Dec 16, 2006

Muang Sing and Muang Long

Road to the New Market in Muang Sing
Muang Sing was a bit of a let down as it had seemed busier last time through. Partly this might have been simply a reflection of the closed airport in Luang Namtha but I blame it on moving the market and bus station.
All the guidebooks say “in it’s time the largest opium market, blah, blah, blah”. That was a long time before anyone I know ever saw it. Say in the late 1960s. I do know it was a nice old market and right on the main street. Bus station is a relative term, place for sawngthaews to park is more like it. Anyway I guess the congestion from the people going to the market and sawngthaews pulling in and waiting slowed the local officials from going to and fro. Congestion is also relative, I mean we are talking Muang Sing, say 10 or twenty vehicles in the same section of street and twenty or thirty pedestrians.

This is the new Market Muang Sing
The new market does have concrete floor so the water off everything doesn’t fall onto the dirt cum mud. Still taking a 50 year old market in a nice old historic town and moving it to a big open field doesn’t seem like such a great idea to me. Takes a 15 minute walk on a dusty gravel road each way just to buy something.
I stayed in the same guest house as I had before, the aptly named Muang Sing Guest House. The owners a nice elderly couple also run the Thai Lu café on the opposite sides of the street. The restaurant has the largest dining room in town, seats twenty!, and it draws the largest number of tourists. I’m not a huge fan of the food but I patronise the place to give them the business and because for tourists, that means me, it’s the place to be.

The balcony above the Thai Lu Restaurant
I call the owners Lung and Pa, uncle and auntie. Lung has a many year battle raging with the bracelet ladies. The bracelet ladies are the Akha and Thai Dam hill tribe women that constantly hassle people to buy cheap homemade bracelets and drugs. They are harmless unless someone shows a scintilla of interest, in which case you are surrounded by them each hoping to be the one with whom you choose to spend a couple dollars on a bauble. The unwritten rules are that they stay off the patio and definitely out of the restaurant. Problems arise when Lung goes to the market or up the street to see a buddy, the bracelet ladies venture ever further into forbidden territory and caught up in a potential selling frenzy forget to keep watch for the return of Lung. Even when he has been spotted and most of the women scurry away like so many chickens from under the wheels of a tuk tuk, someone is bound to be caught up in the excitement of showing someone a bracelet and miss making the getaway. Lung grabs a beer mug of hot tea water and threatens to soak the bracelet lady with lots of Thai Lu curses being returned for their counterparts in Akha, Thai Dam, Lahu or whatever language the women curse in. Bear in mind this has been going on daily for years and is the major form of entertainment for all concerned, bracelet ladies, Lung, and horrified tourists. Not much to do in Muang Sing.

Entry to Muang Sing Guest House
I also stopped by the office of the government tourism authority where they guide treks. Business seemed busy with six to eight trekkers per day. I think the figure I was quoted was 150 trekker days in the month of November. Unfortunately for me all this experience meant that the guides had figured out a successful formula of a small hike, village stay for photos, and home again home again jiggety jog. I had come with more ambitious plans to go for a long hike. I knew without asking that there was zero chance of getting someone to give up their time tested and lucrative formula to go for a long strenuous walk. After a while I also began to understand that there were few places to stay. Most of the hill tribes up on the ridgelines where I wanted to go have been relocated to the Muang Sing Valley as part of the coordinated Lao American crop substitution opium eradication effort.
An interesting tidbit to come out of talks with an independent guide was (and remember this is all idle gossip slander insinuation and innuendo that made it’s way across a café table in imperfect English and even worse Lao so take it for what it’s worth which is about as much as the old 5o kip notes) that four foreigners had died of drugs in Muang Sing, two of whom were buried in back of the hospital, and the other two were somehow kept on ice for removal. Now it gets weird. The reasons the foreigners over dosed was they either counted how much of the drug they were taking or they drank lime juice at the same time. The lime might have some relation to science but the counting seems a little far fetched to me. Or maybe I was just misunderstanding. Mostly I was just interested in hearing from the guide that he had no idea how to get from the high point of the road to Luang Namtha down the ridge 60 or 80 km to Viengphuka and knew of no one else who did.

Muang Long and the Nam Ma
From Muang Sing I headed down to Muang Long which is part way to Xiangkok. Both towns are on the road to the Mekong albeit a very small often dirt road. Xiangkok has the distinction of being the last town in Laos along the Mekong that has a road to it.
I immediately liked Muang Long. As far as I could tell there were two English speakers in the town. One worked for Contra la Faime and the other was the local English teacher. Both worked for the tourism authority also. Of the guest houses and restaurants my Lao was by far better than their English, and that aint sayin much.

Maen Kii Kwai with green onions, garlic, and hot peppers.
On my first full day in town I stopped by the local tourism office where Sak the local Lao official for Contra la Faime was eating Maen kii kwai and Tome Makune for breakfast. At his invitiation I dug into the beetles and they were delicious. The first bug I’ve really taken a liking to. Meaty but not gamey. I’d hate to say what their name means, suffice it to say the last word is buffalo, the dish has another name in Vientiane that I don’t remember. The Tome Mac Kune had enough kapi to sink a ship, I passed on that.
I then went for a walk, first down to the bottom of town, then up the valley, it was a Sunday. I walked for a while with three young guys headed out fishing complete with homemade crossbow spear guns and face masks to see underwater. I crossed a long foot suspension bridge over the Nam Ma, then back across on a steel girder bridge wide enough for a vehicle and rated to 19 tons. When I got back I went to talk to the guys at the tourism office again to firm up plans.

Some kind of pagoda with patchwork from slash and burn in the background.

No comments: