Published: February 27th 2008February 27th 2008
It's been a little while and there's much to tell but, as I've previously proved, I have an inability to be concise. I hope there will be some sparkling diamonds of interest and excitement for you to mine, but they will most likely be buried in so much mud and filth - you guy's are gonna have to get your brains dirty and dig! If you find any (diamonds that is)? - stick 'em up your arse!
We had our last two days in Vietnam and spent them travelling to the border, they proved to be the best, most interesting and productive hours we spent in the country! The adventure went something like this: We awoke at the unhealthy and frankly dangerous time of 3.30am in order to catch the first bus out of Hanoi; our destination Son La, half way to the Laos border. The first bus was scheduled to leave at 5am and even though we arrived half an hour early and despite the fact that there were two buses preparing to depart, we still found ourselves without a seat. Not an enviable situation considering we had an eight hour journey ahead of us. Anny grabbed a
small bit of space on the Engine covering next to the driver and I shared a seat with two other passengers; comfortably enmeshed with the other travellers we set off.
As we headed through the outskirts of Hanoi the conductor (who with his green bush-hunters hat, cigarette and decidedly manic manner resembled a Vietnamese Hunter. S. Thompson) would hang out the bus to harangue and cajole potential victims into joining his steadily expanding but none to merry band. Unbelievably almost everyone seemed powerless to resist this speed-addled madman and before we had left Hanoi the bus was seriously packed. So packed in fact that had a sardine been wishing to board he would have flipped fin to return to the relative space and comfort of his tin. Each time more people got on we thought that this must be it, saturation level must have been reached, any more people and we're gonna start leaking out the bus but no, for the next two hours Mr. Thompson kept them coming. I ended up on the floor sort of squatting on my feet with my knees drawn tightly up to my cheast. I had several heads lolling asleep (amazingly) on
my shoulders, a tangle of sundry limbs in and around my lap and my face buried in some gentleman's armpit and it was in this position that I spent the next six hours. Couple this with a few other factors and all the ingredients were there for a most pleasant dish of a journey. The weather outside was awful; thick and dense cloud that reduced the visibility to about two meters, the drivers window (due to the mass of expiring - sorry - perspiring humanity) was completely fogged-up and the driver himself kept falling asleep requiring Anny to occasionally jab him in the ribs to keep him awake, if not focused. Oh, and the roads we were travelling on were of the narrow, windy and vertiginous variety; the kind with steep drops at every turn that I was thankful the mist made invisible. Ignorance however, it not always bliss.
Son La though, we did eventually reach and after we extricated ourselves from the bus - untangling limbs like a game of pick up sticks - we found ourselves freezing, sore but strangely happy in another new town. A guest house was found, extra blankets were ordered and a very
early night was enjoyed. The next day we were determined to get a seat on the first bus so arrived at the bus station at 4am, a whole hour before the departure time. We needn't have bothered though as the bus, when it left, was practically empty! We left so early as we intended to make it across the border today and we figured we could use all the time we could grab. Two hours into the journey and we hit our first setback. Upon trying valiantly to navigate a seriously muddy stretch of road the bus, midway through a rather graceful skid, decided to abandon the struggle and happily jettisoned its cooling fan. We were stuck and the bus was going no further. We retired to a small shack with an open wood range and enjoyed our last bowl of Pho in the company of locals who were happily puffing on their opium pipes. In two hours another bus came and we climbed aboard to continue our journey to Dien Bien Phu.
It was here that the fun really started! We arrived much later than we had hoped (4.30pm), forcing us to make some quick decisions. We enquired
as to a bus to the border (25km away) but were told that there was not one for another two days! We made a half-arsed attempt at hitching but the traffic was so light and what there was so unwilling to stop that we gave up and bit the financial bullet of a taxi. We had no idea what time the border was going to close, indeed we weren't even one hundred percent sure if it was open, we were down to so little money that we could not stay for the night, so the decision was not a hard one. The border was situated smack bang in the middle of nowhere, deep in some gorgeous, thickly forested and hilly terrain. We were dropped off on the Vietnamese side to be greeted by border guards in full, impressive uniform who slowly and with much formality stamped us out of their country. We then had to walk down a rough track through no-mans land to reach the Laos' immigration hut. Here the border guards wore tracksuits, happily arranged our visa's and then furnished us with several shots of Lao Lao (a sort of Laos rice Vodka). As first impressions go this
was hugely encouraging! We were now stranded in the dark however with the nearest Laos village 35km away and here the Laos' border guards let themselves down somewhat by trying to exploit our situation. Whilst waiting for an hour at the border for some kind of a lift precisely two trucks had lumbered past, both of which the border guards had tried to charge us (we were a group of five now) $20 each to join. When we tried to negotiate directly with said trucks the guards intervened and waved the trucks off. Due I think to the Lao Lao in our bellies we decided to walk to the village. Not five minutes later we were all seriously questioning the wisdom of our decision. We were saved however when a pick-up came past that we waved down, the driver of which being very happy to take $5 of each of us to drop us in Muang Moi. We had made it!
A couple days later, after visiting Uodomxai to become Kip millionaires, we retired to Muang Khua on the banks of the Nam Ou to wait for our friend Anja who was to make the same journey a
few days later. This small town is situated in the middle of some stunning scenery. Thickly forested mountains whose tops always seem to be reaching just above the mist that, below, spreads its long white fingers up the sharp and narrow valley's. It was deep into this marvellous terrain that we decided to take ourselves after meeting the incomparable Bounma. This guy sauntered up to us whilst we were dining in a restaurant and, in the polar opposite of the Vietnamese equivalent, preceded to give us the softest sell you could imagine! It took him a good half hour to even mention that he guided trek's (when he wasn't working as a teacher) and it still took an awful lot of prompting from us to gather all the information. Anyway, for $15 each a day, Bounma agreed to take us on a three day trek up into the mountains to visit some minority villages. It was one of the best choices we have made.
The walking was incredibly tough, covering over 12 miles a day of mountainous terrain, but the amazing views and especially the hospitality of the villagers more than made up for this "hardship". Most of the
villages we either passed through or stayed at were Khamu or Tamoi and all of them were located spectacularly atop large mountains. Bounma even suspected that the village we stayed at on the second night had never had a tourist stay there, this possibility was proved perhaps correct by the reaction of the villagers as we arrived! A typical encounter would go something like this: We would arrive sweaty and tired at the village to be greeted by an excitable gaggle of muddy kids in tatty rags, with expressions on their faces ranging from fear to excited inquisitiveness. Bounma would head off to locate the Head-man of the village whilst we amused ourselves and the kids, in fact much more the kids, by taking their photo's and then showing them the results. This endlessly delighted and fascinated the children and I believe they could have happily played this game all day long.
We would then be invited to the head man's house; each village had two head men - a younger one who was educated and an elder who was replete with wisdom and spiritual ancestory - but it was usually to the younger that we were invited. We would
be bourn there on a tide of giggling kids with a few curious adults hovering, more circumspect, at the edges.
We would enter the head man's hut, followed by as many kids as could squeeze in, and sit around a small table. A bottle of Lao Lao would then be produced to welcome us into the village. The custom with Lao Lao is that only an even number of shots can be drunk so when your host's pour you a fifth, you know a sixth is coming and when, especially at lunch time and with a long walk ahead, a ninth is put in front of you well, you know its trouble! If however it was evening then, after ablutions in the stream, dinner would be served. We ate many interesting dishes on our trek, some delicious some - not so! Bamboo shoot stew, wild cabbage and mountain veg, flying squirrel, wild cat, chicken claws, dried Buffalo skin and fresh, still warm bowls of chicken blood were just some of the delicacies on offer! Thank God for Lao Lao! Then after speaking to the villagers with Bounma interoperating, we either retired to bed or, if some interesting activity was
going on we would be invited to, for example, the Shaman's hut to watch some indecipherable ritual, or shown weapons that are used for hunting. In the morning, well fed and rested we would set off into the hills for the next amazing encounter with these lovely people.
We made an incredible friend in the beautiful Bounma, he personifies all the traits that make Laos people so joyous to be around. He is kind, gentle, modest to a fault, wise, fiercely intelligent an amazing cook and never, not once, did we ever see him without a perfect, contented smile on his open, quiet face. The day after we got back Bounma invited us to come and visit him at his school, where he teaches English and politics, to meet his students and perhaps help take a lesson. I arrived to much hilarity from his students and, to barely suppressed giggles, read to them from their English text book. After this I spoke a little about England and fielded questions from the class. It was a lovely experience but I don't think I have what it takes to teach - the kids seem to find me too funny to concentrate!
That evening Bounma invited us to his house to dine with his family and friends, the town head man came and we all sat down to an incredible feast entirely in our honour, replete with the now ubiquitous Lao Lao. We were entertained, blessed, thanked, joked with and sang to, Anny and Anja even sang some German songs in return; I refrained so as not to spoil the atmosphere! What made it extra special was that this evening was my Birthday, I couldn't have chosen a more pleasant or enjoyable way to spend it. A perfect end to a perfect first week in Laos. Things can only get better!
There are more photos below