Chapter 37: Loving life in Laos
Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
56Trip End Nov 2004
That afternoon we booked seats on the next morning's bus to Luang Nam Tha, a small town to the northeast reknowned for good trekking and hill tribes
Friday was a bus day, and a long, hot, dusty one at that. The ancient bus was mostly full, so I grabbed a seat near the back next to Glenl, a 19 year old Swede travelling with a guy named Lawrence from Toronto. They had an ample supply of OTC valium from Thailand, and they'd stocked up on munchies, so the ride was pleasant enough. The twisty mountain road was mostly unsealed, though, so the going was slow and every so often big clouds of red dust would sweep through the open windows and cover everything.
We arrived in Luang Nam Tha early in the evening, and almost immediately after we stepped off the bus we were set upon by little old hill tribe ladies dressed in traditional clothes waving bracelets and hats at us
We checked in to a Chinese guesthouse near the bus station. Like most things and places in Laos, it was ridiculously cheap; Jonas and I shared a room and spent ~US$1.25 each per night. We met Glenl, Lawrence, and their Aussie friend Damien at a restauarant around the corner, and spent the evening playing cards with them in their guesthouse. Unfortunately Jonas and I stayed too late (11-something) and got locked into the building. It was pretty funny trying to break out of a guesthouse; eventually we had to just bang on doors inside the hotel to find someone to let us out, and then bang on the doors outside our guesthouse to be let in.
Nam Tha is a pretty dead, hot town with just one main street and nothing going on, but we needed a day for laundry, rest, planning, and the internet, so while Glenl and Lawrence left for Muang Sing (further northwest) early Saturday afternoon, the rest of us (including Damien) stayed behind for a second night. We stopped by the tourist info center at 4, and tentatively booked a 3-day/2-night trek for the four of us to start Tuesday
On Sunday the four of us jumped in a sawngthaew for the 2-hour mountain ride to Muang Sing, which we'd heard was a very atmospheric and relaxing town. At first I was disappointed by the small dusty main street and the shabby-looking market, but when I wandered some of the back roads in the afternoon and watched the locals enjoying themselves I began to feel some of the town's laid-back charm. We ran into Glenl and Lawrence immediately (small town...), and they got all excited telling us about a wedding they'd been invited to the night before, and about a trek they were setting up with a young local guide, and about the opium den they were headed off to momentarily. Damien moved in to the hotel where his friends were staying, while Christian, Jonas, and I found a cute place just outside town with nice bungalows in a garden.
We stopped in the tourist office in the afternoon just to compare our options, and decided to stick with the Nam Tha trek
As it turns out, Eric decided to come with us in Nam Tha, which meant Damien could leave and join his friends because we'd still have 4 people for our trip. We took a morning bus back to Nam Tha on Monday, and the Muang Sing bus station was particularly funny - a shack / waiting area set far out of town in a dusty field with a little ticket booth and noodle stall. When we arrived back in Nam Tha, we checked into a different guesthouse on the main street (called Saikonglongsack), and ran into two English guys who we'd seen in town two days before. They'd gotten off the bus in Luang Nam Tha and mistakenly thought they were in Luang Prabang... but they liked it so much they just stayed (and were still there AFTER our trek)! They constantly looked drunk and/or stoned, and that afternoon they rented a motorbike which they promptly crashed. They also had a habit of repeating stories, so they became almost as entertaining as the little old pusher ladies
We left with our guide, Bouaket, for our second trekking adventure at 9am Tuesday. A sawngthaew took us 17km up the road towards Muang Sing, and then dropped us off at a trail leading into the jungle. We sprayed on our mosquito repellant, pulled on our packs, and started into the woods. Five minutes into our walk, Jonas found a big brown snake, but it was gone before I saw it. Five minutes later, I realized that my day-pack (which I'd brought as my backpack) wasn't really intended for trekking; it fit awkwardly when it was filled with so much stuff, and the straps were too narrow and were hurting my shoulders.
We walked for two hours and then stopped for lunch, which Bouaket had bought from the market that morning. He set up a few large banana leaves in a bamboo shelter and spread out the food, which consisted of vegetables, some beef/veggie stirfry, sticky rice (the Lao standard), and chili paste
The trail was more defined than on the Thailand trek, though, so at least the going wasn't so rough
We made our way back to the junction, and then followed Bouaket as he cut his way through the overgrown trail to the village where we'd spend the night. We walked for 8 and a half hours total that day, so we were exhausted and sweaty by the time we got to a muddy river outside the village where Bouaket said we could "shower." Jonas and I didn't think we'd be cleaner after getting in the water, so we sat out and waited while the others washed up, and Bouaket went up to the village to tell everyone we'd arrived. As a result, when we walked up the hill to the village 15 minutes later, we were met by a throng of women and children dressed in traditional Akha clothes trying to sell us junk jewelry. It all felt a bit staged, really.
The guest hut was comfy in an empty sort of way, and featured thin mattresses and mosquito nets
I woke up at 6:30 the next morning to what I thought were the shrieks of some animal being murdered under the guest hut. I never found out what made the sounds, but I'd had a decent sleep and was in a much better mood than I'd been in the day before. On the way out of the village we passed through several "spirit gates" that had special meanings to the tribe, and they looked like they were straight out of "The Blair Witch Project." One even had the skin and bones of a dead dog splayed across the top to ward off demons.
The walk through the red clay forest was pretty easy throughout the morning, although we had some run-ins with leeches because it had rained the night before
A little further through the paddies we came to another Red Thai village which was less technologically advanced, and that's where our guest house for the second night was. The decor was similar to the previous nights' lodging, but there was electricity and a squat toilet, at least. We "washed" ourselves in the muddy river/stream (I tried to ignore the dead bugs and leaves floating by) and then lounged around on the deck chatting. In the late afternoon Bouaket took us on a tour of the town, where we learned about silk worm growing, Lao Lao whiskey production, and timber cutting, among other things. Dinner was interesting: duck! I'd been anxious to try duck for a few weeks, but unfortunately there wasn't a whole lot of meat to be found amongst the bones and gristle, so I mostly ate rice and chili paste again
I only slept for a few hours that night, owing mostly to the buzzing, crawling, and divebombing insects that somehow made it inside our mosquito net. Thursday was a grumpy day, then. We had breakfast with the head man and the guesthouse manager, snapped pics of some kids, accepted "gifts" (which we'd technically paid for in the trek fee) of textiles, and then hit the trail. We passed lots of paddies, burned hills, and forests, and there were a few standout moments. For 10 exciting minutes we completely lost Eric (he lagged behind and took a wrong turn), which had Bouaket justifiably freaking out. Our guide also knocked a beehive out of a tree with a stick... and then frantically ran down the hill waving palm fronds around him as dozens of angry bees hunted him down. Somehow he wasn't stung, but there wasn't much honey in the hive to show for all his effort.
By mid-afternoon we'd made our way back to civilization and were checking into the Saikonglongsack again. I thought it was funny that we were ending up spending 4 nights in such an uneventful town
On Friday we had a long (10 hour) bus journey to Luang Prabang. The scenery was gorgeous - all mountains, jungles, rivers, and quaint villages - but I was glad we didn't have to stay overnight in any of the dumpy towns (Udomxai, Pak Mong) that we passed through en route. I was happy to have two seats to myself for most of the trip, and I zoned out with the i-Pod and enjoyed the ride. When we got to LP, we shared a tuk tuk into town with a Dutch girl, and got lucky with the first guest house we tried: Rattana. They had two rooms (one for Christian, one for Jonas & me) in a beautiful & clean wood building with polished floors and an awesome covered balcony furnished with cushions, tables, magazines, and a chess set. We made much use of this common area over the next few days. That night I learned my lesson about taking my malaria medication warnings seriously... I took a pill on an empty stomach and was promptly sick 20 minutes later just after I ordered dinner at the Indochina Spirit Restaurant
Saturday was a chill day. I slept in, ate a late breakfast, did laundry, relaxed and played chess with Jonas, and then motivated myself to get a haircut in the afternoon. I had to walk for an hour and 15 minutes (all over town, basically) until I found a place that was open, but the US$2 price made it worthwhile. Plus the lady had a good way with the #3 clippers! I got a nice walking tour of Luang Prabang while on my search, and the town is beautiful. It's surrounded by green hills, bordered by two rivers (one of which is the Mekong), and home to seemingly hundreds of Buddhist wats (temples). There's much French architecture evident, too, and the whole city just feels relaxed and charming. It's a little touristy in the center (lots of restaurants, travel agencies, guesthouses, and internet cafes), but maybe because it's low season it wasn't too overbearing.
That evening we climbed Phu Si, the hill in the center of town, and sat near the wat at the top to watch the sun set over the Mekong. It was gorgeous. We had dinner at Nazim Indian Restaurant (which we'd also enjoyed in Muang Sing), and then walked through the street market where dozens of ladies set up shop on the curb to sell their handbags and trinkets
Sunday was quiet, too. Jonas and I slept late again, and then stopped in a travel agency to try and change our flights out of Bangkok. We had to sit in the office with the agent for about two hours and constantly proofread his work, but I think we succeeded in the end. If all goes according to plan, I should be leaving Bangkok for Istanbul on July 15th instead of June 5. But that's a big "if," and I'm not 100% confident in our LP travel agent. Anyway, we spent the rest of the day doing touristy things - primarily the Royal Museum (like a smaller version of the National Museum in Bangkok) and Wat Xieng Thong (more ornate temples). Then we booked tickets for a full-day tour of some local sights for Monday, and hung out around the guesthouse for the rest of the night.
Monday was a full-on "tourist" day. First we took a slow boat up the river at 8am to a Lao Lao whiskey village, where I found and bought a bottle of rice wine that was similar to the brem wine that I'd enjoyed so much in Ubud, Bali. Then we continued to the Pak Ou caves, which are an overhyped & crowded cluster of shallow caves above the Mekong containing thousands of Buddha statues. On the way back to town we paused at a paper-making village, where we all sat around in the shade
When we got back to LP, we booked tickets for the Tuesday 10am VIP bus to Vang Vieng. The 6-hour trip is infamous because that stretch of road is where Hmong rebels shot up a few busloads of people (including some unfortunate tourists) sporadically in recent years. Supposedly the rebels and the government have "worked things out," but I was still very conscious of the history of the route...
OK, my fingers are done for the day. So far, Laos is brilliant. The people are genuinely friendly and generous, and they're not demanding or obtrusive when they try to sell products or services. The scenery and wildlife are spectacular, too, and the whole country has an indescribably good-natured and relaxed feel to it. I'm glad I opted for a 30-day visa, but it leaves open so many potential places to explore. Next up: Vang Vieng, and probably Vientiane!