Feb 1, 2007

Second Trip North Headed Back

Once I turn around and start heading home trips often seem to end quickly. It’s like the horse knowing it’s headed for the barn after working all day.
I barely stopped for the night at Phongsali then rode down to Hatsa to catch the boat south on the Nam Ou. I wanted to avoid the bus Phongsali to Oudomxai if possible and I had visions of sliding down the Nam Ou three days to Luang Prabang.
The negotiations over the fare were beyond me. I was quoted eight dollar, I said ok, but there was still a lot of work to do. The conversation was going too fast for me to follow and I also had no interest. Eight bucks seemed to be pretty reasonable to me. I always try to pay “the right price” to help those who come later and so that locals don’t get the idea that the falang is some kind of walking ATM, but when I don’t know the price and it seems reasonable compared to other prices I just go with it.

Slow boat negotiations almost finished

No one was making any moves to get on the boat, so I did. Soon all the Lao people followed and with a little more haggling between the official in charge of the landing and the captain of the boat we were off.

Riding in the lap of luxury

Boat rides as a passenger tend to make me lethargic, sun reflecting off the water, steady drone of the engine, monotonous bank sliding by, the only problem was that I couldn’t lie down and go to sleep. After a couple of hours there was some excitement as a passenger spotted some fish that had floated to the surface. Soon there seemed to be more and I realized they were rising up out of the river. The boat was turned around and we floated amongst the dying fish that were rolling over on the surface and trying to gulp air. People were scooping them up with flip flops, baskets, paddles and anything else that came to hand. Mostly they were about six or eight inches long, not what I would call big, but everyone seemed excited.

Dead fish

I couldn’t figure out what would cause such a large fish kill and only on that section of river. There is no industry or towns of any size above that point on the Nam Ou. I thought maybe chemicals from some home grown mining on the tributary we had just passed? I wasn’t about to tell anyone not to eat free fish, maybe the oxygen content had radically changed on just that section of river.
The hills on both sides of the river seemed to have been cut. No big trees up both sides for quite a ways. I assume the logs were floated down the river to Luang Prabang or taken directly by boat. There was a lot of human activity also, as the valley widened there were many villages and even once in a while a road.
Sometime in the mid afternoon we made Muang Khua. Muang Khua is one of those steep river towns built because of a ferry crossing. I got a room at the first place I came to and walked up the hill to look around. Yes there was a bus that left at eight, and quite a few older buildings. Nothing ancient or classic but still an older established river town. Small but nice market. Small winding alleys leading between houses on down towards the river, houses built up against the hill, three stories in front and one in back due to the rise.

Temple carving Muang Kua

I stopped at the restaurant recommended in the guidebook and found an English language menu and hugely inflated prices. I should have known.
I asked the young owners of my own guest house if they could cook me up some Lao food for dinner and they agreed.
Large mild chilli peppers stuffed with mung bean noodles pork and spices, ( a whole plate of them)
Small green pea pods on the side with bean sprouts
Gaeng made of cabbage with tofu and bits of pork.
Steamed rice on the side
Green tea in a pot.
Three dollars

I had to excuse myself I just couldn’t finish all of green peas, I was happy enough to have even completed the stuffed chillies.

Hua Wai Muang Khua

I hadn’t had a real cup of coffee since leaving the bus station in Oudomxai so many days ago and so I got up early, found myself locked in, and ended up climbing out the balcony. At the market I met an interesting man. I should begin by saying it was probably six thirty in the morning. I get up at that time often or even earlier, seen enough monks on their morning rounds to satisfy a few tour bus loads of Luang Prabang tourists. I like markets in the mornings. Good breakfast foods to be had and lots of busy people.
There was a counter and a lady that sold soft drinks and coffee. I ordered two at once to save time. A well dressed Lao man sat down next to me and started to make conversation in English. I continued it in Lao from the get go. My horrible Lao is usually a lot better than Lao peoples more horrible English, if it isn’t things usually sort themselves out quickly.
He had stayed at the large rich seeming hotel at the top of the hill the night before and was traveling to Dien Bien Phu. These were his associates and when he introduced me to his friends one of whom said “How are you this morning?” I asked the Lao man if he was a tour guide, usually I can spot them earlier than this, not really he said but in the tourism business. I asked him if he spoke English, big smile and a “yesss” can we use English then? “certainly if you’d like”. His English was some of the best I’ve ever heard from a native Lao speaker. I felt like ten kinds of a fool.
His company is one of the old big ones that have been operating in Lao since even before they opened it up for independent tourists. Mostly they do the actual work for smaller companies that book the tours with the customers. All those large tour busses etc. They were about to open a new route through from Thailand for Thai nationals to Dien Bien Phu and he had to take the trip himself to check the condition of the road and hotels and so forth. I guess Dien Bien Phu is only a couple more hours of good road from Muang Khua. That puts it at five hours from Oudomxai, and would make it an extremely popular route once they open the border.
Because this man seemed so knowledgeable about tourism in Laos and his English reflected an understanding of western culture I asked him about the interactions between hill tribes peoples and western tourists. I even explained the things I’d found troubling, mainly that we hadn’t been properly warned about giving things away in the villages we visited and had even been given candy to distribute. Also the feeling my fellow trekkers felt that sometimes they were being disrespected often by being stared at by young men. I had felt that sometimes the children were laughing at, not with, them.

Stalking the elusive hill tribe photo at the Muang Long Market

The tour operator said that actually tourism hill tribe interaction was a big problem and mentioned villages outside of Muang Sing that not even he is safe to visit. The long history of tourists always giving things to hill tribes people has created the feeling that every tourist who stops in their village owes them as does the tour operator. When the villagers don’t get money they get angry.
And then he went on to recommend the work being done to develop in a less harmful way in the Luang Namtha area, initiated by some individuals and used by most of the operators there. He was effusive in his praise. Coming from someone who had such a long history with development here, and who works in an entirely different sector of the tourism market, I was impressed.
Normally I’m a very cynical person when I start hearing words like “sustainable development” or “eco tourism”. Usually I assume it’s another way to appeal to yuppies who consume the earths natural resources at the fastest rate in the history of the world and to make them feel good about it. It’s like calling something 100% natural. I think my next goal is to head to Luang Namtha and check it out for myself.

The remainder of my trip I took on auto pilot. The eight o’clock bus that left at 8;30 and had a battery shake loose caused us to roll into Oudomxai as the Luang Prabang bus was rolling out the front entrance. The sharp eyed driver knew exactly why some old fat falang was hurrying towards him with a determined look and they waited for me to get on. Back in the land of Falangs each guarding their spare seat with a day pack and staring out the window while listening to their ipod. The road to Luang Prabang seemed very smooth and new. The next morning on the 6:30 bus the guys driving recognised me and remembered that I get off at Nang Tang.

Bus Station Muang Khua

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