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Contiki Big Indochina Adventure – Days 7 & 8: Mekong River Slow Boat and Luang Prabang, Laos

Updated: May 6, 2023

We had a relatively early start from Pakbeng, but all boarded the boat on time. It was a bit nippy once the boat got moving, but the staff handed out blankets to everyone and pulled plastic windows down to minimize the breeze. I wasn’t all that cold, but other people were freezing!

The family that owns the boat and runs the boat actually lives on the boat. While we were sleeping in our guest house, they slept on the boat. I believe there was a whole house behind the bathrooms of the boat near the engine room. It was a very cool setup!

As our boat rode down the Mekong River, the early morning fog burned up which enables us to get the same gorgeous views we enjoyed the day before.

After a while, everyone began to wake up from their naps so we played a few games of cards as we sailed down the river and enjoyed the view.

The captain of the boat let us take turns driving the boat which was a lot harder to steer than I would have thought!

After about four hours on the boat, we docked at the Pak Ou Caves. We climbed very steep steps to visit a Buddhist temple and get our fortune.

We got our fortune by gently shaking a canister with about 25 sticks in it until one of the sticks fell out. The stick that falls out has a number on it which corresponds with a fortune. My fortune was a very good one in that it said I will have a daughter, I will be happily married and very successful. Other people found out that they will have bastard children or their partners will cheat on them!

The Temple also had awesome views of the Mekong River.

We then boarded our boat, had lunch and rode down the river for another hour or so. Upon arriving in Luang Prabang where we had a makeshift luggage chain with people from our group to get our bags from the boat to the main road. Once our bags were loaded, we boarded Tuk Tuks to our hotel. The river was about a 10 minute ride and I immediately fell in love with the simple aspects of the city. Dogs roamed free, children play in the streets and families gather outside their houses on the sidewalk for conversations.

We arrived at our hotel and dropped our bags off before meeting up with our tour guide, Khammy, for a bike tour of the city. As some people don’t ride bikes, Contiki hired a Tuk Tuk to take me and two other people to the various stops along the way.

The first stop was Wat Xieng Thong Temple

The second stop was along the river where we visited an old man who makes the most famous Lao Lao Whiskey in Luang Prabang. His whiskey has a few extra “ingredients” – snakes, geckos, turtle and centipede. The man is 82 years old and says the whiskey is they key to old age. We all then tried the whiskey, which honestly wasn’t that different than any other very strong whiskey.

We then drove back to the hotel for a free afternoon. The hotel was doing our laundry for us, so I took the opportunity to inventory what I had left and repack my bag in a more organized way before heading into town to buy some data for a SIM card I purchased in Pakbeng. I paid 20,000 Kip or $2.40 for 2 GB of data.

I then headed back to the hotel to meet up with my group for an evening in Luang Prabang. We started out at the night food market where a few people were more adventurous than others. I had some vegetable dumplings & a bowl of noodles and vegetables from a buffet style stand. We paid 15,00 kip for a bowl from the buffet – essentially $1.75 – and could fill it up with whatever we wanted. It was a great deal!

After dinner, we walked through the street market which had hundreds of stalls selling clothes, bags and other various t-shirts. I bought some small souvenirs before heading to a bar called “Motorcycle Club” which was started by an old Contiki local tour guide.

The group stayed for a few drinks before catching a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel for the evening where a few of us stayed up a bit later and played card games.

The following morning, we had free. I woke up at around 8:00 AM and met up with a few people to climb the tallest mountain in Luang Prabang, Mount Phu Si. It had over 300 steps and took us about a half hour to climb. The group I climbed with was kind enough to go at my pace and we were able to take a few breaks at various lookouts or Buddhas along the way. It cost 20,000 kip or $2.40 to climb and was worth the view.

We then descended the steps and headed to a bamboo bridge. The bridge is torn down and rebuilt every year after the rainy season. It was an experience in and of itself to walk down the steps to get to the bridge and another experience to cross it!

While we were on the bridge, I noticed my phone wasn’t in my pocket. Luckily one of my friends also had data on their phone and we were able to use the “Find My iPhone” feature to see it wasn’t on Mount Phu Si. We grabbed a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel thinking that my roommate may have grabbed it, but it wasn’t there. We then hopped back in a Tuk Tuk pointing at the map to show the driver where we needed to go. My friend’s phone was down to 1%, so she ran ahead of us when the Tuk Tuk stopped into an alley off a street where someone saw her with the app open and gave her the phone with no problems. It was a different kind of experience, but it was pretty amazing that we were able to track it down in less than 15 minutes and make it back to the hotel with time to spare!

We made it back to the hotel at about 1:00 PM and met the group. We found out that about 7 people in our group had a bad stomach bug and other people were beginning to drop like flies. We don’t think it was anything we ate because nobody ate the same thing.

Some of the group decided to stay back because they were sick, but other people including some sick ones boarded a van for about a 30 minute ride to the famous Kuang Si Waterfalls and Bear Sanctuary. Upon arriving, it felt like we were in Nepal or Africa. I know I haven’t been there, but it was the closest, most authentic thing I’ve experienced in a while. There were dirt roads with vendors lining either side of the street.

We then walked up a hill to see a few bears on the way to the waterfalls.

The waterfalls themselves were absolutely breathtaking.

After taking a few pictures, we walked down to a few picnic tables to leave our bags and go for a swim. I got my GoPro out and strapped it to my head for some amazing photos and videos.

Unfortunately, someone (not from our group) jumped off a tree into the water and must have hit his head. He was unresponsive and two of my trip mates who were nurses jumped into action after they realized the locals didn’t know what to do and were doing a lot of wrong things (like just trying to wake him up with tiger balm). They held his head steady while CPR and other emergency procedures were performed. An ambulance couldn’t get to the waterfalls, so they joined another nurse and jumped in the back of a pickup truck to take him back into town for treatment. The first place they took him was a clinic and, again, had no idea what to do. They finally were able to take him to a proper hospital and leave the person in capable hands, but it was a true wake-up call to medical care in a third world country like Laos. We still do not know, and likely will never know if the person made it, but the heroism and bravery of the two women on our tour who jumped into action to try and save someone’s life was truly inspiring. I’m very proud to know them and be able to call them my friends.

Our tour manager warned us not to jump into the pools because they were shallow, but we never thought anyone actually would. We were able to stop someone from jumping from the same tree that injured the other person literally 20 minutes before.

Our group dried off, a bit in shock at what we saw, and headed out of the waterfalls back through the bear sanctuary.

We then headed back to our hotel for a shower and to relax before meeting up with our group for dinner at a restaurant along the water called Utopia. The restaurant had a very unique vibe that you can only get in Southeast Asia – most people sat on the floor of an outdoor deck, it was very dark with only a few candles and they view was spectacular (it was a bit dark, but we could see the bamboo bridge we crossed earlier in the day all lit up). The restaurant was owned by a Canadian, so it was mostly Western food, but I had a chicken satay.

After dinner, I went back to the Night Market with a few people before heading back to the hotel for an early night. We were in bed by 10:30 PM.

The following morning, we woke up at 5:15 AM to participate in the Giving of Alms ceremony. This is a tradition throughout Laos where local people wake up at 4:00 AM, cook sticky rice (which takes a few hours) and line the street to donate handfuls of rice to various monks as they walk by. We all took our shoes off and sat on stools or knelt on mats along the sidewalk with a bucket of sticky rice in our hands. As monks and novice monks (usually children) walked by with metal pails at their side, we put small amounts of rice in each pail.

It was a very humbling experience. People with minimal possessions give what little they have to monks on a daily basis. Some of the novice monks that were children had candy and money put in their bowls, too, because their parents give it to their children as it’s their only chance to see their children.

We also learned that there are different types of monks – novice monks and monks. Novice monks are usually children, but they can be older as well. They tend to only be Buddhist monks for a year or two before returning home. They use the opportunity to learn the teachings of Buddhism and only have one shoulder covered. Monks, on the other hand, have both shoulders covered and tend to be monks for life.

After we ran out of rice, we hopped in our Tuk Tuks to head back to the hotel, grabbed breakfast and packed our bags. At about 8:30 AM, we boarded Tuk Tuks to head to the bus stop as the roads were too narrow for a bus to make it to the hotel. Once we made it to the bus, we headed to our next stop, Vang Vieng.

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