Laos Travel Journal: the North

This travel journal is part of a series of journals, which are all written during a long trip between november 2007 and may 2009.

> Nature in Nong Kiaw

11-01-2008 After an entire week in Luang Prabang we move on today, heading further North. In three hours time we drive to Nong Kiaw, a village at the Ou River, connected to Ban Sophoune by a giant, steel bridge. The landscape looks much like Vang Vieng, but here are no tubers passing by in the water and the loud music from the bars, luckily, is also missing. What does show similarities is the price level. Even here the prices doubled since the release of our two year old Lonely Planet. Many guesthouses are constructing new bungalows and some of the restaurants even offer a "big tv screen inside". We suspect to find screaming Europeans whenever one returns here in five years.
Peter on the tiny BridgeFortunately it's still fairly quiet, although the kids are obviously already used to tourism and depending on their age they request for either candy or a pen or they invite themselves to be our guide. We hike amidst the mountains for a while, cross a stream at a shallow spot and eventually reach Tham Phathok, a cave with a history. In the late 60's, early 70's people from entire villages found shelter for the American bombings and shootings here. These same bombs still cost Lao people legs on a regular basis and some even don't survive to accidentally step on one. These bombs are being dismantled by the Brittish, while the ones causing all these trouble are busy fighting in another war where they don't belong. The cave is huge and there's even a room established as a hospital and another one as a bank.

> To Muang Ngoi by Boat

12-01-2008 Yesterday we were told that the boat to Muang Ngoi Neua, a village which is situated an hour upstream and only accessable by boat, will leave at 8.30 uur. So at 8.15 a.m. we're at the banks of the Ou-river, ready to go, when we're told the boat will not leave before 11 today. Leave to come back later is not very handy, as this means we'll have to drag along our heavy backpacks all the time. So we sit down at a table to play some Rummy, under great interest of all the men from the village. We drink some tea to stay warm, as it's still foggy and cool, like all mornings here.
Muang Ngoi BoatWhen our packed boat is finally leaving at 11, the fog just starts to pull away and one by one we see the surrounding mountains appear in the sunlight. Fog patches are still hanging inbetween at first, a magnificent sight. Our boat is manned by a mate at the steering wheel and a man with the task to scoop. These wooden boats are only waterproof for the first couple of months and after those months your only option is to scoop by hand. After a wonderful boat trip, with some very exciting rapids to navigate upto, we arribe in Muang Ngoi. Accommodation is all very basic here: a bamboohut on poles, with a handmade, wooden bed and a thin mattrass, with a mosquito net above it. This is what our hut looks like as well. The loo is a squat toilet in the garden and the shower next to it naturally has only cold water, freezing cold is that.
For now we don't worry too much about the toilet block. We go for a walk and as it's not possible for any traffic to get here it's a very peaceful experience. Soon we're in the middle of nature and we follow an ancient path, where we encounter locals from time to time, looking exactly like their ancestors, carrying fish caught by their own hands and their homegrown vegetables. Thirty minutes later we reach a cave with 2 entrances: 1 through the stream coming out of the hole and 1 through an elevated path. We follow the path for a while, until suddenly we don't hear the sound of the stream any longer and we don't see any light behind us any more. We have to think carefully which way the exit is and Yvonne is very glad to see daylight again. She now knows for sure she doesn't like caves, certainly when a man outside tells us about a French girl who got lost in this cave.
BuffaloWe continue our walk for another thirty minutes and then see a huge open space with rice fields, buffalos and cows. In the distance there is a hamlet, where we have a drink and later, when we walk back in twilight, we see a little girl sitting in the fields. All by herself she's sitting there grubbing in the earth with a scoop. When we're near she shows us what she's doing. She scoops for black bugs which she puts in a basket on her back to eat them later.
Back at our hut we wonder how the light works. We only see one light bulb hanging on the ceiling and there's no switch or socket. We ask someone and in poor English we're told that around 18.30 the power comes on in the village and from then on we will have light. At 22.00 all will shut down again. Yeah right, but we're very tired, so what if we want to sleep before 22.00? We are looked at with a questionmark in the eyes. So we ask whether or not it's possible to turn off the light ourselves. Apparently that's a funny question, why would you wish to switch off the light yourself. But we do get an answer. You just take the bulb out. Right! It's that easy.
At the restaurant where we have dinner we have a conversation with the owner and he gives us some more info about the power supplies in the village. Each set of houses is connected to an aggregate. Every day your household needs to say how many hours of power you'd like to have and you pay for the right amount of gas. At the right time your power is switched on or off, but always for a maximum of 3 hours a day. For the 3 light bulbs in his restaurant the owner pays 1 Euro an hour, which is quite a lot of money here, especially when you add it all up for an entire month. We now understand why there's just a single light on in all the places and why some houses use candles. During dinner the village boys are racing after each other through the dark village, using bamboo sticks to pop pieces of paper at each other. Naturally this also needs to be tried out by Peter.

> Beautiful Nature in Laos

13-01-2008 Taking a shower. Last night we said: "well, we'll do that in the morning." So now it is morning, foggy and cold, maybe 12 degrees? Steam clouds escape from our mouths when, one by one, we give it a try. How lucky we are only to experience this once and how hard it must be to have to do this each day, at least when you're lucky enough to even háve a shower and you don't need to go to the river.
Peter in the BootFor today we booked a boat and a guide to take a look further upstream. Once again the wonderful mountains re-appear from the fog around 10. Giant trees in every shade of green and with long lianas are standing among various other species, so extremely beautiful, we've never seen anything like this before. An hour of sailing later we stop to visit a cave (Yvonne thinks: "is that necessary?"), where Peter is able to tough a real bat and where Yvonne requests to get outside again within 10 minutes. Next we move on to the village of Sopjam, wonderfully situated at the foot of a mountain and inhabited by the Khmu tribe. We see how these people make their own boats, how they use a handmade "machine" to process the rice, how they make fishing nets, how they weave and brew rice whiskey (Lao Lao) and make cotton with a handmade "spinning-machine". Lady in SopjamThere are no tourists around here and with our guide Khao we can easily look around and ask the questions we'd like to ask.
A couple of minutes upstream we moor at Hatsaphuei, an other village. People are obviously less active here and they only produce baskets and fishing nets. We do see peppers being dried in the sun and some brownish slices, very similar to potatoes. Khao tells us they use these to make tea, as a medication for stomach problems, a typical Khmu-custom.
On our way back we see people diving in the river for weed, later they hang this out to dry, covered with sesame seeds: a real delicacy in Laos. People are standing in the river for ages, sometimes up to their chest and need to dive under water frequently as well, to sell the stuff for too little money when dried.
When we're in bed waiting for the power and also the light to turn off and get to sleep, we suddenly see a white rat walking on the beam at the ceiling of our hut. Peter suggests it's just a large mouse, but according to Yvonne this mouse is more then just a bit oversized, exactly like his dark brown friend who's showing up next. So we make sure the mosquito net is well tucked in.

> Ill in Udomxai

14-01-2008 We find we've had enough of the primitive experience and since the dusty blankets are causing a lot of itchy noses we'd like to sleep some place else tonight. We take the 10 o'clock boat back to Nong Kiaw, where we transfer to an open truck, which will take us to Udomxai. In the back of the truck temperatures drop gradually, as we ascend into the mountains. The road has many bends and is in a bad shape, so we're glad to arrive in Udomxai 3 hours later. UdomxaiWe instantly feel like we've arrived in China, as there are a great number of Chinese in the streets and we see Chinese cars, buses and signs everywhere. Next door to our guesthouse, where we found a lovely room, there's a porcupine being despined in a large pot at a Chinese restaurant. Apparently the animal has been dead for quite a while, as it smells like shit.
We'd like to have a look to see whether or not the rest of the world is still existing, but before we can make it to the computers in the lobby we're treated with the first long powercut. So far we regularly had a short powercut of a few seconds, but now it takes 45 minutes for the lights to turn on again. We just turn our light a bit up when it all crashes again and the entire town is dark for another 30 minutes. Afterwards the power stays instable and the lights only flashes a bit.
Yvonne now has a bad cold and even has a fever, so we're a bit worried to have quit the malaria medication 2 days ago. In Laos we hardly see any mosquitos and only Yvonne got stung a few times and that was mainly during the day. As both of us had some vague little pains and persistant gastrointestinal complaints we wanted to try whether or not it's the side issues of the pills. But now, with the fever increasing we're not completely sure this was the right choice. We get to bed early, Yvonne with some Paracetamol, and we sleep for over 12 hours.

15-01-2008 The symptoms don't seem to worsen much, so we guess it's only a flu, caused by the cold shower and the cold in the back of the truck. A nice day in our comfortable room will probably make things better.

16-01-2008 Since last night the fever has been better, worse, better and lots worse and Yvonne is feeling very sick. We don't know what to do. Perhaps it's best to fly back to Vientiane as soon as possible to find a hospital, as medical care in the rest of Laos happens to be terrible. Peter requests, but the next flight is only in 4 days. For now we seem to be kind of stuck here.
PillsWe start thinking about malaria again, as it's so bad and we don't dare to take any risks. So we decide to pay a visit to the "provincial hospital" after all. From a distance the white stone building still looks fairly reasonable, but as we get closer we have a different opinion. Everything is primitive, old, dirty and even less computerised than the Martini-hospital in Groningen. We just line up in one of the lines as an "ambulance" is arriving: a 4wd with open cargo space, where a pathetic ill human being is on the floor, while someone is holding a drip for him. The bag is almost empty, so either they come from far, ór there's not enough fluids. The man is hardly able to get out of the truck on his own and is left there with a bucket between his knees to vomit. Then we are directed to window 2, where every patient needs to fill out a form. With the help of a man who's speaking poor English our form is filled out and in the hallway, among all the other people Yvonnes blood pressure and temperature are measured, her wrist is felt, etc. Next there are some general practitioner -like checks in the office of a doctor and the conclusion is it might be a strong common cold. Can last for 4 to 7 days. We're sent away with a recipe note and have to proceed to 3 different windows: 1 for the stamps, 1 to pay and 1 to receive the pills.
We're kind of reassured and Yvonne starts with 2 pills right away. After about an hour her fever worsens and she feels terrible. It's getting worse by the minute. Peter checks the internet downstairs and finds out the pills are not the right ones, they are meant for pregnant women whose baby has pneumothorax?!? It takes untill far after midnight before it gets any better again.

17-01-2008 We decide to give it a try with our own emergency pharmacy and use pills of 2 doxicycline. Within a few hours fever disappears and Yvonne's soon feeling much better. Why didn't we think of this before?!

18-01-2008 The legs are still very shaky when we cautiously go out together this morning. We climb a hill opposite our guesthouse, which slowly succeeds. On the top we find the stupa Vietnam Monument Udomxaiwhich can be seen from many places in town. The monks from the adjecent monastery invite us for lunch, but we just had something to eat. We have a conversation with 2 of the novices, untill they have to leave for school. We return to our room to recover and find out it's still very quiet down here, as there hasn't been power for hours now.
By the end of the afternoon we go for another walk and we end up at a misshapen statue, donated by Vietnam to thank the country for their support during the war. The 2 warriors look more like cartoon heroes instead of real human beings.

19-01-2008 Today it all is a lot better, but we still take it easy. We do go for a walk to a temple with a Buddhist secondary school, where we talk with the young monk Noi. He asks us whether it's true or not thar there are countries in Northern Europe where it's dark all day in winter time. It's something he heard once from a tourist. We explain the principle of the seasons, the place of the earth and the sun to him and it's like a whole new world in his eyes. He's also never heard about the seasons below the equator being the exact opposites of the seasons of the other countries and surprised he asks whether there are many countries below the equator. We wonder how this young, smart 18 year old can not know these basic things and have serious doubts about education and the knowledge of the rest of the world of other people in this town.
At night there's some apetite again, but rice and noodles are not exactly Yvonnes first choice right now, so she orders tomato soup with chicken. The chicken is easy recognizable in the large, steaming bowl, but tomatoes... are red, right? We don't find any tomatoes, so we ask. Well, there are no tomatoes available today, so the tomato soup is prepared with potatoes instead of tomatoes. Right. A bit later Peters beef is served, nicely decorated with various vegetables, like: tomato!

> To Luang Namtha

Bus to Luang Namtha20-01-2008 As early as 7.30 a.m. we're at the busstation, but more people have gotten the idea to show up early and the bus to Luang Namtha is already filling up. We are able to claim the last few spots in the back and when there are some chairs unfolded for the rest of the passengers and a few extra plastic stools put in between we leave town, bouncing some 20 kilometers an hour. As the road is terrible, this is top speed. 3 Hours later this suddenly changes when a new, super smooth and broad "highway", constructed by the Chinese, appears. There are even lines painted on this road. In the middle as well! Now we are at the Luang Namtha bus station in no time at all. Unfortunately the bus station is situated 11 kilometers out of town, but tuktuk-transport is easily arranged.
We rent bicycles and cycle around through the ricefields in the environment, and we visit a stupa on top of one of the hills.

> Akha Village in the Mountains

21-01-2008 Today we'd like to rent motorbikes and visit the Akha-village Phouvarn, about 10 kilometers beyond the stupa. The sand on the dirt road is a bit shifting , we need to cross a stream and have to climb steeply in some places, so we're glad we made the choice to each have our own 110cc motorbike. Kids carry woodStill Peter goes down eventually, partly because a whole bunch of kids enthusiastically come running down the path. There are hardly any visitors here and when finally someone is coming it's normally not those white people, which is a shame, as it's truely beautiful here. You look out over kilometers of thick forest slopes and more distant mountains.
A lone village is on the other side, until we finally see the Akha village on our side in the distance. Kids in the Akha villageSome of the villagers we already encounter on the path, with large baskets of firewood on their heads. Many kids come from the village, their little brother or sister dangling on their backs. At the village gate and -swing (every typical Akha village has a swing on the highest spot in the village for the annual festival) we park the motorbikes under great interest and we start a walk among the village houses with a huge number of people following us. We're syrprised to see women walking around with bare breasts and many of the children hardly wear any clothes at all. The wooden houses do look very solid though and some of them even have a simple solar panel. We're wondering for what kind of things the solar energy is used. There's not much happening here. The Yvonne on her Bikefew adults are hanging around in their huts and the children look bored as well. After a short walk we decide to return to the rest of the world, but not after being waved goodbye by at least 25 pairs of hands.
Only now we notice how far we've been driving uphill and when Peter falls down once again descending he's not much enthusiastic anymore, but we do have to get back to where we came from first (and where civilization is). Fortunately the physical damage is not too bad and with only some bruises (Peter) we arrive back at our guesthouse by the end of the afternoon.

> Lenten and Akha

22-01-2008 First we have a good, long sleep, as it's way too long ago since we last had a good night's sleep. After a big breakfast we visit the only museum in Luang Namtha, but we've soon seen it all. There needs to be done a lot to make this a bit more interesting for visitors.
Ban Nam DeeOn a bicycle we visit the elevated stupa at the outskirts of the village. The stupa turns out to be brand new and not even finished. Buddha will be sitting inside for a change.
We continue to the Lenten village Ban Nam Dee, where the women are making paper out of bamboo and where they're embroidering their own costumes, while others are busy with cotton. We get the impression the Lenten people are much more active and happy than the Akha people we visited yesterday and where the main activity seems to be the production of more children.

23-01-2008 After another long night we head back to the bike rental, to leave town on our own 110cc monster. We drive in the direction of Muang Sing, until we reach Ban Lak Khamay komen, another Akha village. To enter the village we need to cross a stream over a handmade bridge and even before we're on the other side we're attacked by kids trying to sell selfmade bracelets. We buy one, as kind of a village tax, to enter the village without further hassle, but the kids stay and keep on nagging. Lenten-ladyWe don't like this village, as droppings of stray pigs and other cattle spread an unpleasant odor and the dogs seem to dislike the smell of foreigners here. So we quickly drive back in the direction of Luang Namtha, to a Lenten village halfway. Here people are working, doing their laundry and cattle is locked in handmade cages, what a completely different athmosphere.
We drive around through some Black Thai villages before we head back to give in the motorbikes. Tomorrow we return to Thailand and for several reasons we're really looking forward to that moment. Laos is a beautiful country, but poverty, lack of almost everything and the depressing nature of minorities here in the North don't make you feel too happy on a long term basis.

> More Info

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