Published: October 30th 2011October 12th 2011
Its our last day in Laos, but I am just getting around to write our first blog post about this forgotten country. We spent almost a month here and there is a lot to write about, but let's take it one step at a time and start at the beginning.
From Thailand we crossed the mighty Mekong river and once on the other side we were in Lao PDR, which is now the official name of the country. The old, original name is Lan Xang Hom Khao (Million Elephants, White Parasol).
If we didn't know that the river was also the border between the countries we would probably just walk straight from the pier without passing all the border formalities. By the looks of it you would never guess you are at the border and nobody would stop you from just walking away. We actually met a guy who forgot something in a guest-house in Thailand after already getting a Laos visa. He just crossed the river one more time, retrieved his stuff and took the boat back to Laos one more time. No checks, no stops, easy...
We spent a night at the
border town and then headed off to Luang Namtha, a starting point for trekking in the mountains of north Laos. The drive was the first real chance to see Laos and we had a feeling we just stepped into a time machine. It was much, much different than Thailand which we just left. The roads are still being built (we were told they have significantly improved in the last few years) and the sights from the mini van were amazing. We passed loads of small villages consisting of nothing more than a dozen or so wooden huts. It all seems "historical". Villages are full of kids running around, showers (water pipes) are outside, electricity is a thing of the future. It was surreal in many ways and hard to explain. The highlight of the journey was seeing a guy driving a motorbike and a person behind him holding his IV tube above his head. As I said, surreal.
We arrived to Luang Namtha, or to be exact, at a bus station 10 km out of town. This is a thing in Laos, all bus stations are a few (or a bit more) kilometres out of town. My guess is
to enable the tuk-tuk drivers to make some cash.
There is not much to say about Luang Namtha- like the rest of Laos towns it's a bit of a wild-wild west type of place. A main street, surrounded by all the businesses the city needs and that is pretty much it. As I mentioned it's a starting point for treks and we did book one, but it got cancelled. The price changes with the number of people going and after some cancellations we ended up alone and decided not to go. After just trekking in Pai we didn't care all that much about another trek and we still agree we made the right choice.
But we did get the first impressions of Laos here and got to try the famous Lao Beer (not bad, I have to say), sticky rice, Laap (not my favourite) and some weird plants which you buy in bunches and just eat the seeds – nuts. All in all, a fair introduction to the country.
Our next stop was a small village of Nong Khiaw. We joined Leo and Lynette from England and headed to the bus station. The bus was more or
less empty inside, but the roof was packed. There were motorcycles, sofas and everything else you could possibly imagine on it. If this was only allowed back home, our moving to London would be so much easier. Why the hell did we have to hire a van?!? The bus is supposed to leave at 9am and the engine did start at 9 on the dot, but then we just stayed there for another 15 minutes before moving across the station to fill up the gas tank and waiting for the driver to finish up his breakfast portion of rice. We finally left with a 45 minutes delay. It took us a full day to get there, again enjoying the sights on the mountain road and even after departing late, stopping for a long lunch and some mechanical issues (solved on the spot) we still arrived at our destination in time. Pretty amazing!
Nong Khiaw is a small village next to Nam Khan (Nam = river) where only the bridge has asphalt, the rest of the roads is all dirt. There isn't much to do here, but it's still a nice enough place to spend a few days and just
relax and embrace the Lao lifestyle – relaxing, resting and relaxing
. But it is a starting point to Muang Ngoi Neua, about an hour boat ride up the river. There is no other way to get there but by boat and it's supposed to be a quiet, chilled out place. That might be true 363 days of the year, but it was definitely not true while we were there.
On the boat trip we were joined by Matt and Tim, two English guys who we met on the ride to Luang Namtha. The thing about Matt and Tim is that even after spending about a week with them I am still not sure who is who. Somewhat like Ed and Larry from West Wing – if you haven't seen West Wing you should finish reading this blog and then go watch it! I am serious!
The boat ride was an adventure on it's own. The river is the centre of life for the locals. It's the link to the outside world, playground for the kids, place to bathe, wash clothes and so on. The limestone cliffs surrounding the river made for magnificent scenery but what was even
more interesting was observing all the small children playing around the river. As they were all butt naked I made a few jokes about this being a paradise for paedophiles...they got a few laughs/appalled looks from the crowd...what, it is funny
When we finally arrived at Muang Ngoi Neua we were met by Penny trying to get us to stay in her bungalows. They were a bit to expensive for our budget but she did manage to convince us to stay in her Guesthouse (£2 per night for a room – ohhh yes!), which was on the main street of this tiny village. Not sure if the main street is the correct way to describe the only street?!
We settled in and got a chance to meet the Evil of all Evils! Penny's son. Now this is a kid that would make Damien look like an angel. Even Chucky is no match for him. If there was an Evil school Damien and Chucky would not even be evil enough to be this kids apprentice. He was trouble. His evil-highlights included kicking Leo in her face and spitting on other guests. When Leo grabbed him to
protect herself the little Evil maniac ran to his grandmother to tell on her...another reason not to have kids!
As I mentioned Muang Ngoi Neua is a small village, there are no cars or any other forms of transportation for that matter. The phone line got here a few years ago, while electricity is still in the planning stages. Guesthouses use generators to have light and for Penny to blast music from her mobile phone – same 5 Rihanna songs over and over again.
We were there just during the Full moon festival, which transformed this quiet village into a party place! Bun Akw Phansa is (according to LP) held at the end of a three month rain retreat when the monks can leave the monasteries to travel and are presented with robes, alms bowls and so on
Polona got up at 6 am one day to see the alms- the monks going through the village to collect food the locals prepared for them. The street is lined with old women, kneeling down, offering monks sticky rice and other food. Because of the festival the village held a party both nights we were there with loads
(and a bit annoying live Lao music) which reached its peak with the Rocket festival. Ohh and not to forget, there was a LOT of drinking. A LOT! Our guest-house was packed with locals all day long, passing beer and getting drunk. The way they drink is almost like smoking a dubbie. They get one bottle, one glass which gets filled up, downed and passed to the next person. Leo and the two of us decided not to take part in the day drinking but the rest of the gang got on with it in proper fashion.
In the evening the party moved to the live music venue where people danced. Now this was fun to watch. After every song the dance floor is empty and it takes some time into the next song for people to return to the dance floor. But even then it would be hard to call it dancing. People just move around a bit in pairs but there is no physical contact or eye contact. It seems like men and women are dancing in pairs, but that is more or less it. It seems...
The definite highlight of out time here was the Rocket
festival or competition. People from all of the surrounding villages built their own rockets. Yes, that is right, their own rockets. They are built out of bamboo wood. One very long stick is the body of the rocket, which, at one end, is surrounded by smaller bamboo pieces filled with gun-powder. Firing rockets in the sky is a gift to the spirits, asking them for rain which is needed for the rice fields. But it is also a competition - the rocket that flies the highest wins.
The whole thing goes down at the temple and everybody from the village and all the surrounding villages gather to enjoy the fun. The rockets that get off the ground are cheered for and awwwwwed, but the rockets which explode before lifting off get an even louder response and bring even more joy to the audience. It was one of a kind experience for us and well worth staying another day. See the video to get a better idea of the whole thing. We moved to Luang Prabang for the second day of the festival, but more about that in our next blog.
Not to forget, I tried my skills in
Nong Khiaw bridge
Inside the basket
a classic Lao game which we have seen across the country. It's sort of darts but instead of hitting a centre of a target the aim is to pop three balloons which are positioned inside a 4x8 "shelf". You get three darts and if you manage to pop three balloons you get a prize. I was in perfect form, hitting three balloons and winning a M15 – a Lao style Red-Bull.
Till next time.
Link do javljanja na radiju: Gori, doli, naokoli: od 12.40 minute naprej
There are more photos below