Laos. I've come four times now, which is a bit sad, really, when there are other countries in the world that I could check out. And I will, in due time, but Laos keeps calling and I keep coming. There's something about this country that is just so pure, that I just gotta get my fix.
I brought my fiancee, Minhee, along for this latest jaunt. We flew from Changmai, Thailand, to the old colonial holdout known as Luanprabang, which is definitely the most gentrified place in Laos (read: expensive), but so fucking lovely that I'm willing to forgive the overpriced jewelry shops and bourgeois day spas. I've been to Luanprabang a couple of times before and felt like a bit of an expert compared to the obvious greenhorns debating which tuk-tuk driver they can trust, and used it to my best advantage.
My favorite thing to do in Laos is what I call waterfallin'. What is waterfallin', you may ask. Well, it's simple. Find a waterfall or series thereof, hike up the river/stream to the largest and final cascade, and then swim, splash, bathe and revel and let the water cleanse your very soul. It's just amazing stuff, really.
Most everyone who comes to LP goes to the Kuang Si waterfall, a punch-in-the-gut spectacle of nature about thirty kilometers south of town. While this is more than worth at least one visit, there are other hidden gems in the area. Last time I was in town I rented a bicycle and stumbled onto a smaller but awesome series of falls named Tad Thom. So on our third day in town, Minhee and I jumped on the bike of a rented motorbike and headed out there.
We turned off the main paved street onto a dirt and rock road that lead up a small mountain. Evidence of the floods which ravaged the country just weeks before could be seen in the form of several large landslides which poured over the the little road (luckily they were passable). As we got to the top, we approached a lone guardhouse manned by a shockingly thin attendant with deep brown leather skin. He spoke no English (not so many tourists here), but over my several visits I've managed to learn my numbers in Laos (they're Chinese-based, similar to Korean), and quickly paid him the small entrance fee. We rode down into the "parking area" and were thrilled to see that we were the only people in the whole place. Yay for us.
A small waterfall poured down near to where we parked our bike, and immediately we stripped to our shorts and were in the pool at he bottom, which was about chin-deep for me. The water was cool and clean and soothed our bodies in the tropical sun of the early afternoon, which was punishing, to say the least. After a few minutes of bliss in the first pool, I grabbed my pack, found a "snake stick" (last time I was there I saw a green tree viper on the path) and we made our way up the stream to the big falls.
Flat stones formed a staircase of sorts up the mountain, following the small river which pummeled its way down. The trail entered into the jungle proper, with hissing insects, swarms of 'skitters, and the smell of rotting plants. The whole place was in a state of decay, made even danker by the recent floods. At a few points the stone walkway had been washed out entirely, and and we had to gingerly make our way around the gaps lest we fall thirty feet onto the rocks below.
After about thirty minutes of hiking through the dark of the trees, we came to the bottom of the main falls and immediately rinsed of the sweat and jungle grime which stuck to our bodies like a sort of paste.
Once again soothed and cooled, we decided to take the train further up, hoping to reach the very top of the falls. This trail now turned to dirt, and was accompanied by a series of very low strung power lines heading straight up the mountain.
"I bet there's a village up here," I said to Minhee. "Why else would they need electricity in what seems to be an empty jungle?"
We made it to the top and waded down the stream toward the top of the falls.
...and there it was.
Satisfied with our ascent, we splashed our way back to the path, which lead into an obvious clearing.
"That must be where the village is," I said.
"Let's go check it out," Minhee replied, eyes alive with excitement. And there it was...
... a hill tribe village.
"Sabaidee," Minhee called to the mother who was busy grooming her daughter. She smiled and nodded, but likely didn't even speak a lot of Lao, but more likely another ethnic tongue.
Even hill tribes need their satellite TV.
"Wow. This is really cool," I told Minhee. "We found this village on our own. It's probably practically undiscovered. I bet no tourists ever go up here."
And then I saw this:
A blue truck straight from the streets of Luanprabang, and next to it, about fifteen tourists and their American guide, busily snapping photos of the "natives." So much for my "undiscovered village" theory.
We stayed for a bit to simmer down and eventually made our way out of the village and down the mountain, hiking through the sticky heat until we were once again submerged in the first pool, which, despite the fact that many had visited it before us, we once again had to ourselves.