December 6th, 2014* - Vang Vieng, Laos
*Author's note: This post was written 2 days ago, but Laos' devastatingly slow wifi has prevented me from uploading it until now.
It feels impossible to reconcile the fact that it’s only been 8 days since I crossed into Laos and was first exposed to the lovely pace and friendly people of this beautiful country. This is a long post so strap in, because there's a lot of adventures and amazing content to share!
The Gibbon Experience
For the first three days after arrival, I trekked deep into the remote corners of the jungle with the Gibbon Experience, an outfitter that has pioneered “canopy tourism” by creating a network of ziplines and enabling travelers to see and hear the black-crested gibbons, one of earth’s most fragile and beautiful endangered species.
Our group traversed for 3 hours on a pickup truck through increasingly desolate hillside villages, veered off on to a dirt road, then hiked through fields and jungle just to reach basecamp. From there, we strapped in our harnesses and set off for the ziplining journey to our three story canopy treehouse 100 feet into the sky.
Each morning at dawn, as the mist rolled over the fertile jungle floor, we were awakened by the call of the gibbon, an indescribable natural morning song that echoed over the rolling mountains. Depending on the visibility, dawn is also the best time for a gibbon sighting, and both mornings our treehouse served as a hospitable meeting point for other tour groups and local Gibbon Experience employees. Huddled in blankets and crouched around the railings with binoculars as we sipped coffee, we were luckily rewarded with sights of the majestic animals as they used their long arms to propel themselves through the branches and pick tree fruits for breakfast.
Throughout the day, we had both organized excursions around the zipline network and free time to act like children, delighting in the adrenaline rush of speeding above the luscious jungle. Looking out from the vistas of any of the canopy treehouses, one is greeted by an endless expanse of overgrowth, complete with massive trees, diverse bird calls, and insects that are just on a different scale than any I’ve encountered before. After an early sunset, the jungle sinks rapidly into pitch black and after our guides ziplined off, we were left alone with just whiskey and coffee to protect us from an inevitable tree rat invasion and the ominous sounds of the jungle. It was tough departing on our final morning as I probably could have lived out there for at least another week, but I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have lived with gibbons in their natural habitat and had such a thrilling time doing it. Check out the video below to hear those glorious gibbons, see some awesome ziplining footage, and learn about Lao-style Snickers for breakfast.
Heavily dotted along the trail for both tourists and travelers, Luang Prabang envelops the soul with it’s fabled history and languid pace.
On the "bus ride from hell”, an overnight journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, I was fortunate enough to make friends with a group of 4 French students studying in Bangkok, bonding over the difficulty of trying to sleep on Laos’ bumpy, windy roads and praying that the bus would start again during prolonged stops for the driver to work on the engine. We finally arrived after 17 hours cooped up in tiny seats and haggled the price for a tuk-tuk to town. Haggling with tuk-tuk drivers and shopkeepers is a commonality in Lao, and it’s entertaining to experiment with the best tactics. Along with the French students, we teamed up with Isabelle, a German solo traveler, and found a clean bunk bed dorm in town.
After depositing our bags, we were eager to carpe diem, Luang Prabang style. This attitude consists of depositing yourself at a cafe with a view of either the main walking street or the placid Mekong and enjoying a slow breakfast, hopefully including a strong coffee and a fresh pastry or baguette. As a group, we strolled around the main sights and let the city’s quiet, calming vibe engross us.
At night, we made our way to "the only good bar," Utopia, which was set on the bank of the Nam Khan river to embrace the chilled out vibe and peaceful river views. Luang Prabang’s strong culture and customs make the city much less conducive to going out, as bars are shut down at 11pm, igniting a mass exodus to the only place in town that is still serving beer: the bowling alley! Packed with backpackers until 2am, I reveled in the escalating party of travelers from all over the world playing such a familiar game.
On our second day in the city, we arose from our hungover stupor for a group brunch before hiring a tuk-tuk to Kuang Si waterfall, one of the best sights in the surrounding area. We wiled away the day getting up close and personal with some bears at a wildlife preserve, exploring the eerily blue natural swimming pools, then climbing to the top for majestic views of the jungle valley floor far below.
On the way back, the sun began to shine brightly for the first time since our arrival in Luang Prabang and we embraced the simple glory of just leaning out the back of the tuk-tuk to soak in the afternoon rays and wave to the swarms of school children biking home.
On the whole, Laos is gloriously inexpensive and the food is dangerously cheap and delicious. My three favorite meals in Luang Prabang each cost $10,000 Lao Kip ($1.25 USD!!)
- The clear winner was a vegetarian buffet at the city’s night market. For just over a dollar, you get an empty bowl and can dig into a diverse array of fresh or deep fried vegetables.
- One of Lao’s top tourist meals is baguette hoagies, and I enjoyed my far share of chicken and avocado sandwiches at the street-side market just steps from our hostel.
- No day in Lao is truly complete without at least one serving of noodle soup, and I found a great one-woman operation off the side of the main street with delectably spicy pork noodle soup, heaped high with fresh greens and thick or thin noodles.
On my last day in the city, I rose at 5AM to observe Tak Bat, the offering of morning alms from Luang Prabang’s citizens to apprentice monks. It was a moving sight, deeply rooted in spirituality and traditional customs, yet simultaneously blighted by drones of tourists, snapping photos ridiculously close to the procession. They scampered around with huge phones and DSLR’s, eager to snap the perfect shot.
There is something devastatingly simple about life in Laos that bring into question the beliefs and attitudes so engrained in the rest of the developed world. Sure, the vast majority of the inhabitants here live on less than $50 USD/day. But they are also a happy, spirited, easy-going people who love joking around, making friends with travelers, having a great time, and not worrying about the normal constraints and stresses of life.