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The Mystical Adventures of Tess and Jack

In Laos' Deep North: Muang Khua, Phongsali and Huay Xai

LAOS | Saturday, 16 January 2010 | Views [3353] | Comments [3]

The remainder of our bus trip into Laos was filled with the sounds of cheesy Thai pop music mingled with our French friend's snoring. My first impressions of Laos:

  • The roads are much worse than in Vietnam. The road to Muang Khua, especially, was pot hole paradise. It takes about 3 x as long to travel the same distance by road as it does back home.
  • Laos' ruggedness: Vietnam's rambling French architecture is replaced by wood and corrugated iron shacks; its rice paddies and dusty fields are replaced by large tracts of untouched rainforest.
  • There are a lot of pigs! And roosters!

Muang Khua is a charming little town on the banks of the pretty Nam Ou River. For Jack and I this was just a stopover so adventures were minimal. We spent the afternoon sleeping off our Bia Hoi headaches, getting used to the concept of only 2 hours of electricity per day (does not meld well with my hair straightening regime) and scoop toilets (the death of romance is using the toilet and then having to ask your beloved to demonstrate the flush...luckily I am a quick learner and thus narrowly avoided this occurrence). One thing that is worth mentioning about Muang Khua is its love for karaoke: the tiny river shacks were thumping throughout the entire afternoon, and continued on to the middle of the night (I had my fingers crossed that when the town power went out they would have to retire, but they just fired up their generator and kept on wailing). We thought this might have been owing to the fact it was New Years Day, but at 5.30 am the next morning they were up and at it again! Its a pity none of them could actually sing. Luckily we were too exhausted to care much.

Our Gibbon Experience was booked for 8 January in Bokeo Province, so for one of the first times on our trip we were working with a time frame. With 7 days to kill in remote northern Laos, we decided to take a slow boat trip up the Nam Ou to Phongsali, which it just about as far north as you can get (closer to China than anywhere noteworthy in Laos). The boat trip was really cool - it held about 10 people, about half of whom were locals, and took 8 hours upstream (including up several fair-sized rapids...we got nice and wet). Our enjoyment of the trip was only slightly diminished by the company - we got stuck with two annoying older couples, one from the US (who commentated the entire journey, and stuck their huge camera in the faces of all the unsuspecting locals on the banks - disturbingly, they seemed to be especially attracted to naked children), and one from Belgium (wife obviously wore the pants and complained about everything that went wrong - Jack has a dot point reading 'dumb bitch Belgian' in our journal notes - while husband sat in stony silence the whole time).

As it turned out, the boat trip was much more enjoyable than our time in Phongsali itself, which turned out to be a little disappointing. The real draw of this part of the country is its trekking, which was on our agenda. However when we arrived we realised that our forward planning had been slightly lax and that we couldn't afford a guide. Our disenchantment was heightened when we woke the next morning ravenous and couldn't find anywhere in the town that sold breakfast - nobody seems to be alive before 11 am! It was also extremely hard to find anywhere to sit and have a beer. We ended up having all our meals/beers bar at one Chinese-run restaurant (sacrilege: our first beer in Laos was a Beer Chin), which was actually the highlight of the excursion due to the entertainment value of its menu: some of the dishes included (yes, I wrote them down...total blog loser) Ants on the Tree, Three Cold Wire (yum!), White Matter Cola (if 'white matter' is in fact a translation for 'coca' I love this even more), Inebriants (alcoholic drinks menu), and even more wonderfully...Prevail Large Intestines, Telaphora Speculation (wtf?), High-Handed Pig Liver and my favourite, The Palace Protects the Meat Cubelets. After reading our options we were peeing ourselves laughing and got some strange looks from the poor waitresses. We were adventurous with our choices (how can anyone resist seeing what The Palace Protects the Meat Cubelets is) but it seemed like every dish was the same thing: pork with green pepper. It was very nice pork with green pepper though! On our second night we made the mistake of trying somewhere new, and got stuck at a table with our American comrades (by the time we spotted them they had spotted us and it was too late to back out). We endured an evening hearing about all the different places in the world they'd been and their precise opinions on everything/everywhere/everyone in Southeast Asia. Other Phongsali activities included climbing more stairs (only 400 this time...lucky moi) to the top of Phou Fa mountain, with some cool views of the town at the top. On this little hike we also made friends with our first camp monk (he'd put a little bit of flare into his sienna robe by wearing a zippered orange denim jacket underneath) who thought Jack was the best thing since sliced baguettes.

From Phongsali we began the long journey west to Huay Xai, the Laos-Thai border town which is also gateway to the gibbons. All up this took 2 days, with a stop in Udomxai (a town that exists purely as a bus stop). We were expecting hideous roads in this part of the country - our Lonely Planet said the only way to get to Huay Xai was an 8 hour sawngthaew (open-ended passenger truck) ride, which I was not particularly looking forward to. However Laos is developing quickly and luckily for us the roads were very good - with surprisingly large paved sections. The rides were long but bearable, with not many occurrences of note). On day one, the guy sitting behind me purchased a live guinea pig (for his dinner) from a roadside stall. Cruelly, it was restrained by a fish hook through its nostril to which a long string was attached. He tied this to the back of my seat so that the poor little sniffer was scampering around and grunting in pain underneath me. Not very pleasant. On day two's entrance to Bokeo province, our bus was stopped by a heavily armed group of soldiers (possibly something to do with the Hmong refugees Thailand recently sent back - but can't be sure), who were extremely interested in our passports and asked to check them twice. The bus was stopped for ages and I really needed to pee but didn't think I could physically do so with twenty men holding big guns watching me. Laos is making me the master (mistress?) of bladder control!

It was a relief to finally arrive in Huay Xai in one piece. Being unsure of the road conditions on the westward route, we had allowed ourselves an extra day before our gibbons for error. Because everything fell into place so nicely for us we had two full days to relax, unwind, and do not much (except not travel). Huay Xai is a nice little spot on the Mekong (you can sit on the banks of the river with a beer and see Thailand) which is just touristy enough to have comfortable facilities and a good range of food - bus trips make you sick of pho and barbeque. For our second lunch, we went to a nice little place with a verandah on the river. Jack ordered fried rice, but I was feeling adventurous and thought I would try 'Ham inside buffalo salad' (buffalo is a Huay Xai specialty, and I envisaged chowing down on succulent bacon wrapped in strips of char-grilled buffalo steak). Jack chimed in, saying that I shouldn't order things unless I had some faint idea of what they might be, but I was feeling cocky and responded by telling him not to be a fuddy duddy and that adventurous ordering is half the fun of eating out. I ate my words when the dish arrived - 'inside' was obviously meant to be 'insides' and a translation of 'animal guts' (how did I not see this coming?) and I got served up a huge plate of pork tripe and cow stomach lining swimming in chilli sauce and shredded carrot. Of course Jack thought this was the most hilarious occurence in the history of mankind. After my little speech I felt like I had to be a good sport about the ordeal and so made myself eat half of my guts (he took pity on me and let me order a chicken sandwich afterwards).

Before we knew it, it was the night of 7 January and we were snuggled in bed in anticipation of the monkey business that awaited us the next day! Much fun (and a few more mishaps...without which it would not be a truly mystical adventure) lay ahead.

T & J xox




More laughter..til the tears came! Thanks you two...what a delicious adventure.

  Kath Jan 17, 2010 10:43 AM


Me kride to - tears of laughter! Keep on blogging, you 2 are 2 good 2 be tru.

  Krumb Jan 19, 2010 8:53 PM


P.S. I have cool xmas stockings stuffed with fun pressies for you when you return. When might that be?

  Krumb Jan 19, 2010 8:55 PM

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