Experiences of a lifetime

A street in Nong Khiaw village
Villa Oasis
Wat Pa Phon Phao
Some of the liquors at ban Xang Hai's whisky village.
Memorable sight ... Tad Sae Waterfall.
A Khmu couple and Hmong guides dine in the village
Kayaking on the Nam Khan River.

FOR adventure seekers or those seeking soul-stirring experiences, Luang Prabang, in the heart of the mountainous region in northern Laos, beckons.

I was thrilled at the very thought of visiting a land known for the natural charms of its people and landscapes. AirAsia provided the affordable flight, while adventure tour groups Tiger Trail, Motolao, and FairTrek, had just the itinerary.

The journey was for two nights and three days of all-terrain motorbiking across mountains and valleys, and another two nights and three days of exploring on bicycle, hiking to remote villages with homestays with families, and kayaking – meals, accommodation, guides and 'vehicle' included.

A three-hour flight took me to Luang Prabang airport, to be picked up by Motolao guide Bounchanh Ly, and ferried to the Motolao garage.

I picked out my 'wheels' (one that fit my height and size), slip into motorbiking attire, was briefed on my itinerary, and we set off – guide and I each on a Honda CRF250 off-road motorcycle.

Luang Prabang to Vieng Thong

We headed northeast, starting on a short stretch of tarmac road, in no rush to reach our destination.

The sun was out, and the ­climate was a perfect 17°C to 24°C (best between November and February). I was taken aback by the 'off-road' conditions – a 75km-long steep, ­undulated trail of clay, sand, and pebbled roads, all leading to the small and rather inconspicuous Lao village of Vieng Thong.

With deep breaths, I took the off-road trail in stride, revving and rolling through never-ending bends. I had no complaints about the breathtaking view of amazing mountains, valleys and rivers.

We arrived at our destination completely bushed, covered in orange dust and tired. Still, I was completely pleased and satisfied.

Vieng Thong to Nong Khiaw

We took an easier route to Nong Khiaw, along 140km of tarred road. It was six full hours on the bike, with a stop at Bo Nam Hiem hotsprings, and impromptu breaks to capture shots.

At Nong Khiaw, we explored the town – a popular tourist spot offering activities like tubing, ­hiking, zip-lining, and more. I learned that there are 49 local tribes, 60% comprising Hmong, Khmu and Lao tribespeople.

We met guides from another ­company who insisted I try Lao whisky, Lao-style, where a shot glass is had, refilled and passed around. After dinner, a traditional Lao massage beckoned.

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

We take a different route back to Luang Prabang, with short stops at Na Siang De and Hoi Kang, to admire the majestic mountains, and captivating paddy fields.

We then headed to the Whisky Village to see bizarre whisky varieties containing scorpions, geckos, snakes, and such, which are considered 'tonics' for strength and healing.

A short ride later to a riverbank, and a boat ride takes us to Buddha Cave, situated where the Nam Khan River meets the mighty Mekong. Thousands of Buddha statues, in all sizes, enthrall.

After lunch, we checked into Phangkam Lodge, back in Luang Prabang town.

Exciting Homestays

The next day at the Motolao garage, I met my guide Leevang Vang. We set off on mountain bike to Wat Pa Phon Phao, a quiet monastry with a golden stupa that overlooks the city of Luang Prabang.

We next went to Ban Phanom, a famous cotton and silk-weaving village that once served the king with fine textiles, afterwhich we drop our bikes and took a boat across the Nam Khan River, trekking across plains and paddy fields for the breathtaking Tad Sae Waterfall.

We took a dip in the blue-hued natural fall, before a four-hour trek to Ban Hwai Fai, a Khmu village deep in the jungle, where there is no electricity. A poignant existance where life is hard and people are content, eggs and meat are a luxury, insects and jungle rat are eaten, plain sticky rice fills tummies, and cooking takes hours, yet the people are warm, sincere and big-hearted.

We stayed with a couple and their three grandchildren, Nang, Bhat, and Fai, who stole my heart.

Conversations with the family and the guide over dinner were memorable. By 6pm, it was pitch black. Sleeping in those conditions was an experience.

The next day, I set out for a five-hour trek with spectacular views and challenging trails, through karst limestone mountains.

We stopped at a Hmong tribe village, which had three families living in the middle of nowhere. The children saw to the babies as the parents worked to put food on the table.

At Ban Hwai Nok, another Khmu village (this one with electricity generators) children have access to television.

Here, I mingled and learned some Khmu words: smileq (hello); koppenium (thank you); and tam chiok cheers.

The following day, it was two hours of hiking down rocky, steep paths to the riverbank for kayaking on the Mekong, a first for me.

A van then took us back to Luang Prabang, where I spent two nights at Villa Oasis.

Now I had all the time to cycle and explore the town, with its nooks and crannies, night markets, massage parlours, and cafes. I admired the French colonial and traditional Lao architecture, tourist sights and temples, while knocking back wines and Lao beer.

All my senses were piqued by this magical place which exuded old charm and simplicity.

AirAsia flies direct from KLIA2 to Luang Prabang airport four times a week. The best times to visit Luang Prabang are between November and February, when the climate and weather are glorious.