One of our favorite experiences in Luang Prabang: a day at an elephant sanctuary.
As our plane started to descend into Luang Prabang’s (Laos) airport, our faces became glued to the glass of the airplane window. In front of us were some of the lushest rolling hills and mountains, cloud covered at the very top, with the long, flowing Mekong River below. It looked like one of the most beautiful sites we’d ever seen. And we thought to ourselves, could this be real? The landscape looked like something out of movie.
We touched down and a singular, small building stood in front of us as the area’s main airport. We quickly exited the plane and almost as quickly were through customs with our tourist visa and on our way to our guesthouse. At the airport’s exit door (the only door for arrivals), we found multiple cash machines and taxis waiting. Less than 15 minutes later we were in the central hub of Luang Prabang walking to our guesthouse, a common lodging facility in Laos. In Luang Prabang, our guesthouse like so many others were UNESCO protected buildings and sites that are bound to manage its upkeep to certain UNESCO standards.
After dropping our bags we headed for the night market, about 200 steps away. Travel guides and blogs raved about Luang Prabang’s French influence from its decades of colonization. 10 steps through the market and we knew exactly what they meant: bakeries lined the streets with the freshest of pastries, all for prices a fraction of that of Paris. The night market was on the mainstreet and seemingly went on forever, family storefront after storefront selling clothes, paintings, woodcrafts, and metal jewelry. The pathways through the market were cramped and tight, but once through to the other side, a whole new side of Luang Prabang took hold: the many bars, cafes, and restaurants that dot the main street with a charm of a classic New England town. That night the World Cup’s group stage was in full swing and the bar patrons were packed in their places, hanging on every pass and goal. It brought an extra energy to the night that beckoned to be a part of.
Luang Probang Night Market: The Good (mmmmmm)....
....The Bad (deliciously good, but not healthy!)...
...And the Ugly. Who would drink this bottle of booze? And then what do you do with that cobra inside? (yes, it's a real cobra)
Over our next few days we ate at several of the restaurants and enjoyed very good food at very good prices, though slightly more expensive than what we saw elsewhere in SE Asia. In fact, the choices were so endless that in a few instances we found ourselves ordering a a mix of Laotian, Western European, and Italian to satisfy everyone in our family. Sometimes, you just need some comfort food.
Our best meal of the trip came in the most unique of settings. From the main street, down a small side road towards the river there was a bamboo bridge which lead to a restaurant just on the other side. As you approached the end of the bamboo bridge, many lanterns glowed in a terraced pattern along the riverbank. Those terraced lanterns turned out to be small dining “huts” perched on the bank containing individual or small groups of tables. Following a short meander down the path of this outdoor restaurant, and passing several of the huts along the way, we were seated. Each hut carried a sense of intimacy with it, as if you were in your own private restaurant. Shortly, the waiters brought steaming concrete pots of hot logs and coals and placed it in a hole in the center of the table with a South Eastern Asian “grill” on top ("hot pot") where you cooked a variety of buffalo steak, chicken, fish, or tofu/vegatables. We couldn’t get enough of it. The food was delicious and the preparation was fun as well. Just when we thought we were stuffed we saw the chocolate fondue pots and gained a second wind. Plates of freshly cut fruit – bananas, mango, and pineapple – were brought to our table with a deep, dark chocolate that we licked clean. Following dinner and dessert we readied ourselves for the bill. We all concluded this was one of our top family dining experiences of all time. After a quick currency conversion (the numbers on their own in Laotian currency can be a bit daunting), we prepared to pay our…$5 per person. For everything. Drinks, dinner, dessert. One of our favorite meals in one of our favorite settings at a price where regular people could go out and enjoy themselves thoroughly for a night. We may come back to Luang Prabang again some time just for another visit to Dyen Sabai, one of the classic dining experiences.
The various seating areas at Dyen Sabai, one of our new favorite restaraunts in the world.
Not to be outdone, the next night proved another unique setting with dinner at Secret Pizza, a hard to find spot down a long, winding dirt road past gated mansions. We thought for sure the tuk tuk driver was misguided, until at the end of the road there was a a circular drive. This drive was the “at home” restaurant of Andrea, who has been churning out some of the best pizza in SE Asia for years. Half his (very large) backyard is one ginormous patio with gorgeous stone-topped tables and large kitchen areas, including the pizza prep area and brick fire oven. Perfectly charred pizzas come out in small groupings and get quickly devoured. We started with 3 (they’re rather large) and a few glasses of wine. Those pizzas were gone in an instant. After much deliberation, we ordered a fourth for the two people that seemed to still be hungry. That final pizza arrived and even those who "couldn’t possibly eat another bite" found a way to put one more down before we ended our evening with homemade tiramisu and the tuk tuk ride home. Secret pizza is only open 2 nights a week and is heavily visited by locals. By the time we left additional tables we added to the lawn half of the yard, and clearly the “secret” is out. While it may be hard to find, half the restaurant was filled with fellow travelers, many whom we saw throughout town on the earlier half of our trip in Luang Prabang.
When we finally reached the address it looked so unassuming. Beautiful house, but a restaurant? We thought we were misguided until we saw the delivery moto in the dirt road circular drive. Not really sure how the driver fits on this.
The patio where all the seating was made up was cute as can be.
The final product was down in our stomachs in a flash.
The central area of Luang Prabang is compact and easily navigated on foot. We found most things we craved on the main street, from eateries to tour places ready to book our week’s activities. Unlike our time in Cambodia, we choose not to heavily sight-see while in the town. Instead we chose to spend our time in activities in the great outdoors more unique to Luang Prabang, or at least outside of we can get locally at home. We decided on two major adventures for our stay, and chose the alternative days for chillaxing in the town at its cafes, bakeries, and strolling the shop-filled streets. Our two activities were a trip to the famed Kuang Si Waterfalls and a day at an elephant sanctuary.
Many tours include a trip to the waterfall as part of their package. However, at $40 per person, we decided to try this one on our own. We found a friendly tuk tuk driver the first day in Luang Prabang who spoke excellent English. He picked us up at our hotel and brought us to the falls. On the way he stopped at various photo-taking areas, including a terraced rice farm. The ride through the Luang Prabang countryside was beautiful. When we reached the falls, it was a quick walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls and we had virtually the entire place to ourselves. We hiked up the entire falls past each clear-blue cascading pool until we reached the top of the falls, on which we crossed at the top of the lush mountain and traversed down the other side. Swimming in the falls was refreshing as the water was clean and cool. However, the time on our hike coincided with tour buses arriving at the falls and the crowds quickly swelled. That didn’t stop us from climbing up a large tree branch, scooting out to the end of it, and then leaping in from about 10 feet above the water. The falls were magnificent and for the $40 we paid for the entire day (tuk tuk driver and falls admission inclusive), I would have made return trips to the falls if we had more time and the weather became hot. We saved about $200 on the day by using a tuk tuk for the drive and organizing it ourselves (which was rather simple) versus the structured tours in town.
The falls and the many cascading pools (above) were beautiful. As we hiked higher (below), the falls got more intense.
The poster on the tree may have said "Danger: No Jumping", but how can you resist when the tree branch sticks that far out into the water?
One of our goals for the trip was to take part in a day at an elephant sanctuary and learn more about and care for these wonderful creatures. Elephant tours could be booked from any of the dozens or so travel agencies dotted throughout the town. Many were cheaper than what we eventually selected, but we chose one that had endless good reviews and seemed more of the natural and humane way we wanted to interact with the elephant. It was through the Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort. It’s a company that rescues elephants from areas of poaching (for a hefty price), and nurtures the elephants in their sanctuary until they return them to the local wild. At the sanctuary they receive daily examinations and treatments from the local elephant doctor, food supply in excess of 250 kg per day, and attention and affection from tourists like us in exchange for a few hours of their time. Local elephant keepers, or “Mahouts”, work with each participant and their elephant to feed them, bath them, and ride them through the river for the 2 km walk from the sanctuary to their home on the vast property. For many of us, this became one of our all-time great activities. Working eye to eye with these elegant and enormous animals marked a special occasion. Elephant Village maintained a slow pace throughout the day to give the elephants the time they needs and us, as participants and students, the time we needed as well. The lunch buffet on private decks on the riverbank was delicious with views that were endless at the mountains in the distance and when the day ended we felt beyond satisfied yet still wanted more. And for those wanting more, overnights can be spent at rooms on the sanctuary that looked absolutely divine. Without prior accommodations, we might have stayed there a night or three, if nothing else to take in the serenity of the environment.
Bathing the elephants in the river with their keeper.
When we first arrived we wondered if Luang Probang and its smallish size would have enough for our family for the four+ days we were in town. As we prepared to depart, we wondered why we didn’t have at least another four to spend in this gem of a place deep in the Laotian countryside.
We bought a lot of fruit smoothies (above) on the streets each day. How could you not? They were the size of our heads for about $1.
Heading to the airport to start our next adventure (below).