Black Bears & Pristine Falls: Luang Prabang, Laos

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.

What’s the best thing you did in Laos?

The 4,000 Islands

There isn’t much to do in Si Phan Don, so to speak, but there’s plenty to keep oneself entertained. A hammock hangs from the porch of every bungalow, making it a perfect place to relax with a book, take a nap, or watch the children swimming and bathing in the water below.

Si Phan Don is a sleepy cluster of islands in the Mekong delta, just above the Cambodian border. There are no roads, only dirt paths. Most people get around on bicycle or foot, and very few own motorbikes.

I rode a bike around Don Det (my choice of the only three islands offering accommodation, and I highly doubt there are actually 4,000), stopping to take pictures of the baby water buffalo, the calves, the chicks and the pigs. As a farm girl, I shouldn’t be awed by the sight of farm animals on an island, but I’m a sucker for their cuteness. They walked right up to me, not even disturbed by my presence.

The dirt path encircling the island was about four kilometers around, making Don Det the second largest of the pack. The waterfront is lined with bungalows for rent and homes for locals, while the inner island is covered with rice farms, intersected by more dirt paths. Pedaling around, taking in the beauty of such simplistic, local life was exactly what I had pictured myself doing in Southeast Asia.

On my second day, I joined a kayaking tour that was nothing short of fantastic. Another solo traveler and I shard a two-person kayak, laughing at our inexperience as we paddled out of sync, trying to catch up to the pack.

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Our first stop was one of the biggest waterfalls in the region. The water forcefully splashes over rocks and plummets through the crevaces, leaving nothing in its wake. It is beautiful, but my pictures don’t do it justice.

We paddled again to a rock island where we would watch the local Irrawaddy dolphins – an extremely rare breed resembling a whale more than a dolphin. There are said to be only ten left, and we were lucky to see about five of them. From our perch, we could also see Cambodia. The Mekong separates the two countries at this point, and we were sitting in the middle of both, enjoying chicken fried rice.

After lunch and more swimming, we were back in the kayak, headed for another waterfall that was just as impressive as the first. We were now on the mainland, so while we stared in awe at the natural wonder before us, the guides loaded our kayaks onto a large bus and prepared to drive us back to our starting point.

I was exhausted after such a full day of paddling and so I walked back to my hammock where I fell asleep early enough to catch the next mornings sunrise before going out for a run.

The day was another relaxing one, spent reading and chatting with new friends. I was going to need it before the long, chaotic adventure of traveling back to Suwannaphum, but it seems I enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.