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Laos - The Road to Nong Khiew

LAOS | Thursday, 31 December 2009 | Views [611]

The Road to Nong Khiew

We left Luang Nam Tha on 24 December – Christmas Eve.  We shared a private minivan with a Belgium family, for the sake of speed and comfort.  Did I mention we were in Laos?  What you think and what you get are not the same thing.

Our 12 seat minivan that we booked turned out to be an 8-seater, and the bus driver decided to bring his wife.  An hour into the journey the seat that the Belgium lady was sitting on broke.  She moved into the seat that her son was in and had the boy move to the front seat, where the driver`s wife was seated, who tried to get the boy to sit on the console in the middle.  He refused.  She ended up sitting on the console, and was not too happy about it.  Sure glad we reserved a private bus with extra seats.....

Our 4 hour bus ride took 7 hours.  The first half of the road was under construction.  Ed had his trusty step-o-meter on his belt and we managed to do over 17000 steps while sitting down.  The ride was like being in a little red wagon being drug behind a vehicle going 40 km over rough cobblestones with potholes.  We had to pay 2 tolls to travel this luxury highway.  It is quite evidently the Chinese who are doing the road construction, as nearly all the trucks had Chinese writing.  We are quite sure there is not a problem with unemployment as the ditches and trenches are being dug with shovels, the gravel is being made with a sledge hammer, the water and cement hauled in buckets and the cement made either in small drums or by mixing by shovel on the side of the road.  The roads are being carved out of the side of the mountain by hand, and it was not uncommon to traverse around a huge boulder in the middle of the road that was being whittled away by men with sledge hammers (poor man’s dynamite).  While in North America we would carve through curves to make the road straighter, here the road follows the contour of the mountain.  There were very few sections of road that managed a 50 meter straight stretch.  At times we came to a complete stop while waiting for a water truck to deposit a partial load for the cement mixers, or one of the rare, small backhoes to get out of the way.  We also had to go around at least 2 ‘gravel trucks’ with the box ripped right off the frame and lying beside the truck, with its load spilled out. It was also apparent that the crews lived right there along the road, as makeshift tents with cots were set up every few kilometres as well as evidence of cooking facilities.  (propane hot plate, woks and tables).  It appears as though this whole operation was to put drainage and water runoff systems in place along the road; no doubt to divert monsoon rains from washing out the road, as it appeared was the case in areas.

Once we got past the construction phase, we could pick up some speed, but the road was still winding along like a drunken snake.  The road was basically the width of an old country road with sporadic patches of pavement/ cement, but mostly gravel and dirt. One tended to drive in the middle of it, moving over only for on-coming vehicles.  There were a few times we gasped as we rounded a curve (there was always a curve) and had to swerve very quickly to avoid the oncoming vehicle.  There is a lot of horn honking here, but it all makes perfect sense.  When coming up on a vehicle that you want to pass, you honk, and they move over.  If you are coming up on pedestrians or bicycles you honk to let them know you are there.  If you are coming into one of the many, many villages, you honk, so the kids and animals have a chance to get off to the side.

With the roads being mostly dirt or gravel, all the plants and trees, huts, and even people seem to be covered with a thick layer of dust.  Everything is dirt colour.  Here the poinsettia are not just little plants like we have at Christmas, they are trees; and with everything being a dirt colour these red flowers, high above the road,  stand out like those black and white pictures with only the red rose having color.

By the time we got to Nong Khiaw we were nearly as exhausted as from our trek from all the bouncing and jostling to and fro.  Like I said at the start, we booked a private vehicle for the sake of speed and comfort.   What the trip would have been like in a public bus can only make us shutter.


Nong Khiaw is a small rustic town in the north.  We had not made any reservations at a guest house due to our rapid departure from Luang Nam Tha, in hopes of finding warmer and drier weather for Ed’s health.   The Belguim family had reservations at a guesthouse so we tagged along in hopes of also getting a room there.  Alas, there was no room at the inn for two weary travellers on Christmas Eve.  We opted for the CT Guesthouse that is located just past the bridge on the right hand side.  (Len, I think you must have stayed at the OTHER one on the right hand side.)  Well, the two weary travellers at least did not have to spend Christmas Eve in the stables, but we’re pretty sure this room was next door to it.   Ed had checked the room and said “yup, it’s ok. At least it has hot water.”  It must have been that he was still not feeling 100% or the fact that the trip was tiring, but somehow he failed to notice there was no sink, nowhere to hang the shower head, and even if there was a place to hang it, we did not use it for fear of all the exposed electrical wiring in the bathroom.  It had a squat toilet that flushed by bucket and no spray bidet – His stomach was still dodgy and he much regretted not having a sit down affair.   The window had no glass or screen, just a bamboo shutter.  The door was also bamboo and Ed had to hold it up while Irene bolted it shut for the night.  The lone light bulb hung halfway between the bed and toilet area, over the partial wall separating the two, and emitted about 25 watts of light.  There was mosquito netting over the box spring that was our bed.  All the bedding we have encountered thus far is made for Lao people – not quite 5 feet tall and maybe 90 pounds.  Thankfully, this bed had 2 blankets, so we overlapped them in the middle so that we could share body heat and still have our butts covered.  The bedding was still damp, as in Luang Nam Tha, and we chose to sleep clothed to insulate from the dampness.  Being Christmas Eve, there were people partying on the restaurant balcony, only a meter from the roof of our hut.  Earplugs were inserted and sleep attempted.  Merry Christmas! 

But in reality, we had a good time about it.  We often bemoaned how Christmas is getting too commercialized and the art of ’better to give than to receive’ nearly completely lost.  At this point in the journey, and particularly after her trek, Irene’s only wish for Christmas was clean clothes – particularly socks and underwear.  Yes, the old fashioned getting socks for Christmas!!!  Ed was sweet enough to give that very gift 2 days later, in Luang Prabang, with the help of guesthouse laundry service – $1 per kilo and there was 4 kilos!!  He’s so generous!

We got up Christmas morning and met up with our fellow travelers again.  Dirk had booked a slow boat to Luang Prabang the previous night.  We boarded the 7 meter boat and began yet another 7 hour journey down the Nam Ou River to Pak Ou, where it joins with the mighty Mekong.   We stopped for lunch at Pak Ou, right at the fork of the river. The Nam Ou is clear, almost green colour water, the Mekong is dirty and brown.  Sitting high on the bank one can see a definite line in the water where the rivers join.  One side of the river is green, the other side brown.  The boat ride was very cold.  The weather was misty again.  With no sun, misty, the occasional spray from the water and traveling along at a pretty good speed we were happy we wore our jackets and brought scarves. 

One really funny sight we saw was at the fork of the 2 rivers there is a huge sand bar.  On this sandbar were a couple with a white table and white umbrella sitting out there having lunch, being served by a butler.  It reminded me of the Jack Vittriano picture called the “Singing Butler”.

The scenery was incredible, but as is more often the case, the people along the river made it even better.  The banks are dotted with villages.  They take advantage of the fertile soil deposited after the rainy season along the river’s edge to plant gardens.  Although we were too far to specifically see what they planted, one could definitely make out corn and lettuce.  It was quite picturesque to see the bamboo huts nestled in the jungle on top the river banks, with lush green gardens with perfect rows leading down to the water’s edge surrounded by rustic bamboo fences to keep the pigs and water buffalo out.  There seemed to be someone tending every garden that we passed.  Some waved to us, most went about the watering or hoeing totally oblivious to us.  At times we would see some people along the banks, nearly obscured by jungle, with no sign of village anywhere.  Where did they come from?  What were they doing?


There were lots of canoe-type boats sharing the river with us.  They all seemed to be carrying goods and/or people.  What they carried or to where remains unknown.  There were men fishing with nets.  There were men, women and many children in waist deep water gathering seaweed. (It is dried flat with sesame seeds, tomato and garlic and is absolutely yummy.) There were water buffalo, goats and pigs. There were guys carving a canoe. There were women washing clothes.  And there were loads of children being children; playing, making sand castles, jumping off a steep bank into a pile of sand below, running after each other and running along the banks and waving at us.



Irene & Ed


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