Tuesday, February 14, 2012

so long laos, we hardly knew ya

wow. just wow. that's how we describe the last couple of weeks.

nam ou river, nong khiaw, laos. our view nearly each day.

it started way back in december while standing on the deck of a boat floating up the irrawaddy river in myanmar (burma) where we met a guy from the czech republic. seriously. he was traveling with his girlfriend and they had just come from laos. "oh, we're heading there soon, too," i said. "where's your guidebook," he asked "i have to show you what you should do."

book appears, maps are consulted and an itinerary is born. here's the key piece of advice: "everyone crosses at huay xai and turns right down the mekong for luang prabang. YOU want to turn left and head north."

so we did.

village on the road to luang nam tha, laos.
note the satellite dish next to thatched huts.
we crossed the border from thailand at chiang khong across the mekong river to huay xai, laos on january 29, 2012. we arrived just behind a tour group full of australians heading down the mekong on the slow boat. chaos? yep. did we know what to do? nope. by the time we made it even close to the first window, it was a scrum. bless my 4'11" wife who wedged her way to the front and pressed our passports, applications and photos through the window. someone behind the glass took them from her hand and we prayed for the best.

two hours later, laos visas in hand, we found a tuk-tuk to bring us to the bus station, which is inexplicably seven miles out of town, and bought two tickets to luang nam tha. happily, we met two brits, two germans and one israeli while waiting to depart. a ukulele and a guitar were produced and we filled the station with a mix of music. i hope the locals enjoyed it, we did.

bus to luang nam tha, laos. we have no idea if
the tickets in the aisle cost less.

bus rides in laos are one of the things that really bring home the fact that you are in southeast asia. all the seats sell out, then they load the aisle with bags of rice and fertilizer and whatever else people need to transport and they sell tickets to those willing to sit there. a bus meant for 40 people suddenly contains at least 65. air conditioning? ha.

we made a loop through northern laos over two weeks with our itinerary including luang nam tha, nong khiaw, muang ngoi, back to nong khiaw and down the nam ou river to luang prabang. each leg became more and more beautiful as we headed deeper into the hills that border myanmar to the west, china to the north and vietnam to the east.

boat to muang ngoi, laos. up the nam ou river.
our new love is muang ngoi, a tiny village up the nam ou river only accessible by boat. there are no cars, just one street (unpaved), no internet and electricity between 6pm and 9pm each night. we spent each day following the same agenda. breakfast, hiking to a village or up the river for a few hours, nap, dinner, beers, rinse and repeat. and all of that for a daily average of $30 for the two of us.

we took hikes out to villages a couple of hours inland surrounded by rice fields, spires of karst and water buffalo. we would stop, look around and think "this is why we travel." of course, a couple of times, we would just break out in smiles and say to each other "holy freaking cow, we're in laos!"

trail out of town, muang ngoi, laos.

needing to meet a friend in luang prabang, we took a six hour boat ride stuffed into a long tail boat for 70 miles downstream. average speed? mmm... about, 12 mph.

compared to the rest of northern laos, luang prabang turned out to be a little bit of carmel, ca in the middle of southeast asia. that's not a bad thing, either. with the lingering french influence from colonial times we suddenly had available to us croissants and baguettes. after days of rice and noodles (no complaint, mind you) we loved the bread. and, in addition to that, the best part of our arrival was seeing a dear friend sitting on the veranda of our hotel as we arrived. there she was, our friend jayne, in the middle of southeast asia. she traveled 36 hours to meet us on our travels. we had countless friends tell us "we'll meet you on the road, we can't wait." jayne is the first to make it a reality. how strange, however, to disembark from a boat on the mekong river after 6 hours, pull up to a hotel deep inside of laos and see a friend from san francisco looking like it was the most normal thing in the world.

our friend jayne crossing one more thing off her list: scooter
ride through the countryside of southeast asia.

it's been a good ride and we can see how attractive a return trip to laos could be. might be sooner than later, in fact.

but first, cambodia up next with the promise of old temples at angkor wat and blue seas off the shore of sihanoukville. we'll report back. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

a day in northern laos

objective: rent scooters, ride 40 miles through green mountains across the nam ha national protected area to muang sing on the chinese border with two germans. note: germans optional.

we opted for germans.

luang nam tha, laos

luang nam tha sits in the northern part of laos near the myanmar and chinese borders. it sits smack in the middle of one of the largest protected nature preserves in southeast asia, the nam ha npa. arriving by night, we had no idea what it looked like. all we saw was the main road in town lined with guesthouses and street stalls. in the morning, however, we saw green hills all around, especially to the north where a small road led to muang sing about 40 miles away, right through that beautiful nature preserve.

lina and flo from heidelburg, germany and us at
phagneung waterfall, laos.
lucky for us, two germans we met on the bus over asked us to come along. why yes, yes we'd love to. having already spent a day in luang nam tha we exhausted its, um, "charms." we wanted to head to the hills.

right out of town, the road headed upward. past hmong, akha and khmu and black tai villages built up the hillsides. we spent two and half hours gawking at the greenery, being chased by children yelling "sabaidee, sabaidee, sabaideeeee...", closed in by the mountains, the jungle, and darting around dogs and crazy-ass chickens.

although, we wouldn't have minded taking out a rooster or two as payback for all of the sleep we've been deprived of since arriving in this part of the world.

deep in the hills above luang nam tha, laos.

as we crested the mountains an hour up the road the sun started to shine and the entire world was green. like, REALLY green. and a few miles on we came across the phagneung waterfalls lured in by the "welcome to visit" sign. perfect timing to rest the butt, enjoy the sun and stretch the legs for a short hike. but first, there's the obligatory, confused conversation with the guy at the pay booth. it's always a small victory to survive one of those. and on we went up one of the more beautiful trails we've ever seen. and not another soul to be seen.

laundry and "broom grass" harvest outside muang sing, laos.
seriously, they make brooms. and somewhere over there is china.

another hour later, we made it to muang sing. a mere five miles from the border with china. borders are arbitrary but it seemed so cool to have come so far overland and be that close to yet another country, deep inside the republic of laos. anyway, muang sing was a hole! a flat, dusty grid of a village surrounded by beautiful rice paddies and broom grass harvests leading to a range of hills separating laos from china.

stop for gas, somewhere in the villages above luang nam tha, laos.
one liter for $1.20 purchased from a shack on the side of the road.
that lady there holding the bottle? she's the, um, "attendant."

noodles were eaten, fruit was purchased and two and a half hours of riding back to luang nam tha needed to be covered before nightfall. we filled up our tank in luang nam tha in the morning and used about half a tank to get over the mountains. perfect, we thought, another half tank back. well, apparently, gas meters on scooters in southeast asia don't act so even minded. suddenly our gas meter plunged to empty as we crested the hills. we had another hour and a half ride to get back home. we found a small village with suspicious looking bottles of liquid. "is that liquor or is that gas?" i turned around, gestured toward the bottles, then gestured toward our scooter and understanding was had. we found gas! we found gas in the middle of the hills, in the middle of nowhere, in a very small village at a hut that also sold lays potato chips, of all things, and cigarettes. sweet... we're gonna make it!

back home with sore butts and windblown faces, over a "beer laos," pretty much the only beer one can find in laos, we dug into a local dish called "jeow." essentially different ingredients boiled, smoked and smashed into a paste and eaten by hand with sticky rice. this was no ordinary jeow, it was rattan jeow. the marrow of a palm stem cut out, boiled and mixed with spices. it tasted like wood. ok, so maybe not a huge success around the table but it certainly put an exclamation mark on a day in northern laos.