Luang Namtha and the unexpected in Laos

The 19th, the 19th, is it already the 19th? Since the last blog entry, I’ve written in my journals and can’t quite remember where my last online thoughts were from. Time since has been filled with buses and strange moments that are closer to fiction.

Currently still in Laos, in the southern town of Pakxe with the sun shining and a functioning Internet connection. It’s been too long and the world has shifted and continued outside these borders. Friends aren’t worried if they’ve not heard from me in weeks because consistency isn’t something I’m good with. That should be a problem, shouldn’t it? But then it wouldn’t be true friendship if check-ins were needed daily, so goes my thinking.

This past week and a half, we’ve been stuffed on buses along with rice, lettuce, motorcycles, luggage and instant coffee among many other things. We’ve taken a tuktuk ‘bus’ for a 3-hour journey and have probably collected dust souvenirs from each and every location. Sitting still on a moving vehicle is surprisingly exhausting and doing absolutely nothing has more appeal now than it has in a long time. So I rest now, watching backpackers come and go from the main room of this guesthouse, listening to the occasional bursts of song from the little man behind the counter and recalling those strange events that makes Laos so memorable…

The first night across the border we spent in Houay Xai. The Gibbon Experience was fully booked a week in advance and we had to find alternative plans for the next few days. While wandering in town, searching for food, we were given a flier for a guesthouse-restaurant which benefitted mountain villagers and one of the options was to dine with the staff and cooks and other lodgers for dinner. I had lemongrass tea for the first time and sat around a little fire while we waited for the meal. One of the guests had somehow found a Chinese dreadlocked motorcycle man and the two artists found a connection of colour. I thought they were showing each other photos when in reality, it was google translate. Never did I expect to stand in an interpreter for their stories, but there I was, relaying messages back and forth from the blond Californian (who also had dreadlocks) to Chopperman. They spoke of travels and societies and planned when to meet each other again. Conversation paused when the food was brought out, a variety of vegetarian delights with a single bowl of fish. The sauces were spicy and the variety made me feel extremely healthy despite the constant diet of crackers and Oreos on the bus. After the hearty meal, people gathered and talked and laughed and compared cameras and shared travel advice.

The next day, we decided to head north for Luang Namtha. We would have never sought the option had the Experience worked out, but there we were, on a bus stuffed with people, navigating the twisty mountain roads of northern Laos. We met some fellow travelers along the way and the gang of us complained, tried to take naps and shared stories. It would have been a very nice journey had it not been SO twisty. At one point, the minibus stopped for a bathroom break. It was very awkward for me when the gang all got out to pee by the side of the road. A row of them, just… there, by the side of the street on a bright sunshine day. My own bladder has gotten considerably stronger since then and thank goodness for it. The bus journey lasted from 11am to about 5pm and we were lucky in finding suitable rooms. We ate at the night market and were carefully watched by dogs wanting to be fed. After, we went for a walk and on the way back and saw a familiar motorcycle carrying more stuff than possible. There he was, Chopperman. He really had journeyed up to Luang Namtha after us. A piece of his bike had fallen off on the journey and he shifted gears with a bright green piece of string afterwards. Around the table where we sat for drinks was an old Dutchman who lectured us on the importance of women’s rights and how societies controlled by men are fundamentally decisive. He lives in Vientiane.

People continue to come and go at the guesthouse. From their inquiries, I gather now there is only one room left for 98,000 kip, with hot showers. We’re all millionaires in this country, literal kip millionaires. Laos is more expensive than expected, perhaps because tourism is one of the main sources of income for many of these places and many of these people. When a restaurant owner gives change of 30,000 in 1000 kip notes, it really puts the world in perspective.

We rented bikes that next day in Luang Namtha to explore the areas around town. Paved roads were scarce and the majority of our day was spent bobbing along rocky paths through small villages where food was dried by the side of the one main road and children ran along side chickens and ducks. People were friendly and smiles go a long way. We were careful to always ask before taking photo, which usually consisted of pointing to things. We saw people working the fields, old men whittling in the shades of trees, cows making their way to unknown destinations and a wide stretch of land largely left alone or simply skipped by standardizing international conglomerates. Still, there was the option of coke or lays in even the smallest roadside stalls right next to beerlao, beer of the wholehearted people. We didn’t speak much to each other that day, just drank in the fresh air and a way of life so different from ours. Near the end of the day, Chopperman and I were separated from the rest of our gang by a series of crossroads so we made our way back to town only to arrive some 10, 15 minutes before the others. Silly me for worrying about boys worrying about us. That night during dinner at the night market, there was a woman who asked for food and picked through the bones left from our meal. She greedily picked clean what was left and drank the entire bottle of water that was offered and went on to the next table. Chopperman was leaving for China the next day and before we said our goodbyes, he wanted to give us a gift of song. From the many bags attached to his motorcycle, he took out a hang (type of drum, similar to a calypso drum). Sitting on a restaurant table, he began to play with the group of us gathered around then let us try to make similar music. It was surprisingly difficult and he kept telling me to translate ‘relax your muscles!’ The night ended with us sitting in the middle of the road to get the best light for a group photo and assuming passing scooters would avoid the large group of foreigners occupying their street! We were shooed away soon after. Lamp-lit photos in the middle of the street in Luang Namtha.

The next day we set aside for a trekking trip with a morning of kayaking and an afternoon through the mountains. The boats departed from the shore of a village south of Luang Namtha and we were allowed to wander while the boats were set up. We saw the huts they lived in, drying laundry, roaming chickens, ducks and piglets and were shown inside the village shaman’s home. It wasn’t small inside but we never imagined it was home to 8 people. The village has electricity because it was along the road but they need to pay for it themselves. To one side of the hut was a banked fire and to another was an ancient television set. Woven baskets were stored on top of the shelf above their sleeping places and he had a poster of Asian flags by the side of the door. We were introduced to him by our guide and asked questions through translation. We learned of village inheritance rules, the importance of the written word and how married women of the group shaved their eyebrows. This particular ethnic group went south from China some 300 years ago and still retain much of the writing. The shaman asked where I was from in writing, and I was absurdly proud to have understood those four characters. He pointed to the Chinese flag, then me, before we left and I was happy to know he understood me in turn. Outside were a group of villages watching our departure. The four boys I went with were all tall and European and must have been unusual visitors with me in tow, even for a village that regularly received them. The kayaking was fun, though our boat was constantly attracted to rocks, but we never fully flipped over. Lunch was eaten in a shade of a little hut hidden in the jungle. Our local guide chopped fresh banana leaves to serve as a makeshift table on which a meal of pumpkin, omelette and rice were directly deposited. We ate with our hands and joked with the English-speaking guide. His parents want him to become a teacher as soon as possible because they have such long breaks. He could help with the family farm then. But then we were off, trekking on a dirt trail and stepping on bamboo. The local guide eventually provided us all with walking sticks and continued without one himself while wearing flip flops. The journey ended around 5:30 after we waded through three rushing streams. The deepest ensured my pants were completely soaked. An hour, the guide told us, an hour before we reach town. Only it wasn’t. Because the road was torn through. Giant machines worked on as our driver stomped out, likely muttering Lao curses under his breath. It was cold and eventually, all of us made our way to a fire by the side of the road built by one of the road workers… I think. There we huddle and waited. An hour passed and we were hungry. Another hour passed and we could admire the stars because it had gotten so dark. Another hour passed during which we spoke of life philosophies and beliefs and afterlife and happiness. We were ecstatic when told to get back into the van but it didn’t last long because the driver barreled down half complete, windy roads in darkness without high beams, only the faintest flicker of headlights from a minivan completely not made for such roads. We were tossed upwards and sideways and I clung to dear life while not trying to whimper. Please never let our parents find out, please, please. Arriving back around 10:30, we were told that we were the latest to return of all their day-trek groups. Ever.

It’s been hours since I sat down to write and a little lady here noticed my sitting by the wall instead of at the table. I pointed to the short cord connecting my iPad to the outlet and she returned not a minute after with a powerbar. These are the little important things that makes a day so much better. I like it here.

After all this rambling and it’s covered only four days in Laos, but surely the four most eventful ones… For now, I need more mosquito repellent.


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