scenery surrounding me.
I knew I was going to settle into Luang Prabang for an extended time (at least in traveler time - 6 days is considered a lot). During my time here I rented bikes for 2 days ($2/day) and cruised the streets & alleyways to the point where I felt like I knew the town like the back of my hand. Sunsets on the Mekong River were spectacular to watch and there were endless restaurants on the river to sit and soak up the view in.
My second day here, as I was hiking up the main Wat in town called Mount Phousi, I got to talking with a girl at the top of the mountain who ended up being an old coworker from Yelp. Talk about a small world! We made plans to meet up at the Night Market later on and I was finally able to have drinks with a group of girls that night at a local bar called Utopia. Utopia ended up quickly becoming my favorite hangout spot by far in Luang Prabang. It was a bar/restaurant/lounge that was also a yoga studio by sunrise/sunset and had an outdoor volleyball court. It was a little off the beaten path, overlooked the Nam Khan river and truly felt like a hidden gem since it took me quite some time to find it. I was able to do a sunset yoga session here which was by far the best class I've ever taken. Being able to look out over a river as the sun is setting makes it pretty easy to get your zen on.
Highlights here were taking an organized tour to see some of the main attractions in the area. Some people prefer to do their own tour but after doing endless planning, I happily paid my $40 to have my day fully planned out for me. The tour began with a minivan pickup at my hostel, a drive out to an elephant camp where I rode for an hour on a elephant (with no guide mind you - my elephant was clearly the big boss because everyone else had to have a Lao guide sitting on the elephants neck).
I made friends with the only other English speaking person in our group, a Canadian kid with a thick accent that made me giggle every time he said "eh." After some quality time with the gentle giants, we were shuttled over to the river area where a small boat awaited us. It took us to see the inside of a cave known as a special place of worship for the Bhuddist people where there were hundreds of little Bhudda statues placed all throughout the cave. Next up, we had a pit stop for a fried rice lunch in a small village followed by local rice wine & whiskey (called Lao Lao) tasting. All of this was enjoyable but I was anxious to get to the final stop of the day, the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
I've made it a habit of only briefly looking at pictures online beforehand of major sites to make sure I can have that initial shock and awe experience in person. I did this with Angkor Wat as well as Kuang Si Waterfalls and it exceeded my expectations. Before walking into the waterfall area, we passed through a Bear Rescue center where more than 10 bears meandered lazily in their outdoor playground, wrestling with each other or sleeping in a hammock. I had no idea they were here so it was a pleasant surprise to see those furry animals.
My new Canadian friend for the day and I spent the afternoon jumping off trees into the pools, hiking up the vivid blue green waterfall pools snapping a million photos along the way. At the very end of the seemingly endless mini waterfalls & pools, there was a gigantic waterfall - definitely the biggest I have ever seen. We only found this later in the day so I ran short on time but vowed to return to this little bit of heaven on earth before I left.
Only 2 days later, I took a car out with some friends at the hostel back to the waterfall and fast tracked it to the big waterfall area. We hiked up to the top which definitely broke a sweat then continued on for another few miles to find a cave we had heard about. Now, at this point in my trip I had already been inside 2 other caves so I figured I'd be fine. This cave however, was a legit pitch dark cave that had small openings and hadn't been done up for the tourists. We had brought our flashlights so we walked in for about 15 minutes the space getting smaller and smaller to the point where I had a mild panic attack. Might have had something to do with the fact that I saw 3 cockroaches then whacked my head on the rocks but all of a sudden I started thinking it was hard to breath. Just as I said out loud that I wanted to go back, we realized we had hit the end of the cave so I took a few more steps, slapped the wall to say I made it to the end of the cave then bolted as fast as I could back towards the light.
One last thing to note, as with most places I am now realizing in Asia, there was a night market in Luang Prabang selling more clothing and souvenirs. This one also had a cool little food alley where you could eat a variety of goods like lemongrass sausages, pork/veggie dumplings and mini coconut cream pancakes. There were even a few buffets where you could fill up your entire bowl piled as high as you wanted all for 15,000 Lao Kip - the equivalent of $1.85. The combination of cheap food, beautiful scenary and good people made Luang Prabang a definitely highlight in my trip so far.