Published: January 20th 2010December 27th 2009
Via ugly little Khon Kaen I make my way to the town of Nong Khai, sitting on the Mekong directly opposite Laos. The town is so relaxed, quite atypical of border towns, which are normally busy and seedy, that I stay for a couple of days doing nothing. I dine in a small vegetarian restaurant that serves incredibly cheap noodle soup with fake meat and hang out at a guesthouse overlooking the Mekong. I don't stay there, but I use their free wireless, which is one of the reasons why the guesthouse is teeming with backpackers. The other reason is that it's the first recommendation in LP, which guarantees a steady flow of brainless, pale-skinned young hedonists. As I sit in the garden of the guesthouse, all of a sudden the earth starts to shake, glasses clatter and birds start screeching and flapping their wings, and in the entrance ten figures take shape, milling their way through the garden restaurant like steamrollers. They all carry big backpacks on their backs and small ones on their front, some of them handbags as well. The girls are either anorexic or obese, they all wear skimpy shorts and spaghetti-strapped tank tops and posh sunglasses
cover their eyes. The guys all have short-cropped hair with the same pattern shaved into it, and I reckon it must have been about six weeks since they went to the hairdresser together, (I can just picture them saying: "Dude, this gonna be so awesomely hilarious!") for their hair has grown back a bit over the shaved parts. Of course, they come from the country wedged in between Canada and Mexico. They put their lugagge down, sit back and order banana pancakes and cokes, before unleashing a seemingly endless cascade of disgustingly nasal utterances that violate my sensitive ear canals, and I decide to move on and wait until they crawl back to the cave that spat them out.
I take a tuk tuk to the Lao border, get my Thai exit stamp, and pay for my visa on the Lao side. It takes about an hour to process, and there are lots of people anxiously waiting, from the backpacker to the middle-aged sex tourist with his prostitute-cum-gf-cum-whatever-as-long-as-he-pays. When I finally get mine, I walk out trying to find the cheapest transport option to Vientiane, which is just 20km away. There's an 'official' ticket booth where they sell tickets
for minibuses at about 5€. I laugh at the audacity and walk out to the street, where a tuk tuk is waiting for more passengers. I end up paying 30TB, about a dollar. On the tuk tuk is a Swedish guy, who urges me to be careful in Cambodia and Vietnam. "In Cambodia never go to a massage parlour alone, take a friend to watch your clothes while you get a massage, otherwise they apply 'sleepy lotion' on your back, and when you wake up, your wallet is gone." I promise to be careful and get off at the bus station in Vientiane, where I am more than delighted to find that they sell baguettes! I order one with vegetables only, it's a bit spicy, and I'm happy to eat bread again, although it's only inferior French-style white bread. I sit on the roadside munching my baguette when a hippie-looking guy with dreadlocks and batik bandana on his head approaches me and asks me where the riverfront is, the "Mekong Delta", as he puts it. He's from the US, and I resist the temptation to tell him that the Mekong Delta is in Vietnam; I check my map and point
him into the right direction.
The first thing I notice in Laos is that everything is really, really relaxed. There's quite a bit of bustle going on in the streets, especially around the bus station, of course, but that is just the nature of bus stations. Apart from that, the capital feels really slow, in a pleasant way. I also notice that I don't get the incessant 'farang' murmurs/calls/shouts that I got all the time in Thailand, which is one of the reasons why I roam around with a stupid grin on my face. In the city centre, French colonial architecture dominates, but I am puzzled to see that almost every building sports not only the Lao flag, but also the Soviet one. Maybe the hammer and sickle is a statement to Communism, which wouldn't make much sense, since Laos heads into the same direction as China, read: locust Capitalism; in fact, the two countries have such strong economic ties and Laos is so dependent on its big northern neighbour and so determined to do everything China says, that it would be more understandable to fly the Chinese flag.
The city centre is dominated by French and Scandinavian-style bakeries,
which are air-conditioned, pricey, highly recommended by LP and consequently, Aye the sweet surprise is grabbing my balls!, FULL OF BACKPACKERS. No further comment. As I walk through the centre, I inevitably pass the groups of tuk tuk drivers, who offer their services to every Westerner. When you say "No", which I rarely do, I usually simply treat them as non-persons and don't acknowledge their existence, they ask "Smoke?" or "Weed?" or "Opium?" or simply "Something?", which always causes me to answer "Noooo, nothing...".
My host Patrick picks me up at Nam Phu, the fountain that looks like a big landmark on the map, but is merely a small trickle in real life. Patrick works as a teacher in Vientiane. He's from New Zealand, a couple of years older than me, and seems to be living the sweet life in Laos. He drives a pretty battered, monstrous black pick-up without doors or roof, and lives in a house, which costs $200 less than the housing allowance the school grants him. "That I get paid to live in that place is the best thing about it!" as he puts it. Once we're at his place, he seems to be a
bit at a loss for words and suggests we go to the pub to have some beers. 'The pub' is a nice little drinking den managed by a middle-aged American and his Lao wife, or girlfriend, or whatever. After a few drinks and a joint, he reveals his shady past. He tells me how he lived in Chiang Mai in the early 80s, when the place was still "real wild. I'm telling ya, all those 17-year old Thai girls, I taught them sex, and they were so proud to be fucking a foreigner." In my head, the TMI-bells start ringing as he goes on: "I knew many guys who were into dealing dope, anything you can imagine, weed, cocaine, heroin, pills. One of my friends was about to do a big deal, and he told me about it. It would have been the deal of a lifetime, the type where you can retire afterwards. I was the only one who knew about it." -"Didn't you get nervous that he'd do away with you?", I ask. "Well, I only thought about that later, and was quite shocked that I didn't realize the danger I was in. Anyway, the police got wind
of the deal and he got arrested. I think he's still in Chiang Mai prison today."
We watch the football semi-finals of the SEA games, Malaysia against Laos. The Malaysian coach, same as the Laotian and the Burmese, is a white guy as well, and the team is easily better than the clumsy Laotians, who manage to hold the 1-1 until 10 minutes before the end, when Malaysia scores two goals and seals the Lao fate. I have my first couple of Beer Lao, which is good, better than most other beers I've tried along the way on this trip, but not as good as everybody made it sound.
In the morning I eat a nice baguette for breakfast in a fantastic little eatery that also serves excellent fruit shakes. I choose melon-guava-lemon-and-mint, which is probably the best mix ever. The shop is managed by a lady who speaks very good English and French, and her two teenage daughters, who are constantly smiling at me. I read in the Vientiane times that the Lao government has raised the bar for poverty; a Lao person must now earn less than 192,000 kip (16€) a month to be classified as living
below the poverty line; before it used to be 85,000 kip (7€). They said a revision was necessary as living costs and inflation have risen in recent years.
Patrick and I go to see a kickboxing fight at a gym close to his place. We just walk in, and nobody seems to bother, so I guess it's free. We sit down amongst a crowd of enthusiastic Laotians waving flags and wearing shirts with the Lao flag on it. It's the semi-finals of the SEA games, and a Lao fighter faces a Filipino. They are both small, but extremely sinewy and toned. When the fight starts, I'm surprised at the level of violence that both men dish out. They kick and knee and elbow and punch, and soon it becomes obvious that the Filipino is the better man. The crowd is in denial, screaming 'Ah!' every time their fighter connects. Maybe that's what makes the Lao cocky, the crowd support, for he prances about and looks like he doesn't take his opponent seriously, but the Filipino calmly dominates the fight and wins in the end. I'm surprised to see that when the winner is announced, the whole crowd applauds respectfully, there's
no indignant protesting, although their man lost.
In the evening, an Australian guy arrives at Patrick's place. His name is Leon and he's from Perth, which gives us a first topic to talk about. He's just travelling for three weeks over Christmas and New Year's, and he also wants to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, so he's on a pretty tight schedule. Patrick doesn't know what to do with us, so he takes us along to the Christmas party of the staff of his school. I find there's something extremely disconcerting about the whole bunch of expat teachers we see at the function. It feels as though they were taken from a classroom in the first world and human-trafficked to Laos in the middle of the night. They may have more of a tan, and their shirts may be a bit more unbottoned than back home, but they look tired and weary, their skin hangs down droopily, especially on the upper arms and underneath the eyes, and they complain about their jobs while scratching at fresh mosquito bites. The composition is the usual mix of overweight, blonde Australian women who just love to hear themselves talk and think they are
so funny and original, when all they really are is an embarrassment who doesn't have shit to say; American women with broad backsides, who assigned themselves as leaders in the teacher's room although nobody asked for it, and who go around the table talking to every teacher individually to check how the 'morale' is among the staff and to see who is a potential insecurity factor; nervous French ladies who tell everybody who's keen to listen about their unhappy years in the Philippines; and boisterous drunkards like Patrick and the shady American, who are not ashamed to smoke pot in front of all the other teachers and make lecherous remarks to the few lady teachers they'd fuck and insulting jokes about the ones they wouldn't.
When we walk back towards Patrick's house, the dog that lives next to Patrick's comes running out barking at us like a canine possessed, but you can tell it's all hot air, since he backs up quickly when Patrick bows down to pick up some stones. He tells us that the dog is racist, since he only barks at white people, which, as I'm about to find out in the next few days, is
true. We buy a crate of Beer Lao and kick back on Patrick's balcony, on which the Lao and Soviet flags also hang. When asked about it, he just says "When I came home one day, somebody had hung them up there. No idea how they got in, but my Lao colleagues tell me it's wise to keep them there." As I come back from the toilet, I find that both Leon and Patrick have disappeared. When I check on them, I find them both passed out in their respective beds. I finish my beer like a man, when I suddenly hear somebody saying 'Sabaidee' (hello) downstairs. I go down to find Patrick's 'girlfriend', or at least so she claims, standing in the hall. She looks pretty made up and asks me if Patrick's there. I'm not sure what to say, so I run upstairs, knock on Patrick's door, but when I get no response, I just open the door and shout "Patrick! Your girlfriend's there!" He seems to wake up and say "Oh, good." at the same time before falling asleep again. I go down and tell her that he's in his bedroom. By that time, she's pouting and
wants to leave, but I try to appease her and tell her "he's only had a few too many beers, but he really wants to see you, you can go up, really." But she just says "No! I called him many times! He didn't answer!" Finally I convince her to go up so I can go to bed myself with a clean conscience.
The following morning I get up early to fetch Jaclyn from the airport. I check into a guesthouse, leave my stuff there, and try to find a tuk tuk to the airport, which proves to be a lot harder than I thought. I ignore the crowds of tuk tuk-drivers around the city centre and make my way to the road that leads towards the airport, where I hail one down that already has a couple of passengers, all Lao or Thai, in it. I ask the driver "Airport?", and he says yes, so I ask "How much?", but he doesn't answer me and seems to get really nervous. Something has clearly upset him, so I repeat my question, but he just looks at me and at something behind my back, where I see a police checkpoint.
One of the policemen has got up and is walking slowly towards the tuk tuk, and all of a sudden, the driver just waves his hand and speeds off, leaving me behind confused and angry. "What the fuck?" I shout at the policemen. "What the fuck? Farangs are not allowed to share tuk tuks? I have to hire my own fucking tuk tuk and get ripped off by those assholes? Well thank you very much!" They just look at me and don't understand a word of what I say. I realize it might be better if I watch my tongue, so I walk away to a group of tuk tuks waiting around the corner, since the flight already arrives soon, and I don't want to be late. I ask one of the drivers and he gets his laminated list with exorbitant prices for farangs, while all the other ones start crowding around me, but I just tell him "Don't give me that fucking list, I know that one already. How much to the airport?" They quote me 50,000 kip, which is more than just a rip-off, it's a slap in the face. I try to haggle, but they won't go
beneath 40,000, which is still more than twice than what it should really be and so much more than I would pay in Thailand. I ask him for 20,000, and he seems to be unsure, but the other ones talk to him incessantly, so he won't go down with the price. He then says "40,000, last price. Good for you and good for me.", to which I reply "No, that's extremely fucking good for you and really fucking bad for me, and you know it!" It's either get ripped off or be late, so I cave in and get in the tuk tuk with murder on my mind.
After I pick up Jaclyn, we ignore the tuk tuks and posh taxis in front of arrivals, make our way to the street outside, hail one down and pay 25,000. It could have been that easy, and the guy still makes a killing. Back in town, we eat papaya salad with sticky rice, which is damn spicy and not as good as the one in Thailand. Jaclyn is not impressed at all by our seedy little guesthouse and the unfriendly lady at the reception. After sleeping one night, she wakes up
covered in bites that look suspiciously like the ones she had in South America. In the course of the day she gets a bad allergic reaction and has to take antihistamines. It's obvious now that they are bedbug bites, worst-case scenario. The following morning we make our way to the hospital, where she gets an injection and medication. Not really an ideal start to a holiday, and I feel responsible. We leave the damned hostel and move on to Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is a place you either love or hate. The little town, four hours north of Vientiane, is famous for one activity: tubing down the Nam Song river, which is basically floating down the river in a massive tractor inner tube, preferrably in a big group with lots of people you just met in one of the video bars in town, stopping at the numerous riverside bars for overpriced Beer Lao and free shots of lao lao-whisky, flirting and making out with the other fun slaves, continuing to float down the river, all the time trying not to drown, which is not that easy, seeing how drunk you already are. You end up walking through town in
shorts and without shirt, if you're a guy, and in a bikini and maybe just a tank top, if you're a girl, thus offending the local customs while fondling your newest acquisition, a like-minded brainless hedonist of the other sex, thus offending even the most tolerant locals. You return the tube at the one shop in town that has the monopoly on tube rentals, where you pay the extortionate fee for returning the tube later than 6pm because you had waaaaay too much fun on the way to return it earlier and laugh because "it's only like...5 fucking dollars, dude!" On the way to your guesthouse you buy a 'Vang Vieng - In The Tubing' singlet for $3 and a last Beer Lao before retreating to your room to have unsatisfying, casual sex with the slut you picked up somewhere along the way.
When we hop off the tuk tuk at the spot where everybody starts the tubing, our ears are attacked by obnoxious dance remixes of popular songs from the 90s. We are greeted by a Western chick in a skimpy bikini who offers us free shots, but we decline, and wait around for a while, unsure of
how the whole thing works. The same chick, who sports a fashionable Slipknot tattoo (People=shit; you misanthropic rebel bitch, you!) on her calf, goes up to a group of tan guys sitting on the ground, drinking beer, and with a blue marker writes 'I'm white, I'm blue, I'm Finnish - Fuck You!' on the back of one of the guys. We grab two of the tubes and jump into the river, just to get away from this. The water is quite refreshing and the scenery superb - sharply rising mountains covered in green, and after we get away from the first bunch of bars on the side, an all-encompassing silence unfolds that soothes our brains after the insulting stupidity we had the misfortune of witnessing. Every now and then, there are some rapids that make the drifting a bit more interesting. Locals bathe in the river, not taking notice of the strange creatures in their tubes, they do their washing, and they fish. One guy stands at one side of the river with his spear raised in anticipation - there's something in the bush that caught his attention, and he's extremely concentrated and about to strike. We float towards him,
trying to stay in the middle of the river, but our clumsy paddling doesn't help. As we drift closer and closer towards him from behind, he appears to be about to strike, and the backside of the spear comes closer and closer towards our tube. We scream "Hey, behind ya! WATCH IT!" in panic, but the guy doesn't even flinch, he is so focused on his prey that he doesn't even hear us. We pass him and his spear extremely closely, all the while screaming at him, and luckily, he doesn't move. When we are way past him, he looks at us at last, and I just shout "Oh, now you notice us, you fucking idiot!" at him.
After an hour and a half, we get a bit fed up and cold, so we start paddling faster to accelerate the tube. After another 30 minutes, we finally arrive back at Vang Vieng, return the tube (decently clothed and without fondling each other) and take a shower at our guesthouse. We walk around looking for a place to eat a decent dinner, passing the video bars showing either 'Friends' or 'Family Guy'. The usual clientele of those establishments are young
flashpackers in their recently acquired 'Vang Vieng - In The Tubing' singlets (seriously, EVERYBODY there wears them, it's mind-boggling) drinking Beer Lao, looking a bit dazed from the 'Happy Pizza' they ate, which also causes them to crack up with laughter in sync with the laugh tracks. Happy Pizzas, by the way, are Pizzas with a special topping that are served in selected restaurants all across Southeast Asia. How they can exist within the quite strict anti-drug legislation of some of these countries, I haven't yet been able to find out. Apparently, there are regular 'crack-downs' by the local police to boost their meagre salaries.
We also pass the numerous pancake and baguette stalls, where the prices are already significantly higher compared to Vientiane. Still, for breakfast or as a snack during the day, most of these are very tasty and filling, so I won't complain too much. We eat dinner at a nice little restaurant that has a farm outside town where they grow their own produce, and the spring rolls and curries we order are great, and the fresh fruit juices even more so.
We take the 'VIP bus' to Luang Prabang. What exactly makes this bus
more VIP than the other ones, I don't know, since it stops everywhere along the way to pick up locals and drops them off at their houses. It goes even so far that locals whose neighbour gets picked up won't go towards the bus and hop on, but wait until the bus comes directly in front of their house. There's a big sticker on the windscreen that says 'King of Bus', but the seats are uncomfortable and there's not much leg room. When we arrive in Luang Prabang after about 7 hours, the tuk tuk drivers are already waiting for us, harrassing us before we even get off the bus, saying "Tuk tuk, sir?" or "Tuk tuk, lady?" or "Where you go, sir? You need guesthouse?" while you get off the bus and walk towards your luggage, trying to stay calm. The dumber tourists (95% of the people on the bus) get on shared tuk tuks and pay 20,000 kip EACH, even with eight or ten people on board, which makes the driver smile broadly and boast to his colleagues how much money he makes out of those boneheads. The beauty of transport in Laos is that although you take
a bus to a town, you get dropped off at the bus station out of town, which can be anywhere from 3 to 15km away from the centre, which means you have to rely on the scumbags that are tuk tuk drivers. It's a simple system where everybody profits as much as possible from the naive Westerners that visit Laos thinking it's "so nice and chilled out, and the people are so much friendlier than in Thailand", which had been my first impression as well, but the longer the trip goes, the more I realize that most of the locals, especially the transport Mafia, don't give a fuck if you like their country, all they want is to withdraw as much money as possible from the walking ATM that you are.
We put on our backpacks and walk out of the bus station, a simple 'trick' that always causes at least one of the drivers to panic because his potential customers are getting away. Consequently, one guy drives after us, asks us where we want to go, we say "Centre", he says "10,000 each", we laugh and walk on, he drives after us and asks "How much you pay?", we
say "5,000 each", he says "OK", and 10 minutes later we're in the centre, and the driver has still got a good deal.
Luang Prabang, the famed 'Pearl of the Orient', a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, is a much-hyped city that is probably the most touristy in Laos. It's claim to fame is the French colonial architecture, albeit crumbling, the many gold-and-emerald wats scattered throughout the city, as well as the refined cuisine. My guidebook says it 'exudes tranquility and grandeur', but when we arrive, all we see are streets packed with tourists, tuk tuk drivers asking us is we want to book a tour, and streets lined with hotel - internet café - restaurant - tour company and so on. To be fair, most of the latter are in buildings that are nice to look at, so are the temples and the groups of saffron-robed monks. But, being already very templed-out, and thus reluctant to pay 10,000-20,000 kip entrance fee to the fabled wats, seeing they are free in Thailand anyway, even those lose part of their glamour. My trusty guidebook also reveals that 'There have been incidents, especially in Luang Prabang, where monks or novices
have attempted to rape foreign women', which makes me observe the seemingly peaceful ascetics with deep suspicion, an unfortunate disillusionment.
When we try wo find a cheap guesthouse in the area around Wat That, the prices we are quoted are mostly in US$, which makes me react patronizingly: "Which country is this? The US? No? OK, we are not from the US either, so give us the price in kip. 120,000? OK, that's too expensive anyway. Korp jai. (Thank you)" In the end, we have to haggle to get a tiny room with shared bathroom, extremely thin walls and a simple mattress on the floor for 55,000 kip. Still, the guesthouse is family-run, the matriarch is nice and helpful, and the mattress is comfortable. We eat dinner at a vegetarian buffet stall in the market area, where I meet Leon from Perth again. We sit together and drink Beer Lao, just like in the old times five days ago in Vientiane. Afterwards I tell Jaclyn: "See, I told you, he's really blokey." -"Yeah, but nice." "Fair enough." We talk like that all the time, I swear.
Almost through coincidence we stumble into the real attraction of Luang Prabang, the
Hmong Night Market, a seemingly endless street of stalls with Hmong vendors selling textiles, t-shirts, paper lanterns, paintings, slippers, carvings, little cutesy stuff, bags, dolls and more. The best thing about the market is that the money goes directly to the people who produce the goods, hence the prices they quote you are not extortionate, but reasonable, and the haggling is done with a smile and tongue-in-cheek. The ladies like to use punchlines such as "Good price! Lucky lucky!" to make us smile and we use the same phrases on the next sellers to return the favour, which reminds me of Lake Titicaca ("¡Por favor! ¡Leche para mis hijos!").
At night I have problems falling asleep since we can hear everything the dull US-Americans on the ground floor say. They met the other Merkins next door, probably saying "Wow, you're from America as well? That is seriously so awesome, we have so much in common, don't you think?". Ultimately, their gibberish lulls me to sleep, or maybe it just dulls my brain to an extent where I can't stay awake anymore.
The following day we climb Phu Si, the Sacred Hill which peak overlooks the whole city and the
Mekong. Halfway up the steep hill, there's a ticket booth, and we have to pay 20,000 kip. Reluctantly, I hand over the notes, but not without waiting for a while to see if locals have to pay the same, which they do. Had they not, we probably still would have paid, so the waiting was fruitless after all. On top, the view is alright, and there are a couple of temples, some plastic-looking Buddha statues in various postures as well as one of the many oversized footprints of Buddha scattered throughout Asia. I guess they are the equivalent of the thorns of Jesúses Crown of Thorns, his fingernails or his pubes that are to be found in churches across Europe. There is an Asian family with a tape recorder that plays Buddhist chanting, which accompanies us the whole time on top of the hill. Miraculously, I am not annoyed by it but think it fits the occasion.
To get to the Northern town of Luang Nam Tha, we decide to try one of the minibuses. The lady at the travel agency where we buy the ticket informs us that the trip takes about 8-9 hours, and significantly longer on
a local bus. In the morning, we wait around for the minibus to pick us up when two of the American girls walk in, crying. One of them has bandages on her forehead, and the other one has her arm in a sling and bandages on her left knee. We ask them what happened, and one of them replies: "Tuk tuk accident. The driver just went straight into a lamppost. I broke my collarbone.We spent all night waiting at the hospital." They walk to their rooms, sobbing loudly.
We are the first to be picked up by the minibus from our guesthouse. We have to wait for the last passengers, a guy from Barcelona and an Asian American girl from New York. The driver asks the girl what their destination is, but she has to ask the Barthelonian: "Hoo-aahn! Where are we going again? Ah, Loo-äääng Näm-thuuuh." When asked by a fellow passenger, a middle-aged lady from Canada, what her profession is, her mean-looking mouth spurts out "I'm in fashion." All of this makes us refer to her as 'cuntface', 'twat' or 'twat-faced cunt' for the rest of the trip.
Our driver is pretty good, he speaks a decent English,
he's polite, and he drives confidently and fast without taking unnecessary risks. Most of the way we drive on a mildly bumpy dirt track with countless villages on the side. The villagers are mostly busy doing hard labour like building a trench, and the whole village seems to do their share, from young children carrying buckets of dirt to old women balancing piles of bricks on their heads. Our driver uses his horn to warn the chickens, cows, pigs and dogs to get off the road. It always looks like we're about to overrun a chicken, but they have the tendency to run in circles, unsure which way to go, until they run to one side at the last second to avoid the spinning tires. For some reason, cows that walk on the side of the road panic when a car arrives, and run in front of the car but then off the street again, narrowly avoiding a crash. Dogs that are sleeping on the road get up and slowly trot away from the oncoming speeding cars. We always wonder what was there first, the road or the village? It is obvious that life for those people is eternal hardship
and struggle, and when an air-conditioned bus with pale-faced Westerners passes their villages, they stop whatever they are doing and look at the faces inside with a blank expression before going on with their work.
We stop for lunch in Oudomxay, about three hours from Luang Nam Tha. The driver says we have 20 minutes, so we go to an eatery, order our food, eat it, and go towards the bus, passing Barça and cuntface, who, for some inexplicable reason, are just about to order their food. We wait around until they finish their meal, then go to the bus together with our driver, but they don't follow us. Our driver checks on them from the other side of the road, and sees them smoking and chatting away. "Oh. So slow." he says in a calm voice, which is as obviously annoyed as a Laotian can possibly get. Of course he's too polite to tell them that we're leaving, so I go up to them and ask if they're finished soon, since we want to leave. "Oh, we're leaving already?", which blows my fuse: "No, actually we wanted to leave 15 minutes ago, but we can wait until you're
finished with whatever it is that you're doing.", I say, slightly raising my voice, and walk back to the bus. After 30 seconds, they're on the bus. The guy says "Sorry, we didn't realize you were waiting.", but I just ignore him, which causes the twat to say "Dude, just chill." I decide not to push the matter any further. Sure, we're in Southeast Asia, in Laos, where everything is so slow and relaxed. But there's a big difference between being chilled out and plain ignorant and insensitive, repeatedly so, a difference which, of course, is unknown to Spaniards, and apparently to squirrel-brained, pretentious materialists such as that spoiled cunt with her down-turned mouth corners, who is so used to getting her way, as well. When a Laotian gets impatient, you should know you've crossed the line.
We arrive in Luang Nam Tha and do the usual stuff: finding a guesthouse, checking in, going to the Night Market for a good, cheap dinner, this time som tam and sticky rice. In the morning, we take the bus to Muang Sing, which is officially off the beaten path. Wedged in between the borders of Burma and China, Muang Sing is
a small town which has a rich diversity in ethnic minorities, but is otherwise without much appeal. Depending on who you ask, there are between 49 and 132 different ethic groups in Laos, each with distinctive culture, language, traditions and dress. 45% of Muang Sing's population is Akha, and other ethnicities include Hmong, Tai Lü, Yao, Lolo, Tai Dam, Mien, Leten, Lahu, Khmü and many more. Most of these have adopted Buddhism, but the rough Akha and some other ones still hold on to their Animist traditions.
We do the only thing that we came here for: booking a trek. Contrary to what I thought, there are no treks that we can join, simply because there are no trekkers. All the other foreigners we see around are simply relaxing, or have already done trekking. Consequently, we have to pay more for the three-day trek that we book with one of the five companies in town.
The night before we head off is the 24th, so we have our Christmas dinner in a local eatery. Most of the other Westerners in town seem to be there as well, sitting together in small groups in a festive mood. It's an occasion
to splurge, so we order rice, noodles, vegetables, salad, spring rolls and wash everything down with Beer Lao. There's a middle-aged French lady whom I talked to at the Lao border, and she offers us some Lindt chocolate for dessert, which I'm more than happy to accept.
In the morning, we walk through the mist to the atmospheric morning market, where the locals sell their produce and textiles. There's always the odd elderly hill tribe-lady who spots us, runs up and offers us some sad-looking trinkets like poorly done bracelets or headdresses. They are a tenacious bunch, even persistent ignoring doesn't help, but after a while we find out that when you tell them "Tomorrow", they get quite animated, saying "No tomorrow" and start jabbering in their language, walking off while cursing us mean foreigners.
We eat freshly fried noodles with sweet basil and spring onion at one of the stalls, then proceed to the deep-fried sesame balls and bananas before rounding it all up with some sweet cake with coconut flakes.
After breakfast, we go to the tour agency and meet our guide, Mr Mai. He's a middle-aged Tai Lü man, very wiry and healthy-looking. We hop
on a car and make our way towards the Northern tip of the Nam Ha National Park, which encompasses a large area of the Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing provinces. On the way, we visit a house that produces its own lao lao-whisky, where we see how the whisky is made (from sticky rice - what else) and fermented. The whole house has a strong smell of putrid alcohol, and its way too early in the morning for me to try a shot. After half an hour driving, we are dropped off on the road side and start hiking up a steep mountain. We stop regularly to catch our breath and drink water, but Mr Mai seems to be able to go on indefinitely, he doesn't even break a sweat. He tells us that he's a rice farmer for half the year, and a guide for the other half, since the rice takes four months to grow anyway. "My family lucky to have rice field. In Laos rice food number one. Even when no meat or vegetable, we can still eat rice with chili sauce." When asked which job he likes better he just says "Same same. I like
farming and I like guide, because I meet people from many countries and talk to them. Makes me happy. Hahahaha!" He's got that contagious laugh, even when talking about negative things, which seems to be part of the Laos soul: even though things are bad, you just laugh about them, and eventually it'll get better.
At noon we arrive on the top of the mountain, where Mr Mai proceeds to prepare our food. We were carrying our own sticky rice and veggies, and he wraps everything up in banana leaves. We sit on the floor around the food and share everything. He makes sure we get enough rice and veggies, and boiled eggs as well. It's impossible for me to eat more than two eggs, but he gently urges me on to eat more rice, so I finish the gargantuan portion that I was carrying around with me, as well as the yummy local-grown vegetables. We eat everything with our hands, rolling the sticky rice into balls and picking up some veggies with it before shoving it into our mouths. For dessert we eat bananas and mandarines, and although my gut feels like it's about to burst, I manage
to eat two each. Mr Mai orders us to wait for 15 minutes, "so the food can settle. If we go now, not healthy." He tells us he married in 1990, and invited 500 people to the wedding, for which he killed two cows, one big pig and lots of chickens. "Many guests drink too much beer and lao lao and we carry them home. It was big fun. Hahahaha!"
We hike towards a small waterfall that is a lot more impressive in rainy season, as Mr Mai assures us. Indeed, the poor trickle we see is a bit disappointing, but it was still worth the detour, as Mr Mai does some offerings of rice, vegetables, bananas and mandarines to the spirits. When we get out of the forest, we see rows upon rows of planted rubber trees, which, when harvested, are brought to China, which stripped the hills bald of trees before planting the rubber trees. Still, the scenery is magnificent, this is precisely the Laos I was looking for, green hills as far as the eye can see, merging into the blue sky. Unfortunately, apart from birds, we don't see any wildlife. Mr Mai tells us that
sometimes wild elephants come here from the China border to eat bamboo. "People hunt them, but elephants kill many people", which I'm very happy to hear. We pass two young guys cooking in the forest. They are eating small birds that don't seem to have much meat on it. They don't seem to be friendly guys, in fact, they look like rapists. One of them has a filthy mullet, the other one a red piece of string pierced through his earlobe. They look sullen and not happy at our intrusion. Mr Mai talks to them for a minute or two when suddenly his phone rings. He talks to the other person for way too long, while we stand around uneasily, looking at their rifle in the corner, observing their machetes and slingshots. When we finally go on, we can feel their stares piercing our backs and hope to not come across them anymore. We are told that they are Akha people, and from then on, we see many crude birdtraps on the way. They put dragonflies into a sling, which is connected to a small piece of bamboo. When the small bird, most often a swallow, eats the dragonfly, the
noose contracts and the bird's neck breaks. We encounter several birds with twisted necks.
In the afternoon, we arrive at the Yao village where we are to stay for the night. The village has 335 inhabitants, and we enter the 'guesthouse', which is at the end of the village. Really it's just the house of a designated family who takes care of us for the night. We put our bags down and are greeted by a big group of villagers, who come into the hut to stare at us, while we sit on small stools. They don't look that different from the Laotians we've seen before, just a bit rougher, which is understandable, given the relative isolation they live in. One girl is mute, she can only utter vowels, and funnily, she seems to be the most open and welcoming of the villagers, laughing all the time and trying to ineract with us while the rest just stares curiously. I'm a bit disappointed that Mr Mai doesn't make an effort to interpret for us, so we just sit there looking at them looking at us. Our guide takes us to the river to bathe while the sun is still
out, seeing how dusty and sweaty we are. Mr Mai strips down to his blue briefs, while we only have one sarong, and I don't wanna wet my boxers, so I let Jaclyn go first. I help her clumsily putting on the sarong and when she's finished bathing, I put it on, simultaneously taking off my boxers, all the while trying not to expose my schlong to the world. I use a coconut shell to pour water over my head, and after the first shock at how cold it is, it starts getting quite refreshing, and I'm wondering why I don't always shower like that. Mr Mai seems to be quite amused at our awkwardness and stands there soaping himself down in his blue briefs, laughing all the while.
When we get back he starts preparing our dinner together with the lady of the house. We set our clothes before it gets dark, being observed continuously by the villagers that are still in the hut, who got up to follow us behind the sectioned-off wall where our mattresses are. We eat a great dinner of steamed rice, cabbage and veggie soup and omelette. The family eats our leftovers, and
I curse myself for eating more than I could take, being urged on by Mr Mai.
Later on, we sit around the campfire and some girls perform a traditional dance for us. They are lined up in two rows of four each, and only one girl seems to be really confident about the steps. The rest keeps looking at her unsurely, imitating what she does, and to our amusement even openly asking her questions about what steps come next. We take pictures and applaud while the village's teenage boys take pictures on their mobile phones. One older guy seems to be particularly interested in seeing the pictures that I take, and seems to want his picture taken as well, so I take it, and he smiles when he looks at it.
After some songs that all sounded the same, for some reason they put on a dull techno song that starts with the line 'I'm walking in the sand' and dance to it, basically just standing in a circle shaking their asses to show they can dance to Western music as well.
Afterwards all the girls line up to have their picture taken, first all the dancers with Jaclyn, then
with me, then always two sisters together, while Mr Mai goes to great lengths explaining who they are: "These are the daughters of the sister of the husband of the wife..."; "These are the sisters of the uncle of the father of the..." I try taking the pictures despite it being completely dark, and I show it to everybody afterwards, which always causes them to say "Oooooh...", and then laugh out loud.
Before we go to sleep, we get a massage by two of the girls each. I'm lucky to get two experienced, strong girls who really knead my muscles thoroughly, including my back, shoulders, thighs, calves, hands and feet, they even make all my finger and toe knuckles crack, and I ask myself if that is healthy. They keep looking at my tattoo and at my skinny arms, laughing and chatting about it, which embarrasses me. Jaclyn is massaged by two girls who, as she tells me later, have no idea of what they're doing and have the strength of "a five-year old".
In the morning, we eat some leftover soup from dinner, plus baguettes with omelette and strawberry jam. I don't have the heart to tell Mr
Mai that nature didn't intend eggs and strawberries to be this close together, and finish my baguette with queasy stomach.
We set off on a hike that leads us through several villages, most of them Akha. Mr Mai prepares us with information about Akha culture. An aspect of it that I find quite interesting is that when an Akha woman has twins, both of them are killed. We ask our guides why that is, and he says "No good for spirits, no good for culture. Akha culture - very different." Unsurprisingly, the government intervened and forbid the practice, saying that if they can't feed the twins, they have to give them to a family who can. Another fact is that when a husband dies, the widow is not allowed to remarry, and if she does, she's not allowed to keep her children, who are then brought up by relatives, while the disgraced woman has to move to her new husband's family. Also "When Akha have boy, they lucky. When they have girl, they no lucky", which doesn't surprise me, as it's similar in many other Asian cultures.
The first Akha village we pass, we don't get a very friendly
reception. The children just stare at us with blank faces while the adult's behaviour borders on hostility. As we find out, the reason for this is that tourists have passed through this village for a while, but the agency didn't pay them for it. Mr Mai passes the chief, who demands that he writes down how many tourists passed and sign that the village gets the money for it.
I can't help but feeling sympathetic towards the villagers, who seem to be a lot poorer than the Yao village where we spent the night. The kids are dirty and look sick, their clothes are tattered rags, and the babies don't wear pants and shit everywhere. The adults look sullen and malnourished, and I'm glad when we move on after Mr Mai signs the paper.
An hour or so later, we pass through the next village, which is Akha as well, but looks infinitely more orderly, the houses are in better condition and the children look healthy and wave at us. Some of them dry balls of mud in the sun so they can use them for their slingshots later on. Others play a game that involves a type of spinner
made of wood, that is hurled onto the floor using a piece of rope. Some women are busy weaving on a big loom, others sit around chewing betelnut. Most of the older women we see look very malnourished and emaciated. Mr Mai tells us later they still smoke opium, although the government put a ban on it. "When they die, their family stay away from it, cause it's no good." With the opium crops outlawed, the methamphetamine trade has become extremely lucrative, especially in the border regions.
We pass through sugarcane fields, where our guide cuts us a piece, which we chew happily, sucking the sweet juice and spitting out the fibre. At noon, we have a great lunch of sticky rice, veggies and egg, and I vow not to eat egg ever again after this trip. We sit in a corn field, protected from the sun by the high plants. Mr Mai mixes the rice with the veggies and the egg in plastic bags, which are our bowls, and we eat our meal with soup spoons, sitting cross-legged on the ground.
The hike is not as strenuous as on the first day, and we walk quite leisurely through
fields and across small rivers. In the afternoon, we arrive at the Akha village where we'll stay overnight. Our room is not yet prepared, so we sit around waiting, while a crowd has inevitably formed, sitting across us, staring. "So...how are you guys? Had a good day? Hard work today?" They just keep staring, not saying anything. There are kids of all ages, the older children taking care of the smaller ones, which includes 2-year olds carrying their baby brothers or sisters. We go and take our bath in the river, although there's an outdoor shower close to our hut, but we're not keen on the attention that we'd inevitably get. When we come back, Mr Mai is again busy preparing dinner with an old lady who lives in the house. She has a bit of a crazy stare, and we wonder if she might have smoked a bit too much opium in her lifetime. We get a bit bored waiting around so we pass the time observing the chickens and the pigs, the latter being an endless source of amusement, especially the piglets, which are snuffling around and seem to be up for all kinds of mischief. As we
walk around the village, I take pictures, and suddenly my camera shuts down completely and all attempts to switch it on again fail. I'm quite pissed off about it, and for the rest of the trip, I have to make do with my point-and-shoot.
There are no toilets in the village, when you need to piss, you just piss anywhere, but the fence behind the house is a good choice. For number two, you have to head to a small forest behind the house, which is really filthy with shit and rubbish lying around everywhere. I decide to hold it in, not an easy task seeing how much rice I've eaten.
For dinner, we eat fried noodles with squash, cabbage and wild fern that Mr Mai collected on the way. He informs us that only this type is edible and most other ones are poisonous. It tastes quite nutty, not bad at all, in fact. I'm happy that we don't have rice for a change, and also that our guide seems to put in a lot of effort for every meal he cooks us.
This night, there's no entertainment, but at least we get a massage again. The Akha
seem to be especially gifted at massaging, and it has become such an important part of their culture that girls start practicing it when they're 10. That night, I only get massaged by one girl, but she has the strength of an ox and gives me a good rub-down.
We sleep in a big room with the family, sectioned off behind a bamboo wall. During the night, the old lady with the crazy stare gets up several times to go to the fence and always leaves the door open. A freezing wind enters the hut, which creeps beneath our blankets and into our bones. The roosters seem to start crowing at 2am, and I damn them to hell for it. It sounds like there's one directly outside our window, and always when I think he must be finished now, he lets off another infuriating 'Quakokikeriki', which goes on until the sun rises, when he seems to get some well-deserved sleep after half a night of pissing me off.
"Please wait for me here 5 or 10 minutes, I'm going big toilet", Mr Mai says before disppearing into the bushes. It's our last day, and we've been walking for about
two hours, crossing two villages already, one miserable, the other one better off, same as the day before. We find that the more affluent village has electricity, while the poorer one doesn't, which might be the reason for their sullenness. I'm just wondering why we cross through those at all, when all the people do is give us the evils. Every now and then Mr Mai tells me to take a picture, and when I take out my camera, children run away, adults shake their head and put a hand in front of their face, and I always think "Fuck, I didn't want to take one anyway." I take a few sneaky shots and at least one lady allows me to take pictures while she's weaving. In one of the poorer villages we go up to a lady with her kids. She carries a baby with bare ass in her arms, which Mr Mai smacks for good luck. Out of the blue, an elderly woman comes running towards us and starts begging us for money, pointing to the baby's bum, as if we're responsible that the mother can't afford to buy pants for her baby. She actually takes the baby's
hand and tries to stretch it out to us in a begging gesture, but funnily, the little one pulls back its hand. I tell the lady to sew some pants for the toddler.
Later I ask Mr Mai why they beg when they already get money for the tourists who pass through. "The headman of village takes money for tourists, and he gives it to the people." Sounds like the headman is rich and corrupt to me, and really, in a particularly poor village without electricity, there are the usual bamboo huts with palm-leaf roofs, and in the middle of it stands one house made of stone, with plastered walls and real roof tiles. It doesn't fit at all, and our guide tells us the house was built by the former headman. "He no good, now he no headman anymore."
On the way to the last village, a man with a Lao script tattoo on his forearm passes us. I ask Mr Mai what the meaning is and if the tattoos are an important part of Lao culture, since I've already seen a couple on random people. He says the tattoos are "magic word of Buddha, but others get
something like 'I am single, have no girlfriend' or 'The four chambers of my heart are empty' or 'No have anybody to love'. Hahahahahaha!"
We see lots of people on the way eating what looks like a white turnip, and we ask our guide what it is. He says he doesn't know the word in English, but he buys some for us to try. He uses his knife to peel some for us, and when we try, they taste surprisingly sweet and juicy, and we start referring to them jokingly as 'earth apples'. We also try betelnut, which is made of bark, not of nut. The bark is left to dry in the sun, and after a couple of days is fit for chewing. It tastes extremely bitter and earthy, and turns your spit bright red.
We eat our last lunch in a hut in the middle of a rice paddy. I'm a bit sad that we won't hear Mr Mai's noisy slurping and lip-smacking anymore. After each meal, he always gets up to cut some bamboo toothpicks for us with his knife, and we sit together in silence for 10 minutes, picking our teeth. This seems to be as
important a part of Lao culture as the hearty retching and subsequent spitting is. You hear it wherever you go, and I sometimes find that the ladies, especially the ones in the villages, seem to be noisier than the males at that, and it sounds like they are producing quite a substantial phlegm ball when they're retching.
The last village of our trek is a quite disappointing one, for it is actually a part of Muang Sing, and we just sit on the side of the road waiting for our transport. It's a Lolo village, a Tibeto-Burman people who look quite different from Laotians, their skin is lighter and their eyes are more almond-shaped. They speak Chinese as well as their own language, which is related to Burmese.
The car picks us up and we head back towards Muang Sing. On the way, we drop off Mr Mai, who lives close to the morning market. Before he heads off, he explains to us that his wife sells fried bananas at the morning market. "There are four women who sell, a fat one, fat one, my wife, she thin, and a fat one. Hahahahahahaha!" We laugh with him and exchange
mail addresses, yes, mail without the 'e'. He also gives us his phone number, and urges me to send the pictures of the Yao girls, so he can give them to the village.
We collect our big backpacks at the travel agency and the driver drops us off at the bus station. As we're on our way back to Luang Nam Tha, I can't help but feel that the last three days have been the best part of my trip to Laos so far, and better than most things that I did in Thailand.
There are more photos below