I decided that my entry in to Laos would be by the renowned ‘slow boat’, a two day journey down the Mekong River with yet more amazing views. The boat stops after day one in the small town of Pakbeng; I arrived along with the other 180 people descending from the two boats. I had readied myself for expensive accommodation or sleeping under the stars so was pleasantly surprised to get a reasonably priced guesthouse. The proprietors meet the boats and all offer the same priced rooms so it was less stressful than I had imagined it might be.
The morning after I was up at 7am for the next epic boat journey arriving in Luang Prabang as the sun was setting. Yet again a flock of tuktuks to ferry people to guesthouses – all very organised and cuts competition.
First stop a night market and something to eat. The following day saw a few of us group together to get a tuktuk to Kuang Si waterfall. Aqua marine pools overflowing in to three tiered waterfalls that are accessed by a walking trail up the side. Jamie did a log balance for a beer bet but lost – haha!
An easier day followed, exploring the city via many more temples. We crossed a bamboo bridge, that has to be rebuilt every two years, in to a quiet little village where they made paper and textiles from elephant dung! Spent the evening at a very ‘arty’ café where they were showing the film ‘The Revenant’ – interesting!
Nong Khiaw, Oudomaxi, Luang Namtha, and Muang Khou
After saying farewell to the group, they were going south, I headed north. A bumpy bus ride took me aside some incredible mountainous views and I arrived around 4 hours later to a quaint village either side of a river with a bridge connection. I found a cheap guest house, not really any hostels here in Laos, and caught up with a welsh guy, Nye, who I had met previously. We climbed a mountain to watch a stunning sunset before treating myself to some traditional farmer’s sausages, with paste, leaf veg and fried leaves, possibly bamboo, with sesame seeds. I’ve tried to reduce my meat consumption since leaving home and this was perhaps only the fourth time I’d eaten meat since Bangkok.
Both suffering from colds and rough nights, not being able to sleep, we decided to take it easy the morning after and I caught up with some housekeeping – laundry, washing essentials in the sink – have to admit I don’t do this very often but then again I am in good company; laundry is not a top priority of a backpacker!
Having researched some treks we put down a deposit on one, hoping that more people would join and so reduce the cost and enable us to keep to our budget. We then hired bikes to do a bit of exploring. Along the way I helped a boy fix the chain on his bike only for it to happen to me later on due to dodgy gears.
Luckily more people joined the trek and so we were off early with our guide ‘Moon’. We walked through the village and out to the rice fields where women were harvesting a dried lettuce type plant that we ate that evening. Andras walked with no top on; he was so hairy they called him a monkey and all the locals thought it was very funny. He also used a bandana to wipe his sweat off his torso and head then wrung it out – yuk!!!!! I wonder how often he does his laundry??
We trekked through the jungle getting glimpses of mountain views, the path was quite damp and narrow in places. Moon described different things along the way such as what we could eat, or told us about the culture, farming and the tribes. We arrived after a few hours at a temporary house that they used for farming and had noodles with a nice sweet chilli sauce and papaya we cut from a tree. We continued ascending through the jungle, out past a fishing pond and river then down a track into the village. We sat with Bulint the owner of the homestay resting and drinking. The others refreshed by pouring cold water over themselves, creating makeshift showers but I used the spring. We had an interesting tour of the village getting shown round a school made from clay, then through the village to watch them building bamboo houses and carrying out their daily chores.
Bullint had hurt his leg chopping wood with his machete so was hobbling around in a lot of pain but could not afford to rest. He had been driven to the capital to get it sorted – an 8 hour drive away! To help relieve the pain, that evening he put leaves over the fire to warm them and put them on his leg. He then put some LaoLao rice whiskey in a bowl, set fire to it and put the burning alcohol on his leg!
The name Lao-Lao is not the same word repeated twice, but two different words pronounced with different tones: the first, means “alcohol” and is pronounced with a low-falling tone in the standard dialect, while the second, means Laotian (“Lao”) and is pronounced with a high-rising tone.
We then ate together, sat on the floor, with wild pig, sardines, salads and sticky rice. Bulint ended the evening by giving us white string bracelets from the Buddhist culture to bring us good luck in everything we do.
Lisa and I gazed at the stars for only a little while because we got told the bamboo terrace we were on was not safe. Nye and I watched a bit of TV with Bulint as he rested trying his best to explain a traditional Buddhist song on the TV. We then sat around the fire quite quiet from trekking, with Moon playing his guitar.
Woken as normal in Laos by thousands of cockerels and had a sticky rice breakfast and noodle soup. We walked across to the next village where Hmong and Khamout tribes where living together this has been initiated and promoted by the government to try and get them to work together.
We followed the path through a few other very friendly tribes where they were drying plants for washing powder and relaxing due to it not being harvest season. The views were spectacular from the road with no trees blocking the view. At the river we jumped in a wooden boat to the village on the other side where we ate lunch of seaweed, sesame seeds, sticky rice and cabbage while watching the blacksmiths making machetes. We took a half hour walk to the river and up to the waterfall then jumped in the freezing cold water under the fall, very refreshing after a hot and sticky day although an insect got trapped under my T-shirt and bit me to hell, leaving its stinger. Later we enjoyed a 2 hour kayaking trip before spending the evening relaxing with an Israeli girl we’d met who played acoustic Israeli music on her guitar.
The 4 hour journey to Oudomaxi was by a private bus that we had bartered for, as the regular bus service wasn’t running that day. Some Chinese people had forgotten their bags so 10 minutes in to the journey we had to return so they could get their things, then when we eventually arrived they complained that the bus hadn’t taken us far enough! After more confusion we discovered the connecting bus we needed wasn’t running either so a group of us booked in to a guesthouse. The Israeli girl went out to get us all noodle soup – the third time in two days. Woke up for more sticky rice, noodle soup and omelettes and proceeded to miss our bus!!!!! Waiting for the next one with the departure time constantly changing we were concerned that we might never depart the village, so we decided to sit on the bus till it eventually left.
Arriving in Luang Namtha we were pretty disappointed; we had a bit of a walk around but the most n offer were treks very similar to what we have done already. A small town and night market didn’t leave us much to do; the highlight being that the hotel lost our room key so I climbed into our room off a very precarious banister through a back window to be greeted by a woman from the hotel hacking into the door lock with a meat cleaver and a knife – Haha!!! Had a noisy night with all the locals setting off fireworks for Chinese New Year but no bar parties for us unfortunately – too small a town I think!!!
Next stop Muang Khou. My memory of this place will be the markets selling chunks of python and voles that looked like rats!!! As well as being woken at 6am with the local news broadcast over a megaphone in the village obviously all in Lao. On our way to find some breakfast we found the road blocked with people. Minutes later the local monks from the temple came walking through the village bare foot, singing and chanting. The people put sticky rice from bamboo baskets into the monk’s big brass containers, then more chanting and singing with the locals putting some sticky rice in the road and pouring water around it before the monks left. A very interesting experience and different to that in Labrang China!!
My next experience was that of a sleeper bus. It started off as a great chilled ride but as the heat rose and we were above the engine it became increasingly uncomfortable. The only position possible to cope was lied down but then we couldn’t see where we were going. Not the most pleasant 15 hour journey! En-route the bus stops at road side stalls selling food. Nye and myself bought some noodle soup – bad decision! We arrived in Vang Vieng being sick from food poisoning and with nowhere to stay. We knocked on doors waking people up but there seemed to be no vacancies. In the end a guy let us sleep on his restaurant floor on some spare mattresses he had. What a legend – couldn’t thank him enough. However, we had to be up at 6am so he could prepare the restaurant for business – felt slightly better after some sleep but still shaky and sweating. It turned out the day wasn’t going to get any better quickly. I searched for an ATM to withdraw some money. The first machine was out of order, the second ate my card!!! I was then in a quandary as to what to do… if I walked away and the machine spat out my card and my money that would be the last I saw of either but waiting around wasn’t bringing much joy either. I asked a restaurant proprietor nearby and he advised I went to the bank, only to realise they needed proof of identity – I hadn’t got my passport with me. Eventually the card was returned to me and I continued my search for money.
The day started to improve then as we rented scooters and found scenery similar but better than Yangshou (China). It would have been good to investigate further but the roads had turned to dirt tracks and I was worried about the bikes. We had been told they were new and I didn’t want to get caught up in a scam where they charge you for any damage you didn’t do. There is no way out of paying as they take your passport as a deposit.
Next journey a 4 hour bus ride to the capital Vientianne. On the way the bus took its customary stop at a noodle stall – I stayed on the bus just the sight of it made me feel sick after last time!