One of my favorite features at our hotel in Luang Prabang, La Residence Phou Vao (an Orient Express hotel), was their day tour service. Instead of just helping facilitate tours with local providers, they’re one of the few hotels I’ve seen that creates tailor made experiences for guests, a fact I didn’t realize until we actually went on a day tour with them. There were a lot of choices when it came to decide how to spend a day outside of Luang Prabang, but being on the water always appeals to me so it was an easy decision to chose a trip to the Pak Ou Caves alongside the Mekong River in Laos.
I admit that I didn’t know a lot about the day trip before we left early in the morning. I knew that there were caves filled with thousands of Buddha images, that a river was involved and that we were likely to get lunch. That was the full extent of my knowledge, sad to say. I was luckily brought up to speed quickly and in high style.
Our personal guide met us at the hotel and we transferred to the nearby dock on the Mekong River where our own private riverboat was waiting for us. That’s right, private boat. We were immediately offered a beverage (Diet Coke please) and off we went.
The journey began in the wrong direction, literally not metaphorically, towards a small village. I anticipated a tourist trap village, by which I mean a contrived village experience built around selling things to tourists. That would actually come later in the day, but this first stop wasn’t that at all. In fact, unless I missed something entirely, it was just a stop at a local village in order to see what life is like.
I never felt more colonial as we wandered through the buildings, but at the same time I was grateful for the experience. I was grateful to meet some real people other than doormen and the nice ladies who sold Oreo milkshakes to me at the night market. We sat and watched as a craftsman made some pots, marveling at the expertise needed for the craft. The guide showed us around town, I pet a couple of dogs and before I knew it we were back on the boat for the two-hour journey up-river to Pak Ou. The village was a strange stop, but did indeed set the tone of the day that we would be discovering a little more about what makes Laos tick.
Boiled down to its essence, the caves function as an island for misfit toys, but in a much more respectful and religious context. The caves have served as Buddhist temples for more than 600 years and most of the Buddha statues and images are there because they were damaged or otherwise found unfit for veneration in a proper temple. But the caves have long held immense importance for the Laotians and when the country still had a king, he made an annual pilgrimage to the caves to perform ritualized bathing of the old statues. Today the caves are still an important religious destination, but they’re also an importance tourist spot thanks in large part to their relative proximity to the tourist town of Luang Prabang.
We were told that it was unusually hot the week we were in Laos, but that didn’t really make us feel any better. I was tired of sweating all day, every day and the boat ride was the perfect escape from the city doldrums. As soon as I stepped out of the traditional river boat onto the dock at the Pak Ou caves though, the heat fell upon me in waves, forcing a quicker than normal climb into the dark cave system. We were between tourist boats, which meant we essentially had the caves to ourselves, a brief moment of travel bliss in what can sometimes be a crowded attraction. I looked up, around, down and true to my expectations; there were Buddha images everywhere, of all ages in all sizes.
We walked around, admiring the pieces and listening to our guide share the history of the location. Then he pointed to a nearby island and announced “And that is where you will have lunch.” Charming, the sandbar in the middle of the Mekong with no shade when the temperatures mimicked the surface of the sun? Couldn’t wait.
As usual, Orient Express was one step ahead of me and by the time we stepped out of the boat onto our private island, a table with white linen service, silver and a giant umbrella providing shade was readied for our noontime repast. My jaw hung wide open, allowing the pterodactyl sized Mekong bugs to enter my corpus and I stood there staring at the set up. I felt like a character in an Agatha Christie novel except the obvious lack of strange murders amongst the upper crust tourists. In all honesty, I was expecting a boxed lunch to be enjoyed while sitting on the boat. A full, British royal style set up had never crossed my mind.
It was a lovely lunch, of that there can be no doubt. But I felt a bit awkward, not being used to butler service on a day trip. The staff ate on the boat and glanced over every few seconds to make sure we didn’t want for anything. They even gave us a damn bell to ring in case I needed something. But after a few moments my level of discomfort decreased and I sat there enjoying the very unique and romantic moment the hotel had created for us. The lunch was delicious and refreshing, absolutely necessary on a hot day in the tropics. As we finished our dessert and coffees, we noticed a disturbance across the river. Elephants, part of a mahout tour, were approaching the river to drink. I know, I know, I hate the practice of using elephants on tours, but I have to tell you, it was striking to see them there with the mountains in the distance as they snorted each other with water from their giant trunks. Truly a memory to savor for a lifetime.
By that time we were ready to be back in our air-conditioned bungalow at the hotel. The day had been great, but all the sights had been seen and we were exhausted from the heat. A cold drink next to the pool sounded like nirvana. But there was one last stop to make and it’s a feature on just about every day tour in the world – the tourist stop.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before and I understand why it exists and the need for it, but it’s still annoying. However, not wanting to screw over our guide we grudgingly agreed to stop at the whiskey village. Turns out what was dubbed as the whiskey village was actually an almost vacant series of buildings and one stand where the vendor was selling bottles of Lao-Lao with or without dead animals inside.
For the uninitiated (and you’re a lucky bunch), Lao-Lao is a Laotian rice whiskey and for all intents and purposes is just moonshine. If you haven’t had it, it’s a cross between turpentine and rubbing alcohol. The animals are included for a variety of reasons, to interest tourists but also to capture the energy of the animal inside. Either way I made it known immediately that we were in no way interested and we were thankfully allowed to leave quickly.
That was the only hiccup though on an otherwise wonderful tour. I’ve been on tours organized with the assistance of hotels before, but never have I been on one so well branded and customized as the one with the Orient Express property La Residence Phou Vao. They could have easily just contracted out these services and made the same amount of money, more probably, but they didn’t. Instead they have put the experience of their guests ahead of pure profit and in doing so have built a veritable army of loyal and happy customers. I know, I’m one of them.
What are some of the best day trips you’ve been on while traveling?