We packed up our gear after a month of living local in Chiang Mai and left for the bus station in the hopes of catching a bus to the border town of Chiang Kong. It being Queen’s Birthday/Mother’s Day weekend in Thailand we were lucky to snatch up two seats on a bus to the almost border city of Chiang Rai instead – and lucky is not exagerated. We had to wait all day at the station, and managed to get our bags packed away quickly and scrambled onto the bus amidst the throngs of eager passengers. After some initial confusion, and being moved about the bus to four different seats we watched as a dozen other passengers – with legitimate tickets in hand – were turned away as the bus had been overbooked. Including the couple that had been ahead of us in the queue to buy our tickets. Oops.
We arrived late, and left early. A local bus took us the rest of the way to the small town of Chiang Kong and the mighty Meekong River that separates the two countries. The cutest wee elderly couple ruffled up some spicy papaya salad for us and had to use my best sign language to tell her we didn’t want crab in it – multiple times – she was nothing if not persistant. He kept giggling and telling us things in a local dialect that we had no dream of being able to understand.
The creaky wooden boats that carried us across the river served their purposes dutifully despite looking like they could use some special attention and before we knew it – and I mean it: the crossing only takes 10 minutes – we were in new territory. What better way to celebrate than with some cold BeerLao. We were served sporatically by a seven year old girl, who seemed to be running the place as well as baby sitting her younger sister. Her long absences made me wonder if she was cooking the food herself as well…
A small shop advertising baguettes caught our attention – squeee bread!! – and we smartly ordered two for our minivan journey. We were pleasantly surprised with the company of his young daughter until she required him to help her pull her pants down – mid-sandwich-making may I add – and joined us outside on the footpath where she squatted down and consequently peed by our feet.
The first observations of this place – besides a little girl’s bum – were the rolling green hillsides as far as the eye could see, small grass shacks, and luscious green rice paddies. Actually the observation was mainly just green. This corner of Laos, if not Laos in general, still hasn’t caught up with the tourism hype to the extent of other South East Asian countries and maintains a little rustic charm. Almost all restaurants used identical yellow signboards – a hint of their former communist days, and Chinese was spoken fairly prominently as well – no surprise considering how close the country is.
We arrived into Luang Namtha just after dark and were accompanied to a guesthouse just off the main drag. With our tastebuds eagerly awaiting Laotian delicacies we went in exploration for food and came across a wee night market where they served THE BEST SPRING ROLLS EVER. Not only were they a revelation but they came with a small dipping sauce made of crushed peanuts, chilli, oil and lime juice – a sauce we’d come to know well as it is served alongside meals with crisp green beans and herbs to dip. Yum. Dessert came in the form of grilled bananas covered in sweet shredded coconut. I like this place.
Our friend Izzy from Scotland was due to arrive sometime today so we filled in time by hiring a scooter for a day and just driving. We drove through rice paddies that continued on to the horizon, and passed through small villages perched on the side of rivers with kids jumping into the water out of trees. Seeing a sign for the Chinese border, we looked at each other and shrugged, and for no reason other than we could we took off through the hilly countryside in search of Yunnan (China). We stopped just to take a photo before heading back: it was a fairly unexciting border – you couldn’t even see China. Geez.
We stopped off in a tiny village on the way back to grab a couple of drinks and soon caught the attention of the local children. First one tiny face appeared around the corner of a mud house, then another, then another, until we were surrounded in sniffing, giggling children of all ages and all stages of undress. To a roar of laughter from our audience we took off on our scooter with our colourful helmets and continued down the road. I’m not sure if it’s local friendliness or just that we looked ridiculous on the bike but everyone seemed to be genuinely happy to see us: there were waves and toots all round from children to adults. Laos is a pretty friendly place it seems. Seeing a sign for a waterfall we took off down a side road which soon disintegrated into a 4km mess of mud and potholes. We parked our scooter – plenty of choice because we were the only ones there – and paid our parking fee to the smiling toothless local man we assumed was in charge, and headed off enthusiastically down a mud track. For about 30 metres. We came to a stream, with a submerged plank of wood for crossing and took one look at the raging water (fine, it was small but still scary) and decided it wasn’t worth the risk in case we slipped and ruined our cameras. So, after a mere 10 minutes we were off again. We saw a nice butterfly though, if it’s any consolation.
The reason anyone goes to Luang Namtha is to do trekking. So, once we had met up with Izzy we booked ourselves into a one day trek-overnight village stay-one day kayak kind of package leaving the next day. The first stop was to get the supplies from the local market. Our guide took us in and showed us some of the local delights of the open air meat market including: blood jelly, cows legs, tails, eels and frogs. Sometimes it’s a relief to be vegetarian. Then it was off into the paddy fields, across a flimsy bridge above a raging river (a big one this time), and into the hills. Lunch was served to us on spread of palm leaves, with quickly crafted bamboo chopsticks courtesy of Tsiam, our tiny, non-hairy guide; I mention this only because he took great pride in patting our hairy Western arms and yelling “Look, monkey! Hahaha!”
We arrived at the village we were to stay in for the night and took off to shower – in the local river – and then were separated into different houses. After dinner I got the chance to talk to the village chief and he answered some questions I had. The villagers are Lanten and arrived and settled here from China in the last 50 years. Many of the older generation wore traditional hand woven and dyed cotton clothes which they still produce in the village: a dark navy tunic with pink trimming for the females. Each house has more than one family in it as when a couple gets married they move into the husband’s family home. There is a dowry system in place where the man’s family must pay for the wife in kip (local currency), silver or gold, or otherwise his family must work for hers for two years. He said while now they generally marry for love not arrangement, it is still crucial that the families approve of the choice. There is a wedding celebration once a year and upon marriage the women shave their eyebrows off – a sign of beauty in their eyes. He also mentioned that in the hill tribes polygamy is allowed, but they don’t practice it in the lowlands.
After a fairly average sleep – these people wake up really early – we were breakfasted and herded around to watch how the villagers de-husked rice, made cotton and then wove it using a giant loom. Turns out I’m a bit of a natural with the ol’ “women’s work” as they referred to it, but it’d take a bit of refinement to get my dowry up to a satisfactory amount I’d say. I’ve already warned Angelo.
We were then picked up and driven to the river that we would be kayaking down for the last part of the trip, bundled into helmets and life jackets and, with no safety talks or demonstrations, let loose on the water. A few hours of straight forward paddling – and I don’t mean that literally – we stopped for another palm leaf spread of delicious food before continuing on our way. It wasn’t long before disaster struck and Angelo and I found ourselves in a boat full of water – well, I did at least: Angelo was no longer in the boat.
If our first few days in this place were anything to go by, we were certainly in for a treat with Laos.