Luang Prabang – Relaxing River and Lao history

After our 36-hour debacle from Hanoi we decided to extend our stay in Luang Prabang. The thought of getting back on a bus in a few short days brought back the familiar bad taste of the bumpy bus ride north to Luang Prabang. Why not stay a little longer? After all, the name of the country is now Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) which the locals have remade to fit into the laid-back nature of Lao people, Please Don’t Rush. We loved Luang Prabang as it had the right speed for our weary bodies/souls. The 5 days we spent there flew by as we took time to soak in some Lao culture, part eye popping nature, part chill river vibe.

What would any town be if we didn’t rent a motorbike? No more Matt driving that was for sure. We rode out 45 minutes to the Kuang Si waterfalls, and without a doubt these were the most beautiful set of waterfalls we have ever seen.

One of the many lower falls, that water, so AMAZING!

Some 200ft high the waterfall cascades down three different tiers into pools of the most unreal aqua blue. Although quite touristy, we arrived when the falls opened, and when we got to the top of the falls we were all alone. Walking along the top of the ridge we found an abandoned water park, our first live snake, and some breathtaking views.

View from the top left of the falls

We had read about a secret path to one of the middle tiers of the waterfall and we searched every possible path on the left and right side of the falls. Eventually, pouring sweat, we found the gap under a fence on the right side of the falls. We followed the sketchy path up to the clearing and then…an impenetrable wall of barb wire fence and bamboo. Word to the wise, the path has been blocked and you can no longer enter the private middle tier of the falls.

Luang Prabang Bamboo Bridge, on our way into to town

In the town of Luang Prabang itself there were two spots we haunted most nights bringing interesting bits of culture as well as some chill vibes. The river bar Utopia was our favorite place to have lunch, dinner, beers, or general lap top time. The vibe is very relaxed, and every day we felt like we needed to go there for one reason or another. When traveling with Mandy in school we need to find good Wi-Fi spots in almost every city. Sometimes I feel insecure that someone will steal our electronics, but at Utopia that was not the case. A sketchy looking gentleman sat next to us two seats away. He didn’t order anything and kept glancing over at our lap tops, before eventually walking away. Nothing weird about that right? No more than 15-20 mins later the owner and staff had surrounded him and announced loudly to the entire bar that he was a thief. On their cameras they had spotted him picking up a wallet a customer had accidentally dropped and pocketing it. Repeatedly the owner called out the thief and played the video back for him, reclaimed the wallet, and kicked him out of Utopia. Some would call this brash, but to us it was nice to know that there were people watching to ensure the safety of the customers, and their belongings.

Bean bags for the win!

Our other repeat haunt was L’Etranger Books and Tea which offers a free movie every night with purchase of something from the restaurant. Relaxing in a second story lounge on cushions on the floor we watched two movies that were awesome and terrifying slices of history. The one that really gripped us was “The Killing Fields” which documents the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing genocide which resulted in roughly 1.7 million deaths between 1975-1979. The story follows an American journalist and his local Cambodian journalist counterpart who report on the lead-up to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. The tale opened our eyes to a terrible part of history, and some insight into the next country we were traveling to.

Suiting sign for the front of L’Etranger

Traveling as an American in Southeast Asia is often a humbling and shameful experience. One of the last things we did before we left Luang Prabang was to visit the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum. During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong were being supplied from Northern Vietnam through southern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. From 1964 to 1973 the US carpet bombed whole swaths of southern Laos in an attempt to break the supply line and support the battle against communism in Laos. During this 9 year period 580,000 bombing missions were conducted dropping over 2 million tons of ordinance, of which an estimated 33% did not detonate on impact. 270 million were a particularly nasty bomb, a cluster bomb. The cluster bomb acts as a shotgun, dropping orange size ordinance in a spread pattern. The aftermath of this bombing type has resulted in some 80 million cluster bomb UXO littering the Lao countryside killing and maiming innocent farmers in their fields, or children playing, to this day. The local Lao government does what it can to limit this through extensive education in the outer villages as well as removing some 70,000 UXO per year. Recent injuries and deaths are on the decline from 308 in 2008 to under 50 in 2018 as education awareness spreads through the Lao communities. Unfortunately, 40% of those who are impacted by UXO are children. Imagine walking through the woods with your friends and finding a strange little ball. Like many things in the jungle fruit is often hidden behind tough exteriors, maybe there is fruit inside, give it a whack. Absolutely tragic.

Some disarmed UXO on display

Luang Prabang was a great first stop in Laos that captured a lot of the natural beauty, chill river vibes, interesting bits of culture, and eye-opening history. The effects of war seem to have no end. We could not help but compare the impact here in Southeast Asia to the wars in the Middle East. How long will the impact of conflict remain there? 50 years later in Laos the war wounds are still fresh and bleeding, literally still claiming lives. War is often glorified in swells of patriotism, but the toll exacted, both short and long term, seems too high.

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