After having split from the two Belgians Chris and Dolf in Nong Khiaw, I made it to Luang Prabang in the afternoon. I was supposed to catch up with the guys again at 6 pm. since they had to drive down from Nong Khiaw with their motorbikes. Luang Prabang was said to be a touristy but yet very relaxed and serene city by the banks of the river Mekong. I was looking forward to explore the city, kick back for a little and take some pictures of the supposedly stunning sunsets.
However, after I had started looking for a guesthouse, I soon realized that my stay probably won’t be as relaxed, serene and laid back as I imagined. It was Chinese New Year, which I knew before. What I didn’t know was that the Chinese take this holiday as a chance to travel and just invade the country by the hordes.
Almost every guesthouse was fully booked and prizes had risen by as much as 50%. What a bummer. I was still able to line up a single room in a nice guesthouse for an acceptable prize. After I had sorted myself out, dropped off a big bag of laundry and got some late lunch, I went down to the Mekong to watch the sunset. The view over the river with the mountains in the background and all the longboats coming in was just amazing. I got down to the water where I was fairly undisturbed and got a few good shots before relaxing and taking in the atmosphere. The Mekong here looked very different from my first encounter with it on the boat ride from Huayxai and I then realized that the river has surely many faces. My hopes were high to explore a few more of them during my trip.
Afterwards I went up to the ferry pier where I was supposed to meet Chris and Dolf again and just after a minute or two we ran into each other. We three had spent a good time in Muang Ngoi together and planned to either go trekking or do the Takhek Motorbike Loop together. We discussed our options in a cosy riverside restaurant and ended the day with a couple of beer lao.
The sunset from Mount Phou Si
The next day Chris and Dolf left early for Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars which I decided to skip. I wanted to stay two more days in Luang Prabang instead. I rented a bicycle and cruised around town for a bit. I checked out one of the many temples, visited a market and discovered a little gym nearby which I planned to go to that evening. After a bit I realized that it was very hot already and I just wanted to relax for a while. I went to the Utopia Bar which is situated right by second river which flows through Luang Prabang, the Mae Kok. True to its motto “zen by day and groovy by night” it was the perfect place to spend those extremely hot hours of the day. It was there, when I decided to go up the Mount Phou Si to watch the sunset and take a few pictures. There is actually a temple on top of the hill, the Wat Chomsi, from where you have a 360 degree view on the surrounding area. Some fellow travelers told me, that you have to get up early to get a good spot since it can get very crowded.
After having rested a bit at the guesthouse, I went up the hill and despite the sun still being up high, the view was stunning already. I sat down right at the cliff, put it my headphones and waited for the sun to go down. Time passed quickly and when I turned around after a bit, the whole place was completely packed with tourists. I was glad that I got there early but still couldn’t enjoy it too much – it was just too crowded and loud. I have to say that even the sunset wasn’t that great after all. The rather spontaneous photo session down at the Mekong a day before was much more enjoyable. A little bit frustrated, I went to the little local gym which I had discovered before. Working out always helps to get rid off bad vibes and it did this time as well. Those 10.000 LAK entrance fee were actually the best investment of that day.
Monks and Waterfalls and some bad luck
The next day I decided to watch the procession of the monks first before renting a motorbike to go to the Tad Kuang Xi Waterfall about 30km out of town. The procession of the monks takes place daily. They exit their monastery in the early hours and then walk the streets by dawn to collect food donations from the locals. I was already a little bit skeptical about going there since I heard it has just become too touristy and more of a circus than anything else. What I saw then topped everything I had expected. 90% of the people sitting by the road waiting for the monks with donations where tourists, mostly Chinese, and no Laotians. They were taking it as entertainment, laughing loud, taking pictures of themselves while waiting for the monks. Once the parade of monks dressed in bright orange approached, the frenzy began. The monks were surrounded by tourists, having put cameras into their faces with flashes going off and their way being blocked. This whole ceremony is supposed to be quiet and meditative but this was so far from it. It was terrible. I had to leave the scene and went down a sideroad with less people. After a while the monks also passed and I managed to get a few pictures trying not to be too much of a disturbance. After what I had seen before though, taking pictures just didn’t feel right anymore and I left with a bitter feeling.
Returning to the hostel with disappointment, luck was not on my side again. I was told to leave very early for the waterfall to avoid the crowds. Unfortunately the guesthouse screwed up my reservation and delivered the bike not before 9 o’ clock. I left right away and hit the gas. Just 4 km before my destination I noticed I had a flat tire. Unbelievable! Doing almost 700 km on the Mae Hong Song Loop without having to repair a single thing, this happens after just a 30 minute ride. Fortunately I was not too far from a repair shop but the mechanic there was a bit clumsy and he had to change the tube twice which took 1 hour altogether. I already saw the Chinese convoys going by while still waiting for my bike. Yes, the Chinese travel in huge groups and they all bring their own cars. Then they number them and drive them from town to town and to all the attractions around in long convoys. And to communicate while riding they use walkie talkies. It was surreal.
The end of the story was, that I arrived at the falls and the place was of course packed. I was bummed out and decided to walk up the falls right away to maybe snap some decent pictures despite the masses. It wasn’t actually too bad but the masses were just omnipresent. I took a dip in a less visited pool and also tried the monkey swing at the main pool. Not long after I left the place only to first get stuck in the convoys and then to discover that I got a flat tire again. The guy at the repair shop earlier tat day had messed it up and I had to get it repaired again. That’s what I call bad karma. That same evening I decided to escape the city and the masses and booked my bus out of Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang seemed like a very nice city. The setting by the Mekong and it’s serene atmosphere make it a great place to spend some time. I really liked what I have seen but the sheer masses of tourists from China and their special way of traveling just spoiled my stay there I have to say. It was just stressful and not very enjoyable. I wold definitely like to come back sometime to spend some more days there since I haven’t even checked out the biggest temples there. I would make sure though not to get there around Chinese New Year.