In a typical afternoon in Luang Prabang, we walked along a narrow street parallel to the embankment near the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. To our left, Wat Xieng Thong welcomed us with a serene and almost solitary atmosphere. Monks in bright orange robes were occasionally spotted doing some activities in one of the modest pavilions. While the entire compound is worth a visit, it is the ordination hall – the Sim, particularly the rear where the Tree of Life is mounted in mosaic – that is the true highlight. James, my travel companion, told the story of the Tree of Life and Wat Xieng Thong concisely in his blog.
Situated closer to the town center, Wat Sen easily draws the attention of passers-by due to its tall yellow pole and ornate carvings on the main buildings which are visible from the street. Built in the early 18th century, purportedly with 100,000 stones from the Mekong River, Wat Sen is also famous for its morning and afternoon services when tourists flock here to get a closer look at Buddhist rituals performed by the monks.
Having visited most of Luang Prabang’s main wats, we gladly said “yes” when the owner of our hotel – Mr.Vongsip – offered to take us to see the Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls, an easy 40-minute drive from the town center. Along the way my eyes were fixated on the flamboyant colors of flowers and leaves on both sides of the road.
Near the entrance to the falls, Mr.Vongsip parked his car at an ordinary spot. When I opened the door I was surprised to see some peculiar white things on the ground. When I edged in to take a closer look, I was stunned to see hundreds of butterflies gathered on the wet sand. It was the biggest rabble of butterflies I’ve ever seen at any one time. Thinking that it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I took a lot of pictures of the butterflies until I started to feel raindrops on my skin. Then I rushed to the entrance.
Although rather modest in size, the falls at Tat Kuang Si have been an escape for locals and tourists from Luang Prabang’s hot and humid climate. This is especially true in May, the hottest month of the year.
After taking pictures from the bridge just across the main waterfalls, we noticed a wooden sign pointing to a small trail into the forest which said “to the top”. At that time the sky had already turned grey with thick clouds hanging over and hinting at a coming rainstorm. When I saw the wet and muddy trail before us I began to doubt our decision to hike to the top. But I remained silent as I expected the view to be worth all the risks, should there be any. Halfway up the trail my doubt grew even stronger as I realized that the already physically exhausting path would be even more challenging on our way down.
Disappointment met us at the top as the view was nothing like what we imagined. While others made a line to slowly cross the murky waters, we decided to go back as the rain began to pour, making the already wet trails even more slippery. That was the precise moment we realized that we had just made the biggest mistake of our trip. Going up was a lot easier as we had trees, stones and everything else to hold on to and we also had more control of ourselves. But on the way down we had no choice but to succumb to gravity while trying to balance ourselves with whatever we could, including my decision to grab onto a tree trunk to stop me from falling. James himself had to use his hands and knees as brakes when he suddenly lost his foothold. However, despite all the troubles, we managed to safely return to the trailhead.
On our way back to the entrance, while still thinking of what we had just endured a few minutes earlier, we noticed another wooden sign. This time it led us to a sun bear sanctuary, a highlight of Tat Kuang Si that we almost missed. Here we spotted a big sun bear sleeping on a wooden platform with his head poised on a beam. It was so relaxing watching him asleep in spite of the rain that was still coming down hard. Suddenly he woke up only to wiggle his body and shake off some water before going back to his dreams. Like the signature yellow crescent on his chest, the sun bear brought a smile to my face.
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