On the river back to Muang Khua
I made it home from my Northern Laos adventure. So much has happened over the last week, so bear with me as this is going to be a long one!
After a quick breakfast at our favorite coffee shop in LP (where we accidentally ate someone else’s bagels, the so-called "Bagelgate"), we grabbed a boat to Nong Khiaw. It took about 8-9 hours, but I must say, we were treated with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. For the second time on my trip, I was almost moved to tears of joy at the sight of a place! I snapped lots of pictures, some of my favorite so far, and listened to my iPod in bliss.
On the Nam Ou making our way to Nong Khiaw.
NK is a very small town split on each side of the river and connected by a bridge. There isn’t much to it, mostly guesthouses, bungalows and restaurants. We spotted a place with bungalows on the river, noting one bungalow to be avoided as it was falling down the hill, and set off across the bridge to check it out. As it so happened, one of two available was the hazardous bungalow, but up close it seemed sound enough so Alex and I couldn’t resist grabbing it for a few nights.
Day one in NK we decided to rent bikes, but we didn’t bother to get them until about 11, getting close to the hottest time of the day! Rob apparently thrives in heat, but Alex and I struggled, especially since our bikes had gear-shifting issues and there were lots of hills.
We passed by villages, hearing the occasional “falang” called out (their term for white people, although I believe it means French). After sweating off a few pounds and draining all of our water, we decided to head back to town and grab lunch. The afternoon was spent drinking banana shakes spiked with rum and then catching a movie at the local cinema. Yes, they had a cinema, which was basically a house whose rooms were turned into t.v .rooms and you picked out a DVD to watch. Pretty sweet.
Rob trying out the shoe game
After two nights we grabbed our next boat to Muang Ngoi, just an hour ride up but a necessary stop.
MN was another small village, but this one is only reachable by boat as no roads come through here. We found yet another riverside bungalow and were quickly greeted by some local young men who inspected both the things in our room and the food we were eating. This made us a bit nervous, but they are very communal about food here after all. However, their friendly nature was a little unnerving, especially after one of the young lads kept touching my leg as I lounged in the hammock. The proprietor’s young son, whom I called “Little B & E,” used our afternoon tubing as an opportunity to try to break into our bungalows, but luckily he hasn’t figured out how to pick locks yet. We were only staying one night, so we tolerated some unwanted attention and found some more shakes for our bottle of rum after our afternoon lazing in tubes on the river. We ran into some more whiteys (our term for foreigners) and grabbed some Beer Laos over dinner.
This girl is an absolute doll! Her mother ran off when she spotted my camera.
After dinner we decided to grab one more drink, but about this time, 10 p.m, the entire town was pitch black (electricity is not a 24-hour thing in these parts). We ended up walking up and down the main street with torches, trying to find beer. We ended up crashing a local’s get together, sipping Lao Lao and sharing a few beers while they strummed guitar. At about 11:30 they kicked us out as everyone is an early riser around here.
Kato - a volleyball-like game that utilizes the feet, head and shoulders
Now most travelers we ran into were heading south, and as we were heading north, it was hard to find people to share boats with. The following morning we went to organize our next boat, finding no one else in town was heading our way. Needing to continue moving, we ended up chartering our own boat to Muang Khua at a cost of about $25 per person.
Our host family in the Akha village - here they are finishing up our breakfast. Khack, our guide, is on the left in front, while our assistant guide is drinking some Lao Lao behind him.
I spent a good portion of this ride taking a nap. I’ve been battling motion sickness since arriving in Laos. I don’t know why as I’ve never had an issue with this before. At least it was a relatively short ride up to MK. On arrival, we immediately noticed some big operation going on at the river’s edge. A boat was pushing on a barge for what reason we did not know at the time. We then spent time trying to find a guesthouse. No one seemed particularly interested in us. We had to awaken a few from slumber to get them to show us rooms. At one place the owner looked as curious about the room as us.
I think it had been a while since he saw the inside (it definitely had been a while since it was cleaned). At one point we had to cross this suspension bridge to investigate a place listed in our guide. It was the scariest bridge crossing ever! This thing swayed with every step, and the boards had some very wide spaces between them. I spent the first time crossing it uttering to myself over and over “oh sh**” until reaching the other side. Of course the place we were looking for is apparently no longer in business. Back over the bridge! After I saw a scooter cross it I felt a little less scared.
Local water buffalo
We finally landed in a place and set about figuring out our next move. We intended to make our way all the way up to Phongsali, but given the expense of the last boat and the need to charter another one to get there, we decided to just stay in MK and organize our trek from there.
Our main objective was to get off the main tourist circuit, which we had done by then anyway, plus I was running out of time, needing to get onto Vietnam early April. So we set off to find a trekking guide in town. The only one listed in our guide and advertised at our guesthouse was, of course, across the scary bridge. Off we went, yet again, in search of the teacher/guide in town. We found the school, but it took a few inquiries to find the school teacher’s house. His children went off to find him, only to bring their drenched mother dressed in a towel who indicated he was already off on a three day trek. After many apologies, we crossed over the bridge yet again to our guesthouse. It so happened a resident handy man of sorts at our guesthouse apparently takes people on treks, so we arranged to set off with him in the morning on a two day trek to three villages.
The scary bridge of Muang Khua
Harnessing power from the river
In the morning we purchased some pens and candles as gifts for the schools and family we would stay with (although none of the villages ending up having a school). We boarded another boat to take us up river to start our trek. We each had with us a small backpack with overnight stuff and water. After an hour ride up (and after an hour waiting til they got the boat started) we reached a point upstream and set off. I don’t think I completely comprehended the “hill” part of the hill tribe because I was somewhat surprised at first with all the uphill climbing we did in the beginning. We went from zero to up hill in a matter of minutes on the trek. Now as I said I’ve been battling motion sickness, and for the previous few days some serious lethargy, which I’ve chalked up to the heat as I wilt in heat and humidity.
Well, at the start of this I thought I would pass out. I was trailing behind my companions and guides, stopping often to drink water and catch my breath, struggling to get my body to move. It was very frustrating. I thought for sure my lack of energy was due to a mostly mixed-vegetable diet since India, but in any event, at that moment I was miserable. I sweated about a gallon out and my legs were useless. My companions were very understanding, even carrying my small pack for me most of the day. At one break I guzzled water and then suddenly felt a pinch on my ankle. I lifted my pant leg and noticed something on my leg. I flicked it, thinking it was just a bug, and only part of it moved. I quickly noticed it was a leech! Now, I know what a leech is having used them fishing with my dad, but for some reason I just yelled, “What is this? Get this off of me!” Our guide just grabbed it and flung it off while everyone around me freaked and inspected themselves.
Sewing in the Akha village
While our guide laughed at me, we began to move onward as our lunch stop was approaching.
Real jungle trekking!
The first village was a Kamu village. We were brought to the elder’s house. He looked about 70 but was probably 45. He seemed highly disinterested in us and went about the business of readying our lunch. We sat outside while everyone stared at us. Eventually the kids found us boring and went about their business of playing. One game involved a hoop and a stick, and they hit the hoop with the stick as it rolled along. The next game was simpler. They stuck a stick in an old shoe and pushed it around on the dirt ground.
I laughed thinking about my young sisters and how bored they get with a mountain of toys and games in their room. After a delicious lunch of mushrooms, bamboo, sticky rice, pork sausage, and plenty of hot spice for dipping, we rested for a bit. Before leaving, Alex and I urged Rob to give the shoe game a go, so he asked the kids to borrow their game, and off he went, pushing the shoe much to the amusement of the entire village.
Mr. Fatty waiting to be let in, and Mr. Chicken sneaking a peak inside.
Our next leg was only about 2-3 hours, but it felt like days. I’ve never sweated so much or been so hot in my life. Imagine being in a sauna while walking up a hill. I had a new appreciation for the locals and their endurance, but I’m sure they are more adapted to this climate.
I also couldn’t help but think of the wars fought in this part of the world and the challenges the terrain and heat imposed on top of everything else. Onto happier thoughts...
Outside the Akha village, the Loudest Place on Earth
The final village for the day was an Akha village. They, too, seemed disinterested in our presence, just going about their business as we descended upon them. A local family hosted us for the evening, which mainly consisted of us coming into their home and perching ourselves on small wooden benches. They gave us tea and went about their life. This was surprising to me. I thought they’d have questions for us as we had questions for them. We asked our guide about this, and he said they ask him sometimes “Why are they here?” Basically they tolerate us but find it odd we even come.
We of course went on about how we not only like to see a place but experience its culture, but really it comes down to our voyeuristic nature I suppose. Speaking of, we decided to walk about the village and see what was going on, which takes about a minute. We happened upon a game being played by some young boys. It is similar to volleyball, but is played with a wicker-type ball and they use their feet, head and shoulders to get the ball over the net (well, in this case a string). We watched for about an hour as their flexible bodies batted the ball back and forth. I also became very interested in one of their many pigs Rob nicknamed Mr. Fatty Fat, Fat, Fatty, Fat, Fat, who was busily trying to bust into one of the houses. Some chickens were also trying to get in, making me wonder just what was in there. One of the little girls was so beautiful, so I tried to sneak a photo of her, but her mother spotted me and ran off.
Our falling bungalow in Nong Khiaw
Yes, this is a real place on earth!
Dinner soon followed, which consisted of more sticky rice. I didn’t think it possible, but you can become sick of the stuff. We also had more mushrooms, shitake-like and delicious, bamboo and pork. The food is in bowls on a small round table about two feet off the ground and everyone sits around it with chopsticks, eating out of the bowls. We also had lots of Lao Lao. We finished off about two bottles of the stuff. We think it totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of six shots during dinner, but we stuffed ourselves with sticky rice hoping to counteract this local brew. However, soon enough we were singing some songs to entertain our hosts. When prompted for local tunes, all I could think of was when my sister worked at a piano bar and how everyone loved to sing along to Sweet Caroline.
Unfortunately, the words to the title were about all I could recall at the time. I also threw out a little to Sweet Home Alabama. Our hosts greeted our singing with lots of laughter.
Cozy boat travel in mini-chairs!
So six shots and a few tunes later, we were pretty tired. It was only about 8:30 p.m., but we were ready for bed. We were shown upstairs to an area in the corner with blankets under a mosquito net. We noticed a rather large t.v. hooked up to a huge battery, which at the time was merely an oddity. We climbed into bed and I drifted off to sleep…for a few hours anyway. By morning I decided to deem this town “The Loudest Place on Earth.
” About 3 a.m. I woke up to the sound of one of 15 roosters in town giving it his all for the morning wake-up call. Then I heard voices, our hosts, yelling at each other, or maybe just talking, but in no way trying to whisper in our presence. The town is home to about six litters of puppies, so we heard lots of yapping. Oh, and the 12 cows, they were mooing. Then the pigs came into the chorus, along with music blaring starting at about 6 a.m. This town never sleeps. There are more animals than people so I guess it is similar to sleeping in a barn for the night as the animals roam free. Also, the aforementioned t.v., well, the entire village came to watch it about 10 p.m. I managed to sleep through that part, but I guess Alex woke up and saw a pyramid of about 15 people sitting at the foot of our bed, all watching the t.v! Nothing gets in the way of their evening entertainment I guess. Anyway, sleep evaded us all and we finally got out of bed about 6:30 a.m.to find breakfast awaiting us. Our guides were already enjoying more Lao Lao, but after taking one look at us, including seeing me almost tumble down the stairs, they didn't offer us any.
Post-river spill (notice the fogged lense). I reluctantly parted with these pants after three tears, many stains and a river soaking. Our guides are laughing behind me.
Now over dinner the night before our guide offered up a proposition for us. We could either hike seven hours back to MK, seeing the third and final village, which is much the same as the previous two, or we could hike two and a half hours to the river, catch a boat back to MK, and join him at a housewarming party in town that starts at about 10 a.m. After three Laos Laos, the choice was pretty clear to us. So the next morning we began our descent to the river.
Day one I asked about shoes and if we’d be hiking through water. The answer was no, but at that point we were on a different course. So day two we made our way down, down, down to the river, over very steep terrain that made it even more challenging than the day before, until we reached a stream we were to follow to the river. However, this meant a lot of stream-crossings as we made our way. I was wearing my ultra-hiking boots I’ve been lugging around since Kili, so I wasn’t prepared to walk through the stream. The guides did their best to make rock paths for me to cross. A few times the rock-hopping went without a hitch, but I finally got overconfident and hit a slippery rock that sent me crashing into the river. Unfortunately my camera was in the lower pocket of my pants, easy access for grabbing pictures, but it was briefly submerged, causing me some distress. My boots, however, having been water-proofed, came out triumphant, keeping my feet dry. Thankfully my camera survived the swim and is still here to capture my travels!
We came upon another village eventually and were welcomed into someone’s home for you guessed it, a bottle of Lao Lao. It was not yet noon, but as my family always says, it’s noon somewhere, so we helped polish that off while securing transport from one of them on down the river to MK.
A shower and some grub later, we met up with our guide and headed to the housewarming party. The only words to describe the next 8 hours are “Pure Madness.” On the way there, we ran into someone just leaving (or stumbling from rather) the party who indicated he was going home to bed. By now it was 2 p.m. and the party had been going since 10 a.m.. When he found out we were headed there, he decided to rejoin the party instead. We got there and it was in full swing. Tents were set up right on the street in front of the house, which also happened to be right across from the town market. We sat down at a table and Khack (our guide) introduced us to one of the guys hosting the party. Soon enough a case of Beer Laos was brought over and set down by the table. Glasses previously containing beer were poured out and filled with ice and beer and placed in front of us. From then on we had to be drinking, and if we were not drinking (and I mean actively drinking, not just sitting with a beer in front of us), we had to be eating, and if we were not eating, we had to be dancing, and not dancing, drinking, etc. They’d fill our glass with beer, and then point to the middle, indicating we must drink to that point, we’d do a cheers, and drink. Seconds later, time to finish the glass and more beer was being poured in. Once they gave us a Pepsi break, only to start adding beer to that. On the table were bowls of food, including fish heads, sticky rice, bamboo, and myriad things that had been sitting out for quite some time. We were hesitant to partake, so eventually our host was off at the market purchasing some Falang food for us: biscuits. They were very insistent that we keep up our drinking stamina by eating food. Women walked around with bottles of beer and a glass, and they’d approach, pour a glass and you had to down it. The only thing that saved us was the ice in the glasses, meaning they weren’t full. They passed around oranges, even on the dance floor, and they sure liked to dance. We were up there mimicking their moves, and them ours. Eventually some other travelers happened upon the party, which was hard not to do given the size of this town and the size of this party, and soon enough we migrated together. Our host became more and more “friendly” with me, impressing me with his English by writing “I love you” on the table cloth, and showing off his Beer Laos belly.
We thought things were crazy up until that point, but then our dear friend Rob made a mistake by uttering the words Lao Lao in a sentence. We wanted to kill him because our hosts were like, oh, Lao, Lao! Out came the bottle, and you thought they were serious about their beer drinking. Luckily we had a big group of us to help share. At some point we had to shut down the party outside and move it indoors, where they held a sort of ceremony in the living room to bless the house. Thankfully I arrived late and stayed in the back as they asked those in the circle in the living room to give a speech. I wasn’t so articulate at that point. Instead Alex and I tied string around 10,000 kip notes and tied it to the arm of the woman of the house. Afterwards our host brought us to a restaurant for dinner, more drinks and more dancing.
The next morning we hurt to say the least. We also had to take a bus back down south. We painfully packed and ended up missing the first bus out, so we made our way back to our guesthouse to play cards at the restaurant. This place is right on the river and we noticed once again problems with the barge in town. As you may recall, there was some big operation involving the barge when we first arrived. Well, apparently they have this floating barge attached to a cable that stretches across the river. A tug boat pushes the barge back and forth across the river, carrying cars, trucks and so forth. It had previously been stuck for two weeks, stranding some trucks bound for Vietnam. They managed to free it while we were there but once again it was seemingly stuck. They spent a great deal of time fixing this ridiculous river-crossing scheme, prompting us to think what this town really needs is a bridge, and we don’t mean another scary suspension bridge!
Back at the bus stop we recognized many faces from the festivities the previous night. Eventually we boarded our bus and bid this wild town farewell, making our way down through Udomxai, where we grabbed our last bus back to Luang Prabang, a town with electricity 24/7 and real coffee! Note: it took us basically three days of travel by river to reach our northern-most destination but only one day by bus to get back, and the river also cost four times as much, but if you ever come to Laos, traveling by river is an absolute must! The scenery is amazing. And after all, it is not just about getting to a place but the journey along the way.
The last week has been a real blast, and my companions are probably my favorite traveling partners thus far. We are such a comedic trio, laughing all the time. Luckily our travel paths will keep us together still, taking us further south to Vieng Vang for more tubing and other adventures, and probably some more Lao Lao, although we forbid Rob to ever utter those words again.