“I love this place already!” enthused Eimear, one of my travel companions, the moment we got off the Thai Airways plane at the airport in Luang Prabang, Laos.
I chuckled at her exuberance, but I had to agree with her. Sometimes, you inexplicably get positive vibes from a foreign place the moment you reach. Luang Prabang is certainly one such place. Rugged mountains encircled the airport runways, each of their crowns shrouded in cotton-like mists. At 700 metres above sea level, the air smelled clean and fresh. I took a deep breath. It was refreshing to be greeted by nature for a change.
Luang Prabang might have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, but looking at the relatively quiet new airport, I got the feeling that Luang Prabang is still a hidden beauty that has gone unnoticed by many. True enough, I discovered that the rustic charm and unspoilt beauty continued throughout the former capital of Laos.
328 STEPS TO HEAVEN
At the heart of Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi – a 100-metre mountain that is not only the centre of the city geographically, but spiritually as well. The small mountain is considered sacred to the Laotians and at its top sits Wat Chomsi, a golden stupa built in 1804.
Our guide gleefully informed that we needed to climb 328 steps to the summit. I wished he was joking, but unfortunately, he wasn’t. Unamused by the idea of climbing steps, I wondered how long the ordeal would be and braced myself for an arduous ascent.
The climb turned out to be not as bad as I thought it would be. While the way up was still quite a trek, the relatively well-paved steps made my life easier. The shady trees along the way also helped to provide some reprieve. I interrupted my journey to the top with a few stops – not to rest, but to admire the views of the Mekong River and the Khan River.
After what appeared like forever, I finally reached the top. By then, I was literally drenched in my own perspiration, with my breathing a little heavier than usual. I thought to myself, I’ve probably met my physical workout quota for the year.
The reward for the climb? A 360-degree panoramic view of the town set against a backdrop of the rivers surrounded by mountains and foliage as far as the eye can see. There were many foreign visitors, all vying to get a photo of themselves with the scenery. Sadly, no one seemed to be paying any attention to Wat Chomsi. It was almost evening and the sky was beginning to take on a crimson-orange hue. A number of the visitors had planted themselves firmly at specific spots along the edge in anticipation of the sunset.
I decided not to jostle with the crowds or wait for the sunset, much as I would like to stay to admire the view. With a tinge of reluctance, I began to make my descent via another stairway different from the one where we made the climb. This time, it was much easier and surprisingly took us only eight minutes to reach the foot of Mount Phousi.
A CRUISE TO 4,000 BUDDHAS
Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Khan River. It would be a shame to leave Luang Prabang without a cruise on the 4,350-km Mekong, the 12th longest river in the world. We kicked off our Day Two with an upstream boat ride to Pak Ou Caves, a pilgrim site of two caves housing thousands of Buddha statues, located 25 km north of Luang Prabang.
I have taken my fair share of river cruises, with a number of them in Southeast Asia. While the boat rides were pleasant, I was usually not blown away by the sights I saw on these boat trips. I had expected the same of this ride.
Our boat was long and exuded an old-fashioned charm. It was not luxurious, but the seats were comfortable with more than sufficient space for our group of twelve. Shortly after settling down, Eimear took out her earphones and plugged into her music. “Oh gosh, I should have brought mine along,” I told her, pointing to her earphones. The ride to the caves would take a good two hours.
It turned out that I needed no earphones, or anything else, to help me kill time. The ride was one of the most picturesque routes I’ve ever taken on a river. I forgot the guide had mentioned that about 70 per cent of Laos’ terrain is mountainous. True enough, we were swept by views of mountains throughout the ride.
The peaks of the mountains were swathed in soft white clouds at their peaks, as though the heavens had gotten closer. Bordering the river were ceaseless stretches of lush greenery juxtaposed with an azure sky. The landscape was bathed in the warm glow of the morning sun. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day.
The boat engine whirred in harmony with the splash of the waves against the sides of the boat. The rhythm soon lulled me into a state of relaxation and contemplation. With the breeze gently caressing my face, I sat back and gazed dreamily at the mountains, basking in tranquillity. The river cruise had unexpectedly turned out to be the highlight of the morning expedition.
THE VEILS OF MOTHER NATURE
The scent of the forest was pure and organic. The trees stood tall and proud, forming a verdurous arch high above me. Occasionally, they parted to let the fingers of the sun through. I ambled along the wide asphalt path that cut through the forest.
Then, I heard it – the unmistakeable roar.
With a heightened sense of anticipation, I quickened my pace and soon came in face of a waterfall plunging down 50 metres into a pool of water eddies over a limestone formation. Little did I did expect the Kuang Si Waterfall to be so majestic. It’s one thing to see photos of something, and quite another to see it with your own eyes. Right before me was the main cascade of the waterfall, dancing to the tune of its sonorous symphony.
I joined some of my travel companions at the pool. I took off my slippers and dipped my feet into the gushing waters. Momentarily, I was shocked at how icy cool the water was, but quickly got used to it. Expecting the rocks to be slippery, I was surprised I could walk with a firm grip on the boulders barefooted.
There’s something about waterfalls that words cannot describe. They are powerful, and yet relaxing at the same time. As the water mists enfolded me, it felt so rejuvenating, my troubles seemingly being washed away.
I left the group to walk down a dirt path, following the downward flow of the water. To my delight, I discovered the water was running through a series of stepped travertine terraces to form more waterfalls. It was a sight to behold – the water cascaded down like satin veils into turquoise infinity pools. Svelte and ethereal, such was the beauty.
As I slowly meandered down the path, the roar of the waterfall grew to become a faint murmur in the air again. The waterfall might be distant, but its soul-soothing magic never left me.
Special thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways International for making this trip possible.
Thai Airways International flies to Luang Prabang, Laos via Bangkok, Thailand four times weekly.
This trip was originally published on The Ice Princess Diaries.