Waterfalls, Elephants and a French Bakery; My week in Luang Prabang, Laos

Elephants walking in Mandalao Elephant Sancturary with mountain in the background

The only landlocked country in South East Asia, Laos was previously a French colony and gained independence in 1953 (after briefly attaining independence during World War 2 before the French came back and colonised it again). Despite being relatively lesser known in the West than the bordering countries it has the fourth highest GDP in the area after Thailand.

Map of South East Asia with Laos highlighted

Arriving in Luang Prabang the contrast between Cambodia and Laos, or at least this city, was striking. Gone were the gutters of streets filled with rubbish and lines of touts looking to sell you everything from a tuktuk ride to the chance to get high.

In their place were beautiful pavements with bins on every street and smiling locals by their stalls and shops, without any of the pressure selling that had been experienced up till now.

Another change you can’t avoid is the surrounding vista. Cambodia’s unbelievably flat countryside full of farm fields were no more and instead you could see the mountains and jungles that fill Laos. Every where you look is a spectacular view.

Temple at the Royal Palace, Luang Prabang, Laos

The old French colonial influence shines through in both the architecture and the businesses on offer, not the least the number of bakeries available to hungry tourists. Le Banneton was recommended on a blog and soon became my regular stop at the start of the day for a wake up coffee and sugary treat, skipping the free breakfast offered at my hostel in favour of the delicious pastries and baguettes from a (semi) authentic French bakery.

The first morning I sat here and stole their WiFi as I planned my time in Laos. This research led me to my first point of call, a small hill located in the middle of the town, Mount Phousi.

Only 100 metres high a few hundred steps take you up the hill, passing through various monuments and sacred points for the monks who live on their. The midday sun did little to help make the climb any easier though!

At the top you are treated to a fantastic view across the town and along the Mekong River and it is particularly popular at sunset, as evidenced when an entire army of tourists arrived behind me with an hour to go.

View from Mount Phousi

It costs 20,000 Laos Kip to get to the very top (about £1.75 at time of writing) and deciding that, with nothing else planned for the day and trying to be a frugal backpacker, I didn’t want to pay that twice I remained at the top for a few hours until sunset. I met various travellers here and swapped stories and tips before ensuring I had the best spot for the coming sunset.

The next day I joined a friend I had made in Cambodia and we set off to Kuang Si Falls. Around 30km outside Luang Prabang the falls are probably the number one attraction for visitors to the town.

Before you get to the falls themselves you pass a rescue centre for Asian sun and moon bears who were trapped with intention of, or actually rescued from, bear bile farms and other forms of abuse. The bears seemed to be well cared for with lots of things to play with, including the company of each other, and it is definitely better than the alternative they did have.

Bear in rescue centre at Kuang Si Falls

Past the bear sanctuary you reach the first set of falls and a small swimming area. But continue up the hill a little more and you find more fresh water pools with gorgeous rock formations and a setting out of a Herbal Essences advert.

I had read that it is worth reaching the top of the hill on a few blogs so set off on a, sometimes, risky climb next to the main drop. This included a section where the steps themselves are underneath the continual stream of water pouring off the top.

In all honesty the climb was not worth it and I should have stayed on the bottom. A view that became more true when I repeatedly slipped and stumbled climbing back down after!

Back on safer ground I found my friend in one of the pools and was excited to dive in and join them. It was at this point I learnt that this wonderful turquoise clear water was ice cold!

Kuang Si Falls

After the initial shock of the freezing water began to wear off I felt the second surprise as a school of fish began nibbling at the exposed parts of my body.

Having deliberately avoided the various massage shops across SE Asia offering fish massage services it became clear I would be getting the treatment for free here anyway!

Swimming at Kuang Si Falls

As I relaxed in the cool water, and provided a buffet lunch to the local wildlife, I enjoyed the experience of swimming in a natural river running through a tropical jungle as birds and butterflies flew above me and fish shoaled around me.

This was not to be the best animal experience in Laos though, as tomorrow I would be meeting a much bigger creature.

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Swimming at the base of Mount Fuji

Swimming at Lake Kawaguchiko

Despite having dreamed of travelling for a while before starting this journey I had done little actual planning on what I was going to do when I got anywhere. I am also the kind of person who likes to have a plan when they arrive somewhere.

These two contradictions have resulted in much unnecessary stress along the path so far!

So it was that on my last day in Hawai’i I was sitting in my hotel room, laptop browser open with hundreds of open tabs, belatedly trying to plan the coming week in Japan. Thankfully many people more organised than I am have written thousands of posts with example itineraries for the lazy, last minute, traveller.

One excellent guide by Truly Tokyo was a day trip from Tokyo to Lake Kawaguchiko. Not only does the guide explain how to get there it has photos of each step and maps too. Perfect for people like me who cannot speak Japanese, do not know where they are going and are trying to avoid wasting days once they have arrived having nothing planned.

Full of confidence I followed the guide and arrived at Kawaguchiko Station around midday, after the bus battled through rush hour Tokyo traffic for twice as long as planned. If anyone reading this ever has the same idea then make sure you book the earliest bus possible to avoid the jams!

The temperature had reached 30 degrees Celsius with bright sunshine, a welcome change from the monsoon rain that had drenched me in the days before and drowned my Bluetooth headphones which I had relied on for my only form of English entertainment in foreign lands.

You can get a hop on/hop off bus ticket at Lake Kawaguchiko however for the same price you can hire a push bike for the day, and I much prefer the flexibility of going when and where I want. After paying 1,500 Yen, about £12, I had my bike and map in hand.

Lake Kawaguchiko is beautiful and, unlike the coast of Honolulu which was mostly private with limited public access, the lakeside is mostly publicly accessible with many entry points to the water and public footpaths with decorative plants.

Another welcome change from Honolulu was the use of cycle paths which don’t just disappear when reaching a junction on 6 lane roads merging with highway entrance and exit ramps – an occurrence far to common when cycling in Hawai’i and resulting in many near heart attacks.

The unrelenting sun, combined with a few miles of cycling up and down the hills, had made things rather uncomfortable and the water was too inviting to ignore. After starting with an exploratory paddle I could resist no longer and ended up stripped to my underwear and going for a swim, much to the amusement of several groups of Japanese tourists who appeared on a bank nearby and took photos of me!

I later found out my perfect secluded spot was right next to a major tourist attraction and I had not planned my public show location very well at all.

Now it turns out that it might be slightly illegal to swim in Lake Kawaguchiko and the other lakes around Mount Fuji, a fact I obviously didn’t know until afterwards. It seems that some people have tried swimming across the lake itself and succumbed to hidden currents and thermoclines ending in a few fatalities so the authorities banned any swimming at all.

That said it was incredible to be swimming in beautiful clear waters, in glorious sunshine with the awe-inspiring view of Mount Fuji rising up in the distance. Obviously I would not advocate for anyone else to repeat my mistakes but it was a wonderful way to cool down and enjoy the scenery.

After drying off in the sunshine and continuing to explore various attractions around the lake it was time to get the bus back in to Tokyo. The only regret of the day was not booking a later bus and having to miss the sunset over Mount Fuji, although now I have a reason to return another day.

Tokyo itself has been an amazing city. The food is delicious and amazingly priced, public transport is fantastic and cheap, it is easy to get around once you have figured out roughly how things work, and I cannot say enough how helpful, friendly, patient and polite the people of Tokyo have been with me.

Sadly my rushed schedule, and limited budget, mean my time here is coming to an end already and I am writing this waiting to get the train to the airport for my next flight. The adventure continues…