If you’ve never seen black bears playing in a park like children at daycare, you should probably book the next ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos and head 30 kilometers south to the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center. Here, there are 23 Asiatic Black Bears rescued from illegal poaching and trading, and all of them are prospering in an environment built to keep them safe, active and happy.
The Free the Bears organization has so far rescued nearly 800 bears in India and Southeast Asia, and their organization is growing with the help of donors like you. Click here to help them out.
I didn’t even know the rescue center existed before I booked a taxi to Kuang Si Falls, but there it was, just inside the park entrance, like an unexpected free zoo. I wanted to crawl with them on the jungle gym and cuddle the cute little guys, but something told me they aren’t as gentle as they look, so I snapped a few pictures and went to cool off.
Even in the dry season, Kuang Si Falls are a brilliant array of nature’s most vivid colors; and a much-desired respite from the overwhelming heat and humidity.
The friends I made on the hour-long taxi journey and I weren’t sure what to expect from the falls, and so we thought this might be the best of it… until we ventured a little higher up. It was even more enticing.
Locals were flying through the humid air like Tarzan on a rope swing, fully clothed (like in Thailand, most locals swim in their jeans and tees) and plunging into the turquoise abyss below. So of course we joined them.
When my arms could no longer hold the rope tight enough to make the swing worth it, we ventured up even higher and discovered yet an even more stunning fall.
When we were finished with the sun and water, we bid goodbye to our new favorite spot. I was sad to leave, but walking out meant another look at my not-so-cuddly black bears, so I said goodbye to them too.
It was in Luang Prabang that I had to decide how I would spend the following year of my life. Colorado State University was pressuring me with a looming deadline to choose a two-year commitment to graduate school, but as I sat on the banks of the Mekong sipping my morning coffee, pen in hand, hovering over the paper that would cement my decision, I watched orange-robed monks glide by, children play in the muddy water and several local men share a BeerLao for breakfast, and I couldn’t imagine my travels ever ending. The idea that life should be lived in the slow lane is something nearly every country besides the U.S. has figured out, and sitting among people enjoying the simplicities in life made me realize college could wait.
I signed the deferral letter and that afternoon I managed to convey to a local internet cafe owner that I needed to “send paper through air” to a place in the U.S.A. It essentially gave me another year to drag my feet on going back to school, but also a mandatory 12 months to magically become a Colorado resident while secretly living in China (okay, it’s not so secret, but shhh!).
I have no regrets, but I do often wonder if I would have made the same choice had I not been sitting in one of the most blissful cities I have visited. Luang Prabang literally means “Royal Buddha Image,” which explains the more than 30-plus local temples, and the reason I saw more monks than regular residents wandering the sidewalks.
Unfortunately, I had hit a point in my travels, nearly seven months in, where I didn’t care to ever step foot in another Buddhist temple. So I didn’t. But I did climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi where Wat Chomsi sits for the dusk-to-sunset viewing.
Luang Prabang is a mountainous city surround by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. One thing I found particularly interesting was the outer roads that wrap around the water, where most of the fancy, French-inspired hotels can be found (Laos used to be occupied by the French), the roads are spotless and well kept.
But when I ventured into the middle of town, where shanty huts line the trash-covered streets, I saw where the locals live – literally in the midst of the tourist action, hidden by those fancy dwellings. It’s possible the excess of trash was due to a recent festival, but the contrast from one block to the next was astonishing.
That night, after I faxed my “one time only” deferral request, I ended my day the way those local men started – with a large BeerLao, the only local beer available, but one of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia – and smiled as I watched the river flow slowly by, fully aware I had made the right decision.
I almost made a mistake in Savannakhet, Laos. It was one of those “I know better but my just-say-yes policy always wins in the name of cultural experience” situations.
I spent the first day recuperating from a rather miserable series of bus rides from Khong Lor Cave in the central part of the country while I caught up on laundry and sleep. I spent the second walking through the city, photographing the crumbling buildings that line the sidewalks of this seemingly ancient town.
I enjoyed a delicious som tam (spicy papaya salad) lunch on the banks of the Mekong while looking across at Thailand. Even the Northeast looked highly developed in comparison to Savannakhet, or anywhere else in Laos, really.
The next day, another rather long, sticky walk in 104 degree temps (plus humidity), led me to a stadium where a city league soccer game was in full swing. I sat down to catch a break from the sweltering sun and take in a game of Laos football.
A nice man approached me, in awe that a foreigner was staying in Savannakhet and even more so that I was interested in watching the game (I was more into the shade from the stadium, but I went with it). He was a teacher and he wanted to practice his English, which was rather good in comparison to the rest of the town and it’s always nice to have a conversation after two weeks of traveling solo.
Later, he offered to show me the market I hadn’t yet found and give me a motorbike tour of the city. Of course I obliged. He made a point of driving down all seven major roads, so I could see each one. “This road is how you go to the airport,” he said, and “This one has all the restaurants, let’s count!”
After a full tour, which didn’t take long (Savannakhet is not much bigger than Suwannaphum, where I taught English), we stopped at a very nice, outdoor karaoke restaurant for dinner. He ordered several dishes and more beer than I could think about drinking. When he started asking if I was drunk yet, I began to see where the night was headed. My best approach was to tell him I didn’t feel well and needed to go home. Now.
“But I order another beer. Can we stay little longer?”
“No, I really feel sick. Mai sabai,” I said in Thai because I knew he would understand (the languages are very similar).
When he dropped me at my hostel, he kindly asked if he could accompany me to my room “just for a bit.”
“No. I need to go to bed. Alone.”
I gave him a random email address and from a dark corner in the opposite direction of my rented room, I watched him sit in the driveway for several minutes, hopeful I might return, before he finally rode away. Poor guy.
Though he was a great tour guide, he should probably stick to teaching. I, on the other hand, should probably stop accepting motorcycle rides from strangers in foreign countries, but I probably won’t. It was still a great experience – a fun story to tell – and I was able to see Savannakhet through a local’s eyes.