Crossing into Laos - Same Same but Different!

Louang Namtha Travel Blog

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Longtail Boats in Huay Xai, Laos

Well we went through Thai immigration this morning and paid our huge exit tax of five Baht (about 13 cents) and then hopped aboard the "ferry" which is really just a long, wooden canoe like boat with a noisy, smelly outboard engine for the five minute crossing to Huay Xai in Laos. We went through Laotian immigration with no problems - it ends up you can now get a 30 day visa on the spot making our efforts in Bangkok a waste of time and money.

We figured we needed to change some money and had heard that there was only one ATM in Laos, way down in Vientiane (probably also now outdated information). Not wanting to run out of cash, we decided to go big and we exchanged $400.

Our "Buses" to Luang Nam Tha
We are now officially multi-millionaires, with just short of 4,000,000 Kip, the local currency. This ended up being three huge stacks of money - a one inch stack of one hundred 20,000 Kip notes and two more one inch stacks of one hundred 10,000 Kip notes. All of this was rather hard to hide and be discreet about, but no problems arose. Not a bad return, $400 to be a millionaire! Haven't seen that kind of return since the dot com days. Let's hope our Kip retain their value better than i2 stock did ;-)

Well it ended up that an English couple on the ferry was heading to Luang Nam Tha as well, so after the mandatory bargaining for a tuk-tuk, we all headed off to the local bus station where we luckily found out that there would be a "bus" at 9:30. Cool!

Well "bus" in Lao is commonly called "pickup truck with two incredibly uncomfortable bench seats in the back of the bed" in English.

Little Boys playing in the river in Huay Xai
  Two of these arrived and the drivers would absolutely not put our bags on the same roof as the English couple's (Christian and Anna). We waited for another hour or two talking to Christian and Anna who have been on the road about seven months so far in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South East Asia and are staying here and back in Thailand until just before Christmas. We are a bit jealous of their long timeframe, (but not of their budget).

Well it appeared that we drew the short stick and ended up on the local bus, constantly stopping to pick up more people (and their 50 pound bags of rice, gigantic gourds, chickens, etc.). New!  this should launch in a separate window but if it doesn't hit back after viewing the video Our Luxury Sedan on the way to Luang Nam Tha

Unfortunately, no one seemed to be getting off and we soon found ourselves crammed in the bed of the truck with a total of 14 people in the pickup! Ten of us were smushed in the back, including six 50 pound bags of rice, various bags of vegetables, some car parts, a large cooler and a pissed off chicken in a bamboo basket.

Christian sinks in mud on the way to Luang Nam Tha
  My foot, wedged in between a sack of rice and the cooler, was rapidly falling asleep. Then the road got bad...really bad!

So we had read somewhere that Laos has been busy building highway 3 from China, skirting through northeast Laos into Thailand, originally scheduled for completion in 2005. Well that was delayed by floods, and now they are saying it will be done in 2007. I am not clear on what calendar they use, but I will unequivocally state "no friggin way" will that road be completed in 2007.

Of the nine dusty, bumpy, muddy, bone rattling hours spent in that truck, I would estimate that only 15% was even paved. I have been on many bad roads in my time including Sumatra in the rainy season, the harrowing road between Kashmir and Laddakh, the dirt paths between villages in Cinqueterre and, most recently, the road between Arequipa and Chivay in Peru.

Stuck in the mud
This one was up there with all of them - someone should print up the "I survived the road between Huay Xai and Luang Nam Tha" T-shirts - they too could be millionaires (at least in Kip).

We were the only foreigners on the truck and apparently quite the oddity since everyone was staring at us like we were from outer space. No one spoke as we bounced our way down one of the world’s bumpiest roads. I tried to take a video but you might get car sick watching it.

At our first stop I realized that, even though we were in the crappier, local bus, Christian and Anna may have really drawn the short straws since they were both quite tall and their truck was completely packed. 

Well the road continued to get worse as the scenery got more and more beautiful. The countryside is pretty desolate, mostly covered with never ending brilliant emerald green rice paddies and the occasional bamboo and thatch hut.

Cindy is beaming a big smile with her MILLIONS of Kip (ok so the exchange rate is 10,000 Kip to the dollar....
The wind blows across the ripening stalks of rice and makes a shimmering green sea of color - very picturesque. Meanwhile, the potholes and mud got deeper and the dry parts of the road got dustier. Our teeth were covered with a fine layer of grime and my white T-shirt was now a rusty orange/brown.  

We passed through many very small villages of wooden or bamboo huts teaming with smiling children. In one, we saw several young boys, all naked, playing in the muddy stream. Every few hours we would get a break and clamber out of the back of the truck where all the men would pee on the side of the road. The few women would delicately squat right on the road with their sarongs covering them - Anna and Cindy chose to wait it out. The road got so bumpy that you basically had to have at least one hand (if not both) on the bar running down the ceiling of the truck bed. Kind of like holding on in the subway...for nine or ten hours.

The two guys next to Cindy and I (we were sitting across from each other) that were closest to the truck cab (probably the best seats because you could hold on and there was less dust) were quite hilarious.

Millions of Kip
They seemed to be having spitting contests all day, continually snorting and hawking out the open sides of the truck. Each time, we diligently scrunched in towards the center to avoid the overspray.

Suddenly it was lunch time and everyone broke out their food, huge bags of sticky rice and small bits of grilled chicken. They all wanted to share as eating here is a very communal thing and they are truly extremely friendly. Each of them seemed to have a unique and precise method of rolling up their sticky rice into a ball, grabbing a small piece of meat, vegetable or chili paste and devouring it.

Along the way there was actually quite a lot of work going on with regular delays for backhoes, dump trucks and steamrollers. These stops were much more tolerable than having to repeatedly tow a two wheel drive passenger vehicle out of mud above its axles. What those three rocket scientists were thinking driving on a road like that in a passenger car escapes me.

Sotha's Mom, the weaver with silk worms
At the end of the day, we either helped them or sat behind them waiting for someone else to (the road was far to narrow to pass). The second time this occurred both Christian and I hopped out of our respective trucks to take a snapshot and memorialize this brilliant event. Christian attempted to navigate his way up to the sunken car and made the mistake of stepping on the sloped side of the road and promptly sunk just about up to his calve in thick mud. The locals found this absolutely hilarious.

Anyway, nine hours later we finally arrived in Luang Nam Tha with very sore backsides and looking extremely forward to several cold, frosty Beer Lao's. Unfortunately for us, unlike in Thailand where you are instantly bombarded with touts and tuk-tuk drivers, here there wasn't a single one to be found. Guess that's what you get (and actually what you want) when traveling in a relatively new and pristine locale such as Laos.

Cindy and Sotha's mom preparing bamboo shoots
   A few minutes later Christian and Anna (who arrived a bit before us since we were on the local bus) walked back to the bus station and told us that their guesthouse was "fairly grotty but OK for one night" which made Cindy redouble her efforts in locating a tuk-tuk. Eventually we were successful and got a ride to yet another upscale guesthouse (Cindy is so spoiled! This one is a whopping $25/night) six kilometers out of Luang Nam Tha called the Boat Landing Guesthouse. It is a really nice "eco-tourism" set of bungalows right on the banks of the Nam Tha River with solar heated showers and great food.

After a shower to wash away the road grime, we ended up having dinner with a couple in their 50’s from New Zealand who were really nice and quite adventurous.

Sotha's mom preparing bamboo shoots
Doug had a definite fondness for Beer Lao and we shared several over a very tasty spicy Lao meal including a sour fish soup, fiery hot green chili paste, a gourd and pork curry dish, and spicy pork stuffed peppers.

The long day, excellent meal and Beer Lao led to a great night's sleep.


After talking about renting overpriced mountain bikes this morning, we decided to rent a scooter instead so took a tuk-tuk into town and ended up renting a purple Suzuki (yes Mom we rented helmets - unfortunately the pink one didn't fit Cindy...)

We started out down a dirt path that gradually got wetter and muddier. Cindy got off the scooter in an effort to navigate through the increasingly gooshy mud while I forged on ahead trying not to get stuck.

Inside Sotha's house in Ban Phuong village
Both of us ended up submerged above our ankles much to the amusement of some local kids and a group of Akha women. Somehow, they were all able to make it through the dirt, mud and puddles with hardly a drop on them, a talent in which we are sorely lacking.

We made it through and crossed the wood bridge over the Nam Tha River and into a small village of Black Tai called Ban Phuong where we met a nice twenty-five year old kid named Sotha who spoke great English and invited us to his house.

It was a large, wooden one room house on stilts with a covered balcony and outdoor "kitchen". He lived there with his two younger brothers, his mom and dad and his grandma who he said was 102 (she didn’t look a day over 90 to us and we found it hard to believe that she had his father, who is only 45, at the ripe old age of 57).

Emerald green rice fields in Luang Nam Tha
His older brother and his fifteen year old sister were both already married and no longer lived in that village.

We had some tea and fruit with them and then his mom came home and showed us her silk weavings including a lesson in the lifecycle of the silkworm and the process of turning cocoons into raw silk. Cindy did end up buying a scarf from her.

Sotha's cell phone rang (even the ethnic hill tribe people seem to have technology now, many even have satellite TV!) and he spoke briefly, and then told us that it was his wife on the phone. He just got married last week but his parents don’t like his wife so refused to go to the wedding. She is now studying at university in Luang Prabang. 

We had given him a postcard of Newport Beach which led to a conversation about land and housing costs and he told us that a house is very expensive for Lao people and would cost around ten million kip ($1,000), more if it was in the city instead of the village.

Luang Nam Tha view from Temple Steps
We told him that real estate where we live is very expensive too, but I didn't have the math skills or heart to tell him that just the lot could cost a million dollars (which is ten billion Kip for the record).

Suddenly it started pouring rain and so he put on a CD of some bad, pop Thai music and Cindy suggested that I share some of my decidedly alternative musical selections with him. We listened to some acoustic Alice in Chains some Stone Temple Pilots some Audioslave and some Nickleback all of whom he knew and liked. Pretty bizarre! It wasn’t until later that Cindy mentioned that he was wearing a Linkin Park T-shirt.

In the meantime, Cindy joined Sotha's mom in prepping bamboo shoots by pounding them with the flat side of a machete, not an easy task.

The Boat Landing Guesthouse
His mom found this humorous but I think enjoyed the help even if Cindy’s production level was relatively low.

Once the rain stopped, we made our farewells and went the back way to Luang Nam Tha, a very pretty scooter ride mostly on a paved road, for a tasty lunch.

Following lunch, we visited the local market which was filled with interesting stuff including frogs, lizards, some kind of dried and eviscerated rodent (reminiscent of Peruvian Guinea Pig), live crickets, huge black water bugs (which two women had crawling in their hands as they chatted and cut their legs off) and little tiny eels.  To bad we had just eaten!

We braved more pot hole ridden dirt roads to visit the local Stupa on a small hill well out of town in the rice paddies. When we parked the scooter at the base of the steep stairs flanked with Nagas (mythical dragons that often protect temples In Asia) on each side, a man with what looked like something he printed on an old printer at home charged us 2000 Kip each (20 cents).

Akha woman at the Luang Nam Tha bus station
They are slowly gnawing away at our millions! 

Another great dinner at the Boat Landing Guesthouse of spicy raw papaya salad, a traditional stew with chicken, eggplant, peppers and herbs and the hottest herbal chili paste yet had us quaffing Beer Lao.   We ended up talking with two couples who had just returned from a hill tribe trek, two Aussies, Sean and Elise, and two English kids, Rob and Kate, who now work and live in Hong Kong.


Well, it's been raining all night and all morning and we can't figure out whether to venture north for the three hour scooter ride to Muang Sing or hang here at the Boat Landing Guest house another day.

Pretty flower in Luang Nam Tha

Well, guess we decided to hang here and avoid the rain. We just had an interesting lunch of mostly bamboo. Cindy had fried bamboo stuffed with pork and I had a very spicy chili crab paste that was served with two huge pieces of steamed bamboo washed down with a palm beer (kind of ale-Ish) and a tasty mint and lemongrass fruit shake. So far we have been too wimpy to try any of the local delicacies like stir-fried Borer moths, silkworm larvae or Water Beetle chili paste. Perhaps later (after many beer Lao's)

Just scootered into town to try to email and update the travel blog, however all the electricity is down. Apparently they get all their power from China and someone took out a power line. Hope no one is too worried about our lack of communication. Plans are to scooter to Muang Sing tomorrow weather permitting. Looking forward to another delicious dinner here in a bit.

Saba dai!

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Longtail Boats in Huay Xai, Laos
Longtail Boats in Huay Xai, Laos
Our Buses to Luang Nam Tha
Our "Buses" to Luang Nam Tha
Little Boys playing in the river i…
Little Boys playing in the river …
Christian sinks in mud on the way …
Christian sinks in mud on the way…
Stuck in the mud
Stuck in the mud
Cindy is beaming a big smile with …
Cindy is beaming a big smile with…
Millions of Kip
Millions of Kip
Sothas Mom, the weaver with silk …
Sotha's Mom, the weaver with silk…
Cindy and Sothas mom preparing ba…
Cindy and Sotha's mom preparing b…
Sothas mom preparing bamboo shoots
Sotha's mom preparing bamboo shoots
Inside Sothas house in Ban Phuong…
Inside Sotha's house in Ban Phuon…
Emerald green rice fields in Luang…
Emerald green rice fields in Luan…
Luang Nam Tha view from Temple Ste…
Luang Nam Tha view from Temple St…
The Boat Landing Guesthouse
The Boat Landing Guesthouse
Akha woman at the Luang Nam Tha bu…
Akha woman at the Luang Nam Tha b…
Pretty flower in Luang Nam Tha
Pretty flower in Luang Nam Tha
Louang Namtha Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
The Boat Landing Restaurant attached to the Boat Landing Guesthouse has undoubtedly, the best food in northern Laos.  They specialize in authenti… read entire review
Louang Namtha Hotels & Accommodations review
The Boat Landing Guesthouse
The Boat Landing Guesthouse in Luang Nam Tha, Laos is another really friendly, comfortable, somewhat upscale location about five miles out of the main… read entire review
Louang Namtha
photo by: edsander