Posts filed under 'Laos'
Whoa. Tired. 8 hours on the back of a pick-up today. I’m still in Lao, but I can see Thailand just across the Mekong River. I arrived too late to cross the border today; will be heading out first thing in the morning.
I have no idea how many kilometers we rode today but I can tell you how much dirt was on my face, up my nose, and all over my body when we arrived. A LOT. The first 2 hours of the drive out of Luang Nam Tha were mud – wet, slippery, and full of puddles. We were slip-sliding all over the place, often times at the edge of a 5000-foot drop. I’m not a smoker, never was, but during those first 2 near-fatal hours I kept thinking man, I need a cigarette. At one stage we were trying to get up a muddy incline and well, we just completely slipped back down. Then on the next attempt, everyone had to move to the very back of the pick-up and jump up and down to try to force the car up. Now that’s the type of cultural bonding experience that you just won’t get on a package tour. Ha.
In the pick-up there was a German girl, me, and 5 local Lao guys. Which was pretty roomy considering I’ve been in pick-ups with well over 30 people before. Anyway we finally got through the mud (after crossing through several streams even) in the pouring rain which I forgot to mention (covering ourselves with plastic tarp) and then the road seemed to dry out and oh joy, it became dust-eating time. Actually I’ll take dust eating to near-death cliff dives anyday.
8 hours of dirt road in the back of a pick-up builds character. Yeah. Part of the Lao experience.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to finally get to Huay Xai and get OUT of the pick-up. Thailand today? No, tomorrow, 8am. Of course. Driver gets a kick-back from the guesthouses for bringing tourists in just late enough that they’re forced to spend another night in Lao. Doesn’t really matter anyway. I found a guesthouse, rinsed off the dust tan with a hot shower, and prompty went out for a Beer Lao and vegetable fried rice (or, in Thai-Lao-English,’flied rye’).
Tomorrow is my birthday (!) so it will be kind-of cool actually to get 2 stamps in the passport with my birthday on them. I’m anticipating a much smoother first-world type of aircon bus ride to Chiang Mai from the Thai side. That’s my birthday present.
October 28th, 2002
Sounds to remember: Akha Hill Tribe man singing folk songs to his children at night next to my hut; people calling to each other while working in the rice fields; the water trickling from the stream that goes through the field below my balcony.
Scenes to remember: Man walking his buffalo to the fields with his children riding one each; men and women harvesting the rice in the fields and carrying huge bags of it into the pick-ups on the road; the sun setting behind the fields and the mountains.
It’s a beautiful place here, but at the same time it’s got a strange undertone – if you know about the opium trade here you could easily equate it to greed, addiction, and resentment towards foreigners. In the guidebook it says there are over 1500 opium addicts in Muang Sing and that’s a lot considering it’s a very small town.
Everywhere you go people are saying “Sabaidee” and then whispering under their breath, “opium, opium, opium?” It’s really weird, and a bit unsettling. I wish I had realized what this area was all about because I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. But you don’t really understand fully it until you see it for yourself. Women with brown-stained teeth (classic sign of a heavy opium smoker) trying to sell you a bracelet (and them some drugs) are everywhere.
I did some interesting things here though. The first afternoon I walked 2 km to the Lao-Chinese border just to have a look. It was after 5 pm so no one was really working there on the Lao side to ask about border passes, but I’ve heard that they don’t allow passes into China anyway. The people who were there did let me take some photos though which was cool. It’s the 2nd time on this trip that i’ve been so close to China (first time in Sapa, Vietnam).
The following day I decided to head into Muang Sing mostly just to check out the town and see about trekking options. It’s 8 km from the place I’m staying into town. I started walking under the cooler shade of the clouds protecting me from the sun thinking I’d try to get a pick-up, but then I was enjoying the walk so much that I decided to keep going. It was interesting watching everyone working so hard in the fields to harvest their rice.
At one stage a bunch of farmers on a mini jeep/pick-up pulled over and offered me a ride, and I said what the hell and hopped on, not having any idea how far they’d take me. Turned out to be only 1 km because they then turned off the main road and let me off again, but it was a nice break from the walking and an interesting cultural experience.
Not much to see at all in the town of Muang SIng, and the trekking options turned out to be too expensive ($20 for a day trip) so in the end I had lunch at a nice restaurant overlooking the rice fields, rested up for a bit, and then set out back to the guesthouse.
Going back I only walked half-way and then caught a pick-up for the last 4 km. The walk to and from was definitely the most interesting part of the day.
Back at the guesthouse I played cards with my roomate, neighbors, an Australian couple, and an Israeli couple (a rather mean game of UNO). Didn’t have much to do with my roomie or his friend and the Canadian girl – they were either smoking or eating opium all day and night and were the kind of people who thought they were WAY cooler than they ever actually were, acting like they just knew EVERYTHING about Asia. Whatever. Saved me the price of a full room and that’s it. I was happy to see them go this morning.
Today I am heading back to Luang Nam Tha and then tomorrow I’ll be working my way to the Lao-Thai border.
A few steps further and Id be in China
The hills are alive, with the sounds of Muang Sing
More Muang Sing song
October 27th, 2002
Resting up the knee today was a good excuse to do nothing. Had a bit of a late night (11:30pm, which is very late for Lao) after meeting 3 Dutch people in the restaurant where I was staying. I stayed up talking with Adrie, a 30 year-old who’s out travelling for 2.5 months and had some good travel stories from a previous trip to the Philippines (most notably, waiting 7 seven days for a boat once). Good converstion.
This morning I had to get up early and pack to try to catch a pick-up heading north. I had breakfast with Dave the American and Lyn (one of the Dutch women from the trek) and then we all went over to the bus station to try to organize rides. They were heading south to Oudomxai (a 5-hour ride) and me north to Muang Sing (2-hour ride). I found my pick-up and was off at 8:30am. There were 3 other foreigners on the pick-up (a French couple and a Japanese girl) and 17 locals. Funny how you get used to being crammed and uncomfortable in the pick-ups. No one complains. It would never work that way at home.
Nice drive up here through the mountains. Arrived in town and set out to get to the guesthouse I wanted to stay which is 8 km outside of town. I found 3 other foreigners and shared the ride with them; they had spent one night in town already and were heading out to the same place.
When we arrived we had a look at the rooms and even though there were 3 available, me and the one guy Mark (from Australia) decided to share a room because it would be cheaper for us both. The four of us had lunch with an Israeli couple, sitting in the restaurant which overlooks the ricefields and mountains all around.
I spent the afternoon doing a much-needed laundry session and chilling out on the balcony. The town of Muang Sing is in the the heart of the Golden Triangle and is well-known for it’s opium growning. Tales of tourists getting busted and bribed up to $1200 USD by undercover cops are told everywhere. It’s also only 10 km from the Chinese border. There are many hill tribes living in the surrounding villages so hopefully one day here I’ll set out to see one or two of those. My visa expires in another 5 days time so most likely I’ll spend a few days here and then make my way back to Thailand.
The view from my balcony, well worth $2/night
A Golden sunset
October 25th, 2002
Items from the menu of a Chinese restaurant in Luang Nam Tha (no joke!):
Fry Chicken Inside
Boiled Pig Liver
Fried Pig Bowel
Boiled Pig Bowel
Deep Fry Pig Intestine
Fried Dry Deer Meat
Deep Fry Cow Intestine
Pig Liver Soup
Boiled Pig Knuckle
Pig Knuckle Soup
Weed Vegetable Soup
Fry Pig Liver
~and I still managed to eat there!! (They had the coldest beer in town.) I ate pumpkin and fried eggplant with garlic.
Back in Luang Nam Tha after 2 days of trekking.. I am showered and just had a beer with Dave, an American guy I met on the trek, so I am feeling GOOD. Yesterday we left for the hills surrounding Luang Nam Tha – it was an’eco-tourisn sensitive trek’ (whatever that means) and quite pricey at $26 but it had been recommended to me by other travellers.
There were 7 in our group – 5 from Holland, 2 Americans (Dave and me), and then our two local guides. A good group of nice people, but the 5 from Holland tended to speak Dutch among themselves (as you would) so truthfully I would have preferred a more diverse group of people. But you take your chances when booking such a trek.
Anyway yesterday we all met at the trekking office in the a.m. and set out by pick-up, 20km out of town, for the start of the trek. Started hiking up, and up from one village into the mountains. It was a very nice forest but a very, very muddy trail. We hiked for a few hours and then stopped for lunch at one of the thatch huts in the hills. Lunch was served on giant banana leaves and consisted of fried chicken, fish, vegetables, and, for the more daring adventurers, fried silk worms. Gross! Actually a few in our group did try them, but not me. I could barely eat the vegetables with the site of a pile of fried grubs sitting right next to them. A real taste of local culture I guess.
Everything was going well after lunch, that is until I mindlessly wiped out on the trail and sprained my knee! Oh, could I express the level of pain in words? NO. It hurt! Somehow I slid, fell, and twisted my knee, and man I was in pain, thinking that I even broke my knee. I layed on the trail waiting for the pain to pass, hoping I’d be able to stand, wondering how the HELL I was going to get out, while everyone stood around and watched me with anticipation. After several minutes I tried to stand (ouch!) and started hobbling down the trail again. David kindly offered to carry my pack, and if you know me at all, you will know that I MUST have been in serious pain if I let someone carry my pack. I was. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt with every step, but THANKFULLY we only had just over 30 minutes before reaching our destination village for the night.
I immediately layed down on the porch of our hut and put my foot up. David kindly (again) offered me pain killers and anti-inflammatories and I gladly popped them all. I spent the entire afternoon laid up like that, still wondering how th hell I was going to be able to walk the next day for seven hours. I mostly passed the time talking with Dave, who, at 42 years old (from Connecticut), has managed to maintain a travelling lifestyle through his adult life and of course I was fascinated to know how he’s been able to do it (mostly computer consulting). He’s travelled much more than most Americans I know for sure.
Dinner in the village was with the village chief, who’s been the chief of the village since he was 18 years old (he’s now 40). We found out that there are 150 people living in the village and that only one week ago a woman died in childbirth from a breached birth. There is no doctor in the village and Luang Nam Tha is a 7-hour walk away. A different world. No electricity in the village, although the’tourists’ house has solar-powered light. Can’t help but feel the so-called’eco-sensitive’ tourism is more like full-on exploitation of these people. The only thing’sensitive’ about it is that the villagers have been told not to beg so they don’t. Anyway we were in bed at 8pm.
Woke up the next day at 6am, had breakfast, and started hiking out by 9am. My knee felt stiff and sore in the morning. I was worried big time about getting out. I popped a bunch more pain killers and hoped for the best. It turned out to be ok once I strated moving and warmed up the muscles. I managed to get through the day with only minor discomfort which is much better than I had hoped for.
The walk was nice, first flat in the forest along a river, then up a mountain with great views of the valley below, and finally down into Luang Nam Tha. The temperature wasn’t bad either; thankfully a lot of clouds were protecting us from the heat of the sun so we weren’t sweating too bad.
David so kindly offered to carry my pack again for the day but this time I refused, determined to walk out on my own with my own bag. And I made it, with no permanent damage I hope.
Back in civilization (at least their version of it in Luang Nam Tha), I had a hot shower, put on clean clothes and then had some cold beers with Dave. That brings me up to date, back at the beginning of the story.
Tomorrow heading north to Muang Sing.
The start of the trek from Luang Nam Tha
The start of the trek from Luang Nam Tha
A modern bridge in Lao
Ah, the views
October 24th, 2002