I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time in Luang Prabang, and for the first time in quite a while I felt as though I was clearly leaving a place before I really wanted to. But I had less than two weeks left on my Lao visa and other destinations in that wonderful country called.
The morning of my departure I woke early, finished packing and headed towards the house of a boat driver I’d met who was headed to north to Nong Khiaw that foggy morning.
But never made it. Said boat driver had planned to charge me 100 000 kip ($US10) but as I passed the town boat dock I found a Lao man offering a ticket on the same trip for 85 000. I headed down towards the boats with him and handed over my money. He’d just begun to walk away when I saw Sunny a Chinese woman who’d stayed in the dorm with me headed towards the boats. In no time I’d determined that she was also headed to Nong Khiaw and had paid only 65 000 for her ticket at the official ticket office which I’d somehow missed. The embarrassed Lao handed back my money and I walked up and purchased the ticket myself.
I headed back down to the mist covered boat landing where I sat and waited for my boat to depart (and since no transport in Laos goes anywhere until it’s full I figured it could be a while.)
Finally after I headed back up to the road for breakfast, after some re-arranging of passengers and after two more people showed up we departed up the Mekong for our eight hour journey with the surprisingly sparse cargo of five paying fares plus the driver’s wife.
The amount of waiting before departure was in almost no way a bad thing. It meant that most of the mist had lifted by the time we were away and I could enjoy the sights along the way right from the start (and since the bus to Nong Khiaw was faster and cheaper there was no other reason for taking the boat.)
The Mekong was generally pretty, though the first of the real highlights came as we turned off the Mekong itself and up onto a tributary, the Nam Ou. At their confluence are two wonderful sights. First the Pak Ou caves, filled with hundreds of antique Buddha images. While only the entrance is really visible from the river, they were still quite nice. More impressive still were the cliffs that towered above the Nam Ou just as we entered it. They were made even more spectacular by the fact that in the morning calm everything above was reflected onto the river below.
The boat carried on up the Nam Ou, pleasantly similar to my Cambodian river trips with the wind in my hair and the sun above the (covered in this case) boat. Different from most of the Cambodian Mekong, however, was the relative paucity of settlements here. Villages did appear now and again, but they were clearly the exception rather than the rule. The rule was gorgeous steep green mountain slopes, the vegetation occasionally broken when the slopes became to steep and rocky to sustain it.
Aside from the absolutely beautiful scenery (this trip was clearly the best river voyage I’d yet taken) the boat ride also provided pleasant company in the form of an Englishman named Jeff and a French couple. Jeff and I chatted during the scenery’s mildly less wonderful moments, and made a vow to not let the boat leave without the other when we stopped at our boat pilot’s village. By the time we stopped the sun was high and hot. We only really had time for a quick walk around, but still managed to entertain and be entertained by the local ladies who were busy spooling thread and then weaving it into cloth, all by hand.
Upon reboarding we carried on up the river, through still more lovely mountains. But the Nam Ou was saving its very best for last. We rounded a bend in the river and Nong Khiaw came into view with its bridge and (much more importantly) the towering rocky peaks dominating the valley above it.
In the late afternoon sun some areas were a dark, shadowy grey, while others were a rich almost orange colour. As we climbed of the boat I had a choice to make. There was a boat leaving straight away or Muang Ngoi, an hour further north, and reputed to be just as beautiful and still more isolated. In the end the prettiness of the view and the recommendations of my southern Laos companion Kate won me over and within five seconds of boarding the boat I changed my mind and headed up the hill into Nong Khiaw with Jeff.
We crossed over the bridge absolutely stunning views of the valley and mountains, to the far side where the nicest guesthouse was located. It was full, but we found a room at a small family run place (actually all the guesthouses there were small family run places, but this was smaller and more familial than most) and headed over to the prettier Sunset Guesthouse for dinner.
Jeff and I sat down with two women, Jyai (I hope I’ve spelled her name right…) an Australian and Ursula, a German. We spent the night eating the delicious food (its deliciousness was tempered by the fact that half the items on the menu were unavailable) and talking about all manner of things. The most memorable was Jyai’s particularly Australian comment that something or other was “slow as batshit” which was translated into the far more entertaining “langsame fledermaus scheisse” by Ursula. I think you had to be there.
The next morning in Nong Khiaw I woke up very early and went for a walk. I met Ursula at the Sunset and we headed across the bridge to the “bus station” (a 10m sq patch of dirt with a single-room wooden ticket office and a few food vendors.) The remains of the mist made the valley look particularly serene in the early morning and so it was… Despite the fact that the Laos generally wake early no one was really up to much when we arrived in the centre of town. I left Ursula to look into her bus and carried on down a random street. I stopped and had some fried noodles that were sold out of the front of a private house for breakfast. In anticipation of going for a walk later I asked the lady when I was done where I could find some sticky rice. In fact I literally asked her “where sticky rice,” but she understood well enough. She pointed me next door where I picked up a 1000 kip bag. It was only a bit later when I returned for more and was refused that I realized I’d been sold a portion of the family’s breakfast. I didn’t feel particularly guilty given that they could undoubtedly buy more uncooked rice and prepare it themselves for much less than the 1000 kip I’d paid.
After breakfast I wandered back to the bus station where, in keeping with Lao transport practices, Ursula was still waiting, 50 minutes after her scheduled departure time. She finally did get aboard and I stopped in at another guesthouse for a fruit shake to supplement my breakfast. There I met Sunny, the Chinese lady I knew from Luang Prabang. We sat and talked for a bit (mostly about some possible travel plans of mine involving China. If anyone has any advice about going from Tibet to China to Pakistan, please let me know) before meeting up with Jeff and heading out for a walk down the road.
This walk, 3km or so in length took us out to a series of caves near Nong Khiaw. All the way we kept seeing more and more beautiful limestone cliffs and towers surrounding us. Upon arriving at the site we climbed down from the road, through some dry rice fields and across a very pretty bridge to the first cave. While not particularly long, this one had huge chambers and was interesting historically as it was used as a command centre by (communist) Pathet Lao fighters during the revolutionary war in the 1960s and 70s. Outside the caves signs indicated the location of bomb craters while inside they pointed out the historical uses of various areas of the complex (e.g. hospital, governor’s quarters, planning room etc.) It was odd to note that the bamboo ladders used to climb between levels had steps 70cm in height or more, especially in light of the fact that most Laos are shorter than us visitors were.
The second cave was different altogether. Named the bank cave because it had been a bank branch during the war (sadly, no elaboration was given on this rather odd bit of information) this one was smaller, longer and much twistier. With the aid of my new headlamp and a couple of flashlights we ventured in, finally making it to the end of the single long passageway. Only one side passage led off on the way there, and while Jeff and Sunny thought it a bit to steep to climb I couldn’t resist exploring while they headed back to daylight.
I just love exploring caves and so was delighted to find that the passage led up or quite a while and a tight squeeze through a crevice led to a small chamber that featured the only cave formations (stalactites etc.) I’d yet seen. While admittedly modest they were quite pretty.
Also unique to this side passageway were the cave crickets! These insects ranged from 10 to 20mm long, if you didn’t count their antennae which were about three times the length of their bodies (a necessary adaptation, given that they’d become the crickets’ primary sense organs in their perpetually black habitat.)
I finally pried myself away from the wonders of the side passage, having crammed myself through another narrow vertical opening but declining to squeeze through a tiny passageway that might not afford me a way back. As I headed back along the main passageway I heard Jeff’s voice calling to me. I assured him that I was okay and that they could head back to town as I planned on doing “just a bit more exploring.”
With that, I returned to a spot I’d noticed earlier and by pressing my feet against the close walls managed to climb up 4m or so to a second level of the cave immediately above the main one. As it turned out there was nothing spectacular there, but I spent quite a while in the area nonetheless. This was due to the fact that it was still harder getting down than it had been to get up. After 20 minutes of trying various approaches I finally made my way down to the main level and the entrance in one piece, muscles aching, exhausted and covered in dirt and dust. I even chose to forgo the third cave, fearing it might hold some equally difficult and irresistible places to explore.
The walk back to town was hot, but still very nice. It was a pleasure to see rural Lao life in action, even if it was just small snippets like these ladies preparing edible river weed for drying.
I returned to the Sunset guesthouse and after meeting up with Jyai headed down to the river for a swim and to clean myself and my clothes off from our spelunking. The Nam Ou at Nong Khiaw may not be THE most impressive place I’ve ever been swimming, but it puts in a good bid. The woman nearby doing her laundry, the men fishing in boats near the centre of the current, the islets rising out of the water and the rocky peaks soaring above made it an absolutely wonderful place for a dip.
I returned to the Sunset where Jyai, Jeff and I spent another afternoon and evening talking, drinking a few Beer Lao and eating still more great Lao food. Conversation topics ranged far and wide from favourite films and authors, recommendations for things to do elsewhere, travel writing and on and on.
The next morning I woke and had a decision to make. In typical Llewish fashion I decided, for no easily explicable reason, to leave Nong Khiaw that day and head northwest towards Luang Nam Tha. It appeared that the fates agreed with this decision as when I arrived at the bus station I found Jeff, two Swedes and a songthaew waiting for one more passenger before departure to Udomxai, an intermediate city on the way there.
For the first part of the ride I sat near the back and talked with Johannes (one of the Swedes) about home and hockey. For the remainder I climbed out the back and stood on the metal platform at the rear of the songthaew with his friend Emile. The scenery was gorgeous (if not quite as overtly spectacular as on the boat trip) high, rolling hills, deep valleys, all covered in incredibly lush green trees, bamboo and vines. The sights were perhaps even eclipsed by the sounds. In contrast to many of the Asian forests I’d been through this one was loud with insect and bird songs by day, even as we drove past. But the best sensory experience of all was the feel and smell of the air as we sped along. Odours are notoriously difficult to describe, so I’ll just say that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d smelled such incredibly sweet and fresh smelling air. Thankfully the road was in spectacularly good shape by Lao standards, so the trip wasn’t even brought down by that.
After climbing the hills in a seemingly endless series of curves we headed back down in similarly snakelike fashion and finally arrived at Udomxai around lunchtime. Jeff was headed towards Pakbeng and so stayed at the bus station while Johannes, Emile and I purchased our tickets for Luang Nam Tha and walked into town for lunch. It appeared that my decision to buy a ticket for that afternoon and not stay a night in Udomxai (once again made on the basis of whimsy) was a good one. There wasn’t much to see or do there, save to climb to a pretty stupa on a hilltop which Johannes and I easily accomplished before returning to the bus station.
We climbed aboard our bus which departed an “early” twenty minutes behind schedule (30 minutes if one counted the obligatory trip to a petrol station before actually getting on the road.) The trip from Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha was similar to the one earlier in the day, though the mode of transport wasn’t quite as nice and the scenery not quite as pretty with lower hills, many of them deforested.
The road remained smooth for most of the trip, and so it was with great pleasure that I saw a sign reading “Luang Nam Tha: 37km” as we passed the turnoff that led to the Chinese border, a mere 50km or so north. My pleasure must have been partly to blame for the fact that we almost immediately encountered SERIOUS road construction and the road dropped from “good” to “rural Cambodian” condition. The final 37km took perhaps 100 minutes, and put us in Luang Nam Tha after dark, but we were there.
All three of us were tired enough from our day’s travel that we headed straight to the hotel that was touted to us with no argument. It actually turned out to be quite a nice place. After getting settled I went out for a walk around town to find a bite to eat. My walk led to an odd conclusion: There wasn’t a Lao restaurant to be found in the entire city. A few western ones were scattered about, but the vast majority were Chinese.
I went into the most active looking of these and sat down beside a lone western woman. We talked while I examined the… interesting… menu (if featured such delights as deep fried bamboo insect and steamed dog) and I learned her name was Monique and she was from Vancouver. She’d been teaching English in China for several months. As I ate (fried rice) we chatted and consumed quite a number of Beer Lao. Before I knew it, it was 00:30, and I really needed to get back to my guesthouse… I all of a sudden had recalled a sign on the wall requesting guests to be back in their rooms by 23:00. I found my way back to discover the shopfront entrance to the place covered by locked metal shutters. I returned to the restaurant and was advised by the owner (via sign language and a bit of Lao) to pound on the shutters. I wandered back and did exactly this, receiving a response from within in no time. With all of the apologetic words I knew, both Lao and English I slinked up to my room and fell into a deep, if somewhat guilt ridden sleep.
I awoke surprisingly early the following morning and set about planning the remainder of my (ever decreasing) time in Laos. My first task was to take a look around the town and decide how much longer I planned to spend there. The results of my exploration were only slightly promising. The town had a few interesting and pretty areas, especially in the morning mist that seemed to cover northern Laos every morning. One difference between Luang Nam Tha and much of the rest of Laos was the very strong Chinese influence on the place. This had been evidencing itself since the previous day, but in the light it was even more obvious. All around town signs appeared with Chinese writing, the features of many residents were clearly different than those of the ethnic Laos and hill tribespeople I’d seen elsewhere even the repairs on the road leading into town were being conducted by a Chinese firm.
Despite these interesting facets there still wasn’t too much to suggest that Luang Nam Tha would be a fascinating place to stay. I found my way to the old market (a new on was under construction nearby) and picked up a bag of sticky rice to have for breakfast while I wandered and pondered.
My main reason for coming to Luang Nam Tha was in order to travel by river down the Nam Tha to Huay Xai and the Thai border. The trip was reputed to be very beautiful and in danger of disappearance due to a planned hydro dam. Since there is no regular passenger service on this route, it can be difficult to arrange passage and I just didn’t feel up to the task right then. As such I continued to wander about and very happily stumbled upon the provincial tourism office. Most official tourism offices I’d encountered in Asia were far from helpful and some verged on active discouragement. Things were different in Luang Nam Tha. The region is well known for the trekking opportunities it offers in the nearby Nam Ha conservation area and the office was spectacularly well arranged to help visitors with these.
Not only did they have information about seemingly all of the private tours of the area, they even offered maps and advice to those who wanted to arrange walks on their own without paying for a package.
The previous night I’d been thinking about walking partway down the Nam Tha to Na Lae and catching a boat from there. The availability of free, impartial advice on doing so pretty much ensured that this was the plan I’d follow.
A brief chat with the office’s director confirmed that my planned route was possible to walk (indeed, I knew that there was a road there) that the distance to be covered was 82km and that I could almost certainly sleep in the many villages along the way, offering the villagers perhaps 5000 kip for the privilege. The director even pointed me to a couple of maps I could photograph with my digital camera and wrote the phrase “may I please sleep here,” in Lao at the back of my guidebook.
With all of this arranged I headed back to my guesthouse to pack. Despite all my wanderings it was still before 09:00 and I was hoping to get started on my walk that day. My completed pack weighed almost 30kg, since I’d allowed it to grow considerably since my walks in Australia and New Zealand (this added weight was largely due to the fact that it now contained 13 books!)
After packing I headed down to the guesthouse restaurant and ordered a HUGE breakfast. I ate about half of it and had the other dishes packed away to carry with me for lunch on the trail.
While eating I met Johan, a doctor working for Medcines Sans Frontiers. We chatted for a while and also took a walk outside when we heard a commotion from the nearby market. Much to our astonishment we discovered that the fuss was caused by about 100 Lao schoolkids lifting up one of the old market buildings and moving it bit by bit across the grounds! Even as it moved, the building creaked, groaned and cracked, requiring repair work in between lifts. Finally the building was in its desired location and we could go back to our breakfasts. (Sadly, I couldn’t get the video file of the market-moving uploaded. It was a big file, but was pretty cool.)
With all of this excitement, it was 10:30 before I finally hoisted my pack and headed down the road out of town. Coincidentally the start of this, perhaps the first REALLY REALLY REAL adventure on my trip er… coincided with the six month anniversary of my departure from home.
In the first stages of my walk that led out of the town and surroundings I met a few people, including an English teacher who taught me a few phrases that would come in handy during my walk. All through this portion of the walk I kept referring back to the maps stored on my camera until finally I crossed the Nam Tha bridge south of town and turned onto the dirt road that would take me all the way to Na Lae.
Shortly after joining the Na Lae road the last vestiges of the town disappeared behind me and I was well and truly into rural Laos. At first I was surrounded by farms on all sides, but before long even these gave way to forested hillsides. About ninety minutes further on I got to my first real out-of-the way Lao village: Ban Soptut, occupied by minority Lantan people. The old ladies and children sitting near the road seemed surprised to see me, but bade me come and sit down with them. I did so and explained (much to their surprise) that I was walking to Na Lae. Everyone present seemed delighted to have me there and they were all smiles. I did my best to chat politely, though several repetitions of all of my Lao phrases lasted about 4 minutes. Before leaving I asked how far it was to Muang (town) Na Lae. “About 10 meun” they answered. I was pleased that they’d understood the phrase I’d taken care to learn, but a bit perturbed that I’d neglected to consider that they might use different units of measurement than me…
Shortly after stopping at the village I took another break for lunch. This was particularly welcome, as by now it was afternoon and the sun was beating down heavily on me. I pulled off to the side of the road into the forest where I sat down beside a small creek. I ate and even filled my water bottle up from the bamboo spout that had been placed there.
After lunch the scenery got even more spectacular as the road entered the edge of the Nam Ha protected area. The forest was rich and green. The sun sparkled on the river below the road and the treetops and bamboo blew in the occasional light breeze.
Though the sun was beating down hard and my feet were a bit sore I was loving the walk. At this point I was quite certain that my legs and back would have no trouble finishing off the walk, though I was ever so slightly concerned about how my feet would hold up.
It seemed to take forever for the intensity of the suns rays to wane, though by 16:00 the walking was quite pleasant once again. This part of the day was absolutely blissful, and I could hardly imagine anything more pleasant. Despite all this, I was a bit worried at not having seen a settlement of any sort in a long time. My feet were quite happy when I rounded a corner and was greeted by the sights and sounds of a large village perched on a hillside by the river. I joyfully tramped down and showed the first young man I came across the request for lodging in my guidebook. He didn’t seem to understand, but in a second we were joined by a large crowd that included the village’s lone English speaker. This young woman was very friendly and polite but said that I’d be much better off asking for accommodation at the smaller village a further 2km down the road.
Not at all disheartened (actually happy to be covering a bit more ground to make up for my late start) I carried on. This confidence waned a bit when a large hill appeared right after the village and the ache in my feet continued to grow. Thankfully it wasn’t too far to the next village.
Upon arriving I was greeted by another crowd of children. I really had no idea who I should ask for a spot to rest, but a group of older men sitting outside on a stilt house overlooking the road looked to be the best bet. After a few tries saying the magic phrase, they understood and one of them rose and beckoned me to follow to his home. I climbed up the steps and took off my shoes before heading inside and setting down my pack. Immediately upon entering I offered the man a 5000 kip note, which he gladly accepted.
The group of people inside were all smiles and responded happily to my bits of Lao. One of them, a young man who I later learned was named Kom Keo even spoke a bit of English. We spent the next hour or so looking over the language section in my guidebook and listening and looking at his bits of English speech and writing, much to his pleasure and the entertainment of all the other family members.
After this, I was offered some food which I gleefully agreed to. My glee abated slightly when a smiling older lady presented me with four huge chunks of pork fat with tiny bits of meat on them, along with a basket of sticky rice. I managed to eat two of the pieces of meat and a lot of rice before signalling that I was full and thanking the family in Lao for the “tasty food.”
After dinner (the family had already eaten) we sat and had another look at the guidebook. Before too long, however, I was worried that it was getting late and I was keeping the family up well past their normal bedtime. I yawned a bit and asked when we would sleep once or twice, which led to them pointing me to my bed in the corner of the room and then, much to my surprise, blowing out the lamp and leaving me alone there.
Given how crowded it was in most Lao houses I’d seen I was astonished that I’d been given a room to my self. All of the others must have crowded into the one small room nearby! I soon realized that this was probably not the case, as it grew noisier and noisier outside. From across the road the sounds of a party of some kind came. There was a rhythmic sound that could have been the stomping of feet or perhaps beating of sticks on a bamboo floor. This was mixed with the chanting of several voices and overlaid with many shouts and laughs. After a while this gave way to gong music, not entirely dissimilar to that of the Tompuen people in northern Cambodia.
At this point despite my tiredness I still wasn’t ready to sleep, and walked out to pee at the back of the village. On my way back I encountered a pair of young boys, perhaps 5 years old who turned out to speak about the best English of anyone in the village. Before I headed back to bed they let me know that the name of the village was Huiliat and that it was occupied by Khamu tribespeople.
After still more of the stomp-chanting things quietened down a bit and I was joined by a couple of young men who I shared the room with. Before long we did all manage to drift of to sleep.
Despite the fact that it was perhaps midnight before we slept the whole village woke at 6:30 or so the next morning. In no time I was packed and ready to hit the road. Before I left though, I was offered breakfast and once again happily accepted. This time the pork fat contained no meat at all, only skin. Nonetheless I managed to eat a bit and to pack some sticky rice into a bag for my lunch.
Before I finally departed the village Kom Keo said goodbye and asked me for some money. I assumed he hadn’t seen my payment to his father the night before and told him so, but left a new pen behind for him to practice his English writing with.
I was a bit concerned with the state of my body when I started out on day 2 of my walk. My feet felt better but were still rather sore, and my muscles were all quite stiff despite the stretch I’d had that morning. I was able to ignore all this for most of the morning, however, as the beautiful misty river valley continued to unfold in front of me. It got even prettier as the last of the mist disappeared floating in little wreaths around the hilltops.
This trip had proved very different than my organized trek in Svannakhet. While the road I was walking was fairly well traveled (I was passed by a vehicle perhaps once per hour and by people on foot every twenty minutes or so) and the villages were more used to outsiders it seemed, somehow, to be more genuine. Perhaps it was the fact that I was doing it all on my own, or perhaps it was the fact that, while they saw a lot of outsiders these villages weren’t accustomed to having them as guests. Either way, it was still very different (though I wouldn’t say better than) my experience in the south of Laos.
As I walked, I’d been worrying a bit about the availability of boats at Na Lae. Despite the fact that I’d been on vessels that had proceeded up seemingly un-navigable waterways, the Nam Tha here was disturbingly shallow. My fears were allayed when just before lunch I heard a boat engine pass while I was buying a (wild!) pomelo from a woman on the trail who spoke no English and (seemingly) no Lao either.
I sat down for lunch, relishing the opportunity to free my aching feet from their sheathes (boots) and to examine them. The general soreness had continued and it felt like I had large blisters developing in a couple of spots. Much to my surprise those locations looked just fine, though I did have a couple of ugly (painless) ones on my toes where they’d been rubbing together.
After lunch I set off down the road and proceeded at a good pace due to my rest and the sight of a second boat headed down the river. Before long, however I was starting to worry a bit again. The forest and river around me were still wonderfully pretty, but since leaving a group of them in the morning I hadn’t seen a village since about 09:00 where I’d stopped and talked with the locals and bought some super-sugary chewing gum at a shop.
I was becoming rather disheartened. The gum, which had briefly lifted my spirits and energy level was long gone, the soreness of my feet continued and was joined by a bit of an ache on my shoulders. While my pack was a very good one and fit quite well I hadn’t carried any weight while hiking for a while, and certainly not 30kg.
I was relieved when I came to a large village, and even more relieved when I was told by two men in quick succession that it was only 30km to Na Lae. I didn’t really know how fast I’d been walking, but it seemed I was making great time! I dearly hoped they’d been right… I began to think that if it was much further I’d give up the next morning and take a songthaew the rest of the way.
After this first village they started to come thick and fast. I asked almost every person I came across how far it was to Na Lae. Although I’d managed to determine (from my guidebook) that a meun was about 12km, problems were compounded by the fact that distances were now being quoted to me in “lak.” Even so, I almost never seemed to get two consistent answers in a row. Between this and the fact that the hot sun was once again upon me I was growing very unhappy indeed.
I was cheered a bit by a couple of kilometres walking with a Lao man to his village, perhaps the largest I’d yet seen. I stopped at one of a few shops in the village and purchased some bottled water (the first I’d seen since leaving Luang Nam Tha. I’d been drinking smoky tasting boiled village water or chemical tasting purified water) and several small candies. I also sat and rested in the shade with my walking companion and the proprietors of the store. Before departing they explained that it was only 20km to Na Lae. Hurray!
Further estimates of the distance to my goal flowed in as I walked through the large settlement and down across the bridge. They ranged wildly, but none seemed too too far. I left the village behind still very sore and tired, but a bit happier about prospects for finishing my walk.
This happiness didn’t last long as large (for this trail) hills and the last of the day’s heat quickly sapped the strength I’d gained by resting. The countryside wasn’t even as pretty there, as I’d left the protected area early that afternoon. I’d been taking regular rest breaks all day in order to tend to my by now very pained feet and to regain energy, but before too much longer I’d had enough walking. Despite there being about two hours of daylight remaining I stopped at the crest of a hill and started to set up my tent. I’d been almost hoping to camp that night in order to get a good look at what had appeared to be spectacular stars, and because I didn’t want to subject any bathing obsessed Lao villagers to the way I smelled by this point.
I’d had to remove almost everything from my bag in order to get the tent out and got some odd looks from three children who exited the woods from a trail near the hilltop. Nonetheless I finished setting up and sat down to read for a bit before heading to bed. I’d barely got started when a lone boy emerged from the same trail. Astonishingly, given his non-existent English, my tiny, tiny bits of Lao and a lot of sign language he managed to say to me: “What do you think you’re doing? It’s silly to camp here. There’s a village, like, 1 lak down the road, why don’t you go sleep there?”
After obtaining his reassurance that “ban mai kai” (village not far) I began taking down my tent and packing up. This, along with the variety of possessions strewn about were very entertaining to the many Laos who had since left the bush and gathered around us. They, like many of the others I’d met seemed particularly interested in the pictures in my guidebooks and in the material that my pack was made from. They were also fascinated by my air mattress and the fact that my tent folded away so small and conveniently.
As it turned out the village wasn’t quite as close I’d hoped, but my long rest ensured that I got there without too much trouble. It was very nearly dark when I arrived, and the first woman I met seemed distressed to see me, but soon I met a young man who showed me to a house I could sleep in. At my request he also took me down to the river for a quick (and desperately needed) bath before returning to the house for dinner. In this village there wasn’t a soul who spoke even one word of English, but I got by okay. Everyone was fascinated by my headlamp, and despite not understanding the English they still got a bit of a kick out of the guidebook.
Dinner was a welcome relief after the previous night’s food. Indeed, it was a delight. As before everyone had already eaten, so I everyone watched while I tucked into purple sticky rice accompanying a delicious mixture of tiny boiled crayfish, served whole and deliciously seasoned (you ate them shell and all) as well as an even more delicious fish laap (it too was a bit crunchy due to the presence of many small bones, but these were easily chewed up and swallowed.)
This night my hosts even set up a mosquito net for me. My delight was tempered by the fact that they asked 25 000 kip for the accommodation (in which I shared a mattress and small blanket with another young man.) It wasn’t so much that I minded paying this amount, but that it made me wish I’d given more to my previous hosts who, despite the unappealing food, had actually been rather more hospitable.
The next morning I was up and ready to go very early. I accepted a bag of sticky rice and was on the road by 06:30, intent on finishing my walk before the sun got really hot again. My feet were very sore once again before I’d even walked an hour, but one of my hosts had told me it was only 10 lak to Na Lae. It had finally occurred to me that I already knew what a lak was: one kilometre. I’d even commented on it in previous ‘blog entries, but fatigue must have been affecting my brain. This meant that I might well be finished my walk before 10:00!
Before long it became quite apparent that my host had been mistaken. At 07:30 a man on a motorcycle who spoke English told me he expected it would take me 3.5 hours to reach Na Lae. At 08:00 someone else told me I was still 11km distant. I wasn’t happy about this, but was still confident I could manage it, despite the fact that overall fatigue had added itself to the specific pains I was enduring.
At this point the walk was becoming a test of will. The prettiest scenery was long behind me and I was really only continuing because I wanted to finish what I’d started. Some of the usually friendly Laos even seemed to be turning against me. Three girls I passed didn’t respond to my calls of “sabai di” (hello), casting their eyes to the ground and increasing their pace to get away from me. The next girl I encountered, all alone actually turned around and sprinted away at the first sight of me.
There were still occasional moments, however, that brought a smile to my face and made me forget about the pain and tiredness. Perhaps the most memorable of these was when I passed a largish village and it seemed that almost everyone in the place ran out to greet me. First were the young children, followed by the old people, then the adults. Even the teenagers joined them! They were more than happy to have their photos taken and were even more than usually delighted to see the results on the LCD display of my camera. Everyone took a turn lifting up my pack. They struggled with it and expressed astonishment that I was actually carrying this thing all the way from Luang Nam Tha to Na Lae. After a lot of smiles and laughter and a great rest I waved and yelled happy goodbyes to them all and was even accompanied by a pair of boys on their way to the fields when I left town.
Their company made the walking go much quicker. I was happier with them there, and their presence made me put on a smile, or at least contain the grimace that usually accompanied each agonizing footfall. With them there I also didn’t want to stop for one of my ever more frequent rests, so I actually covered quite a bit of ground during that stretch.
By the time they left me it was 10:30 and Na Lae was still nowhere in sight. In another the heat of the day was upon me again, and I was still receiving distance estimates of about 10km.
I stopped at another village for a rest and was greeted by a particularly friendly bunch of women and children. They provided me with boiled water, which I desperately needed. My anticipated cool and early finish had led me to neglect my supplies and they were almost empty. The water they gave me tasted smoky, but it was still very, very welcome. They also provided me with a bit of encouragement. Most of the ladies seemed to think it was about 7km to Na Lae, but one insisted that it was really only three or four.
Thus re-encouraged I took to the road once more. And almost immediately seemed to hit a wall. The full power of the sun was about now. Specific pains had disappeared from my feet and now everything below my ankles was just a mass of hurt. The fatigue had grown worse as well, and I usually couldn’t even manage to walk for half an hour before needing a rest. The walk was made still harder by the fact that large hills appeared in the previously flattish trail.
The one small light was that pretty much everyone seemed to agree that it was 7km or less to Na Lae, the first time in my entire walk when I’d got regular, consistent distance estimates. As I walked I made plans to reward myself with candies, drinks of water or rests if I managed to walk for a given time. There were several points when I sat down for a rest and decided that if a songthaew came along I would flag it down and ride the rest of the way.
It was a shame that the last part of my walk was such misery, since looking back I realize that the countryside here was very pleasant. It wasn’t quite as nice as the wilderness of the first day, but the large farms, and orchards were nonetheless quite pretty.
As I’d expected it might, the end came upon me all of a sudden. I hadn’t heard a distance estimate in a while, but expected I still had an hour or so to walk when I passed a small village at around 14:30. The men there were very kind and insisted I sit down and have some water. Almost out of habit I asked them how far it was to Na Lae and was delighted when they replied that it wasn’t far. “How far?” I asked, “one kilometre? two?”
“Not even!” they said. “Only about 300m. Just over that hill.”
I could have kissed them.
The hill was one last test, but at its peak I saw several buildings and a bamboo bridge across the Nam Tha and was assured that I was at my journey’s end.
I walked into the quiet little town and as I arrived at the second crossroads I saw a sign leading to one of the Na Lae’s two guesthouses. Shortly after a man appeared and indicated that I ought to follow him that way. In what was almost an anticlimax he had me checked into a (very simple) room within a minute of arrival.
I sat down with Andreus, the other resident of the place. He was a German and the first non-Lao I’d seen since about 15:00 on my first day. We talked for a bit and he very kindly gave me a bottle of his water. It tasted sooo good, but something, I think my dehydration, unsettled my stomach a bit when I drank it. After I’d had a good long rest, I hobbled to the town market with him where I drank a couple of cans of orange Fanta (they seemed to be easier on my stomach than water) and procured some instant noodles to eat (all Andreus had been able to find in town was one small noodle shop that served a sort of cold, fatty noodle soup.)
After a meal and another rest, we took a walk (or rather stagger, even with my pack off my feet were still in quite a bit of pain) down to the shore to start looking for boats. He was headed back to Luang Nam Tha, having taken a songthaew from there earlier in the day, but hoped to take a boat back.
The river was very pretty in the late afternoon sun but the boat situation didn’t look promising. Almost no one in town seemed to speak English, but we were able to find a single person with a boat who was willing to go to Pak Tha (my intended destination.) Unfortunately he was asking 1 000 000 kip to do the run. Given that I only had 375 000 kip with me and there were no banks anywhere near, this wouldn’t do.
On the way back to the guesthouse we discovered the only restaurant in town. I happened to glance in the doorway of a small wooden house and noticed a rack of condiments on a table. We entered and sure enough had soon joined the pair of Lao boys who were eating delicious hot noodle soup there.
My day didn’t last much longer, so exhausted was I from my walk, so I went to bed quite early.
The next morning I was awakened similarly early by the sound of a… bird? small mammal? being tickled? killed? tortured? outside my room. I decided not to investigate and laid in bed until about 07:00.
After this I headed back out to town in an attempt to find out more about boats I could take. The manager of the guesthouse directed me in Lao to a small shack near the market where I waited and entertained the local kids with my presence, skin colour and digital camera until the boat supervisor arrived. He said he could manage to get me a boat to Pak Tha for 700 000 kip, or even 300 000 if I waited until the following night. Well. It was still a bit expensive, especially as it would take me at least 60 000 to get from Pak Tha to Thailand, and to pay for one more night’s accommodation but it was a start.
I returned to the guesthouse and sat to rest and think. While I sat I was met by a variety of Lao boys anxious to try out their English. It was nice talking to them, but none of them seemed able to provide information about cheaper boat services. Finally I did manage to get more information, though not from an English speaker. A young man who spoke very good French approached, and we chatted for 15 minutes or so. By the time he left I’d discovered many new things about boat trips down the river, most importantly that boats of foreigners made almost daily appearances in Na Lae, arriving at 14:00 or so and departing about an hour or later.
I was delighted by this news, and a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been able to share it with Andreus who had departed for Luang Nam Tha by Songthaew earlier. I sat and waited while young local boys and I mutually entertained one another.
At almost exactly 14:00 I heard what I’d been waiting for: a boat engine approaching from the north. I ran down on to the bamboo bridge and waved to the crew and two foreign passengers, they waved back but went straight on by. At first I thought they wouldn’t stop, but soon they pulled to the side a bit downriver. My already recovering feet sprinted me back up the banks and over towards them.
I met them as they disembarked, and discovered that, yes, they were headed for Huay Xai. The two foreigners, named Jane and Mark, had chartered the boat for US$110 in Luang Nam Tha. Despite this, the driver didn’t want to allow extra passengers on without receiving a cut. It took a bit of negotiating, but eventually I got everyone to agree that I’d pay the driver 100 000 kip and Jane and Mark 150 000.
In next to no time I’d collected my pack, loaded it on to the boat, paid the driver and we were off down the Nam Tha. This whole episode provided further evidence of the fact that god loves not only children and drunks, but also travelers.
We set off down the river, leaving Na Lae and the last of the road behind us. I envied Jane and Mark that they’d gone through the Nam Ha protected area by boat, for while the forest and hills we passed on our way down the river that afternoon were pretty they had nothing on that in Nam Ha.
We carried on through still water and rapids alike, often getting so close to rocks that I could scarcely believe we made it past. The boat crew responsible for our navigation consisted of the driver at the wheel in the back and two more Lao men at the front who gave the driver hand signals for steering as we proceeded. When we came to tight spots in the river they variously wielded bamboo poles or wooden paddles, steering the front of the boat out of harms way before the driver would have even been aware of it, much less able to react.
The trip was quite pleasant, and it seemed that every village we passed brought groups of children waving, yelling and jumping up and down to attract our attention. We all waved back whenever we could spot them, and I once kept waving and waving to see how long they’d keep it up. They disappeared from view before they stopped.
The villages also brought some irritation to Mark and Jane as we often stopped at them to pick up additional paying passengers or cargo on our “chartered” boat. While none of them took any space away from us and we always had plenty of room I can see how they found it rather galling.
Our day’s travel came to an end at a village on the true left bank of the river where we pulled up amongst myriad other boats of similar shape to our own. We climbed (what to my sore feet and legs seemed like) kicking a takraw ball endless trails and steps before finally arriving at a nice looking wooden house near the edge of the village. We climbed up and dropped off our bags and I went out for a walk.
Before long I came across three young boys kicking a takraw ball (sort of a rattan hacky sack) back and forth. Those who are aware of my fascination for the game will understand the delight I felt when they invited me to join them. I was terrible, but thankfully they were all young and small enough that we were at a similar level.
After my game I headed back to our house for a read and dinner. We were all presented with a Beer Lao and a bowl of instant noodles with egg. The noodles were incredibly salty, so it’s good we had the beer and the ubiquitous basket of sticky rice to cut the flavour with.
It was a bit disappointing that a fair number of people in the village were selling all manner of things, but even this had its lighter side. An older man came and joined us at dinner, flogging various woven items. His seeming embarrassment at trying to flog these items endeared him to us all and we really enjoyed chatting with him. At one point Jane gave a semi-sarcastic “wow!” at one of the items proffered, which was immediately and repeatedly mimicked (in an entirely happy and friendly fashion) by the man. He even taught us the corresponding Lao word. “Toe!”
Jane Mark and I spent the evening playing cards while the village’s activity wound down around (hee hee. wound down around) us. Much to our surprise by 20:00 it was dead quiet in the village. Actually it was rather noisy with frog and insect noises, but there wasn’t a human sound to be heard.
Before bed I went out to the toilet (there was one in this village… it was much more developed than the others I’d stayed in, to the point of having battery powered light.) While out there, I finally got my first good look at the Lao stars I’d so admired from previous glimpses. I’d admired them for good reason. The sky was brilliant with them, the moon not having risen yet, and they were as beautiful as any I’d ever seen. Before heading in I even saw a shooting star. I’ll let you all guess what I wished for. Not to suggest that there’s something obvious you should figure out what I was wishing. I’ll just let you guess
The next morning we woke early and had a quick breakfast of instant noodles with egg and sticky rice (no, that wasn’t a mistake. It was the same as dinner, sans Beer Lao) and headed down to the boat for departure. It was very chilly as the boat sped on down the river, but thankfully I had a nalgene bottle I’d filled up with recently boiled water before departure that I used as a hot water bottle, while Mark and Jane covered themselves from head to toe with a sleeping bag until the mist disappeared and the sun’s rays began to warm us.
The second day of the trip proceeded much the same as the first, with a few differences. The Nam Tha, which in Luang Nam Tha was scarcely bigger than Toronto’s little old Don River, had grown to be a sizeable waterway. Correspondingly the rapids increased in size.
Around 11:00 a large (2-3m long), light brown snake slid in front of us in the water. Our boat crew got very excited, trying to whack it with their poles or paddles, even turning around to have another go before it escaped to the safety of the bank. It was a veritable whacking day!
Continuing on into the afternoon we saw larger and larger groups of people hard at work on or in the river, and more and more children came out to wave and yell at us.
The villages also increased in size as we proceeded down the Nam Tha, many of them boasting concrete buildings that could have been schools and even some beautiful wats. Finally we reached a very large one which even boasted a couple of noodle shops down by the boat landing. This village came just after we passed a large collapsed bridge across the river and just before we joined the Mekong proper for the final leg of our journey.
The much larger river (at this point the Mekong was several hundred metres across and probably several metres deep) allowed the crew to relax. While there were some lovely sights to be seen I spent most of this part of the journey reading my book (the Idiot by Dostoyevsky which lasted me almost exactly the length of my travel in Laos) only looking up when an unbelievably noisy “speedboat” shot by, full of helmeted lifejacketed passengers on their way to or from Luang Prabang.
We arrived in Huay Xai, just across the river from Chiang Khong, Thailand, at about 16:45, leaving Jane and Mark just enough time to get through Lao passport control and catch the last ferry across to Thailand. As we departed our boat the drivers admitted that they had no idea where my walking stick was and that they’d probably thrown it into the river at some point. I bid a sad farewell to my second stick (Harald Hardrada was its name) that hadn’t been with me long, but had accompanied my on my beautifully miserable walk to Na Lae. (As a sidebar, I’ll note that this was my second walking stick of the trip [the first was picked up in Tasmania and lost in southern Laos.] All of my sticks are named after significant figures from the invading Norwegian army that was defeated by Harold the Saxon at Stamford Bridge. Since I only KNOW of three such figures, I’d better not lose another one.)
Meanwhile had some more kip to spend, or try to exchange (the banks in Huay Xai would not buy kip, presumably in an effort to keep more hard currency in the country.) I also wanted to ensure that my final meal in Laos would be good Lao food, rather than super salty instant noodles.
I succeeded on all counts. I checked in to a guesthouse then went for a walk around the streets of Huay Xai before enjoying a delicious dinner of chicken laap and sticky rice. At the restaurant I met a French couple who were kind enough to let me butcher their language (rather than using their fine English) while we traded my kip for their Thai baht and I gave them some recommendations for their time in Laos.
At night I had my final “Lao experience” when I sat down with three Lao women at a table near a housefront where Tam Mak Hung (spicy papaya salad) was sold. I ordered one very spicy salad and sat down with the ladies. One of them got up to make it, showing me a handful of chilies as she did so. I later learned that she’d meant the quantity of chilies to be a bit of a joke, but I nodded happily and in they went.
When my salad was done, she returned to the table and offered me some of her Beer Lao. I took turns having small drinks with each of the three ladies and the first bottle disappeared in no time. As we drank I ate. With (only a bit of) difficulty as it turned out. This salad was Spicy with a capital S. At times it was even uncomfortable to consume, but it still tasted very good, and I there was no way I was going to admit it was too much for me after I’d asked for it and specifically approved of the chili content! The ladies later told me that there were about 20 chilies in it, and that a “spicy” salad they’d made for another Canadian (Monique from Luang Nam Tha, I was surprised to discover) had had 2 chilies in it and had made her eyes water and nose run incessantly (I’ll admit that I had to discretely wipe my nose many times throughout the meal.)
As we ate and drank they talked and laughed, clearly delighted to have me there with them. One of the sources of greatest mirth was when they taught me the Lao word for “single” (as in unmarried) and explained the status of each of the (now 4) women at the table and many who walked by on the street.
After the first bottle was finished they opened a second and shortly thereafter covered its top with a thin piece of cloth through which it seemed they were filtering the beer. Doing this made it flow very slowly and foam incessantly as they shook it to speed the pour. I looked at them as though they were crazy, and even said as much in Lao, which brought further smiles and laughter to everyone (eventually I realized that the rim of the bottle had cracked on opening and they were doing this to ensure that no glass got in the glass.)
I paid for the final bottle (leaving me with 6000 kip, 1000 more than I needed for the ferry the next morning) and the merriment continued for almost another hour before it was time for everyone to go to sleep.
I couldn’t have asked for a better evening for my last one in Laos.
The next morning I rose, packed and made the very short walk to the Lao passport control office. I joined a small crowd of perhaps 12 people also waiting there, and despite the fact that it opened at 7:45 or so, they processed all of our exit stamps quickly and we headed down the ramp towards the waiting boats by 08:00. As I headed down the ramp I took one fond last look at Laos.
Thanks are due to this time to all of the friendly, charming people of Laos. Everyone I met seemed to have a smile on his or her face and I dearly hope that I’ll one day return to their beautiful country.