From the moment you arrive in Laos, you know it’s going to be a special place.Green mountains roll into the horizon, whilst turbulent skies loom above. The border crossing is officially named the “Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge”, which we easily passed through to take our first steps in the new country.
I was travelling with Henry and William, who were coming towards the end of their own first travel adventure. After spending much time with them in Thailand, we would be parting ways during our stay in Laos after a few stops. Being 6 years their senior, I was fondly named the grandad of the group, as pretty much every question about VISAs, bus tickets, hostel bookings etc. was directed my way. Although frustrating at times, it reminded me of my younger self on my first clueless excursions, so I was happy to help when possible.
The long bus trip to our first city brought back memories of the long journeys in northern India, where two hundred kilometres of road somehow managed to take 10 hours to traverse. Sleep is generally difficult on long bus journeys, and the meandering roads of Laos weren’t helping. Unexpected potholes meant frequently braking sharply, and old trucks trundling uphill meant there was never a clear road ahead. However, after many hours battling against Laotian leg “room”, we arrived at the beautiful city of Luang Prabang.
You can forget about the loud streets and overly zealous taxi drivers of Thailand, Laos is a much more peaceful place. From the initial impression, you would easily forget that a third of the nation lives on less than a dollar a day, or that Laos is the 29th hungriest nation in the world. Everyone offers a smile and a helping hand when needed. No doubt I was looking at the country through the rose tinted lens of Luang Prabang, but it still all remained idyllic.
The city holds a quiet charm, and is decorated with a mix of chic french colonial buildings sitting beside traditional Laos houses. When the sun sets, stalls appear selling various crafts, foods and souvenirs. Unlike much of Asia, you could get your hands on fresh baguettes, pastries and cinnamon buns (clearly the french cuisine hadn’t worn off from Laos yet!)
Once checked in and showered after 20 hours of travel, we ventured towards the famous Kuang Si waterfall, 30km from Luang Prabang. When we left, rain was falling heavily and few were keen to leave the safety of the hostel. Fortunately for us, the downpour stopped when we arrived and much of the waterfall was left to ourselves. Kuang Si is a beautiful staircase of emerald pools, with a water gently flowing over the yellow rocks down the mountainside.
The turquoise water was cool and refreshing, so we swam through various pools to reach rocks beneath the waterfalls to perch on. The hours rolled by as we ascended towards the top of the waterfalls, clambering across narrow rocky paths to find the best spots to relax in. We finally reached the top of the path, where we were greeted by the tallest and most stunning waterfall, where water cascaded down the polished rocks to the depths below. After spotting some wildlife and dipping our feet in for a few more minutes, we descended back to the taxi ranks below to return home.
In Luang Prabang, there is a curfew cutting off most bars from staying open late. After 11:30pm, the only place left open is a bowling alley, where hundreds of backpackers cram in to keep the party going until the early hours. Admittedly, after half a bottle of local whisky (which was worryingly priced at 20,000 kip = £1.80), my bowling skills weren’t up to scratch. Henry, however, took the opportunity to achieve a life goal of running down the bowling alley before launching himself down the remainder of the aisle to get a strike as a human bowling ball. Unfortunately his slide ended a few feet short of the pins, so it became more of a flailing finish. Still, it seemed worth it. Of course we were spotted, and the manager walked over and gave us the “I’m not angry, I’m just really disappointed” shake of the head. Unfortunately for him it was only met with our childish grins as we forced ourselves to hold back laughter.
After 3 days we took a bus to Houaxay, which is a small border town in the west, and the closest spot to the famous Nam Kan national park. Nam Kan is a lush and mountainous jungle, with extensive wildlife and famously home to the Black Gibbon. We booked ourselves onto the “Gibbon Experience”, a 3 day trekking and ziplining adventure into the jungle where we would sleep and eat in the treehouses dotted throughout the canopy.
The first morning, we took a 2 hour journey in the back of a truck up the rocky mountain track towards the jungle. Houses transformed from the lavish styles of Luang Prabang to simple dusty huts. Some would be constructed of cement and breeze blocks, others simply with weaved wood and tin roofs. Henry and I managed to pull the short straw, and landed ourselves in the back of the smallest vehicle, laden with baguettes and supplies for everyone heading up the mountain. The ride was fine until we a sudden downpour occurred, so we had to hide between the sacks of apples to prevent getting completely soaked. It didn’t work.
Once off the truck, we trudged uphill for an hour towards our treehouse. At this point of the year, the wet season was still getting into its groove, so the day was only interrupted by a few sudden downpours lasting about 30 minutes each. Suddenly, we were at our first zipline. The Gibbon Experience had constructed 15km of ziplines throughout the jungle, cutting through the steep landscape and sweeping over the deep green canopies below. Some ziplines would lead to various treehouses, and others simply enabled you to cross the landscape in ease. Once clipped in for your first run, there was no turning back. Suddenly we had left the safety of the forested floors and we were gliding 100m above the treeline towards our next destination. It took several lines to take it all in – the thrill of flying as fast as possible over the jungle, along with hundred mile view of the national park to the north.
When it reached 3pm, we reached our treehouse for the night, which was surprisingly luxurious considering the location. The were three floors, and rain water would feed a kitchen sink and private shower. After many hours of sweating in the humid jungle, nothing in the world could beat that cold shower with an open view of the jungle tumbling down the mountainside.
Upon hearing that the best time to see the elusive Black Gibbon was between 6 – 7am, I rose at sunrise to roll the dice and see if I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse. I was the only one willing to get up early, so fortunately I had the view all to myself. It’s never quiet in the jungle, as the unique symphony of humming insects and tweeting birds comes to life as daylight breaks. Sadly the Gibbons were not in an energetic mood that morning, although I still managed to see various red squirrels feasting on fruit, and a concoction of green, orange, black and blue birds fighting for attention in the canopies.
By 9am, we had our day packs ready to venture further into the jungle. The climbs were treacherous and muddy, and we were soaked in sweat after just a matter of minutes. Only speeding down the zip lines offered a brief respite from the heat as all our sweat was blasted off.
When we returned at 3pm, we collapsed into our chairs and tucked into lunch like it was our last meal. The meals would always consist of a main portion of rice, alongside various pots of spiced meat, vegetables, and sauces. Even the simplest of food would have tasted delicious to our weary bodies.
Suddenly, one of our guides drew our attention to the jungle. We knew what this meant – Gibbons! We sprang to our feet and peered into the distance where our guide was pointing. There they were, gracefully swooping from branch to branch down the mountainside until they were just 100 metres from us. In awe, we stood in silence and waited for them to effortlessly pass by.
That evening, we enjoyed a Lao beer, and slept like babies despite the raucous jungle noises and rain smashing against the tin roof. The next morning, we put on whatever remaining dry clothes we had and headed back to the village. Those three days were hot, muddy, exhausting, wet, tranquil, thrilling, and completely unforgettable.