To the North!

Trip Start Apr 16, 2005
Trip End Jul 28, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

OK. I'm back on a computer and willing to focus for at least an hour to get this blog up to date.

We decided to take a slow boat trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw - the views promised to be spectacular. We woke up early to go to the "dock" to ensure we had a place on the boat. This is when we got our first taste of what travel in the north was going to be like. Previously we had been treated to mini-vans running on some sort of schedule, but now were were dealing with departure times that are dictated by either 1) having a full boat of paying customers, or 2) having a partially full boat of customers who are willing to pay a little bit more each (i.e. privately charter the damn boat). So we ended up hanging around for a few hours until enough people filtered in. This system is fine and well and understandable, it's just annoying that they pretend to operate some kind of legit business, with a timetable and fixed rate, and it causes many people to get upset.

At last we made it on the boat and began our very slow voyage to Nong Khiaw. The views were more than fantastic ... they were stunning. For hours we were treated to non-stop nature at its best, with a token water buffalo and fisherman tossed in for good measure. It was fabulous. In some parts the water was smooth as glass, providing a perfect reflection. At other points were going up through small rapids. The skies were blue with perfect white clouds, the mountains all around covered with green, and the water clean. What more could we ask for? Twice we stopped off at some deserted bit of sandy beach for a toilet break and then pushed on. How wonderful it was to not be shuffled here and there along the way, taking in forced stops to buy drinks and snacks from vendors so the driver could get a kickback.

As seemed to happen a lot during the next few weeks, during the long trip to our destination my imagination worked out what our destination town would be like. And I was always way off base ... my imagination always sets me up for a fall it seems. When we arrived in Nong Khiaw we realized quickly that this was no town, and barely qualified as a village (Kyle has decided that these small bundles of dwelling are called hamlets). We checked into a very small school-by-day / guesthouse-by-night place and then found something to eat. At the only restaurant in town we met Dan (English) and Mark (American) and were enticed by their tales of trekking in the very northern part of Lao (between Mark's passionate rants against GW Bush). Since we had no other engagements, we decided it would be cool to travel that way together.

The next day we woke up early to catch the boat to Muang Noi Neua, a village located one hour upstream from us (only accessible by water). At this point we got a second experience with travel aggravation - the posted time table and fee was apparently just there to patronize foreigners. Local people seemingly had no problems with the system, it was just the foreigners who were being bamboozled. The problem is that compared with local people we are rich and they know it and want a piece for themselves. Although I can't blame them at all, I wish they would realize that our money is only worth something in their country - when I return to Canada I will be just as broke as they are. Anyways. No offense at all to British people, but I have witnessed time and again the rage that Principals and Pride issues will create and I find it embarrassing when I'm caught in the middle. Dan, our group's self-declared spokesperson, would not tolerate the boat office manager's refusal to stick with the posted information and went way too far in his criticism, accusing the boat office man of being a bad person etc. The negotiation was going nowhere. At long last, the boat office guy agreed to lower the price and we were within $1 (split between 10 people) when Dan called the whole thing off. Give me a break. The whole system is quite corrupt and they have all the power. I'm more than willing to pay the extra $0.10 to get to where I want to be and not haggle over a western standards issue.

We played coy and walked away from his office and went to eat breakfast - the idea was to get the guy nervous that we wouldn't use his services (yeah right, we weren't going anywhere without a boat!). After we let him sweat it out a bit Dan and I left the group and went to haggle some more. On the way I bumped into our captain from the previous day's trip and asked him if we could hire him privately. He said ok, I went to get the others. But within the time it took for everyone to get from the restaurant to the boat (two minutes) the deal was off - the boat office guy had intimidated our captain. About an hour later we agreed to a price (higher than we wanted of course) and were off. Phew!

Muang Noi Neua was very similar to Nong Khiaw. Again, I had pictured a bustling town full of travellers, but no one was there at all. Kyle and I had been hoping to hit up a bank for some money, but that idea was blown out of the water. There shall be no money in northern Lao. Oops. Time to scrape together all our Canadian, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese money for exchange and hope we can get by. We checked into another very dodgy guesthouse - shared bathroom again (I hate that), no electricity, and bamboo walls. It would be fine for a night. Besides, we were on our way to Phongsali, which promised to be a busy northern frontier town. Here we met up with Robin (Canadian) who was also interested in the trip. I was really glad to have another female around, and she's super friendly and talkative, so even better. We enjoyed the day in the scorching heat walking around town (no motorized vehicles whatsoever), visiting caves, and watching the locals play volleyball using their feet and a bamboo ball. The next morning we were on our way to lovely Phongsali!
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