Nevertheless, having read so many books about the Vietnam war, it does feel odd to have now set foot in Indochina.
On one hand, I feel as though I ought to be here, spending money, doing my very small part in paying reparations. On the other, I feel somewhat shameful having the audacity to visit these lands which my country did everything it could to wipe off the map (a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped on Vietnam, for example, than was dropped by all sides in all of World War II; while the Plain Of Jars in Laos was the victim of history’s most intense bombing campaign).
Having said all that, here I am in Udomxai…and I can’t wait to get out – just as I couldn’t wait, last night, to get out of Luang Namtha.
The morning of Friday the 3rd, I wanted to get to “Passport Control” bright and early, so as to avoid the lines. I was the fifth person in line, and, sure enough, when they opened up at 8:00 in the AM, we were ushered through lickety-split, and quickly shuttled across the river.
At the other side, we filled out our Visa On Arrival forms, and handed them in; to then be told that they couldn’t be processed yet, as the person in charge of doing so had gone to breakfast. By the time she’d returned, the place was a fucking zoo of new arrivals waiting to get stamped through.
Happily, they processed the requests in the order received; so, after exchanging two million kips’ worth of greenbacks, I was soon on my way. Missed the “9:30” bus anyhow, despite arriving to the bus depot at 9:15. So, purchased a ticket for the “12:30” departure, which ended up leaving at Noon.
Used the extra time to bone up on the guidebook’s Laos (the “s” is silent, so I’ve now learnt) introduction. Did you know that there’s a sect of Christians here who believe that in his second coming, “Jesus Christ will arrive in a jeep, dressed in combat fatigues”? Nor did I!
A Japanesian name of “Tomo”, with whom I’d shared a dorm the previous night in Chiang Khong, showed up as well, headed for the same destination. I’d had a fun conversation the night before, with hisself and a black Frenchman who’s been at the guest house in which we were staying for now two months’ time (I think he’s on to something!).
The latter — name of “Taylor”, although the Thais call him “Telo” – had been slagging off the guidebooks, saying they impel everyone to go to the same places, which doing causes these places to lose any unique personality they may once have had, turning every place into a carbon copy of the last. I’d found them both to be quite nice and interesting gentlemen.
The topic of “Air Asia” had come up, both of them beaming with delight at this carrier which apparently offers outrageously low fares if booked several weeks in advance – Tomo had flow from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai for $40! – while lamenting the fact of charges for checked baggage.
I’d asked if knives could be carried on, and Taylor’d kind of shrugged, of what size? I’d pulled out my coconut-cleaver, and they’d both busted up laughing. “It’s for opening coconuts!” I’d kept protesting over and over. But they just couldn’t stop laughing, the fucks.
Finally, Taylor had sobered up a bit, and allowed that, “Yeah, maybe in Southeast Asia, that would be an acceptable explanation.”
The bus ride was some wacky fun. No sooner had the bus been put into gear that the driver started blaring a steady stream of Lao (or Thai?) pop music. En route, more people boarded the bus, so that it was standing room only. We stopped at, like, a farmhouse, and picked up some plastic blue chairs, which were deployed down the aisle for the new-comers to sit in. Later, after the bus had emptied out a bit, the conductor stacked them all up and sat in them like he was King O’ The Bus.
The ride took us up and over and down and through and around and around and around the beautiful mountains of Northern Laos. Most dwellings were raised huts with thatched roofs. Animals seen in and near the road: chickens, dogs, goats, cows, buffalo, hogs.
People called out their stops as needed, and the driver acknowledged the request, stopped, and sent them on their ways – sometimes seemingly out in the middle of nowhere.
No shitter-refund; but we got something even more better: at the top of a mountain pass, the driver stopped the bus, got out, and went across the road to take a leak. Everybody else who wanted to (women included) did the same. There were a good ten or fifteen of us lined up — right there on Route 3, in front of The Buddha and everybody – doing our business. O, but those were the days!, weren’t they?
Later, we stopped in a village to deliver some tiles. When the conductor couldn’t find a string or cord to keep the door of his compartment open, the driver ran across the street, broke a stick with his knee, and, cackling, used it to prop the door open. They stacked the tiles all up right there on the side of the road, and off we drove! I think the driver thought it was kind of a bullshit job; and maybe figured they were going to do the absolute minimum work required to complete the task.
Finally, the end of a most enjoyable journey, we arrived in Luang Namtha. Exited the bus, and: disaster. Could not believe my nose. Everybody, in both cities and villages, burns wood (and I think coal) for heating and cooking. See all the firewood stacked up here.
In addition to which, there’re all manner of mining/trucking operations, as well as road construction everywhere (Laos is in the process of improving its roads, so that it can serve as a transport link between China and Thailand). Motor-car emissions regulations appear to be non-existent. Pretty sure everyone burns their trash as well.
Luang Namtha’s air is a toxic soup; to my nose (and eyes and throat) unfit for consumption by human, beast, or fowl. Yet everyone acts as though there’s nothing strange going on! It’s like a scene from a sci-fi movie, with all these fires burning.
But I was walking around, trying not to choke to death, and crossed path with Tomo, the Japanesian. “What do you make of this place?” I asked him. He said he quite liked it, and I spluttered, “But what about all the smoke?!?!”
“What did you expect? This is a developing country! You’re not in Thailand any more!”
Okay, so I guess I was naïve. But that doesn’t mean one has got to like it. We went to the night market, and sat down for dinner. Tomo asked about the fruit. I said that I’d had some kinda-okay Longans, and was going to try some bananas on for size. “What about coconuts?” he wondered.
“Didn’t see any.”
“But you have…a very good knife!” There’s one in every crowd, I guess…
We were joined by two Latvian guys who’d also been at our same guest house in Chiang Khong. They didn’t seem to mind the air quality so much either. Having arrived a day ahead of us, they’d already spent the day exploring the area via bicycle, and were planning to spend a few more.
Tomo wanted to do the same, then head northeast to Phongsali via southern China (his Japanese citizenship allows him to enter China without a visa).
Me, I justed wanted out. My vision of an idyllic back-to-nature getaway in the mountains of Northern Laos had vanished in a morbid haze of toxic smoke.
The Hell of it is, the town is actually very nice! In a beautiful setting, ringed by mountains; with some cool architecture and friendly people, music bumping out of every street corner, and lots of nice little outdoor cafes. And it’s, ironically, the main jumping-off point for “eco-trekking” tours into the nearby protected wilderness area.
But if I can’t breathe, it’s kind of a deal-breaker. So, another fun bus ride, through even more beautiful scenery, landed me in Udomxai. And…I could more less breathe. And there was actually some visibility.
It’s more of a stop-over place than anything, at a junction of three different through-roads. But I wandered around a bit, and found it an interesting little burgh. Doesn’t have the hippie cred of Luang Namtha; but the setting is probably even more gorgeous, and the locals are incredibly friendly. Plus which, at the market, one can buy both dead rats and live ducks. Top that, Luang Namtha!
There are public address speakers set up all over town – Communist propaganda outlets, I’m guessing. They play music, which is interspersed with monologues. The weird, and fun thing is, though, that they’re not all playing the same recordings – and you can hear multiple different recordings while standing in one place. I don’t think anybody really pays attention to them.
Walked up to this temple at the top of a hill – kind of like the Lao version of Our Lady Of The Rockies, you might say.
The monks were walking around with big smiles on their faces, and cellphones in their hands. Huhn, you may recall I made a joke before about there being a “Headphones Buddha”; but I’ve seen so many monks carrying cellphones, it seems to me a “Cellphone Buddha” would actually be rather appropriate!
The monks-in-training were doing some kind of arts and crafts project. Maybe for an upcoming festival?
While up there, a bit of a breeze kicked up, and I think I was able actually to take in two or three gulps of real live fresh air.
Got into a lengthy conversation with a very nice local, name of “Misai”. He’s from Nam Bak, where his parents are rice farmers; arrived here in Udmoxai two years ago to live with his Uncle and complete his schooling. His Uncle’s an English teacher, so he gets special tutoring in English for an hour each evening.
Only two years speaking the language, but he’s (in my estimation) far, far ahead of where I was after three years of French classes. Later got into another conversation with a local, name of “Thonganh”. He, too, was very nice; though he battered me with questions at such a furious pace that I never got a chance to learn anything about his own life and times, as I had Misai’s.
As it got on toward evening, the people down in the valley began to light their cooking fires, and the air quality began to deteriorate. While waiting for the sunset, I bumped into a German with whom I’d shared a dorm in Chiang Mai (the same guy I told about before, to whom I’d given a Sapodilla – although I at the time mistakenly categorised him as a Swissman). Asked him if the smoke was harshing his mellow as much as it was mine; and he said that he’d only just arrived, so hadn’t had a chance to notice.
Uh, dude, just look down there (I didn’t vocalise)!
The air quality continued its southward march, until it was almost comparable to Luang Namtha’s horrific haze of death. As I write these words, Saturday night (Internetless since arriving in Laos), I’m so disheartened by this dichotomy: the friendliest of people, the most beautiful of countryside, but the most unbreatheable of air. (Also, the quality of the fruit is quite poor.) It’s so strange that there’s not a peep from the guidebook about this problem – although, granted that nobody else, tourists included, seems to have noticed.
So much I’d like to see and do here, but I don’t know how much more I can take. Will give Nong Khiaw a try, and then Luang Prabang. If no improvement, I think I shall have to get out of Dodge. Which I hate to do. But, dammit man, I like to breathe!
Sunday, the morning after having written the above, I hopped a minivan for Nong Khiaw. It’d been overbooked, so two young Laotians were cajoled into taking the minivan to Pak Mong, where, I suspect, they were to catch a sangthaew to Nong Khiaw. They didn’t seem terribly happy about the situation, but they did go get on the van to Pak Mong.
That left me, the driver, and nine French speakers. One couple were from France itself, while the rest, a group, were from Switzerland. The lady seated next to me, name of “Celia”, was actually an English expat now living in Switzerland. “But you don’t have an English accent,” I protested.
“I know I don’t,” she confidently agreed, then related that she’d lived all over the place, including Canada.
The pall over Udomxai was even more disgusting than had been Luang Namtha’s the previous morning. It was like a thick fog had rolled in overnight – only it weren’t fog, of course. As we got underway, we traded smoke for dust.
The bus rides, when we’ve got away from the cities and villages, have been the best time to get some fresh air. But on this one, we were traveling on a lot of unimproved roads, and the improved roads were riddled with huge potholes. So it was a dusty, windy, bumpy ride. And the best scenery was out the other side of the van to mine.
Moreover, as there wasn’t any pop music playing, and there weren’t any Laotians carrying on, it was less of a party atmosphere than had been the previous two days’ riding. Everybody was speaking in French, except for Celia and myself did converse in English. We talked of organic farming, and the bee die-off, and whatnot.
Long story short, this bus journey was not as much fun as the others; although we did get to stop and piss at the side of the road again – so it wasn’t a total loss.
Arrived in Nong Khiaw, and walked the length of the village, a dirt road with rocks piled up on the side. I guess they’re getting ready to pave it, or put in sidewalks, or something? Very nice breathing here!
Checked into a bungalow with an outrageous view overlooking the Nam Ou river. Paid $7.50, which is the most I’ve paid for lodging so far; but damn, what a view!
The is the first place in which I’ve stayed that’s been equipped with a mosquito-net over the bed. As I write this, on Sunday evening, it doesn’t appear as though it’ll be necessary. Was able to sit on the veranda and watch the sunset, making witness to only one, which was easily shooed away.
The Australian in the bungalow next to mine had taken the slow boat from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang, and said that the first day had been great; but that the second day, riding on barely-cushioned wooden benches, had been a bit much. That’s kinda what I’d feared, so I’m glad I didn’t partake. Hoping, if I can afford it, to catch a boat from here to Luang Prabang, which is just one six-hour trip.
Here’s the view from a bit further upstream. Please believe me when I tell you that these pictures do not do this place justice, nor even close.
After checking in, I bought some un-inspiring bananas and oranges. Not horrible, but certainly not delicious. After lunching on the bananas, I set out to visit a historical cave near here, where the Pathet Lao had hidden away from the American bombs.
Was soon joined by a Vancouverite, name of “Nicole”. She’d rented a bicycle, and had initially passed me by. But as the trail got steeper, she got off to push the bike. Told her that I loved her city, and she told me that she loved mine. She began waxing a little too enthusiastically about Woodland Park Zoo; and for some reason seemed to think I’d not have known about it.
I assured her that, yes, I’d taken many a field-trip to the zoo as a young schoolboy; and had even, a few years back, seen a Josh Ritter concert there.
A Marine Biology student on four-month holiday, her proposed path through Southeast Asia is similar to mine. After leaving off with a friend in Thailand, she fell in — somewhere near the frontier, I think — with a group of Brits and Belgians whom, she says, do nothing but complain all the time. So she’d rented the bike to go exploring by herself and get away from them.
After walking for a couple of miles, we reached the ticket booth to visit the caves, staffed by two quite friendly Laotian gentlemen. Paid the 10,000 Kip (about $1.25), and hit the trail. Little did I know that we still had quite some way to go to reach the caves. But this was in point of fact the most interesting part of the hike – even moreso that the cave itself.
We passed through a small settlement where this young gentleman was hard at work.
You see this going on everywhere. The Laotians harvest this grass, beat the hell out of it on the side of the road (or, as here, the side of a tree), and then lay it out to dry. I had thought, having seen these goings on from the bus for three days, that they were going to use the grass to fortify their roofs for the rainy season.
But Nicole explained to me that they sell them to the Chinese, at 60,000 Kip to the Kilo, to make brooms with. (She’d taken a three-day guided trek out of Luang Namtha, and had learned a bunch of cool shit about life in Laos.)
We also passed through rice growing areas, and a bit of jungle, before arriving at, like, an ante-chamber to the real cave.
From here, it was up many steps (yes, I’m well and truly out of hiking shape) carved out of the hill and reinforced with bamboo, before arriving to the cave. There was a family up there, just hanging out. The father warned us of snakes and spiders, but we gave it a try. An immense structure it was, which forked off into two different main areas. A bit creepy down there, but also serene.
The Pathet Lao were fucking hard-core living in this place for four years, able to go out only at night in search of food. But it appears to have kept them safe.
On the way back, we passed by many more locals; including this lady, who was sweating like no tomorrow (hard at work, surely)…
…this youngster, whose name I can’t recall…
…and these two, returning with their grass harvest looking like a couple of young Sasquatch (or what).
As we arrived back at the village, near sundown, the air was still of pretty damned good quality. There are fires burning…
…so it’s not exactly gonna be a walk in the park. But this place is so beautiful, and so peaceful, and the locals so friendly that I may try to stay awhile. The big problem will be getting enough quality fruit in me. Perhaps I will resort to eating some “sticky rice” which, I’m told, is prepared without any salt or seasonings – only soaked, then steamed.
Hi! Internet access, where it can be found in Laos, is very slow indeed. So updates may be few and far between.