Laos is known in the backpacker community (yes, I own a backpack, have survived many an encounter with the species and am therefore an expert) for its value for money, incredible scenery and laid back citizens. What some people would call laziness, I would call (especially after India) refreshingly 'not in your face'. Sales people relax in the shade while you are able to decide if you'd like to buy anything... what a novel concept!
Actually, in broader terms, I absolutely loved the Lao people. Ever smiling with the welcoming nature of the southeast Asians without the taint of over-tourism and over-modernization. Don't get me wrong, the Mekong Riverside Hotel in Luang Prabang was stellar, fully modern and a lovely taste of the nicer legacy of French colonialism. But lazily riding bicycles amongst monks, boutiques and one quaint restaurant (our favorite was L'Elephant) after another, life (and ones heart rate) slows down just a bit.
Of course, traveling with a woman who is on a personal quest to experience everything possible, the heart rate wasn't slow for long. To be fair, we had both been dying to do some outdoorsy stuff and had deliberately left this to Laos, so I had already mentally prepared myself for some physical exertion. Which was good because a lot more than 'some' was required.
We heard that Tiger Trail Outdoor Advertures was the way to go; sustainability focused and highly personalized (at least for us in the low season), going with them turned out to be a great decision. Although at times I felt like our personal guide (a young man whose name sadly escapes me) was taking full advantage of showing around tourists who don't mind getting a little dirty and are not McDonald's obsessed westerners.
First we biked. Hard. Up and down. Through the woods. Through the mud. Across a river on a long boat. Up more hills and down even more. It was exhilarating, exhausting and extremely awesome!
There have been multiple times on this trip where I've been concerned about getting my DSLR wet. The ensuing hike, after a mercifully cool dip in some natural springs, was one of those times. And it wasn't raining. You get the idea.
Our reward for completing Day 1 quicker than normal bike/hike was more time in a quaint farming village that was to be our home for the night. For once not having brought anything to read, we spent most of the day wandering around the village (Tiger Trail brings tourists here often it seems so they were comfortable with our presence and mainly just went about their business as if we were just flies on the wall) and enjoying game after game of sepak takraw, a game that combines soccer/football, volleyball, martial arts and acrobatics. Played with a ball made out of some sort of bamboo-like substance (a lot like a wiffle ball just made from a tree not a Chinese plastics factory), we both sat there mesmorized while team after team of farmers played after returning from their fields, displaying some of the most impressive athleticism I've ever seen.
And then they asked me to play, at which time the quality decreased just as quickly as the hilarity increased. I wasn't terrible, but (as was evident by me falling on my ass after trying to execute a scissor kick) I certainly wasn't any good. Fantastic experience though and thankfully I have some pictures to prove it!
We were up at dawn the next morning. Not because we had to be, but because we were both fascinated by the sounds of early morning village life and, quite frankly, didn't have much choice in the matter. Roosters. Dogs. Children. Mothers. Crickets (the Lao refer to cricket chirping as 'Chinese' because it's so loud/annoying). Yelling. Crying. Laughing. Sometimes it's better to close your eyes and hear the surrounding world. This was one of those times.
Our 'triathlon' finished with a four-hour kayak journey down the iconic Mekong River, the namesake for an entire region and the source of much life and beauty. Much to the chagrin of our guide we were able to weather the rapids without capsizing and successfully floated into Luang Prabang a little after noon... sunburned, sore, more than a little tired, and smiling from ear to ear.