Jan 31, 2007

Second Trip North Ou Tai

Phongsali was looking cold when I returned from trekking. We had ended our trek at the Nam Ou river, probably the lowest place in the province. The big drafty Phongsali Hotel with it’s open doors and windows to let the breeze blow through felt like a refrigerator. The gaggle of hotel girls seemed to spend their time hunched around the bucket of charcoal that served as heat in the lobby. No sun. Guests were scarce, I saw just about no one.

Thai Lu House Ou Tai

The next morning I left early for Boon Neua and Ou Tai. The bus to Ou Tai had been waiting our arrival at Boon Neua and I was happy to get a seat in the back. Sitting on the other side of the back was an attractive young hill tribe couple of an ethnicity I was unfamiliar with. The woman wore some kind of elaborate head dress and the guy had a black silky jacket. The girl was very beautiful, she and her husband exchanged knowing glances and held hands. The bus which normally seats 24 was quickly filled, people at first sat on stools then rice sacks, then stood pressed together like sardines. Once we were full the driver stopped for none of the people desperately flagging him down from the side of the road. Not much vehicle traffic up here I thought.

Rare endangered tiger seen beside the road to Ou Tai.

Meanwhile the attractive hill tribe couple had gone through the various stages of bus sickness and arrived at the last one. After riding for a few minutes first the girl then both of them went to almost sleep, then for a while the girl looked up and looked around worryingly then stared straight ahead with a fixed expression. Soon she spoke directly to her young husband and started to claw at the window clasp beside her, then her husband tore at it franticly. The young woman discreetly turned her head and puked on the curtain and behind the seat in the inches of space there. She must have had a large breakfast because there was a lot of volume. They were pulling too hard at the window and jamming the lock. Repeat the scenario twenty times throughout the bus and you get the idea, though most got the window open.
The road wasn’t that bad but then I wouldn’t call it a good road either. At first I thought that we were on the bad part and it would get better, it got worse. At one time it looked like a home made attempt to make it into an all weather road had been made by cobbling it with rocks. It was bumpy dusty and twisty. I kept thinking maybe we had taken a wrong turn because the road looked as if it were about to end, I thought no way could this be the road that continues for another eighty kilometres to Ou Tai and a further sixty on in to China.
Five and a half hours out of Boon Neua we rolled into Ou Tai 95 kilometres away. About seventeen kilometres or eleven miles an hour on average.
The guest house I’d seen on my way into town was full, of who I don’t know, so I went next door to the Chinese place the owner had pointed out. As far as I know I was the only falang in Ou Tai that night, elderly Khon Neepune don‘t count.

Tat in Ou Tai

Ou Tai is without doubt a beautiful town. It’s on the Nam Ou a long ways above Hatsa and a long, long, way above Luang Prabang. Lao cell phones don’t work but Chinese ones do. The lowland peoples are Thai Lu which is reassuring. I know I’ve been away from it all when I am reassured to hear the Thai Lu dialect of spoken Lao, makes me feel warm and fuzzy, as if here are people I can understand. The only other language I recognised was Chinese.
The valley was a long and flat one, kind of reminded me of Muang Sing. Remote valley filled with rice paddies and a river winding through it all, surrounded by mountains. I didn’t see anything that reminded me of a restaurant other than places selling foe. The owner of the Guest House agreed to cook up some tofu and pork with greens. It was as I remember in China, swimming in oil but pretty tasty none the less. I managed to eat all the tofu but couldn’t even dent the greens. Each dish was enough for six people.

Old building Ou Tai

I met the army commander and the police chief both of whom were anxious to practice their English and guide me around if needed. They were both lowland Lao government officials.
I’m glad I went to Ou Tai, it was a beautiful remote town, but all I could think of was how many days I had in front of me just to return to Vientiane.
I began the journey the very next morning by getting up and heading for the bus station. It was early so I went to the busiest looking foe restaurant and sat down to a thirty cent bowl of soup. Lots of water a few noodles and some neck bones with a bit of meat left clinging to them in the bottom of the bowl. I was joined by two hill tribe girls of unknown ethnicity. I didn’t recognise any of the jewellery or cloths. The one directly across from me slurped down the noodles, chewed the gristle off the bones and ordered a second round. Hungry I guess. Wouldn’t want to be deserted on an island with her, I might end up getting eaten.

My breakfast companions

A little later a guy started to mosey on in with a couple well dressed foreign Asian grandmothers in tow. Tour guide with Grannies, I guessed them. He weakly smiled and answered to my “sabai dee”. I know how it is, tour guides often don’t know what to make of the independent tourist. I don’t know if they are afraid of all the questions we have stored up and having to work for free or what.
He warmed up as I asked him in Lao if he were a tour guide, then if the grannies understood Lao, then if they were Japanese, and then what language they used to communicate, who is that guy, the driver, and so on.
After he ordered them some soup both of the nice elderly women just walked on in to the kitchen without so much as a howdy do and started taking flash pictures of the woman who owned the restaurant cooking the foe, as usual the cooking was done on an open fire on the ground. They walked all around the kitchen flashing away and then walked on out. I could tell the restaurant owner wasn’t thrilled, the tour guide was studying his soup. Turns out he lived in Ban Tat Luang a section of Vientiane I’m kind of familiar with. Nice guy, nice Japanese grannies, of course they were astoundingly blatantly rude to the restaurant owner treating her and her kitchen like some kind of animal in a zoo, but I guess they came for souvenir pictures just like all of us, and I guess the tour guide’s job was to take them around to do their thing. Still leaves me wondering.

Slash and burn Ou Tai

The bus station was still closed at eight so I went over to some people who were squatting around a fire made from some trash and sticks, Turns out they were the ticket sales lady, station manager, and the bus driver. When the ticket lady got up to go to the station I gave her a 50K note. I wasn’t the first to get a ticket as she had to sell a couple just to make change for my big bill.

Road out of Ou Tai

As soon as I got my ticket I went over and stood at the locked door of the bus. It was the same bus I had come up in, the puke that had made it’s way out the windows was still visible from the dust that had stuck to it in long streams down from the windows. A quick peek through the windows revealed the bus hadn’t been cleaned at all. I stood with my nose against the door until the driver came up twenty minuets later got in the drivers seat and opened the passenger door. Then I immediately walked up front and got in the shotgun seat. I sat right there and didn’t even think of moving. No way I wanted to be in the back of that slime pit for another day. A rich Thai Lu kid who spoke some English handed me his back pack through the window and asked me to save the seat on top of the motor for him which I did.
The ride back was fairly enjoyable. Being in the front I was able to make my way out for pee breaks and to buy M150 and cokes. Even took some pictures through the windows. For fun I counted the number of Chinese trucks loaded with illegal trees cut from the hillsides. All total I counted ten by the end of the day. Not so many I thought, they were pretty small trucks, but the driver informed me that species of wood, mai jeune, is very valuable. Even saw a working elephant.

Chinese Logging truck stealing Lao wood.

Phongsali province is pretty much uncut forest. Yes the capital town itself is of course cut off, but the areas I trekked in and the road to Ou Tai were fairly forested with the characteristic white trunked large trees that make up the highest layer of the woods rising above the canopy all over. I think slash and burn agriculture has had a negligible affect on the overall forest, there just wasn’t enough of it going on. It seemed to me that along the ridge tops where the upland peoples like to grow rice and corn there were bare patches, but overall it was a very small portion of the land. Even the trees the Chinese were cutting were only a special species and not the entire forest as is typical when they cut for lumber.
The driver, Thai Lu kid, and I had a fairly enjoyable conversation and ride oblivious to the people packed behind. When I asked the driver told me there were presently 46 paying passengers on board, he owns the bus and makes the profit. The maintenance must be horrendous, tires, springs, brakes etc., probably adds up to as much as the diesel.

Jan 30, 2007

Second Trip North Treking

I’ve delayed writing about my last “trek” because I’m still up in the air about what it’s all about. Seeing others go through many of the same experiences I have been through helped me to reflect on my own motivations and reactions especially in regards to interactions with what we commonly call hill tribes people. On this trek I took no portraits.
From what I’ve been told the desire make a human connection with hill tribes people is experienced by many. Due to the lack of a common language we are reduced to smiles and gestures. Children find this amusing and the tourist turns from something to be curious about into something to be amused by, an object to be laughed at.

Akha man marvelling at my masculine shirt and slim physique

Photo by Emily Smith

In all of the villages we visited we were expected visitors. The guides had planned out and walked this route with other groups previously. I was told by Suk our guide, that on average probably 10 or 12 other trekking groups visit annually. Every village already had arrangements made for which house we were to stay in and the people there were familiar with the peculiarities of us falang, the downside is that you are affected by the behaviour of every other tourist who has come before you.

There was no begging that I can remember. Our guide did buy us candy to hand out to children at the beginning of the trek which we didn’t do. Emily had thoughtfully brought silver coins from Australia to hand out. The hill tribe women use them to make their head dresses. Unfortunately when she gave them to the woman next door at the first house we stayed in she was mobbed by a crush of onlookers each one wanting coins. What began as a thoughtful gift became an upsetting experience for her. The way Emily worked around the mob scene was to give her coins to the woman of the household at the house we stayed at each night. I know. An imperfect solution but better than any alternative I knew of.

The beginnings of a crush for coins

I also brought some store bought food and spices to give to the woman of the house on the way out the door. I should have realized what would be my most popular item, the MSG, I only had packages for the first two houses and of course at the third house they asked for it. It’s a great spice and costs more than salt or sugar, mountain people don’t use fish sauce. I also left small bags of whole black pepper and canned fish.

More knowledgeable people than me have said that one should only give to figures who already have respect from the villagers. The headman and the school teacher were the two examples. Typical good gifts are school supplies, tooth brushes, vegetable seeds, and textbooks. All of these items can be bought at the local market of the town one stays in before the trek. The gift not only helps the people of the village but also the small market traders of the town with whom you make your purchase.

I guess on the next trek I go on I will only give to the headman or school teacher, and only the gifts suggested. Like I said I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out. I think the idea is to avoid handing out gifts like Santa Clause.

Below is a link to a topo map of the area of our trek. Two thirds of the way down the left side is Pongsali and the Landing site “L-15” inked in. I’m not sure what kind of landing site this was or even if what I saw was the old site. Looked to me as if someone flattened a hilltop for a very short runway. I can’t think of any other explanation, you don’t need over a thousand feet to land helicopter.

Jim Henthorns topo maps

Lima Site 15?

We started our trek by walking up out of town and around the hill. Within minutes we were over the shoulder of the hill and off the road. We hiked at first gently downhill. Suk cut some banana leaves for us to sit on and have lunch. Lunch was sticky rice with sausage and mandarin oranges. Suk tried unsuccessfully to nap, the day before had been a long one for him and he was tired. Worrying probably about the limited time left to the day and the big hill in front of us he was soon up and we were headed down the trail.

Early in the afternoon we crossed the first of the four rivers of the trek, the Nam Long, and headed up the hill on the opposite side. The hill we were headed up is labelled Cha Kham Sen on the map.

First days are always hard but the walking was eased by having other people to talk to. Also Emily and I hiked at about the same speed so I didn’t feel as if I were holding up the show as I had when it was only hill tribes people and myself. Suk was used to walking with foreigners and didn’t rush us but let us work out our own pace. It was pleasant to talk to other people who enjoyed walking in the hills and liked looking at trees and mountains.

Suk showed his true nature on the first day, joking around and hiding from us at trail junctions or giving wrong information about distances or directions. I know that by mid afternoon he was sure that we would make the village that night with lots of time to spare. Nonetheless he told us it would probably be seven at night and that we were about half way up the hill. We walked into the small village called Ban Jahkduh at around 4:30 in the afternoon, it was at the top of the hill.

Gin Kow Gap Pha

Suk cooked the first of many delicious dinners. He was well aware of the foreigners tastes and the meals were adjusted so that we could eat them. All the hot ingredients were on the side so we could eat them only if we wanted and we all had our own bowls and silverware as we are used to. They brought out one of those bamboo low tables for us to sit at. Basically we were cared for as if we were children, which we are comparatively.
I know how to cook all the food that was served but at home over the stove with good lights. Suk cooked in almost darkness over an open fire. Almost everyone in Laos cooks this way, even in the capital city. It never fails to impress me.

Suk even took the care to notice our moods and if we were comfortable. He showed Emily where to lay out the Thermarest she had brought so she could lay down for a while and always found a way to stick something under my fat butt so my knees didn’t hurt from the low stools we sat on. In a word a perfect gentleman.

Breakfast the next day and all days afterwards was Tom Yum flavoured instant noodles, Wai Wai brand, and instant sugary coffee with milk and mocha out of the package. It helps that Tom Yum flavoured Wai Wai is my favourite at home, I buy it by the case. After breakfast Suk returned from a walk in the woods with some fresh cut walking sticks. Although I’d never used one before I went ahead and gave it a try. It was great. I have two knees that I trashed as a young guy and now they pain me. Emily also used one and Suk carried one in keeping with his role of “Suk the Phou Noi Ninja”, Matt being a manly man didn’t need one.

Immediately after we started walking we headed down and down and down and down some more. Close to three thousand feet of downhill I estimate. At the bottom of the hill we came to a very small town of Phou Noi People, the lowlanders of the region. The village is called Sok Ngam after the junction of the Nam Ngai and the Nam Ngam, Sok meaning junction. I think it was the river junction just above the word Kham where it’s written Cha Kham Sen.

Some guys hanging around at the village asked us why we were carrying the sticks. When we explained they said walking sticks are for old women. It was so funny I had trouble hiding the laugh. The delivery was great too. Said without the tiniest smirk.

Ban Sok Ngam

From the junction of the rivers the trail went for it’s biggest uphill slog of the trek. Having walked uphill before and because of our moderate pace I didn’t mind it too badly. Besides I had Suk;s humour to make the going easier. He claims that before our trek he had never seen such a fat American that could walk up a hill. The trail followed the ridgeline towards the spot marked 1742 on the map. I’m often amazed in that the map which someone sketched a trail on from memory at least thirty five years ago is mostly accurate. Many of the towns have moved but the trails are often the same.

Somewhere very close to the top of that hill we stopped for our second night at a town called Boyee Sahng Mai. Water was close by and we all took advantage of it to wash off. Just before nightfall I walked above town to the top of the hill. The view was almost 360 degrees. I was able to make a cell phone call because of the uninterrupted signal I assume. It felt strange to talk to my wife and son who were getting dinner ready at the house we stay at in Vientiane. There were no roads or towns or lights visible to me in any direction, I knew that probably the distant hills to the east were in Vietnam and the hills to the west were China, yet here I am talking to my wife who is getting dinner ready. That was the last cell phone connection for a while.

Boyee from Above

The next morning arrived with a slight haze which soon evaporated into warm sun while the valleys stayed cold under their thick layer of fog. I think probably that is the usual weather for Pongsali which is at a fairly high elevation also. The nights are colder than the lowlands but the mornings are clear and sunny where as often the valleys don’t warm up until ten.

Fog Below Boyee

For what was one of the longer days of our walks the third day was relatively easy, an enjoyable walk along a long ridge with a stop at Boyee Sahg Gow in the late morning. I could hear the constant chopping of meat on the cutting board and I watched people stuffing intestines by hand to make sausage. I immediately thought of the meat grinder that we have at home and the new sausage press we bought last year.

I stood next to a guy listening to a short wave on top of a hill in the wind. He was listening to a voice broadcast and I didn’t recognise the language, Suk couldn’t figure it out either. The man told us he was listening to a broadcast in Akha from China.

Boyee Sahg Gow

The third night of our walk we stayed in the largest town so far called Nam Phou San Goa. The town sported a few metal roofs and I even saw rice terraces on the side of the steep side hill below it. I think this town is somewhere in the vicinity of the numbers 1223 in the upper right section of the map.

The third night at Nam Phou Sahg Gao

The owner of the house we stayed in was one of the more prosperous people in town and he and his sons spoke some Lao. While Matt and Emily rested and Suk poked around the town that afternoon I asked them about their house and things in general. One of their biggest surprises was the cost of Matt’s boots. They were flabbergasted when I told them they were probably a couple hundred dollars, I then asked Matt and he informed me four hundred which pushed them over the edge. The guys also wanted to know how old I was and what I was doing walking around the hills.

The house had a brand new roof as well as many new rafters underneath to support it, it was a large house. The roof had cost over six hundred dollars but that included the cost of the illegal Vietnamese workers who had contracted to cut the new rafters. That had me interested. It was cheaper to hire illegal Vietnamese labourers to walk a day up to the village and hang around cutting 2x4 rafters by hand with long rip cut saws than to get local hill tribe people to do the job. The job must have taken a few days.

Cutting planks with rip saws to make a boat in the river town of Wa Tai. These guys have shoulders.

Our host also had a couple of generators and a few batteries for lighting as well as a DVD player, a horse and a couple of buffalo. He was doing ok. People tend to think of hill tribe people as being one dimensional and poor, barely eking out an existence. A closer look reveals a lot more diversity of wealth. That man was selling rice.

TV and radio have brought a lot of changes to peoples view of the world. People often have a sense of geography and a basic grasp of science.
Being Saturday night, or maybe it’s that way all week, a lot of moonshine got drunk that night. I just out and out refused after one shot. Mat had a harder time refusing and paid the price.

The videos were basic Lao sing song with dancers, I like the costumes, reminds me of the sixties, wide lapels and floppy bellbottoms. It’s an acquired taste. I think Matt and Emily liked the Thai videos about poor people seeking their fortune and finding true love in the big city better. You could follow the story without understanding the words. I for one was very happy when the electricity and lights were shut off at nine.

The wind and high clouds that had begun the day before brought cold weather the next morning. There was no morning sunshine to take off the chill. We left at a brisk pace headed down into the valley headed for the Nam Ou. Being one of the larger rivers in Laos the Nam Ou was where the walking portion of our trek was to end and we were eager to get there.
After walking steeply downhill for a few hours we came to the first of many crossings of a major tributary that Suk didn’t know the name of. While telling me to be safe and remove my shoes for the crossing Suk briefly got his feet wet, I promptly advised him to be careful and remove his shoes. Matt took the wet only briefly approach as his shoes had Gore-Tex liners which of course didn’t work with holes in them. The second crossing was much worse and I removed my shoes for what remained of the five or six crossings over the next half a kilometre. No sense in putting them back on just to remove them again.

For lunch besides the usual canned mackerel we also had sausage called yaw that comes wrapped in banana leaves. It somehow keeps for a long time. Lunch was at the last river crossing after which the trail took off steeply uphill for quite a while. I was disappointed, here I thought all the work was over and we were walking up another hill. My mood brightened soon with the sight in the distance of the Nam Ou finally.

The Valley of the Nam Ou

Walking into the Phou Noi village of Wa Tai seemed almost like civilization again. The houses were more solid, like the ones in town, and there was a lot of concrete. Coconut trees and little paths between houses leading down to the river. There were also electric lines everywhere, many people have small generators powered by a propeller shaft dangled in the water. Hokey but it works.

Wa Tai

We went down to the river and swam before dinner while watching some guys sawing planks out of trees. Looks like hard work to me, some of the fellows were pretty young too, maybe twelve or thirteen. The planks are used to make the long boats that everyone uses to fish and get up and down the river. The tools are simple but used well. They use a string line coated with charcoal, a simple block plane, a kind of keyhole cross cut saw, a chisel and a hammer.

Making a Boat

Dinner was wild pig barbequed, Suk’s finest effort yet. The house where we stayed had given us the entire upper floor to sleep in, a room big enough to sleep twenty easily. There was also a flushable scoop toilet downstairs. Suk explained that this village saw a lot more tourist traffic than the others we had stayed in because it was a good destination for the two day easy trek, in other words ride the boat there and back and not have to walk anywhere. He estimated at least twenty groups a year.
Our last day was thankfully a short boat ride to the road at Hatsa and then a long wait for the small bus to make the drive to Pongsali.

Heading down the Nam Ou

Jan 16, 2007

Maeng Ee-Nyow

These little critters are called maeng ee-nyow, and no they aren’t the common cockroach. Some kind of water bug. Now that people know I’ll eat insects they buy them and cook them up when they see them at the market. Perhaps I need to drop some hints about my fondness for Belgian chocolate too.

We ate the ee-nyow last night in an ought. Ought is made with dill, pulverized sticky rice, some bai kee hoot leaves and other secret ingredients. Like any other ought I’ve eaten, ought maeng ee-nyow tastes overwhelmingly like dill. The only thing insect about it was that it was slightly crunchy. To tell the truth the part I didn’t like much was the slimy mushrooms. I’m not sure what kind they are but they seem tough and slimy.

The only other insect I’ve eaten lately was some maeng kok at Pak Mong above Luang Prabang. They are a classic looking beetle like the Maeng Kii Kwai except bigger. About the size of your thumb. They were barbequed and I couldn’t taste any marinade, just beetle. I gave a pass on the heads, too hard, but the bodies were good. I bought barbequed duck at the same time and that tasted better.


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.

Jan 14, 2007

A couple days in Northern Laos

I didn’t know it but New Years is some sort of big holiday in Luang Prabang. I don’t mean Pi Mai but regular New Years. I arrived two days before at around 5:30 in the evening.

I knew something was up when a quick walk down one of the small streets headed to the Mekong revealed seven full guest houses. At the bottom of the street a tout was trying to talk two women into looking into a guest house on another side of town that might have rooms. The women were uninterested. I jumped at the chance.

It turns out that the tout only had a motorcycle to drive around with anyway, not good for three people. We headed back out towards the southern bus station. Dem layowwww, dem layowww, and dem layow. Every place was full. We circled back towards Wat Wisoun and we split up asking at alternate guest houses. I asked him how much commission he wanted assuming that he might be shy to ask a guest house owner in front of me. He said twenty thousand, and I told him thirty was fine. Didn’t want money to be an issue.

By now we were seeing a lot of people in tuk tuks doing the same thing as well as a farang couple on a dirt bike. Finally out by the airport we found a place and I gave him a fifty K note. The room was double priced for the occasion, which I paid with a genuine smile.

I certainly don’t pity the guest house owners as being impoverished Laotians, I know what land in Luang Prabang costs per meter and they had recently bought their place. I just don’t begrudge people making as much as the market will bear. I’d do the same. It was seven o’clock when I finally got that room, I was considering trying a wat, or a bench at the bus station without a blanket.

Flame style routered pickets at Luang Prabang Bus Station

The next morning I left well before daylight with intentions of getting on the very first thing moving towards Pongsali. The guidebook lists a direct bus, I’d recently bought a guidebook, but of course there are none and the connection in Udomxai doesn’t work. Takes two days.

I got this message from an anonymous commentator after posting"The direct bus to Phongsali comes from Vientiane and is caught at Luang Prabang's Southern Bus station. It probably leaves in the afternoon. " Sounds similar to the night bus from Luang Namtha. Makes a stop in the afternoon in the at the southern terminal and that's it. Sounds like a good way to get there in one push. Bet it's a 22 hr ride at least. And thank you again Anon.

I was happy enough to spend an afternoon in Udomxai, I’ve only stayed there before to make bus connections and I wondered about the town from my last trip. it’s surrounded by lots of mountains and I had a suspicion there might be more to it than what’s said in the Lonely Planet. Sure enough there quite a few guest houses and I’m not talking about Chinese short time places, but regular Lao owned but empty guest houses. There’s also a bike touring company and a travel company offering treks. More to the point until the airport at Luang Namtha is finished with it’s upgrade it has the only operating airstrip north of Luang Prabang besides Boon Neua which is in the middle of nowhere.

Market Oudomxai

I stopped by the market and bought a knit hat and logged into the slow email connection for a last online fix for a while. At the market was this sign.

Human Trafficker

“Go to work….Do you want to live in a foreign country? Very good job. Easy. High Salary. I will be responsible for everything.
Think carefully…. Your life will be safer. Don’t become food for the human trafficker.
Be careful with people who approach you. Selling women and children is against the law.”

I’m at a loss for a witty comment.

Sticky rice cooking at bus station

I woke up at my usual hour, before dawn and went out and had breakfast at one of the shacks next to the bus station. It seems as if every town in northern Laos is socked in with heavy fog for at least a couple hours every morning. Like pea soup.

Bus Station Oudomxai

Headed North The Second Time

Boat Engine

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Sengthian dropped me off at Tah Huah Galeeow. There is also a bus but I imagine it’s a dusty bumpy ride. The landing had a steady flow of boats coming over from Thailand and unloading food, mostly fruit and potato chips. I’d say Galeeow is a good place to bring stuff across with the least amount of “tax” possible.
It’s amazing how quickly one can drop off the beaten path just by driving down a street and getting on a boat. For the next couple of days I saw no other westerners at all and never spoke English.
The Mekong above Vientiane is the same river as elsewhere with a personality all it’s own. It’s muddy, it’s powerful, and it’s in a hurry. The Mekong doesn’t feel so much as if it’s sliding down a hill as that it’s being pushed from behind. All that water wanting to get to Vietnam and out into the delta so that it can finally slow down and drop it’s silt.
I don’t know when or if ever the river will be used easily by regular boats. The whole way up it always seemed as if we were having to wend our way between rocks and up over ledges. Some places there are concrete pylons built up on both sides of the channel to guide boats through sections that are unobvious, more often there is nothing, or water of a different colour or a bit of white water.
I figure our boat sat a couple feet deep in the water and was maybe sixty feet long. It was powered by a huge diesel engine. I think it had ten cylinders and looked like the kind of thing used to power a D10 Cat or a drill rig.
The end of the ride was at a classic Mekong river town called Pak Lai. If there were any rooms available with hot water I didn’t find them. The first place I stopped used a bucket for a shower, the second place quoted a price of $13 to start out. When I asked for a regular room the price dropped to $3. If anyone is hankering for Laos in the bad old days you need look no further. People used to think that foreign tourists cared nothing for money and would charge astronomical amounts for poor accommodation. I found a restaurant, there was a family eating there, otherwise the place was empty. At $4 for a bowl of soup I can see why.
The next day seemed to be more of the same. No signs in English and that general feeling that not many other tourists go this route. Xayabuli province isn’t really that far out in the boonies, it’s a prosperous part of Laos, it’s just that no one goes there. It seemed as if the provincial authorities were still using French for the names of things. The rest of the country has switched to English, and I’m sure there are very few French speakers around.

Ferry at Tha Deua

One day on the river was enough for me. I didn’t even check out the boat situation further, but left early in the morning and hopped a Sawngthaew, the only transportation headed north, there are no busses. The two breaks to the monotony were when I saw a pair of working elephants complete with logging chains around their necks walking down the side of the road and when a soldier got on carrying some kind of an AK variant. It had a very long barrel, small clip, and hole in the but. All the earmarks of a Soviet sniper rifle. There was even some sort of mechanism at the end of the barrel with a lot of holes in it, maybe some sort of flash suppressor. I’m not much of a gun nut but still I am American, we like those kinds of things.
At the provincial capital I had to catch another truck across town and get on a third one to head for Luang Prabang province. The roads were for the most part unpaved and I was already coated with dust, so I rode on the tailgate hanging onto the roof rack and enjoying the view. Unfortunately being outside the sawngthaew I caught the eye of a couple of policeman at a road check before the Mekong crossing and they demanded my passport and had me go inside while they copied down my information. They could have at least smiled.


Eleven hours after leaving Pak Lai we rolled into Luang Prabang.