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Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos

LAOS | Thursday, 10 January 2008 | Views [4182] | Comments [1]

December 25th (Christmas Day!)

I'm sitting in a cafe with my laptop. I have a cinnamon bun, a bowl full of fruit, yoghurt and cereal, a coffee with some sort of caramel thing going on. I'm surrounded by people you might alternately call farang, falang, or "whitefullas". There are waiters and waitresses wearing santa hats.

It's Christmas day. I'm in Luang Prabang in Laos, but I could be anywhere.

Anyone who caught my motivation whinge of a week or so ago will be pleased to know that it has returned, and not just for breakfast. I can now reliably count on it to get me out of bed at seven, (approximately fifteen minutes after every single dog, rooster and Lao gets up to bark, crow and hoik, respectively.) seek out a caffeinated beverage and lead me places to do touristy things which elicit comments from others like "ooh, seems like you've really been packing it in!"

My motivation then quietly buffs its fingernails.

I last left you in Chiang Mai. On my last night in this wonderful city I spent three hours riding a public bus in the wrong direction in order to post some Christmas presents and buy a bus ticket for the next day. The three hour part means that I didn't get back to the hostel until after 6pm, by which point I've thoroughly missed the opportunity to tag along with my Panya buddies to some sort of eating place.

I curse, I whine that I've spent three hours on a bus and I'm still in Chiang Mai, then I start chatting with my newly arrived dorm mate who is at a similar loose end. Poor boy was no match for my aversion to eating alone, and I rope him into accompanying me to the night market.

So once again I end up randomly hanging out with someone who is so absolutely charming and easy to talk to, who just happens to be going where I'm not. Tomi the Finn is heading back to the land of the Finns after a many month stint in North Korea where he was studying subjects completely unrelated to his degree for the simple pleasure of visiting North Korea. We find food, pants, snacks, pineapple, pancakes, dodge the frog-stroking mafia and then swap words for bodily functions whilst imbibing various beers in restaurants that may or may not have had Thai waitresses dressed up in pseudo-traditional German milkmaid outfits.

Pretty funny.

If you'll allow me to take a philosophical tangent: if you take the perspective (as I have lately) that travel is a microcosm for life, sort of a condensed sampler, then what do all these random pleasing stranger meetings (RPSMs) represent? Does it mean that in your regular life you should seek out and accept RPSMs with the same openness as you do while travelling? Does it mean that you should allow people to flow into and out of your life with the same ease as you do with RPSMs? There's no fighting the fact that people have different itineraries when travelling. Why do we insist on fighting the idea that people might have different itineraries in life as well? Alternatively, maybe there's nothing to learn. Maybe it's just a case of the universe in all its benevolence going "Looks like you need a giggle. This one will be good for an evening. Catch!"

Hmm and hmm again.

Back to the blow by blow: The next day I catch a bus to Chiang Rai. Not much happening in Chiang Rai. In fact I would go as far to say that I remember pretty much nothing from Chiang Rai except for the splendiferous banana pancake stand. The next day I took another bus, crammed to the gills, people squeezing three to a seat, sitting on sacks of rice, sitting on the engine cover, standing in the aisle. My plan was to stay in Chiang Khong one night on my way to the border, but when I got off the bus I accidentally jumped into a tuk tuk with a Dutch couple and skipped across the Mekong into Laos.

A whole other country! With a whole new currency! I'm an instant millionaire at the currency exchange where my dollar buys 7000 kip. Having just figured out how things work and how much things should cost in Thailand, I now need to start all over again. Until I do... I'm all open for being ripped off. I think that's precisely why god invented border towns.

(Incidentally, one saving grace in this "whole new country" thing is that Thai and Lao languages are pretty similar. "Hello" is "sawadii" in Thai and "sabaidii" in Lao. "Thanks" is "kaup kuhn"/"kaup jai", "how much?" is "tao rai"/"tao dai". The rather incongruous vista of rows of bamboo shacks sporting satellite dishes is in part due to this similarity: The Lao people can get and understand Thai television. Hallelujah! )

From Huay Xai (spelling varies) I catch a minibus to Luang Namtha. My guidebook says that this is a ten hour journey, but my guidebook is behind the times. This is the route between China and Thailand, so it has recently received a bit more care and attention than other roads in Laos. Three hours later and I'm staring down the main drag of Luang Namtha's new city. It's a pistols at high noon kind of place -- wide street, straight as the eye can see, flanked by saloons and brothels. Ok, no brothels. Guesthouses and booking offices. Same difference. I check into a place that costs NZD$7 for hotel-style cleanliness, hot shower, free soapwatertoiletpaper and a TV with Thai television. (Hallelujah!)

Luang Namtha's attraction for tourists lies in its well-run, sustainable trekking operations. Whereas the trekking in Thailand can seem exploitative and damaging to the communities, turning them into knick-knack sellers, beggars and walking cliches, the treks running out of Luang Nam Tha are thoughtfully managed so that the villages aren't turned into circuses. That's the spiel anyway. I book into the only trek that has any other people signed up (High season? What high season?) and head out for dinner with Daniel the earnest Englishman from Chiang Mai who I just happen to bump into on the street.

(Some people are going where you're not. Other people are forever popping up where you are. Don't fight the itinerary, man!)

Our first day was pretty much all about the walking. We walked through one village on the side of the main road and up the hills at the back. Lots of up. Lots of forest. Our cheerful guides Anu and Porn Sar took turns to yank things out of the ground, crush them up, crack them open, showing us where the food was. "Cardamom," says Anu, "Laos people harvest and sell to Thailand, who sell back to Laos as medicine. Hah!"

We stopped for lunch at a shelter with magnificent views over the hills and feasted on sticky rice, tomato sauce, spicy beans and oranges. All served on a giant banana leaf and eaten with our fingers. Roll the rice into balls. Dip into the sauces. We entertain Anu with descriptions of what it's like to travel in a plane. He's astounded at what we've paid to get there: "One thousand dollars is one hundred million kip!!" We trot down the other side of the hill and into the village that will play host to us for the night.

God, I felt like an asshole. Despite the assurances of the chief of the village that they're really happy you've come, that your visit is enabling them to buy school materials, get better health care, reduce infant mortality, learn about contraception, purchase solar panels for powering their transistor radios... despite the fact that the only thing the children are begging for is a song from you, or to see the photos you've taken on your digital camera... despite the fact that you move quietly and slowly and bathe in a sarong instead of flashing your white flesh everywhere... you can't help but feel like an asshole. Like your presence is putting these people in a zoo. Like the little babies have it absolutely spot on when they take one look at you and burst into tears. After a fabulous dinner of larp, pumpkin soup and sticky rice washed down with vietnamese tea and lao lao (rice whisky) we retire to the campfire outside our guesthouse and discuss what fucking right we have to be there anyway.

No satisfactory conclusion is reached. Someone was trying to say that our impact on this village is not much different to the impact that various ethnic communities have on our society. I considered that a load of bullcrap. These people live in the same area their whole life. They might never leave their village. Their experience of the outside world comes from the teachers and doctors who come in from the cities and whatever they can get on their transistor radios, assuming they've been to school and can understand Lao in addition to their own dialects. And then we come rocking in. At the same time it's pretty selfish to want to keep these communities isolated. That's taking them out of a zoo and putting them in a museum. If they want to improve their standard of living and this is the best way for them to do it, then who are we to say it's wrong?

I call it the Trek of Dubious Morality. South East Asia traveller's cliche number 12, check!

The next day we breakfast on chicken kidneys (actually there was only one, and I left it on the side of my plate, therefore solidifying my complete asshole status) and quietly shuffle out of town. We pass through two more villages on the way to our monumental exercise in "up". The first village is an hour's walk along the banks of the Namtha and is the original village from which our host village was spawned when they ran out of room. The second village is a completely different ethnic group called the Lanten. Our guides don't speak their dialect, so rely on what seems to be pidgin Lao, walking into the village and bellowing that the "falang" are here. In this village you can either see evidence of a greater fondness for handcrafts and Sprite, or the impact of the many kayaking tours who stay in here: As soon as we arrive we're greeted with baskets full of little stitched bags and cans of fizzy drink for our purchasing pleasure.

Then came the up. Up along the river bed (mind the leeches). Up through giant old forest. Up through burning sun and fields of cotton. Then down, down, down. Down through more forest. Down past rice paddies situated on steep slopes. (Yes, you can get rice paddies on slopes. This is how they get the sticky rice!) Down and out through a last village to our waiting tuk tuk.

I go back to my hotel-style guesthouse and watch HBO. (Hallelujah!)

Lunch was very welcome at this stage.

They're really not sad! They've just been asking me for a song!

View from our guesthouse in the village

Anu and Sebastian-From-Germany in the back of the tuk tuk, heading back to town.

At 9.30 in the morning the bus from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang rattles its way out of the bus station under a shroud of grey. Strapped to the roof are backpacks, sundry foodstuffs and a motorcycle. (We're quite excited about the motorcycle, but I later hear stories about live pigs being strapped to the roofs of busses and squealing all the way along the winding roads of Northern Laos. The motorbike, at least, doesn't squeal.)

I am inside the bus, sitting next to Sebastian-From-Germany from my trekking trip. Ahead of us is a nine hour journey, covering 300 kilometres of twisting potholed road, down from the third largest city in Laos to the second. Our three days in Luang Namtha have made us experts on the local weather, and we keep checking our watches to see how long we have until the grey cloud burns off and stops freezing us to death. "An hour until sun'o'clock." "Urrgh."

Let me say, for anyone who didn't know, Northern Laos is gorgeous. Our winding, rutted road snakes around forested mountains, alongside rivers, through hardwood and bamboo villages with chickens and pigs and children playing in the dirt. Everybody is outside, sitting in doorways, washing at the pump, babies or baskets slung on backs, watching the bus go past. Sometimes they grin and wave. Again, I feel like such an asshole to be sitting there listening to my ipod, lamenting my backside.

We get into Luang Prabang at about 6pm. Take a tuk tuk into the night market, and then start the hunt for accommodation. Seeing as its a couple of days before Christmas and 6pm to boot, we don't have too much luck, and I end up grabbing a double room with Sebastian-From-Germany at the only place we could find with vacancy. The manager does a hard-sell on us: "Free tea! Free bananas!"

So yesterday was my first day in Luang Prabang. Lack of imagination and a desire to be doing something to distract myself from impending Christmas saw me being roped into Sebastian's go-go-go itinerary and we take a boat up the Mekong in search of a whole bunch of Buddah statues in a cave. We don't need to search very hard because every other longboat in the vicinity is making the exact same trip.

Again, I feel like an asshole. Here you have this cave, up on a cliff above the Mekong. It's home to hundreds of Buddah statues in various condition. It's a site of spiritual importance, historical importance, and a place for pilgrimage and praying. And flooding these caves at around 10am every day (when the light is good) are hundreds and hundreds of asshole tourists like myself, who come with what seems like the express purpose of taking a couple of good snaps of "all those Buddahs in that cave".

It's beautiful though.

Buddahs in a cave.

Bamboo wharf.

Also beautiful are the pale blue waters near the waterfall we visit in the afternoon. The water filters down from the waterfall through all these swimming holes where we float and squeal with the cold. We've acquired an English fellow by the name of Geoff along the way, and when confronted with a rope swing over the swimming hole he does what boys do, and leaps from a tree branch with it grasped in his hands. Unfortunately on his way down it wraps around his arm and gives him the sort of ropeburn to make your mother blanch. That kind of puts an end to swimming.

So hey, this was Christmas Eve. Geoff invites us to hang out with him, his gross arm and some other people he randomly met recently. We all drink 5 for $5 cocktails and various liquids out of a bucket and sing along to the Christmas songs being pumped by the bar. I don't know what it is about Laos, but it's been really easy to meet people here. Perhaps it's the fact that everyone is heading to the same places. Perhaps there is a slightly greater degree of perceived difficulty about travelling here that makes people cling to each other or invite others to join them. But so far I haven't been alone.

Except for today. Christmas day. I'm in Luang Prabang. Sebastian has gone off to do his go-go-go thing. I need to call my parents later. Then I might climb a hill or something. I'm filling myself up with tasty breakfast to hopefully cushion the blow of a disappointing Christmas. Cinnamon buns have been known to do that.

Tags: On the Road



ah HotNoodle, you've just written the post about Laos that I never quite new how to write. I went on an eco- trek out of Luang NamTha and it was undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I ever did - spending a night on top of a mountain (6 hours of 'up'), in the pitch black of a tiny, tiny village without electricity and a lot of free-roaming pigs and chooks. The villagers opened their doors, smiled and patiently let us take photos... I never wrote about it, becuase I was waiting to try and understand better my place in the scenario. Was it just another day out at a more interesting human zoo? I didn't ever reach a conclusion.. and nver wrote the post.

My other stories about Laos are Here. The pix of this mountain village are the last 10 or so in this gallery.

Thanks for blogging. Stay in touch,

  crustyadventures Jan 11, 2008 11:14 AM

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