In Asia

Luang Prabang, Laos | Sticky Rice and Kuang Si Falls

So, I maybe almost died in Luang Prabang. No big deal. But, more on that later.

Have you ever traveled someplace and it just immediately felt right? As in, yes, I could live here. I can do my shopping at the morning market, spend afternoons noshing on some laab, and hop around the different food stalls at night. And for a little fresh air, jump on the motorbike and hit the road or set sail on the mighty Mekong.

Yes, that sounds good. Let’s do that. Let’s dive into Luang Prabang.

Welcome to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the once-upon-a-time royal capital of Laos turned-burgeoning backpacking destination thanks to a blend of curious travelers and Chinese investment. In December 2021, the Chinese-financed and constructed Lao-China high-speed railway opened for businesses, sprinting from southern China through the mountainous Laotian spine into the capital, Vientiane. And based on the number of vans and tuk-tuks we saw shuttling tourists around, things are changing around here.

Fortunately, mass tourism has yet to reach the rice paddies. At the Living Land Company on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, Louis Chanthavong and his crew of born-and-raised farmers take us out into the rice paddies to show us how they make sticky rice from seed to grain.

Louis says they’ll support students through vocational school and the local university as well as at the nearby orphanage school. They’re also offering free English lessons for anyone in the surrounding villages between the ages of 5 up to 17 years old.

Tourist money also means funding for their education programs. Besides supporting a worthy cause, you get to learn about Laotian manna from heaven––sticky rice.

Farming Sticky Rice

Suffice it to say, sticky rice is a beloved Laotian staple. People brag around these parts about eating it three times a day with the kind of glee an American child might brag about sneaking in a sugary bowl of Lucky Charms.

And the process of farming rice is no joke. You gotta schlep around in the mud, plant the seeds, and til the land with Susan the water buffalo. Once it’s started growing, you move it to a new paddy, you harvest it, you dry it and summon the rage of a mildly inconvenienced air traveler to whack it against a board and knock the grains out. Then you fan the grains to separate them from the debris. Then it’s another schlep over to pound it, dehull it, and dump it into the mill. It takes a trained hand 4 to 5 hours to make the 3 to 4 kilograms that feed a family for 1 or 2 days.

Merciful hosts that they are at the Living Land Company, they spared us further humiliation and sent us off to lunch. Tofu Soup, Red Curry with Chicken, and a Laotian salad or laab with chicken or pork. Honest to God, maybe the best spread of the entire trip.

Walking Around Luang Prabang

Back in town, we stretch our legs and get a closer look at the UNESCO World Heritage City that is Luang Prabang. Calm streets with the occasional motorbike puttering by, trees stretching their old limbs over the sidewalk, and temples on temples on temples. It’s enough to make you hungry again despite the farm feast. 

Enter, another round of spicy tofu laab and a plate of lemongrass chicken, both Laotian favorites.

Sunset is coming. And since Phousi Hill is swamped with tourists like a hornet’s nest with a selfie stick, we watch mother nature do her thing on the northern side of the hill, overlooking the night market.

The Night Market starts every day at 5 in the evening where you can shuffle along with the crowds for a variety of textiles and high-quality, hand-crafted goods. And all roads at the market lead to a large plaza full of different food stalls. Grab some food, a cold Beer Lao, and thank your lucky stars that you somehow landed here in Luang Prabang.

The Morning Alms

The Morning Alms, a traditional ceremony where local monks collect their daily offerings from the devout during sunrise. It’s a silent and sacred occasion. At least, it’s supposed to be.

The way some folks crowded the monks and posed for selfies, you’d think they had a side hustle with TMZ and they just found out where Elvis has been hiding all these years.

It left me feeling a little gross, to be honest, which I’d been feeling all morning come to think of it. Something with my stomach… Anyways, I’m sure if I push through, everything will be okay! He says in an obvious bit of foreboding foreshadowing.

Kuang Si Falls

After breakfast, we settled onto the motorbike for a long ride out into the countryside in search of Kuang Si Falls––the place that first put Laos on the map for me after a friend visited years ago, in those quaint old days when Corona was just a beer for the beach and that guy running for office is just a joke! He definitely won’t win.

At the foot of the falls, we skip the golf cart escort most visitors took, transferring from their white tourist van. It’s a 15-minute walk up through the adjacent village to a dirt trail leading to the falls that for reasons beyond me, some people can skip. Lazy.

The short trail skirts alongside the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center with a handful of Asiatic Black Bears chilling in the mild morning balminess. Kuang Si teases with a series of smaller pools that you hear in the distance and think, “Is this it?” No, not yet, friends…

Until, blammo.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not an enormous, thundering spectacle like Niagara Falls. Kuang Si is imposing, but majestic with several streams of water gracefully sliding down the rock face. It’s one of those natural spectacles that looks too perfect to have been created at random over 4.5 billion years.

Unfortunately, word has gotten out about Kuang Si and we were far from the only ones despite showing up at 10 in the morning. Now I didn’t think this needed to be said, but… Please don’t smoke and throw your cigarette bud on the freakin’ ground, you shinings spectacle of human garbage.

But I couldn’t think long about the bad tourist behavior. My stomach was acting up again after the distraction of the motorbike and falls washed away. I felt exhausted, so I forced myself into one of the natural pools for a cold shock to the system.

And it worked! Until I got out, dried off, and hopped back on the motorbike for the ride back into town. That’s where things… Took a turn.

The Incident

About halfway back to Luang Prabang, we decide to pull off the road for lunch at a restaurant we noticed on the way out to Kuang Si Falls. I order a ginger tea, thinking it’ll help my stomach, and the lightest thing I can find on the menu––vegetable soup.

The tea doesn’t help. And a couple of bites into the soup, I start to crash. I feel exhausted, like I need to lie down. My heart starts racing. I know what’s happening––vasovagal. It’s like when your computer is on the fritz and you need to restart it, except with a body. Not to brag, but it’s a common thing among the Baur men. We pass out and regroup.

I start to slump across the table. The next thing I know, I’m having a vivid nightmare. And then, I’m waking up on the ground with Melanie standing over me and some restaurant staff. Turns out, I shot upright, vomited across the table, and passed out. Melanie tried to catch me, but could only slow my descent to the ground. Unfortunately, my head still crashed against the concrete and I was bleeding.

That’s when the stars started to align. An older man wanders in with a French accent. He asks if he can help. Turns out, he’s a retired nurse. So he quickly examines me and declares me dehydrated. He takes our large bottle of water and whips up something like a drinkable IV mixed with sugar and salt. I’m instructed to drink the whole thing.

There was still the issue of hitting my head. I’m not a neurologist, but it strikes me as less than ideal. Melanie wonders if we should call the nearest hospital, but the nurse says I’m good if I can keep the drink down. Plus, we have a train to catch in a couple of hours. If we don’t make it, it throws off the rest of our time in Laos.

I’m starting to feel better, so I decide to press on. Fortunately, we catch our train and I’m perfectly fine by the next day in Vang Vient.

Not the ending to Luang Prabang––or any place for that matter––I planned for, but c’est la vie, right? Besides, as my dad would say, it could’ve been worse. And with everything we had the privilege of experiencing––from the farm to the falls––I tend to agree.

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