This past week has been the most action packed week of the trip, I think. Let’s see if I can recap…
So after talking to some guys in an Internet cafe, I decided that I would head up to northern Laos instead of going directly to Thailand. I’m really glad I did because it has been incredible. I got up in the morning and went to the travel office to wait for the tuk tuk to take me to the boat and I found out that two of the Australians I had gone to see the waterfall with the day before were also going with me. We ended up being the only three people on the boat which left plenty of room for us. The only problem was that the seats were horribly small and you couldn’t sit on them for 10 minutes without getting a sore ass. Then I remembered my hammock. Within 10 minutes, I had the hammock strung across the boat and was relaxing in style. It was an incredible boat trip and because the hammock put me at the perfect height, I was able to enjoy the spectacular views the entire trip (unlike the Aussies who, in a desperate attempt to get comfortable, were forced to lay down and miss it all). All the boats that passed pointed at me and smiled – “That lucky bastard…” And I was. When we were nearly there, we got caught in a torrential rain storm and all the chairs and supplies for the boat people fell off the roof and into the river. We ended up letting down the plastic shields for the boat to protect us from the rain and wind and then spent 30 minutes cruising the river and looking for our lost supplies. And then we arrived.
Meng Keau is a really cool place. It’s tucked away in a river valley and there is a huge bridge built by the Chinese (for trade) across the valley. I found a bungalow for 2 bucks a night (it is soooo damned cheap here) overlooking the river and me and the Australians chatted the night away, played a bit of chess, made fun of the menus and waiting about 2 hours for our food to arrive (everything runs on Lao Time here which requires you to multiply the time something should take by about 10). We chatted with a few medical psychologists from England and it was great fun.
In the morning I headed up to Meng Ngoi which can only be accessed by boat. The boat trip through the valley was incredible and we arrived just after the last bit of fog had burned away. Meng Ngoi rests up on the base of a mountain overlooking the river in the valley and it is quite a bustling little town. Tiny villages like this always have a hundred kids playing everywhere you look. They have a river so there is always someone doing something there and it’s quite fun to watch. People do laundry (including my laundry which I gave to the hotel to clean I later found out as I saw my shirt sitting in the sand on the river bank), clean food, fix boats, fix, swim, even rinse rice to make Lao Lao whiskey. It’s CRAZY!
The Aussies and I went on a day hike to see some caves and visit some hill tribes. That was really cool. The next day, we went kayaking through the valley for about $2.50 each and that was pretty awesome as well. That night I met a Dutch girl and two Israelis and we decided to do a two day trek through the forest the next day. We got up early and headed off with a little hand drawn map I had made from the wall of a tourist agency. We hiked through the valleys and visited some of the villages far out in the forest. There are lots of ethnic tribal villages without electricity that are only accessible by little trails though the forest and we tried to visit a few of the different tribes. There are of course kids running all over the place, accompanied by countless pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, buffalo, cats, dogs and anything else you can imagine. The people all wave as you walk though and most of the kids come up and ask for pens (for school). After quite a hike up a mountain, we arrived at a village deep in the jungle and it was quite entertaining trying to negotiate a place to sleep for the night seeing as we had no guide and didn’t speak any Lao. The chief of the village spoke a bit of English though and he ended up renting his own bungalow to us for $1.50 for the night. We spent the night chatting, watching the life of the tribes people, eating, laughing and being observed by countless kids sitting around watching us and feeding us bamboo shoots. After playing with the kids for an hour of so, I made an English menu for the chief for the wall of his little store and he really liked that. It was Lao New Years and so at about 8:00PM, half the village piled into a hut and they fired up the town generator for electricity (which is also used to simultaneously de-husk rice and feed the husks to the animals by spraying it out the back of the shed). We spent the next 3 hours in a hut packed with Lao tribes people watching cheesy karaoke videos and a kung fu movie dubbed in their tribal language. It was GREAT!
The next morning, we had our breakfast and got ready to leave. We added up our expenses for the night and the bill came to a whopping $2.50 for the night’s accommodation, three meals, candles, tea and sleeping in the chief’s home! It also happened to be one of the best experiences of my entire trip. It was great to see a life so incredibly different from my own. I don’t have the time to put the experience into words, but it was incredible.
So we set off to another village near the river and had to follow a stream through the forest (sometimes there was no trail, only the stream) past some minor villages and places where they were cutting down trees and bamboo (we just heard lots of cracking and people yelling HELLO! at us from the forest), we arrived at the river. Once at the river, we negotiated a price to Meng Ngoi with a guy for a boat and were soon off, until the boat broke down and we had to spend 45 minutes waiting for the guy to come back (he had hopped into another guys boat going back to the village) and telling riddles to each other.
When we got back, Saskia (the Dutch girl) and I headed back into Meng Keau where she caught a bus back to Vientiane and I stayed the night. In the morning, I tried to catch the “8:00AM” bus, but was quickly informed that it was actually a 10:00AM bus which suddenly changed to 10:45AM at 10:00. Zach and Mica (the Israelis I had done the trek with) arrived from Meng Ngoi along with a few others (the bus station was waiting for 10 people who want to go to Luang Nam Tha and wouldn’t leave before that time which is why the time kept getting later. So the next thing I knew, we were all in the back of a pickup truck (which has benches installed and a roof) to Udomxai where we would catch another bus to Luang Nam Tha. The ride was rough, although beautiful, and we had people even hanging off the back of the truck. A few Lao people threw up. At the bus station, we waiting around for a few hours while the bus filled up and then were off to Luang Nam Tha. After several hours of that, we arrived and found a hostel. Our actual destination was Muang Xing but it was too late when we arrived and so we caught the first bus out the next morning.
The bus (pickup truck) was supposed to leave at 9:00AM but it was full so we had to wait for the next one and didn’t get out until around 10:30. While we waiting, we fended off the tribes women walking around selling bracelets (and opium). They are dressed in traditional clothing and try to coerce you into buying their crafts (and the opium hidden below them). Opium is a main source of income here in Laos and you can get it for dirt cheap (from what I gather). Anyways, the two benches were packed, two people were laying at our feet and people were hanging off the back…and they still tried to get more people in. The two-hour ride down the bumpy dirt road was (again) rough and dusty, but we arrived in one piece. We arranged a trek and Zach and I spent the evening playing chess and chatting.
The next morning, we set off for our trek which consisted of two days, one night, with a group of 8 plus a guide through the jungle to visit the various hill tribes there. It was a great walk (although not very demanding) and we had a stay in a village for the night. UNESCO set up a protected forest here and they also set up this trekking program which was put in place to foster low impact tourism. You can only trek with a guide and both the group size and tour frequency is limited to have a minimal impact on the tribal people. It was of course cool to see all the people doing their own things and lots of little kids loved having their pictures taken. We visited two different types of tribes (the Muon and Aka) and they were quite different. It was interesting to learn a bit about their culture and religion, and it was quite surprising to see the women walking around with their breasts hanging out of their shirts (which they do after they’ve gotten married).
That night, we got a massage from the women, which consisted of them pushing on our backs and legs for an hour and then we spent the evening chatting and relaxing. I was lucky because there were two people from Spain on the trip, so I got quite a bit of practice with my Spanish. It was a great group and we had a great time.
After arriving back in Meng Xing, we immediately took a pickup back to Luang Nam Tha where we ran into the Australians again and got dinner together (they just got done with a 3 day trek). After a few beers, we hit the sack and the next morning, we headed off together to the Thai border at Huai Xai. I had heard bad things about this bus trip but nothing could have prepared me for the ordeal. It was absolutely the most entertaining bus trip ever.
It basically consists of 10 hours in a rickety bus on one of the most incredibly bumpy, dusty and winding jungle roads in the world. Half the time you are nearly thrown from your seat from the huge bumps in the road and the other half you are trying not to slide off the seat from the bends. It was supposed to leave at 9:00, but then 10:00, then 10:30, then after it left, we spent an hour getting a tire fixed and when we thought we were then leaving, we ended up back at the bus station where we waited another 30 minutes. We left at 11:30. The bus broke down half way there and we had to get out and wait for a few hours while they screwed with the engine (at which time I took my hammock out and strung it across the inside of the bus and played Zach’s Gameboy – god bless Super Mario Brothers) and that was pretty funny. There was no air conditioning so we had to keep the windows down, but that meant that the dust came in and we all were covered in dirt (and by covered, I mean like, you pat your head and dirt flies up from it into the air). We stopped every hour for no apparent reason and the poor guy’s seat behind me broke early on in the trip and he spent the rest of the time sitting on a metal bar. The worst thing about Lao buses though is the atrocious music. They blare it on the buses and refuse to turn it down. Us foreigners had control of the back 3 rows in the bus and that just happened to be where they had hooked up a home stereo speaker for the bass and force of the music and they had to blare it at full volume so that the people in the front of the bus could hear. We put up with it for about an hour before we just couldn’t stand it any more. I don’t think I can put the horror of this music into words. Lao music consists of the same cheesy beat and the same cheesy guitar chords and solos and some guy or woman moaning in a unendingly monotonous cacophony of shit. I don’t like using profanity in these posts, but I don’t think any other word is more suitable. It’s horrendous. It sounds like exactly the same song, over and over and the speaker is always blown out so that it makes that blown speaker noise the entire time. It cuts right down to the soul, and when you combine this with 10 hours of winding roads and dust, it can make one want to put his head through the window. Or cry. Most likely both.
During a break, I followed the cable to the speaker beneath the back seat and gave it a good tug. I think it could be the most satisfying thing I have ever in my life. Not only did I no longer want to put my head through the window (and cry), but I also received cheers from the back half of the bus. It was a great moment in Lao history.
We finally arrived though and after negotiating a price with the tuk tuk driver to town (lao bus stations are always conveniently placed 5k’s out of town so you have to take a tuk tuk from the station) we ended up in Huai Xai. I grabbed a shower and rinsed the inches of dirt from my body. While I waited for Zach, I watched the Hugh Hefner story on TV dubbed in Lao. I was amazed that they blurred out all bottles of alcohol and even Hugh Hefner smoking! When he put the pipe up to his mouth, his head became a blur. Gee…I wonder what he was doing. What an incredible length to go to for censorship when nearly everyone in this country smokes and drinks. I don’t get it.
So the next day, we ended up crossing the border to Thailand, which is where I am now.
But that is a whole other post in itself 🙂