Chapter 37: Loving life in Laos

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Wednesday, May 5, 2004

The contrast between Chiang Khong and Huay Xai was striking. Things were much quieter on the Laos side of the river, and more bicycles than motorcycles roamed the streets. It looked and felt poorer, but was also much more peaceful. Still friggin' hot, of course. The town of Huay Xai is small, but the main street is full of guesthouses, so we auditioned a few before moving into the Keochampa Hotel. Our first priority was changing money, so we walked up the street to the bank, and Jonas and I each traded 3,000B (US$75) for thick stacks of kip, the Lao currency. US$1 = 10,400 kip, and the largest notes are 20,000k (mostly we received 5,000k notes), so we had trouble finding places to stash all the dirty old bills.

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. There wasn't much to do in Huay Xai, so after a decent meal at Nutpip Restaurant we sat outside at a bar near our hotel playing cards and enjoying the famous Beer Lao. Two Kiwi guys - almost the only other tourists we saw in Huay Xai - came and joined us for a while until we realized it was after 11 and the owners had wanted to close for an hour already. Laos has a crazy-early curfew of sorts; most bars are shut, and most guesthouses lock their doors, around 10pm. Being new to the country, we didn't realize this, so we were surprised to find ourselves locked out of the Keochampa. After trying various basement windows and doors we just banged on the front gate until some poor fellow came down to let us in.

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. On closer inspection, tiny packages of opium were hidden in their palms under the bracelets, and you could hear the plastic rustling under the hats as they whispered "ganja!" US$2/bag... Welcome to Laos! The ladies became comic relief over the next few days, as they were omnipresent and very persistent.

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. We rationalized that in the meantime we could go spend a day in Muang Sing, and if we decided to trek there we could call and cancel in Nam Tha. The benefit of doing the hike from Nam Tha would be the opportunity to walk through the jungle in the Nam Ha Protected Area, while Muang Sing would offer more village stops and less nature.

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. While at the office we met a 43 year old American named Eric, and he seemed interested in maybe joining our Nam Tha trip. Damian, on the other hand, was waffling, as he wanted to go with the guys in Muang Sing. I was neutral, and would have been happy either way, although the Muang Sing trip would probably have just been a string of opium den visits. The town and surrounding area have been famous opium-producing centers for decades.

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 had a quick lunch at a place with good baguettes (some benefits of the French influence in Laos are the French bread, cheese, and wine that are staples here), and then we split off to take care of errands. The four of us (including Eric) met again around 5 to pay for our trek and get lists of things to bring (clothes, flashlight, towel...), and then we had dinner at the Many Chan Restaurant and packed for our trip.

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. I mostly ate sticky rice and chili paste, and the taste became familiar over the next few days. It started to rain during lunch, but thankfully it let up soon after we resumed our hike. Bouaket was a very knowledgable guide, and he pointed out many plants and trees with special uses. He was also very accommodating, and constantly checked to make sure we were OK. He lacked Chart's charisma and sense of "fun," though, so I found his style a little dry. This trip started seeming less like an adventure, and more like an extended guided nature walk. The rainforest was beautiful, and I was glad to be walking through the park, but sometimes I wondered whether I'd have been happier trekking with the younger group in Muang Sing. I think probably my expectations were too high after I enjoyed the Thailand trek so much, and plus the group dynamic had changed. Gavin had brought his youthful goofy charm to the last group, while Eric... well, he sucked. OK, that's harsh - he was friendly and meant well, but he talked far too much, and it seemed he was the authority on everything. He also enjoyed preaching to us about all the things the villagers were doing wrong (as a Green Party member he was particularly irate about the burning of the forest to grow crops), which just seemed arrogant. Jonas and I did a lot of eye-rolling.

The trail was more defined than on the Thailand trek, though, so at least the going wasn't so rough. We got some stunning views of the Laos countryside as well. In the early afternoon we reached a junction that seemed like a nice resting spot until Jonas was stung by a bee. So we continued hastily up one trail to a deserted Akha village. It was cool seeing the shells of the thatched huts and bamboo shelters... the setting reminded me of an old "Scooby-Doo" ghost town or something. Apparently the villagers were hunting too many animals and cutting down too many trees in the protected area, so the government just moved them all to a new village near the road about a year ago.

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. The nearest toilet was the forest, but the village had a brand new DVD/TV combo (that I helped set up), and there were a few generators, so the people weren't totally lacking for comforts. Every person in the village was seated in the gathering room (or whatever) for the unveiling of the DVD player... I think the only two discs they had were "Hamburger Hill" and some karaoke. Weird. Dinner was nice - sticky rice and chili paste with some chicken/rattan soup - and we got to try the local moonshine (Lao Lao whiskey), which was pretty harsh but not undrinkable. We met the "head man" (chief) of the village, who is elected every few years to be a liaison to the government. I'd imagine it's difficult to get re-elected if you're the one stuck breaking the news to the villagers that they have to burn the opium fields and start growing peanuts...

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. I found a beautiful 3-foot long bright green Oriental Whipsnake which posed for pictures. We tried to scare it off into the forest when a local guy approached, because we assumed he'd try to kill it (Bouaket confirmed this). Eventually we came down out of the forest into some rice paddies, and found ourselves in a Red Thai village with a market, satellite dishes, stores, and addresses on the buildings! It was a little strange to encounter motorbikes and cars on our wilderness trek, but it was nice to be able to order a Coke, and Bouaket bought us noodle soup for lunch.

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. At 8pm or so I walked down to the water with my flashlight to go snake-hunting, and I was rewarded by finding the lamest snake possible: a big worm snake, which basically looks and acts like an oversized earthworm.

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. Christian, Jonas, and I decided to head south the next morning for Luang Prabang by bus (instead of going east) - the decision was based partly on timing and partly on the desire to get to a real city. That night over dinner we compared notes on the two treks... both of them had enjoyed the Laos trek more, while I had much more fun on the Pai trip. The Nam Tha trek was still a good experience, but it just wasn't as great an adventure for me as the first one had been.

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. The pizza was tasty, I'm sure, but I didn't feel much like eating anymore.

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. It was peaceful and candle-lit, but pretty touristy.

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. We got back to LP at 1:30, and only had 1/2 hour to grab lunch before Phase 2: the Kuang Si waterfall. The minivan ride to the park lasted an hour, and then we hung out at Kuang Si until 5pm. To my surprise, the waterfalls were a lot of fun, and they were beautiful. A series of idyllic blue jungle pools were connected by small waterfalls, and there were a few major falls at the top of the pools. Lots of locals and foreigners were swimming; Christian took a dip, but Jonas and I hiked on the surrounding trekking trails instead and made our way up to the very top of the falls. Great view! The park was also home to a tiger named "Phet" who had been rescued from poachers as a cub. Phet's story was pretty touching, and she had a nice large enclosure and looked happy enough.

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!
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