We hop back on our dusty steeds in Luang Prabang, Laos — or rather a Tuk Tuk or our own two feet as we’re enjoying a rest day. What do rest days entail for adventurous cyclists? More adventure! Like traveling to magical Kuang Si waterfall with Anne, Tyler and Kate or making a solo mission up to the Wat on Phousi Mountain (come on now, be mature…). Unlike the rest of us culturally devoid derelicts, Lisa traded a dip in the turquoise waters in lieu of a traditional Laotian ballet (with great results).
But before all the dipping and dancing there had to be breakfast. And the wonderfully sludge-like Vietnamese coffee that causes adrenaline to course through one’s veins like a whole herd of rabid monkeys. To that end we tried (and failed) at a more touristy spot on the river with ample views and disappointing java. On the corner, we found our jam: a simple open air bar serving legit coffee, fresh donuts filled with coconut or some mysterious crumbly substance, populated by a flock of lined-faced, dyed haired old men sitting shoulder to shoulder and run by a large, slightly terrifying woman I christened Big Mama. She maintained a purely disdainful/disgusted look on her face, exacerbated by having to do anything at all.
For the main course, we ambled along the Mekong River, past the old presidential palace turned museum to where Luang Prabang turned quaint. Falangs flitted about like sunburned butterflies and the ragtag charm of Laos gave way to a gentrified row of fixed up buildings turned guesthouse or cafe. Nevertheless, we gnoshed on gingerbread pancakes christened with chocolate-maple syrup and vanilla ice cream and breakfast burritos, both the likes of which we’d never experienced on the rest of our beyond authentic trip. It was strange to be in a spotless, modern cafe with an expensive Italian espresso machine and Western food, but you know us — anything that involves food is a smash hit.
After our more than leisurely breakfast, we finally made the move towards Kuang Si waterfall well after noon. First step, bargaining with a Tuk Tuk driver. Pulling on a button up green shirt, a stout Laotian man agreed to a round trip journey for four people, plus two hours of waiting for us tourists to be tourists for 170,000 kip (about $20.50). And it wasn’t a short drive through winding hills and the same tiny, traditional villages we’d become familiar with on our bikes. The 29 km (about 18 mile) journey took about an hour, after which (of course) we were hungry enough to put down some non bubblemeat bubblemeat (the best yet) before absorbing the falls.
And on the way we stumbled across… Asiatic Black Bears (Moon Bears)! Sadly, they’re an endangered species, often hunted illegally for medicinal uses, the restaurant trade (huh?) and as exotic pets. These guys were lounging around looking overheated but well taken care of by the Bear Rescue Center.
Unable to resist, we caused a splash in the first turquoise pool we spotted, which was surprisingly not crowded. The current pushed us downstream as we reverted to children, giggling and splashing and trying to all balance on one slippery log under the falls. We watched tourists file in and out on solid ground, which was packed — like the rest of the trail — firmer than a good Catholic girl’s “no” by thousands of feet.
We followed this trail barefoot up to the apex of the cascading tiers, made so by the underlying travertine (limestone) rock. Anne, Kate, Tyler and I — and the other 9,000 tourists present, only a small fraction of them actually swimming — had the travertine to thank for the water’s bright, glorious hue. At the bottom of the tallest waterfall (about 200 feet tall) we stopped to enjoy the dramatic torrent and to shake our heads at the dude in red shorts sitting at the very top, his feet hanging over the lip, up to his waist in rushing water. Back to my idea that humans are devolving… wait, is that how you spell devolving? And what does that even mean? I gotta look at my Smartphone.
By sunset, we’d dried off and returned to our guesthouse. I did a quick costume change and marched up to the Wat, up the seemingly endless staircase against the equally endless flow of tourists coming down, plastered with cameras like a used up bug zapper. When I reached the top of the front stairs, the narrow spine of Phousi Mountain with its neat temple was nearly vacated. The exception was a group of people conversing with several monks, their orange garb bright in the fading light.
Lisa told me I had to experience the endless stairs on the other side, and it was worth the weirdly fatigued thighs. Stone pathways went every which way, to shrines, Naga-lined stairways, golden Buddhas and a buttoned up classroom eminating a steady chant comprised of youthful male voices. The other side was worth it for the view alone. And I managed to locate the Naga-hooded Buddha corresponding to the day I was born (Saturday) before the sun slipped away entirely.
In the morning, we packed up and shoved off early for the first of three long, challenging, mountainous days on our way to the adventure capitol of Laos: Vang Vieng, surrounded by a dramatic Karst formed landscape. For me, we shoved off miserably early again but — don’t let anybody from the trip hear me say this — it was worth it. First off, we were up early enough to catch the solemn young monks making their rounds to collect alms and disseminate blessings. And the day was long and hot (6500 feet or 1982 meters of ascent in two stout climbs over 70 km or 44 miles). By the time we arrived in the one land leech town of Kiu Kacham, our souls would be crushed like a wad of sticky rice under a Laotian 18-wheeler with Al Pacino mudflaps.
Highlights: a return to quieter roads, mountainous scenery and traditional villages and a fortuitous nap spot about eight kilometers before Kiu Kacham and the top of the last climb. Empty market stalls created an oasis, just as the heat of the day began to berate us like Donald Trump should be berated for trying to elect an Exxon Mobile CEO with Russian interests as Secretary of State.
Lowlights would be the poor, sad monkey chained up at the top of the first climb. He was so depressed, he wouldn’t even eat the banana we offered up.
The other lowlight: the prolific, consistent and disgusting passing of trucks literally piled with pig carcasses. At some point during National Carcass Day, as the stench peeled away the skin on the inside of our tortured nostrils, we began to wonder where those trucks were going. As the horribly pungent odor persisted due to the liquid literally dripping from the trucks and painting the road, we decided it was better not to know. As the stench arose with the wind when no trucks had passed in some time, we began to wish we only knew how to cut off our noses and not bleed to death before Kiu Kacham.
In Kiu Kacham, exactly three guesthouses presented themselves, all lined up in a row, with restaurants out front as usual. Tyler — always the most energetic, especially despite the Herculean effort of the day — scoped them out for us as we waited in the dusty parking lot, chatting (or trying to) with a Thai bike tourist waiting for his four friends to arrive. All the guesthouses were simple, but he chose the cleanest one with an enclosed outdoor common area facing the sunset, which happened to be absolutely spectacular.
After cramming fried rice and noodle soup in our growling bellies, we made a rapid exodus to the concrete ledge of the patio for the sunset. We dangled our feet over, chatted and read the wonderfully absurd horoscopes of Rob Brezny as the sun, in furious hues, traded places with the thumbnail moon and the bright dot of Venus.
A shout out to the real MVP of the day: Kater Potater, who rode the whole hot mess with a very nasty cold. Ironically, her plugged sinuses probably saved her from a lifetime of nightmares regarding deceased pig juice and hot asphalt…
On the next addition: when you’re tired, why rest? Instead, let’s ride some more. A lot more.