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May 07, 2005

The Rest of Lao

Luang Prabang, the town from which I wrote my last entry, was a nice enough place, and I spent a few days there eating Indian food, riding a bike to a temple (one of many!), drinking at a bar hip enough for even San Francisco, and buying souvenirs at the night market. I didn't stay long, though--I had met up with another American, Trevor, who was headed north, and since I was getting lazy and thought I could use some company for the trip, I moved things up a bit to travel with him. We took a slow boat to Nong Khiaw; it was a nice enough trip through some beautiful country, but it was slow going (guess that's why they call it the slow boat, duh) through the shallow, dry-season river, and we even had to get out and push at one point! But it was worth it: Nong Khiaw is a lovely little town in a spectacular setting, straddling a river (unfortunately, the massive concrete bridge is a bit of an eyesore) and surrounded by sky-scraping, tree-covered limestone cliffs.

We stayed in primitive bungalows by the river for $2 each, and spent a relaxing day in town. We "bathed" in the river like the locals do, since our place didn't have running water and the stuff in the cisterns looked like it had been there a good long while. I'm sure the muddy brown river water didn't leave me much cleaner than I began, but it was fun nonetheless.

Trevor's plans changed and I found myself headed further north alone, but luckily I was feeling a little re-energized and ready for the journey--good thing, since I was going to need it! The trip to Luang Nam Tha should have taken about 6 1/2 hours according to my guidebook, but it took about 10 instead. The songthaew (pick-up with bench seats in the back) left half an hour late, and for the first 3 1/2 hours, about 15 farangs (foreigners) and a few Lao people were crammed in at all angles, and hanging off the back, with a pyramid of backpacks perched on top. It was a curvy, bumpy ride with very little padding on the bench seat and very little leg room. Finally, we arrived in Odomxai and all bought tickets for the bus to Luang Nam Tha, which was supposed to leave in about 30 minutes. It did, with us travelers and one Lao woman on board. We drove about five minutes, then pulled into a guesthouse where the driver killed the engine and hopped out without saying a word. After a while we tried to figure out what was going on. The driver didn't speak much English, but we finally determined that we were waiting for something, and that we would probably be waiting for some time. About an hour later, after a frantic call on his cell phone, the driver hopped back in the bus and took off--with some passengers on board, and the rest of us standing stunned in the driveway while he took off with all of our stuff! We trusted that the others on the bus wouldn't let him actually leave without us, but it was still nervewracking. Sure enough, he roared up to the curb about five minutes later. About 30 Lao people also materialized around the same time, obviously intent on loading themselves and all of their stuff onto a bus that us Westerners considered to already be quite full. They were an interesting crew, wearing rather professional-looking clothes, some carrying briefcases and all with similarly shaped packages--I wondered if maybe they'd been at a conference or something. About 20 minutes later, we finally left, with about half those people crowded into the aisles and front of the bus and the other half left on the sidewalk scratching their heads, surely wondering how they'd be getting to Luang Nam Tha anytime soon.

En route, the Lao women sang and clapped and told stories (or so it seemed) loud enough for the whole bus to hear. It was entertaining for the first twenty minutes or so, but after an hour or more it started to wear thin. It occurred to me that what I had started out thinking were traditional Lao folk songs could just as easily be their version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall!" I leaned forward and said to the Brits and Canadians in front of me, "I don't know which is worse--this or the songthaew!" Without pause, they all said flatly, "This."

We arrived in Luang Nam Tha at 9:30 pm, and the wide streets were dark, wet with rain, and practically deserted. An English girl, Rachael, and I looked together for a place to stay. By the time we found rooms and headed back out to the street, the restaurants were closing their gates right before our eyes. We quickly learned that the guy at our hotel was not going to be any help. I asked him "Can we eat here? In restaurant?", and he said "Twelve." Hmmm. We headed off to find another place. We came back ten minutes later fearing it was already too late. I asked him if we could have some bread, fruit, anything--surely there's something in their kitchen, if they have a restaurant! He glared at me and said "I Chinese, I don't know Lao." I said, "I don't know Lao either, I'm speaking English." He just stared at me. We headed off again, searching for food. We stumbled into a few places where people were eating, and they'd all stop and stare at us--we'd motion that we'd like to eat, and they'd just sit there, or maybe one would shake his head. One of the places we walked into could have been someone's house, but we're not sure! Finally we found a strange market full of gift baskets of food and other strange objects, and bought potato chips and beer--a sorry consolation of a dinner!

The next morning, there was no water in my room. I told the guy downstairs (same one who'd been so not-helpful the night before) and he just laughed and didn't say anything to me, but instead talked to the guy who works at the place across the street, who finally explained that there wasn't water anywhere in the city, and it happens every morning but they don't know what time. He said maybe in an hour it would be back on. I asked him if anyone at my hotel spoke English, and he said "A little." I went and had breakfast and wandered around a bit. When I came back at noon, there still wasn't any water. I talked to the guy again, asking if I could switch rooms, get the water fixed, talk to someone who speaks English...he just laughed nervously and said sorry a lot and was no help at all, so I told him I'd have to leave if he couldn't help me, and he just said okay. Both Rachael and I checked out a few minutes later and he was completely nonplussed--he seemed more interested in getting back to his TV show than losing two customers. Interesting way to run a business!

Thankfully, finding a new guesthouse with charming little bungalows went a long way towards making the day brighter. But, I still found Luang Nam Tha a rather unappealing little town of wide streets pretty much void of activity and bordered by bland concrete buildings. Rachael and I were looking for a way out asap. A few treks sounded interesting, but most had a minimum of four people and there weren't enough people in town to fill the ones we were interested in! But then we found out about a 3-day kayaking trip to the town of Huay Xai on the Thai border--a place both of us needed to go anyway--and we signed up immediately.

The trip was fun, but a little disappointing, which I think is mostly because we paid quite a bit by Lao standards, so expected a lot, and the tour didn't totally deliver: We were pretty much running out of food and water by the last day. The longtail boat we took the last day--for over eight hours--was uncovered with no protection from the blazing sun. And, in comparison to some of the treks I'd read about where you get to have dinner with the chief of the village where you stay, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of interaction with the villagers in the places we stayed. To top it all off, our group included a 21-year-old Brit know-it-all who quickly began to drive me crazy. On some topics I wasn't sure whether he knew what he was talking about, and didn't really care--I'd just tune him out--but when he said "I guarantee you, every time you hear a rooster crow, look outside and it'll be light out," I knew he was full of shit. I've had plenty of sleepless nights on the road these past nine months because roosters all over the world crow all night, all day...they don't care what time it is.

We did have some fun times with the kids at the villages we stopped at on the first night, and had the fun experience of having the villagers stare at us while we ate dinner at the village on the second night! We also bathed in the river that night, in some insanely strong rushing water--I had to hold someone's hand while I sunk down to rinse the shampoo out of my hair, and we all ended up about 20 feet downstream from where we started! Extreme bathing, to be sure.

So I steered clear of the annoying lad and kept well-covered on day three in the sun, and made it to the border in one piece. The next morning I took the first boat to Thailand, happy to be alone and back in the land of ATMs and other conveniences. I took the bus to Chiang Mai, where I am now. That was a good day, full of nice surprises (except for the bus ride that took longer than expected). First, I found a tuk-tuk driver who was nice and fair. Then, I bought bread that the woman told me was 20 Baht (about 50 cents), but she gave it to me for 15. The woman at the fruit stand threw in a couple extra rambutans and was honest about giving me back my money--I'd given her 60 because I thought she said it cost 50 rather than 15. A monk on the bus gave me a bottle of water out of the blue, and the bus had a not-gross bathroom--the first bathroom I've seen on any bus since South America, I think--and thankfully, since my stomach was a little funny that morning. Then I found a nice place to stay with a little charm, just what I was looking for, thanks to my friend Erica's recommendation. A very auspicious start to the rest of my time in Thailand! Chiang Mai is a really pleasant, small-feeling big city and I'm planning to spend a full week here--but more on that and how I'm spending my time here (think cooking classes and elephant rides and bookstores) in the next posting!

Posted by Amy on May 7, 2005 04:35 AM
Category: Lao

aw, yay! I'm so glad you're finally in Chiang Mai. Years from now its the happy memories that you'll remember, the small charming and genuine moments.

And you were totally right about the roosters. ROOSTERS SUCK.

Posted by: missmobtown on May 7, 2005 10:53 AM

Don't you just love Chiang Mai? And it must be so nice to be back in the company of the Thai people. Thailand can so easily feel like home, because of the generosity and honesty of the Thai people. I love it!

I did a 3-day trek to two hill tribe villages from Chiang Mai. It was beautiful and fun. I did feel hesitant about it though, after reading about the politics of the Thai hill tribes.

Posted by: amber p on May 9, 2005 09:55 AM
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