Sticky rice and sticky nights

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Asia » Laos » North » Luang Namtha
October 30th 2011
Saved: November 23rd 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

Originally 22nd June 2011

On the winding road to Luang Prabang, we're taken through luxuriant green mountains shrouded in cloud, past water buffalo cooling off in muddy pools, tiny bamboo-strip houses with huge satellite dishes outside, and little shelters on the mountains' slopes consisting of nothing more than a raised platform and roof. Rain falls most of the way. Last time I made this journey with Matt I remember seeing kids, no older than fifteen, walking the margins of the road carrying outrageously oversized AK-47s. Kid soldiers like you'd see on the news, as though the bus window was a television screen.

I was glad to be out of Vang Vieng.

Halfway through the journey, a crash stops us in our tracks. A jeep has gone into the side of a truck, smashing its fuel tank which floods all over the road. The air smells of burning.

It's disconcerting to see people getting out of cars and off buses to light up. Every vehicle, including us, places rocks behind their rear wheels to stop them from rolling backwards. We're held up for only 30 minutes as the crash is cleared. Good going for Laos.

After dinner, we walk around the peninsula looking for some more central accommodation and I begin to recognise things from before, like the Hive Bar, Lao Lao Garden, and the T junction on which they all sit.

We visit the Royal Palace Museum, the former King's residence before he was exiled to northern Laos. The palace was built in 1904, and the site on the river chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could arrive and be received there.

The banquet hall and royal bedrooms are simply decorated.

When the others head back to the hostel, I climb the 300+ steps of the That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si temples for panoramic views of the ‘Bang. I burst onto the summit sweating profusely, limping, panting, filthy and exhausted. I spend ages at the top trying to cool down, and then, add regret 768 to the list when I bottle the opportunity to ask some Buddhist monks if I can have a picture taken with them.

I had been taken down by one of our own. I’d had enough of sticky rice and noodles. I wanted something familiar and undeniably western. The only burger on the menu was buffalo. It would have to do.

The buffalo had his revenge because here I was now, sat panicky in the back of a tuk-tuk thinking that perhaps I should have stayed in. We were going to Kuang Si waterfall, a long ride from Luang Prabang which some people bother to cycle.

We walk the trail that ascends through the forest to the left of the falls. My legs tremble and I need to sit down.

Aff, Jeff and I walk back down to a pool that is quiet, ahead of Boxhead and Carla. The water is aquamarine. I can’t help but worry that I may turn it brackish and murky. We wade in. It’s ice-cold. We didn’t realise something was lurking beneath the surface then.

Jeff and I perch on the edge of one of the tiers while Aff jumps down excitedly to the next like a kid. Twigs and tree limbs overhung the pool, so that sunlight only filtered through in patches.

I feel something on my foot, a little shock that makes me jump. What was that? I look down and notice several wriggling shapes under the water. Jeff and I look at one another saucer-eyed.

My God, we’re being eaten alive!

It’s the same little fish they use in the spas in town. The fish latch on and nibble away at the dead skin on your feet offering a natural pedicure. I wouldn’t recommend it though. Rumour has it the fish are starved of normal food to entice them to eat more skin (in the wild, they eat more than just skin, obviously).

The first shock is followed by more. Spasmodic shocks. I kick my legs furiously but it doesn’t work for long. It’s the anticipation I can’t stand. We have to get out.

We thrash our way back to shore across the expanse of water. We look back across the pool. The surface is calm and flat. Finally, we put on our clothes and climb down the path.

Oh, did you know that you can contract HIV and Hepatitis C through the fish used in spas?

Monsoon rains cool the air down during the first half of our stay in Luang Prabang. But then they stop, and it is boiling hot again. There is nothing you can do between twelve and three because of the temperature.

If you truly wanted to push the envelope of stupidity, you’d walk about this time of day, like us.

The journey to Nong Khiaw reminds me of my face as a teenager, in that it is bumpy. Very bumpy. The road is wrecked and potholed. Sat at the back of the minibus, where bounces and knocks are multiplied, Aff and Box are subjected to unremitting, physical punishment.

Jeff and I sit facing the big air conditioner unit at the front which doesn't really make our experience any more comfortable because everybody's (not mine) impatience dictates that we open all of the windows before even giving it chance to get going.

Our opportunistic driver (a graduate of the tuk-tuk school of driving) is desperate to fill the two spare seats. He brakes hard whenever we pass people on the side of the road, which after the 47th time begins to get very annoying. Even after we’ve passed, he stares at them in his wing mirror, just in case they missed us jarring to a halt in front of them.

We walk through town with our bags to the other side of the Nam Ou River. There wasn’t much there. Small shops and houses on a wide dirt road. Chickens and ducks. Dogs. Kids playing.

Our home for the next two nights is a bamboo hut on stilts with an attached open-air bathroom and front porch. In the night, rain pinged against the tin roof.

Nong Khiaw drips with steam. Even at nine in the morning the sun is searing. Lying in one of the hammocks outside of our huts is a nice way to spend the cooler evenings. There are lots of adventure activities that you can do here, like trekking, kayaking and tubing, but we’re intending on doing something in Luang Nam Tha.

With not much else to do, I go for a massage, dismayed to find a teenage boy waiting for me because all of the girls are busy.

We had asked other travellers if they were headed north to Luang Nam Tha. They were all going south.

Minivans are often private enterprises, and we’d been told they only leave if there are sufficient passengers to make it worthwhile for the driver. Nong Khiaw is the kind of place where you might find yourself stuck for a few days.

Through our guesthouse, we charter a tuk-tuk to the bigger bus station at Pak Mong, about 30 clicks away. From here, we board a minibus to Udomxai.

We roll into Udomxai making unsettling clanking and broken noises. Hurtling over holes in the road at full speed (about 30mph) has not left the bus long for this world. We stop at a garage. There is oil everywhere. Above the workshop, there is another level with mattresses and a TV. As the mechanic welds a new washer for our front wheel, we walk over to the bus station where there are food stalls. An hour passes.

We get going again.

Fifteen minutes later, our other front wheel starts to smoke as the brake pad is finally completely vaporised. We unload our stuff and wait by the side of the road. A local bus going to Nam Tha rides by. We hop on. It’s deluxe compared to the last. Three more hours through vivid green mountains of limestone.

We eventually encounter work on the expressway that is being built between Kunming, China, and Bangkok. We’re frequently forced to pull over to allow military trucks full of construction materials past. Sometimes we get off the bus. Sections of the Expressway are one way. We’re signalled when it is safe to continue.

The entire journey isn't really too bad, although from Jeff's sighing you would think we were following in Dante's footsteps. But we didn't expect to make it in a day.

Luang Nam Tha is a quiet riverside village with an amazing Indian restaurant and market. A handful of guesthouses run the length of the town’s main street. In the market, you can eat duck with sticky rice and Beer Lao for almost nothing. Delicious! There are a lot of old ladies begging in the market also peddling opium – I felt so awful for not giving these drug dealers money, I bought one of them a bottle of water instead and chased her down with it.

While out looking for a trek or multi-sport combo of some kind to do, we’re given the opportunity to try a new combo for $5, including all the activities, guides, food, and accommodation in a homestay village. It's almost like a volunteer thing, where we're just required to give feedback and comments at the end of the tour. The others we were looking at were $60!

Our middle names all being ‘Cheap’ in a freak coincidence, we sign up.

The first day is an arse-destroying 50km on a bicycle, visiting local villages and learning how they make paper from bamboo, silk from worms and whiskey from rice. Boxhead has always loved to boast that he’d kill Jeff and me if we were living in Medieval times (…). But when we’re given the opportunity to fire crossbows, he misses the target completely. He’s better with a longbow, apparently (his words).

The villages are like walking into a time-warp. The dark bamboo strip and thatch roof houses are filled with piles of firewood, charred pots and pans ...and occasionally a TV.

We continue through landscapes of rice paddies and bamboo shacks.

The gears on my bike give out just as we begin climbing a 7km hill that leads to our homestay village. I'm in spin class. My legs are a blur but I’m not going anywhere. After 1km, I would gladly give up my PIN number. After 4km, I would sell my grandmother for a lift and a cold drink.

I’m in that place again. That place in Arequipa and Shepparton.

When we eventually get there, and wait outside a small shop next to the road, I sit with a thousand-yard stare, as if I’d been buggered in prison.

My eyes abruptly roll back into my head and in my coma-like state I barely notice when a girl from one of the homestay families places a wreath of flowers around my neck. She also gives one to Jeff. Everyone else receives one and is paired up. Just Boxhead and Nick are alone. But Nick is well-travelled and Babel-like, and Boxhead, uh...

I somehow gather the strength to walk to her house. My glorious legs feel shaky, like they might buckle at any time. The house is made of concrete and bigger than most in the village.

It hurts to sit down - dear God, it hurts. The family joins us on the living room floor.

We smile. They smile. We nod. They nod.

It's awkward and weird. One of the girls can speak a bit of English, which makes it a little less awkward. Our rank smell must have reached their nostrils, because soon we’re being led to a nearby stream to wash.

I imagine that as we stand there in our skids, shocking everyone with our physiques and meekly splashing water over ourselves, all of the ladies in the village are placing pictures of their husbands facedown.

We join the grandfather to have dinner, sitting cross-legged on mats on the floor, a table between us. A TV flashes in the background. In front of us is a feast of sticky rice, spicy fish, chicken, and bamboo shoots laid out on banana leaves.

We smile. He smiles. We nod. He nods. We smi- You get the picture.

We begin to eat.

The grandfather insists on giving us shots of rice whiskey. He grins toothily: “Eat more! Eat more!”

Really? F*** me, it’s after thirds.

Every time I’m close to clearing my plate, more food is brought out. I’m determined to finish the food these kind people have prepared. I force boluses of stodgy rice down my throat one after another. It’s like a weird twist on that murder in Se7en, where that bloke is forced to feed himself to death, except in this instance it’s my own manners coercing me rather than the wrong end of a gun. Finally, I have to give up. I look down at my plate dejected, struggling to breathe, hating myself.

It’s only later that I learn that it is rude to let a guest go hungry in Laos. It wouldn’t have mattered how much more I ate, I would have always been given more food. What this means is that I almost ruptured my stomach in a battle of good manners.

Under a soft black pitch sky sprinkled with stars, our bellies plump with rice, we fumble our way through the darkness towards the dance performance being held in our honour at the village school. The others had the same experience, sitting there awkwardly in silence. Aff couldn't wait to get out. The German guys perfected sign language. I think Jeff and I had the better time of it.

We sleep upstairs on a mat on the floor. I don’t know where the family go.

We wake early, and are taken around the village to learn more about rural life. Every day the women must get up and pound rice to remove its husk, bashing it with a pestle, using either a foot-worked lever or their arms. Kids are also up early working. You see them coming from the jungle carrying baskets filled with wood or banana leaves on their backs.

We return to our house for breakfast. This time we sit with one of the daughters, the one that we can talk with a little, but my stomach is still full from the 20lbs of rice I ate last night. I waste more food.

This morning, we’re due to go trekking, something I inexplicably insisted be part of any package we did. It’s rubbish. We just walk a big circle through the jungle and see a whole lot of nothing.

Bored, I realise that I don’t like trekking, unless it actually leads somewhere, and I don’t particularly like it then. It seems it’s one of those things you do just to be able to say that you did it. Most of the time, you’re watching your feet, afraid to look up because you don’t want to fall over or see the massive hill up ahead.

The next day, I go for another massage, and
Trying to draw the string backTrying to draw the string backTrying to draw the string back

His flabby gut providing no support
God be praised!

This time it's a woman.

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