Before I start, I just have to tell you…HOLY CRAP I AM WRITING THIS IN MYANMAR/BURMA!! But that is for a later post…a little surprise from the original plan that did not require a plane ticket. Anyways….
Laos, for the 4.5 days we were there, was a very relaxed experience.
We left China in the morning on March 31st, and after a few hours, crossed the Mohan/Boten border into Laos. Our bus driver was very kind and drove us right to the entrance of the Night Market, which also happens to be the area of most of the guesthouses…and by a bit of travel serendipity, the place recommended to me by a local was across the street.
Thus, Zuela Guesthouse became our home base for the next few days of exploring. We celebrated with some BeerLao and spent that first evening just staring at the passersby.
The next morning, we decided to rent a motorbike for a few hours, and visited a few of the outlying hilltribe villages, as well as the waterfall at NamDee.
The road leading up to the waterfall was unpaved and full of huge potholes, really testing Sangbyeong’s motorbike driving skills! It wove through several villages of Akha, Tai Dam, and other minority tribes. At the waterfall, we paid a small fee for entrance and then had the jungle to ourselves. The waterfall was not impressive in size, but there were several lovely pools and lots of lizards and butterflies to be seen, the higher we climbed. We spent the rest of the day visiting a large pagoda and the Day Market.
The next day brought more motorbike adventures…this time we decided to drive through Nam Ha Protected Area, all the way to Vieng Phoukan. There and back, it was about 130 km. There were lovely stretches of untouched forest, where we could feel the air temperature drop by several degrees…but more often, we saw the sad results of illegal logging in the protected natural park, and all sorts of illegal rubber planting and collection. Nevertheless, the villages in the park helped to give us a real taste of the Laotian life that often gets ignored or packaged. We stopped at a village where the children crowded around us shouting “Sabaidee! Sabaidee!” (Hello or welcome) and shoved drawings of princesses into my hands. After oohing and aahing in true kindergarten teacher fashion…we turned the papers into paper airplanes, so that the kids could continue to play with their own resources.
We also stopped to see the craziest looking animist shrine. It hit the eyes like a Technicolor jolt as we rounded a corner. Most Laotians still adhere to their animist beliefs, and most houses and businesses have a little shrine for the resident spirits. Well, this one was in the middle of nothing, but there was a group of large rocks, wound with colorful ribbons in spots, right there. Chickens, zebras, garlands of garish flowers, flags all decorated the shrine and the spirits had their choice of several offerings…including red jelly and orange soda. And cigarettes to go with the incense.
We made another stop at the jungle-surrounded Kao Rao Cave, where a wizened little guide handed us two flashlights, then led us through at least a kilometer of stalactites, stalagmites, weird pools forming on the floor, and pitch blackness. He left us to our imaginations for most of the tour, only turning out cryptic explanations, such as “Drrrrragon,” or “Here, doesn’t.” It was a good thing we had filled our bellies just before with roadside tasties, in the form of mysterious nut jelly in spicy sauce and hand cut noodles.
That evening, we had a chance to hang out with a German banker who is living in Luang Namtha and helping to set up sustainable microfinancing in the local villages. His house directly overlooks the river, where we ate our communally cooked pasta dinner, drank to our travels, and watched the sunset on the water. The next day, we ran into him again, and he took us to the local secret…the Lao Herbal Sauna. Oh my goodness. It was heaven. Steam saunas…hot but not miserably so, fired with coals and absolutely imbued with the scents of ginger, lemongrass, and other herbs that are mixed with the water to make healing herbal steam. Plus complimentary tea and a sarong and towel to wrap in…the boys all left after 3 rounds, but I stayed for five (and learned some Lao words from curious locals, once I was by myself…for example, “teacher” is “ah-jahr”). We met back up at the night market, where I had my third plate of the spicy papaya salad and more hand cut noodles, as we ate under the stars, attended by the market dogs.
The next day, we headed for the border town of Huay Xai, but the road was rough…we saw two flipped semis and a couple other accidents on the windy, steep mountain roads. We had a tiny chance to check out Huay Xai, which was inundated with yellow butterflies, just hatched. Seemed appropriate, since the area here, where the borders of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma all touch the Mekong River, is known as the infamous Golden Triangle. With that, we waved goodbye to Laos and said “Sawatdee!” to Thailand.