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Published: February 12th 2009
From Oudomxai to Luang Nam Tha
We left the luxury of the Vivanh guesthouse soon after a daybreak. The owner had to unlock the gates to let us out. We strolled through thick morning mist to the bus station, stopping only to buy some bamboo tubes of sticky rice from a street peddlar. The bus station was already buzzing with activity and our intended bus was already quite full with many bags and lots of cargo already on the roof. I joined the scrum at the ticket office - it was every man and woman for himself. I had to push and shove as much as the locals ad put aside my normal English reserve. Luckily a fellow Englishman allowed me to ease into his place once he had bought his ticket. The girl behind the counter had to laboriously write out each ticket by hand and record the details on a separate clipboard for each bus destination.
Had we not already been awake we would have been awoken by the local radio station which relays its broadcast over loudspeakers from 6:45am. The guest house man explained to us that as there is no local newspaper, this is the way the news is given. (Perhaps some of the people can't afford radios). After breakfast at the banana cafe we hired bikes (a great deal as we had mountain bikes with functional gears and working brakes for only 10,000kip ( 90p ) each for the day. He even gave us a photocopied map and suggested a route. We headed north out of town, then east along a dusty and uneven track up and down small slopes for about 5km having to avoid chickens, dogs and the occasional pot bellied pig. We passed through settlements of the huge variety of tribes that make Luang Nam Tha the most culturally diverse region in Laos. Most of the tribes have distinctive clothing or jewellery. We came to a Lenten tribe village who are known for making paper from mulberry tree pulp. We saw the paper being hung out to dry and one woman and her young daughter banging and pulping the pulp in a stream. We paid a small fee to visit a little waterfall in the village and then retraced our bike journey back to town to a new golden stupa on a hill above the own. It is sparkling new (I think inaugurated in December 2008). The golden stupa was dazzling in the bright sunlight. The grounds have yet to be landscaped. We tried to find the start of the track to the old stupa which was somewhere near the market. We found the market (which we decided to return to on foot tomorrow) and followed a track but is was the wrong one and fizzled out so we gave up, had delicious tuna salad and baguette at the Panda cafe and bought a cake and headed back to the guesthouse and rested during the hottest part of the day. Later we biked a simpler but longer route (what was supposedly 3km along the main road but seemed nearer 6km) past the airport and down a 3km long track to an old historic stupa that was bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. It must have been a direct hit because the large concrete structure has been completely toppled onto its side. A new stupa has been built beside the ruin and a long staircase (we counted about 175 steps) makes an impressive lead up to it). Just before reaching the stupa we had followed a young boy when something fell off something that was strapped to the back of his bike. We picked up what turned out to be handmade wooden wheels and gave them back to him. He had fashioned a toy car out of an old plastic oil container and the wheels had dropped off. The light was starting to fade as we headed in a different direction to find a shorter track back to town (the one we'd been unable to find earlier from the town end). We came across locals carrying wood and should have asked them directions biu they turned off across paddy fields. We were somewhat lost and concerned that the track we were on might take us away from town and that we'd end up in some remote village after nightfall. However we pressed on and thankfully the outskirts of the town came into view. We had a disappointing bland Indian meal in town and then consoled ourselves with a beer at the popular MayLin guesthouse.
After breakfast we walked to the fresh produce and general goods market. It attracts people of the various tribal villages that surround the town. Very few wear other than a few traces of their tribal wear. There were the usual oddities. On one stall was dead squirrel and another a dead mongoose-like creature. Again as in Luang Prabang there was a hideous thing that looked like a cow's scalp. There were water-buffalo horns. I can't imagine why anyone would buy these - perhaps for stock when making soup. We bought some sticky rice in bamboo tube and a strange gelationous cake.
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