The 7 hour journey on the not so bumpy road really was ever so spectacular. The winding road through the mountains took us through yet more of Laos' exquisite countryside. The jagged peaks were silhouetted by the hazy heat of the day and made them appear like sketches on tracing paper.
The remote road led us through mountain villages, each was laid out similarly. A row of bamboo and wood huts stretched along the roadside, with their inhabitants nearby performing their daily duties. This included absolutely everyone in the family from tiny children aged no more than 5 years old, who with dirty faces and clothes thrashed lengths of pampas grass that would eventually become a brush or broom to the old matriarch whose back was so bent from years of hard labour yet still carried a clutch of firewood in a woven basket, the weight of the load primarily taken by a thin strap of rope that rested across her forehead.
Along the entire route we saw the thrashing of grass and monumental physical struggles. The demographic of the workers changed in the different villages and we were in no doubt that the functionality of the village absolutely depended on each individual's efforts.
The youngest of the children played happily along the ridge of the mountain. On one side was the road, the other was a sheer drop of who knows how many metres. They played with sickles, they played with sickles at the edge of a cliff, beside a busy road and they looked very, very happy.
Luang Prubang is a picturesque town that sits where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. The draw to the town aside its natural beauty are the numerous wats and monasteries that ensured its status as a UNESCO world heritage sight. Narrow walkways adorned with pink, red and purple bougainvillea and a maze of side roads provided plenty of places to explore. French colonial architecture added to the whimsical charm of the town.
Our hotel was on the banks of the Nam (river) Khan and a two minute walk would find us at the point where it merged gently with the fast flowing Mekong. Along the steep banks of both rivers farmers have terraced the land and are growing an abundant variety of fruit and vegetables. On the small plot by our hotel, papaya, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, onions, sweet potatoes, bananas, green beans plus a whole host of herbs are growing. As we had breakfast, the farmer wandered round his plot and reaped what he had sown.
For us, the temple and museum attractions in the main hub were disappointing, they seemed either to be having large scale restoration work being carried out or be in dire need for it. We enjoyed our walk up Phousi hill, the 250 odd steps led to a small, unassuming temple but gave us incredible panoramic views across the area.
The town is comparatively expensive and caters predominantly to wealthy tourists, the restaurants are noticeably swankier, the goods in the never-ending night market looked to be better quality (and priced higher) and there was a distinct lack of fake designer wear too. It felt to us that the UNESCO heritage status was both a blessing and a bind for Luang Prubang. Greater numbers means greater prosperity for the residents, but also the the shadow of over-commercialisation looms as routes in and out improve.
We took a day off from the main tourist attractions and headed for the bank of the Mekong. Before we could get there we had to cross the Nam Khan via a bamboo bridge. (Not again). The bridge must have been built by the same people that built the bamboo ladders in Vang Vieng and even today, repairs were being carried out. The first couple of steps on the bridge confirmed what we'd already concluded, we wanted to get across as quickly as possible and without shaking the flimsy looking frame too much. Arms stretched as wide as possible we held on to both hand rails and tentatively crept forward. We could see plenty of river through the woven floor. We could also see how narrow the struts supporting the thin, woven base were. We're gonna get wet! Needless to say it didn't collapse, sure, it wobbled like the floor in a 'house of fun' but it held out just fine. On the other side of the river there's very little development. We took a wander down to the Mekong and spent a hour or so paddling and relaxing on the sand. Boats ferrying small numbers of passengers to who knows where continually chug past, as do small taxi boats touting for business. We walked a long loop from the Mekong back to the hotel via a couple of wats that are in desperate need of restoration, it didn't look like the UNESCO funding reached this far from town.
Another day away from town and we headed to the Kuang Si waterfalls. We were able to secure a great price with a tuk tuk driver to take us the 35 kilometres to the falls and en route we picked up a few others and the 7 of us bumped along in the back of the converted truck.
We arrived at the entrance to the waterfalls, a short walk through the woodland brought us out to a bear sanctuary. These dozen or so Asiatic bears had been rescued from appalling cruelty and seemed to now be enjoying life being respectfully cared for albeit still in captivity. From there the path wound its way to the lowest tier of blue water. The edges of the pool along with the fallen tree trunk are white with calcification, small fish darted at the surface, making the pool resemble a man-made pond.
We left the masses at the bottom and we walked through the forest to get to the higher falls. Through the dense trees we could hear the constant pouring of water, occasionally the chatter of birdsong would fill the air along with an eerie creaking and clunking that we eventually found to be from a water wheel, but mostly it was the running water and a miriad of butterflies that kept us company.
At the top of the travertine pools and feeding them was the star of the show, a 60 metre cascade of water. A light mist filled the air and created sparkles as the sunlight caught the minute prisms of water and all in all it was very lovely indeed. As we headed back down, we came across a rope swing, a line of people waited to jump into the deep, cold pool. Screams went up as they let go of the rope and plummeted downward, groans of "ooohs!" countered the shriek as the person belly-flopped into the water.
We had drinks and watched the sun set over the Mekong with a great couple from our day at the waterfalls and then our final dinner in Laos was spent with yet another couple who we'd met up Phousi hill a few days before. There's a 12 o'clock curfew in place in Laos and each bar we drank in seemed to suddenly close as soon as our drinks turned up. Oh well, rules are rules.
Once again, we found ourselves saying goodbye to somewhere that we didn't feel ready to leave. We gave ourselves two weeks only in Laos having read that it was so difficult to get around and it just wasn't true. Everything worked perfectly, the roads although a bit chopped up and dusty in places were very accessible and so picturesque. No one said we couldn't come back...
And so to Vietnam next, the 30 hour coach journey is not for us. Instead we have a full hour's flight ahead.