Luang Prabang, the jewel of Indochina, is a small village in Laos that UNESCO plans to keep that way under its World Heritage program. The ancient royal city surrounded by mountains is at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan River.
The tasty food, great markets, warm climate and exhilarating massages add to the natural splendor. There are no big hotels, no street beggars, just a few cell phones, a couple of cars and almost no abandoned “wats” (the Thai word for temple, typically a Buddhist one). There are dozens of temples and approximately one monk for every 30 people living there.
Transport troubles in this rural paradise were like umbrellas opened on sunny days: unexpected but everywhere. Driving was unstable; one bounced over the dirt roads, avoiding roosters and dogs running amok. While bicycles were the main mode of travel there were also the motorbikes with carts, a couple of private cars, and of course the slow boats.
My daughter and I had no intention of going all the way to China but we did want to see the Pak Ou Caves where, over the course of hundreds of years, people deposited countless numbers of Buddha images.
The regular boat tours included visits to a whiskey making town and another that made paper; neither of which were on our agenda. The guide books suggested hiring your own driver to allow freedom of time and sights. We climbed aboard an oversized shell with a few worn pillows added for comfort and hired a captain for the entire day with plans to venture up and down the Mekong River with a side trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Erin, my daughter, was the first to notice that our boat was the only one on the river that employed a first mate, the captain’s wife. Even more surprising was that she was very busy bailing water from the back of our vessel. Unfortunately she had to stop every time the motor sputtered and stopped.
We sensed the potential for problems but when the motor cut out for the fourth time we recognized trouble! If the current had its way we would be back at our starting point in less time than we had already spent on the water. Our driver struggled to get us to shore with a small paddle where once again he failed to fix the motor.
While he labored away I strained to stay calm as it was clear I was in no position to save us. Finally, the wife climbed up the bank and started yelling. Just when I thought our plans for the day were cancelled, we were rescued by a larger boat going to the grottos.
The cliffs housing the treasures jutted out over the river hiding two caves, one atop the other, and truly did hold an innumerable number of Buddhist icons both large and small.
The rescue boat captain informed me with a combination of verbal and physical cues that his plans were different than ours and suggested we take yet another boat back.
Approximately thirty minutes from town, the skipper pulled into shore and indicated that we should get out. I was a little nervous because we had paid up front and did not have a receipt. We were visibly confused.
One passenger, recognizing our concern, spoke in Thai to the driver who responded in Lao. She then asked in French if we spoke French. I responded that I spoke a little but failed to mention that I understood presque rien. What I understood was that we were to get off the boat and take a tuk-tuk back into town.
Miraculously our first driver who apparently swam across the river, appeared dripping wet in his underwear. He must have explained our problem, as we continued down river where the other passengers were deposited and we continued on our way to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a magnificent site with pools, stairways and thundering mists.
We climbed up the stairs towards the falls until we no longer felt safe and witnessed the power of this beautiful raging perpendicular river. Tourists and locals bathed in the pools, spicy aromas from the various food stalls mingled with the fresh scent of forests, and local arts and crafts hung from string lines; this was a spot where nature merged with commerce in a tranquil manner.