The City of Elephants and Waterfalls
2017 UPDATE: I wrote this post when I was wildly ignorant of the terrible treatment of elephants in captivity. I strongly discourage anyone traveling in South East Asia from taking part in elephant rides, baths, etc. If you want to help them, donate to an ethical sanctuary, and observe them from a distance. Thanks for your understanding!
Luang Prabang was definitely out of our price range. We were wandering around with another traveler who assured us she'd checked the guidebooks and had some great hostel options in mind. First one she took us to: 70 a night. Did they mean 70,000 kip, perhaps? Ha! Ha ha ha ha, HA! 70 US, thank you very much. We practically ran out the door.
But by poking our heads down a few alleyways we found some places in the typical $5-8 range. Phew.
The restaurants were pricey too, but the night market was fantastic. There were all you could eat buffets for $1. Yes, $1, ALL you can eat. So in Nicole and my case, that was like, ONE WHOLE PLATEFUL. Larger people perhaps got to experience even greater satisfaction from the price, but we were pretty pleased as well.
Luang Prabang just looks and feels different from the rest of Laos. It's very touristy. It's sort of French. (It used to be a colony, so I guess I shouldn't exactly be surprised.) The architecture, the cafes, the food-- they have a distinctly European feel. There were plenty of middle aged tourists out and about, reclining on chaise lounges and sipping exorbitantly priced cocktails. We didn't join them.
What we DID do was scope out the adventure shops and look for deals, because Luang Prabang has two things that we were intent on finding: elephants and waterfalls.
You could pretty much immediately tell which shops we weren't going to be buying from. They had a lot of polished wood and flat screen TVs showing all the lovely trips they could take you on. The dingy shops with poor lighting were our end goal, because they were offering the same trips for a fraction of the cost, only difference being you wouldn't be escorted by a guide to hold your hand.
Trip #1: Kuang Si Waterfall
An easy bargain with a tuk tuk driver got us a spot in the back of a car with a few other tourists for next-to-nothin' in cost. He'd take us to the waterfall (about an hour drive), hang out for the day, then drive us back to the town.
So we spent the day climbing up waterfalls and swinging from ropes into pools of robin-egg blue water, shivering on the shore then hurrying to jump in again. When we started to lose the sun we grabbed skewered pork from a street cart and piled back into the tuk tuk. It was a, "this-is-why-I-love-Asia" day.
Trip #2: Riding elephants
This is where our shopping for deals at the adventure shops came in handy. We bargained to get a day with elephants, to go for a ride, give them baths, and have transportation there and back, all for $30. Ok, maybe some of you have gotten better deals, but after being told by 5ish other places that this would run us close to $100, we were happy enough.
The other thing, we were anxious to be in a place that treated their elephants well, because a lot of places in Thailand and Laos unfortunately mistreat their elephants to make them docile enough around tourists. We'd seen it before-- the tell-tale scabs on ears and bellies that were a dead giveaway the animal was being mistreated. But we were driven far out into the countryside and found elephants grazing in a very large area, young and old animals alike, with mahouts giving commands with their voices only-- no sticks, prods, or spikes to be seen, and the elephants were definitely scab and scar free.
We clambered up into a seat on the back of an elephant and spent the next hour tromping through the jungle and along the river. We took turns trying to give the elephant spoken commands at the mahouts instruction, with mixed results.
Then we split up and each rode atop our own elephant sans saddles. The mahouts gave the word and the elephants lumbered down to the river and went straight into the water till it was deep enough to almost cover their backsides. They splashed and sprayed water from their trunks, and we very ineffectively rinsed some of the mud off their sides. Mostly we squealed girlish-squeals and patted the elephants on their very large heads while dodging the water they were shooting out of their very long noses.
It was a, "this-is-DEFINITELY-why-I-love-Asia" day.