After a couple of hours the bus to Pongsali shows it’s true colours. The pavement ends and the bus fills with passengers. Leaving Oudomxia it was only half full, but as the bus seems to be one of the few things moving on the road it gets flagged down by anyone going up the road.
Besides the Chinese headed north to the border at Pakha there were also a lot of hill tribes people who didn’t speak Lao. The kid collecting the money said he could say “where you going” in five languages. The whole trip only took eight or nine hours but it seemed like forever. I think I must be getting old. Often the passengers would throw out folded notes on paper with names written on them. They were letters from people in one village to people in another one. Someone in the second village would rush out, read the name, and deliver the note to the intended recipient.
Phou Pha Hotel
I stayed at the old Chinese Consulate turned into a hotel at the Phou Pha. It was recommended by a Lao official working with a United Nations program. In Laos it seems that when they celebrate our new year they celebrate it on the day, not on the eve. The mostly empty hotel had techno music blasting at a few million decibels to an empty bar. The girls working there were hunched around a fire in the kitchen and maybe getting drunk. From what I could understand of the managers cell phone conversation he was screaming at someone to come play and what fun they were having.
The hotel was a nice old brick place but the rooms were divided in two by a thin wood wall. The guy next door was having long conversations with himself. He probably liked my snoring even less.
Chinese Shop House in the Old section of Pongsali
I like Pongsali. It seems like Yunnan without leaving Laos. The town is set high up on the side of Phou Pha probably at about 1400 meters. The people are called Phou Noi, “little mountain“, maybe because they live relatively low in the smaller mountains. All of Pongsali is mountainous, there are no broad river valleys of the type the Laotians seem to settle. The Phou Noi language borrowed numbers and counting from Lao but otherwise bears no resemblance that I could recognise. Even when speaking Lao the locals used accents and slang that I was unfamiliar with.
The Phou Noi people themselves although different linguistically from Lao, are nonetheless Theravada Buddhists. Their appearance reminded me of the Bai peoples of western Yunnan. The Phou Noi language is the one used to communicate between different hill tribes and also between hill tribes and lowlanders. Lao is taught in the schools but is only recently gaining widespread usage as many older people haven’t been to school.
Pongsali From Above
Probably the whole of Pongsali province has been a semi independent little kingdom kind of wedged between China, Laos, and Vietnam since a long time before people started noticing such things.
The tourism office seemed reluctant to book a five day walking trek. I think the difficulty lay in the fact that none of the guides wanted to go for a five day walk through the mountains in the cold season. Much better to wait for a rich tourist looking to drive to and photograph a few hill tribe ladies. I went back the second day in town and they corralled this guy named Suk who was out of town.
I’d moved my hotel after the first night down to the Pongsali Hotel. A lot closer to the market, restaurants, and everything else. Pongsali is situated on the side of a hill, everything is up or down, better to be as close to everything as possible.
While waiting there I met this guy Jaysan and his three sons as well as a couple of his friends from a neighbouring village. They were Gaugh minority but they all spoke some Lao. They had some of those large framed Chinese bikes and were headed over to China, what for I could never figure out. All were very friendly, and like a lot of young guys hanging around waiting, they liked to joke. One of them accused me of trying to chat up the single middle aged flirtatious hotel manager and I replied that I could never steal his girl friend. It became the standing joke. They were back the second night having been turned back at the border for a lack of licence plates on their bikes.
Jay San is the short guy in back, his three sons are the left two in back and the left one in front, the boyfreind of the hotel manager is front right. That's the good part about writing a blog. Last joke is on him.
That night I met my trekking guide, Suk, and also an Australian couple joined our group of two. The Australians were named Emily and Matt. And were both experienced walkers being trekking guides themselves back in the Tasmanian island in Australia. I contacted our guide directly to ask if they could come along and the fees went directly to him and the villages we stayed in, an arrangement that allowed him to increase his pay by a factor of four. Especially if you include my pre trek tip. No benefit to tipping afterward I reasoned.
Mat and Emily wading across the Nam Ngam
(Note the hat Matt is wearing. All Australian males are required by legal statute to wear these. )
Matt and Emily were both fairly PC and crunchy but pragmatic and seasoned at the same time. A good combination I thought for the close quarters and unfamiliar circumstances of a hill tribe trek. Emily is a vegetarian back in Australia but had already made up her mind to adapt her diet to conditions rather than the other way around. A very down to earth approach, reflecting her experience as a long term solo female traveler in China and Mongolia. Besides being a trekking guide, Matt had lots of off trail experience for long periods in the bush. I found out all these things over the course of the trek. I agreed to their initial request to join me just on instinct only, they seemed like nice folks to spend a few days with.