Feb 14, 2010

Long Time Traveler (Muang Long)

Muang Long. In the foreground Nam Ma (Ma River) with fields of melon and rice, in the background Phou Mon Lem (Mon Lem Mountain)

Up in Northern Laos in a long narrow valley lies a town far off the beaten track. It is the largest town in north west Laos past Muang Sing. To the north lie many small villages and many kilometers of hills before the Mekong and the border with China, south lies even higher mountains and a fast river with no bridges and no way to ford in the wet season. The name of the town is Long, it is the central town of the district so it is called Muang Long.

Map of downtown Muang Long showing Guest Houses, Restaurants etc

Muang Long is a market town, lying at the confluence of the Long and the Ma rivers about forty or so kilometers upstream from the smaller town of Xiengkok on the Mekong. Up the road to the east (17A) in the other direction is the old walled town and former opium market at Sing. The floodplain of the rivers is what gives Muang Long it's reason for being. The flat fertile fields along the bottom of the valley provide the agricultural base of the town. The road after it leaves town in both directions is dirt, and there are 4 major foot paths leading over the mountains.

"Long Time Traveller"

These fleeting charms of earth
Farewell, your springs of joy are dry
My soul now seeks another home
A brighter world on high

I'm a long time travelling here below
I'm a long time travelling away from home
I'm a long time travelling here below
To lay this body down

Farewell kind friends whose tender care
Has long engaged my love
Your fond embrace I now exchange
For better friends above

I'm a long time travelling here below
I'm a long time travelling away from home
I'm a long time travelling here below
To lay this body down...

I checked in to the Homephan guest house where I've always stayed, it's on the main road a block up from the market and is owned by the doctor who operates the local government hospital. When I say checked in I'm using the term liberally. They no longer keep a registry of foreign guests the way they are supposed to. Likewise the 6 bed clinic is hardly a hospital. What tourism traffic used to pass through Long has slowed to a trickle of late. The Homphan often has official guests from the government in the provincial capital or other districts. The rooms are clean if spartan, and there is a common area for sitting, the owner provides bottled water. I was the only foreign tourist in town.

In 2009 Muang Long looked very similar to the way I'd left it almost two years before, same bus station cum parking lot, cum town square. Same mountains, same rivers, same crag, same houses, same people in the market, same dogs sleeping in the middle of the street (Yes I know it's a cliche)
Homephan Guest House

As far as I can tell there isn't a hotel room with hot water to be had anywhere in Muang Long, , , yet. I'm writing this a year after I was last there, here's hoping, the cold season in the mountains up north can be, well, cold. Twenty four hour electricity has been around for a couple of years now but the use of it is still evolving. There are a few guest houses and a couple of restaurants. Don't expect English to be spoken anywhere

The most exciting daily event in Muang Long is the market. I used to drink coffee in my room and listen to my short wave radio. I'd know it was time to head to the market when I heard the sound of people walking and talking in the predawn half light. For breakfast I like to order a bowl of the local noodle soup called Kao Soi, at one of the many small Kao Soi stands set up around the market. I'm not a big fan of the fermented bean paste that tops the soup and makes it different from all the other regional noodle soups in northern Laos. The taste isn't objectionable or strong, I just prefer the plain noodles with broth, if they have a wedge of lime to squeeze over them all the better.

Dalat Long (Market at Muang Long)

Often at least one member of a family will go to the market in the morning, either to buy food or, if a farming family to sell some produce. The market is the social event of the day. People bring thier babies or come to gossip, some even come in their pajamas under a heavy coat. Most of the produce sellers are women and girls. Inside the market are those who can afford to pay the small rent to set up a table, outside on pieces of plastic or a small piece of cloth, sellers line up opposite each other so to form a long pathway for people arriving at the market to walk between. For many agricultural families selling produce offers the opportunity of some hard currency with wich to buy manufactured goods.

The people living in Long are Tai Lu. Lu are part of the same language group as Lao, Thai, Dai from Xipsongbana, etc. The language is similar to Thai or Lao but enough different that you have to speak it to understand it. Most townspeople are fluent in Lao also.

I've probably spent a dozen days in Muang Long. There is a large forest north and south of town, thousands of square kilometers in size. It is road less and has never been cut, the plants and trees and fauna are relatively untouched, I've gotten lost there three times. I call the area south of town The Nam Fa Drainage, it includes roughly the Nam Fa river and it's tributaries. The Nam Fa drainage is roadless for most of it's length before emptying into the Mekong, south of Xienkok. It is one of the last remaining intact river drainages in South East Asia.
Wat in old town w/satelite dish

Below the market and along the river is the old town with classic Lu architecture and a more relaxed feeling than up by the road. Trees are taller and the fields are closer, there's a wat. The Lu, of course, are Theravada Buddhists. Old town is nestled into the inside of a large bend in the Ma river. Across the river are many rice fields all the way to the crags of Phou Kam.

The Crags on the far side of the river


Chris said...

Don't forget the hot shower in the basement of homephan! take the 'twin beds in a garage' option and enjoy it. Perhaps this is only available when the place is full though...

Great post on Muang Long

Do you know anywhere with fairly 'authentic' Lao recipes? i can find chicken laap but always with breast, never mentions the entrails...

Perhaps a void you could fill? :)

Somchai said...

I'll post a recipe but it's my own, no galanga, no kafir lime leaf, yes chicken liver, yes crispied skin sliced thin.

Have you checked out the Foodies section? "Thai and Lao Food" is oreintated towards the non Lao cook.

Still thinking of poor fishman, weird, lucky for him he's ok. Been thinking all day, he has a couple of kids too.

I asked and was given permision to use that shower but it felt like it was the shower for the household too. Didn't want to intrude, went cold on 3d day because it was ensuite.

Chris said...

I presume you're refering to the recent news on TF. Very lucky, although, quick thinking on his part had more to do with it i imagine. It makes you shudder to think what the outcome could have been.

I've looked at thai-lao-food a few times, its a shame that it doesn't seem to be updated anymore - at least not recently. I made the beef noodle soup from there but the broth just wasn't the same. I don't think i ever tasted strong star anise in Laos soup...

I never bumped into anyone else using it but you are probably right. We were allowed use purely because the garage didn't have ensuite.

I look forward to that post! All the best