A DAY EXPLORING THE MARKETS OF LUANG PRABANG & SWIMMING AT KUANG SI WATERFALLS
For our second full day in Luang Prabang we chose to go exploring a little further afield, and so caught a tuk tuk out to Kuang Si Falls. There we swam in the milky turquoise waters of these spectacular falls, and stopped to learn about the good work of the Asiatic Bear Rescue Centre along the way. First port of call for the day, however, was the Luang Prabang morning market…
Each morning a market pops up in the alleys off Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang’s main street. As we found out this morning, this is one busy food market! By 7:00am the narrow streets are filled with people buying fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices for the day*.
*With refrigeration a relatively new thing in Laos, and with many villagers still living with intermittent power supply, the custom here is still for people to buy and cook their food fresh every day.
Some of the vendors had stalls, but most just had a bamboo mat laid out on the street with their wares on display in that tiny 2mx2m space.
Tiny Asian eggplants, green vegetables, strange varieties of mushrooms we’ve never seen before, fresh chillies, garlic, and mountains of tropical fruit sat alongside aromatic fresh herbs in the fresh produce section of the market.
In the butcher’s section there were freshly slaughtered chickens, buffalo meat, and just-caught river fish, most still alive. Further on we found the dried fish section, a far more pungent area of the market that we didn’t linger in.
The bustle of morning market had whetted our appetite and so we sought out one of Luang Prabang’s most famous French-style cafés for breakfast: Jumo. Set across 2 floors, in an old French colonial building, this great coffee house serve freshly baked croissants, apple pastries, and (much to Shane’s delight), pain-au-chocolate. The coffee wasn’t bad and the pastries were great, which made a welcome change from the friend rice and noodles we’ve been having for breakfast lately*.
*The transition to a South East Asian way of eating has been great – we really love the stir fries, curries, and noodle dishes served here. Even for breakfast they’re great! It’s just nice to have a bit of variety is all.
After our leisurely breakfast we set off to explore Kuang Si Falls, one of Luang Prabang’s most famous tourist sites. The falls are about 30km from town and took about 45 minutes to reach by tuk tuk. Along the way we passed numerous villages, farms, and acres of ride paddies.
Fed by a mountain spring, Kuang Si Falls consist of a single large cascade which tumbles down a 50m drop, feeding a series of falls and pools that make perfect swimming holes. We stopped in the top swimming hole to enjoy Kuang Si’s cool azure waters and happily spent hours in the milky water, having our feet nibbled by the tiny fish*.
*The waters around Kuang Si Falls are naturally home to a tiny species of toothless catfish (Garra rufa) that happily feeds on dead skin when hungry. This fish’s appetites have been harnessed by many enterprising spas around the world that offer “fish pedicures” as one of their services. The salon version has never appealed, but the natural version of the “fish pedicure” we had today certainly left our feet feeling soft and smooth! It doesn’t hurt at all when the fish chomp away on your dead skin, but it DOES tickle like mad!
The colour and milkiness of the water is due to the limestone leeched out of the surrounding karst mountains. It made the water look as blue as some of the mineral-rich alpine lakes we’ve seen in New Zealand and Switzerland. And the beautiful shapes formed by the limestone travertines was reminiscent of Pamukkale in Turkey (though far less damaged and much prettier).
Kuang Si Falls is the biggest in the Luang Prabang area and are surrounded by lush tropical jungle, making for some interesting walking after our swim.
About halfway between the entrance and the waterfall we stopped at the Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Centre, which houses a couple of dozen animals rescued from the hands of poachers and traffickers. The bears were in large enclosures and seemed content enough, gnawing on fruit*. The bears are endangered throughout Asia with many being captured for a life of torture on “bile farms” that harvest their bile for use in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine. It was great to learn about the good work the Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Centre is doing.
*Unlike many of their fellow ursine cousins, Asiatic Black Bears are vegetarian.
Our final adventure for the day was a visit to the Luang Prabang night market on the way to dinner. This sprawling outdoor market has been running since 2002, when it was known as the Candle Market due to the entire affair being run by candle-light as there was no electricity in Luang Prabang then!
Since then the market has grown from a few stalls selling local handicrafts to a huge affair where you can buy everything from clothing, to paintings, paper lanterns, bags, and sculptures, to crepes and fruit smoothies.
There were hundreds of stalls selling hand-woven fabrics and decorative hand sewn items, soft toys, jewellery, art work, opium pipes, and decorative nick knacks. There was even a selection of snake, scorpion and gecko wines available.
After our swimming trip to Kuang Si Falls today, Shane and I realised we needed some additional swimming-friendly gear and so used our best bargaining skills to get Shane a new pair of swimming shorts and me a dress to wear at the beach. Things here are so cheap that we didn’t haggle too hard – seems cruel and unnecessary to argue over 1,000LAK when $1AUD buys you 6,000LAK!
From the night market we went in search of dinner and found a great little place along Sisavangvong Road that served buffalo (alongside the usual veggies, pork, chicken, and fish). Keen to try this local speciality we ordered some buffalo to go with our stir fried veggies and fried rice. Our verdict: it’s pretty gamey and strong; not something we would order again. Still, it was good to try something different. Every day since we came to South East Asia we’ve had the chance to do at least 1 new thing, and it’s been great! No doubt tomorrow will be the same…