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Leaving Laos

The town of Luang Nam Tha will forever be synonymous to me with pain and discomfort; it all began on the journey there from Udomxai.

I arrived too late at the bus station in Udomxai to get a proper seat; all that was left were the small, plastic seats, which are placed in the aisle to allow for more extra passengers . . . only all the aisle spaces were gone, so I got the very last stool, which was perched behind the driver, facing across the bus; any passengers after me had to sit on bags, the floor, or stand. It wasn't terribly comfortable, but at least I was sitting. The road was paved in places. In other parts, I couldn't tell whether the road was unpaved, under construction, or buried under landslides; either way, the going was slow and bumpy. I'd made the mistake of taking the arrival time advertised at the bus station to heart, and expected the journey to last three hours. Three hours into the journey, I saw a sign saying that it was 37km to our destination; the roads got worse from there on, and it took a further hour and a half.

Once we arrived, and I'd got the blood circulating to my bum again and straightened my knees, I headed to one of the nearest guesthouses, where I secured an en suite room for $3. I took a stroll around the sprawling - though sparsely populated - town, attempting to gain my bearings . . . failing miserably, as I unintentionally wandered a good way out of town. I took it easy for the rest of the day, and sat supping green tea, updating my journal, and watching the colourful world pass by.

The following day I hired a bicycle and explored the area. I cycled the seven kilometres to the old centre of town, and then turned off onto a bumpy, stone-filled dirt road which I followed for three kilometres to the bottom of steps leading to a stupa . . . which turned out to be less exciting than I had hoped. As I climbed back onto my bike, I realised that I was already incredibly saddle sore, and had the kind of bruises one should only suffer after having a very good time; the ten kilometres back into town were agony. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I would indulge in a massage afterwards . . . and for once I felt I'd well and truly earned the treat.

After a shower and a change of clothes, I pushed my bike to the massage and herbal sauna shack, not far from my hotel. I was expecting a nice Lao lady with soothing hands and aromatic oils; I got a wiry Lao man with sadistic tendencies, who poked, pinched and prodded me, and pulled at my limbs like a small boy with a fly. Bloody Thai massages! I'd sworn after my last one that I'd never have another.

I left the next morning for the town of Muang Sing, just ten kilometres from the Chinese border. I squeezed into the back of a small songthaew, my feet jammed at right angles to my legs by an abundance of luggage and passengers. I was surprised to find that the road was paved all the way, although it was rather windy, which explained the two hours travel time for the 58 kilometre trip (around 35 miles). We passed many pedestrians along the way, wearing the colourful garb of various hill tribes. About halfway through the journey the driver stopped, and shouted to those hanging out of the back of our vehicle to place themselves fully inside. I've not suddenly become fluent in Lao or anything, but was able to deduce this by the way they somehow managed to squeeze their limbs inside the well-packed, open-sided vehicle. Once everyone was in, the driver continued, and around the corner was the inevitable police check. We all got out of the vehicle, welcoming the chance to stretch our legs and un-kink our backs, while the police had a cursory poke around inside. Then we reboarded - carefully jamming ourselves inside the truck until out of sight of the authorities, when those at the back let it all hang out again.

Muang Sing is a colourful, squalid town, full of exotic tribesfolk and more rubbish than I've seen in my whole time in Laos. The market in town is particularly bad for garbage strewn everywhere; the market itself, during colonial times, used to be the biggest opium market in the Golden Triangle - fully sanctioned by the French authorities. The town also had more beggars than I'd seen elsewhere . . . well, that's not surprising as up to that point I'd seen just two (a young boy chancing his arm in Luang Nam Tha, and a well-dressed woman in Vientiane, who spoke very good English. She'd told me she had to sleep on the street and asked for cash. I'd handed her a 1,000 kip note, which she told me was not enough . . . so I retrieved the note and walked away - genuine beggars are not choosers). I found that the town had a grotesque fascination; border towns are always odd places - just look at Dover.

I spent a fair bit of my time sitting in cafes, watching the world go by. The local version of the family saloon is a metal or wooden trailer pulled by something resembling a tractor engine, which has to be hand cranked to start; I guess they are the most practical forms of transport on the muddy, bumpy roads. The rear section would sometimes be piled high with produce; other times numerous kids stood in the back, or families done out in their hill-tribal finery. In between rainstorms, I wandered around the small town, and took short walks into the surrounding paddy fields, where crickets clacked, and snakes slithered away from my approach. I tried to visit the small museum, which my guide book said housed an impressive display, but opening times were irregular to say the least - it remained closed the whole time I was there.

I decided to pay a trip to Muang Long, 22 km from the boarder with Myanmar (Burma), and just a couple of hours from Muang Sing. The songthaew was not too crowded on the way there, which made a nice change, and we picked up some colourful people along the way, including a man wearing a black velvet jacket with shimmery embroidered flowers on it, who was sporting sparse sideburns. I did wonder if he was the only gay in the village, but I saw others (admittedly all female) wearing similar jackets the next day, so maybe not. On arrival, I chose one of the three guesthouses in the village, run by an unsmiling young woman with no English. It was spitting with rain, so I slung up my hammock outside my room to wait for it to stop.

Two young boys were playing, running around with knives and cutting small branches from trees. After a while they turned their attention to me, and came and stood over me. One held his knife in front of him, flush with his chest, the other boy had his behind his back. They whispered to each other and laughed mischievously. I had managed pretty much to put my fear of children behind me so far on this trip, but it began to trickle back to me now. One of the boys approached my hammock - I was sitting up now, smiling unconvincingly - and moved his knife slowly towards the strings. I gently moved his hand away, shaking my head and saying no; I don't think he was actually about to cut it, but I didn't want to encourage him at all. The Lao way of avoiding confrontation means that sometimes kids are left to run riot somewhat, as the parents seem reluctant to discipline them or tell them off. They moved a way for a time, then one boy held up his thumb to me, nail pointing outwards . . . or should I say nails, as the thumb was split in two past the knuckle, in effect two mini-thumbs in place of one; thoughts of Deliverance sprang to mind.

I think the desired effect was for me to recoil in horror but I choked it down, and instead pulled an appreciative face, and asked to look again. They withdrew to think up a new plan of action, and after some more whispering and hovering with knives in hand, the cloven-thumbed boy turned the handle of my door and pushed it open. I jumped up shouting at him and shooed him away; his mother heard me, and said something to them that did the trick, as they didn't bother me again. It had stopped raining by now, so I went out for a walk (first putting my hammock away, for fear of retribution). My guidebook told me that there was a particularly nice walk through the forest and along the river, so I made my way through the town to try and find the start of it. I failed in my mission, but did notice the unusually unfriendly reactions of many of the people I met along the way.

On the whole, in this part of the world, if you smile at someone they generally smile back - Laos is particular is an incredibly friendly country - but here I often found that people would either give me a stony stare, or turn away muttering. One small boy ran from me in terror - egged on by a group of a dozen or so larger boys, who gazed silently back at me after I said 'sabadi' to them. Some people smiled and said 'sabadi' to me, but in a significant proportion - maybe half - I encountered showed what I took to be a negative reaction. It was somewhat unsettling, and I had the distinct impression that I was not welcome. Opium is heavily cultivated in the vicinity, and the area is home to various internationally-funded projects; whether either of those things had anything to do the reaction I found, I don't know. Maybe I was just spooked by the two boys earlier. I spoke to a man from Vientiane the next day, who was posted to the area to work on an agricultural project; he agreed that it 'would be difficult' for me in the village, and hinted that it was maybe because I was a lone female.

After two songthaew rides and lots of waiting around, I made it back to Luang Nam Tha, and booked into the hotel I'd stayed at before. The departure time for the songthaew to Vieng Phouka, my next destination, was shown as 8-9, so I turned up the next morning at eight, and secured my place in the half-full vehicle. Before too long we were full, but frustratingly had to wait around until nine before we could leave. Once on the road we squeezed in more passengers and cargo until we were jammed in place inside the vehicle.

Route 3 is being improved to provide an 'economic corridor' between China and Thailand; these two countries are providing most of the money, men, equipment, and know-how for the project. The approach appeared to me to be somewhat haphazard and involved heaping a huge amount of earth on the road that was already there - but what do I know? The first few kilometres were on a section of mud-covered, all-weather road that was under construction, but the relatively good conditions were not to last, as we were soon winding along a muddy track through the jungle. We met the bus (proper bus, that is, bound for Huay Xai) that had left before us at a particularly sloppy bend. The passengers had alighted, and men with spades were attempting to level out the road.

The road was certainly the worst I had encountered in Laos, and I was glad that we were packed so tightly in the back, as there was less room to be thrown around. We passed through a number of villages that had solar panels mounted on tall sticks outside each stilted bungalow . . . and of course the ubiquitous satellite dishes. At several points we splashed through streams of knee-high water, and up the steep banks afterwards; I was impressed with what the vehicle could cope with. I also saw my first accident in Laos: one of the tractor-engine carts travelling in the opposite direction to us lost control at a bend, and the vehicle trundled off the road, leaning to the side as it disappeared into the undergrowth. From the last I saw, it looked as if it would tip; we didn't stop. Granted the vehicle wasn't travelling at all fast, and I guess this sort of thing is common over here, but I did find the reaction of two young women in my vehicle, who laughed hysterically for several minutes, somewhat callous.

Unusually, on my arrival in Vieng Phouka I was unable to see any sign of a guesthouse. I knew the town had four, not only because my guidebook told me so, but also because it said so on a leaflet I'd picked up for an EU-sponsored Eco-Trekking company run from the town. After a few false starts I found one of them, and turned down a basic 20,000 kip (just under $2) room in favour of one twice the price with a private bathroom (a squat toilet and bucket shower) - I've such expensive tastes these days. There was a restaurant attached, and I asked the lady owner - who spoke some English - if I could get some food. She told me I could have an egg. I ventured to ask if I could have maybe noodles and vegetables to go with my egg, and she pointed out a packet similar to super noodles, and took me into the kitchen to show me a green plant - a weed, I think - that vaguely passed as a vegetable. Voila, one noodle soup. I soon discovered that this was pretty much par for the course - Vang Phouka was not big on vegetables.

After I'd eaten I took a stroll around the town, failing to find the trekking office, but getting loads of friendly smiles, waves and calls of 'sabadi' from the village children. I saw a misleading sign in English for a restaurant (as no English was spoken, and not even a Lao menu was on the premises, let alone an English one), and low and behold I found two farang inside! They were Mike and Silke, a German couple who had arrived two days before, after a nine-hour bus ride from Huay Xai (nearly twice the dry season time - the distance is only 120 kilometres). They too were hoping to do a trek and, like me, did not want to go to a village, but wanted to have a walk through the jungle and see some nearby ruins. I knew that I was very lucky to have met up with someone else, as the price of the trek would triple for me alone. The next morning we went to the office (which had been closed over the weekend), where we found out that it was too muddy to trek that day, as rain had fallen all night; we would try our luck the next day. I walked through the town on my way back to the guesthouse, past a woman spinning yarn in front of a weaving loom in her yard; a glimpse through an open door on the other side of the road showed a man sat cross-legged on the floor, mending a fishing net.

It rained for much of the day - although I did manage to take a stroll along the road for a couple of kilometres (in the rain, mostly); there was some more rain during the evening, and I fell asleep to the pitter-patter of raindrops. I was awoken around three by thunder, and from that point on it really rained. My alarm went off at six, and I threw back the shutters and gasped at the sight of the river; it was a good metre higher that it had been the previous day, and flowing fast. While I got myself ready for our seven o'clock rendezvous, I wondered whether I'd make it to the border by the 20th, when my visa ran out. As I was pondering this, it occurred to me that I should maybe just check that it did run out on the 20th, rather than assume it did because I'd entered on that date. I fished out my passport and had a look. Bugger - I had to leave on the 18th . . . just two days' time. I had to laugh, as I watched the rain come down.

I trudged through the drizzle to the trekking office, stopping to buy bananas and sweet, Chinese rolls on the way for breakfast. There it was decided that the jungle walk was out of the question, but we could take a ride to see a big cave. $15 seemed a little steep for a ride to a cave, but I'd been doing an awful lot of nothing during my time in Laos, so agreed to go along. Vongsai, our guide, disappeared off to arrange transport. An hour or so later he returned, along with a man from the Khamu tribe named Seecup, and a minibus and driver. It was the first time I'd been in an enclosed vehicle (as opposed to open-sided trucks) for over a week, and I actually felt quite excited. We set off optimistically in the direction of Luang Nam Tha, and bumped along for a while until we came to a river. On my journey to Vieng Phouka, we had not only driven though a number of streams, but also crossed countless more via make-shift bridges: lengths of logs placed over the water (running parallel to the road) with stones and mud heaped on top. What lay in front of us at this point was actually two such bridges about 30 metres apart . . . only the streams had burst their banks, and the whole section of road was now submerged.

Our guide waded into the flow to assess its depth: too deep. They thought it might drop sufficiently in an hour or so, so we hung around with Seecup while Vongsai headed back into to town to swap the minibus for a more robust vehicle. While we waited, chatting to the friendly and informative Khamu guide, a songthaew managed to traverse the flood and, once Vongsai returned with a similar vehicle, so did we. On the other side we bumped and splashed along the waterlogged road, through sections of mud and more swollen streams. After a while we came upon a village, where a line of traffic and a number of onlookers filled the road. We parked up and walked to the front of the throng . . . to see a raging torrent that we had no hope of getting through. Plan B was to leave the vehicle and wade through, but the current was far too strong. The settlement we were in was actually two Khamu villages, one on either side of the road, and the trekking organization had links with one of them. We were told we could wait in the headman's hut, hoping for a let up in the conditions.

The two guides led the three of us into the village and up to the stilted, wooden house. Inside, the dark room was partitioned into three sections and in the largest, sat upon mats on the floor, were a number of men and women; the extended family of the headman. These included his father (I found it strange that it was not he who was the chief, and was unable to establish why), siblings, and spouses. One young woman had control of a half empty bottle of lao-lao - a clear rice whisky that is popular moonshine throughout the country - and three plastic cups (the cut-up bottoms of bottles), and was distributing shots liberally, and most insistent that they were drunk; in the two hours we were there, we saw that bottle and two fresh ones finished. Occasionally a chicken would wander hopefully up the stairs and into the room, and be quickly shooed away. Happily tolerated, though, was the most revolting dog I have ever seen. The mangy cur (and the phrase could have been invented for this poor specimen) had a light covering of thin, black fur, prominent ribs, a tail firmly stuck between his legs, and the ugliest face; he reminded me greatly of the baby in Eraserhead.

We had brought with us the ingredients of a meal, and Seecup made his way into the kitchen and began preparations, whilst we sat on the floor, rubbing our aching knees, and trying desperately to ensure that we didn't point the soles of our feet at anyone (most terribly rude over here). I was interested to see that even inside the house the incessant spitting continued; after hawking up something interesting, the men (on this occasion, although the girls are none to shy of this endearing pastime either, on the whole) would aim roughly at a gap in the floor boards and dribble it down. We were given a non-alcoholic drink option of cold, weak Chinese tea - it is common in Laos and also Vietnam for this stuff to flow pretty freely, and a large jug will usually sit on the table of every restaurant - we drank it from grubby plastic beakers, grateful for something to water down the lao-lao.

Our meal was dished up on a low, round, bamboo table, with a banana leaf laid on top like a table cloth. There was tonnes of sticky rice, omelette, bananas and pineapple, plus several meaty dishes. Also a small plate of incredibly bitter greens, enough to make you wince as you ate them, and the small, pumpkin-like fruit from the same plant, which was marginally less bitter. There was also a jhiaw, a chilli paste used as a dipping sauce, which accompanies every Lao meal. The food was eaten either with the fingers (a bucket of water was offered around before and after for cleaning the hands) or with chopsticks (it's important to remember to leave the chopsticks on the table, not in the bowls of food, as this is bad luck), and taken straight from the serving bowls to the mouth; no individual dishes were used.

The three of us and the two guides shared the meal with the headman and his father. Once we had finished, the women (one swaying visibly) cleared everything away, and passed around the lao-lao cups a few more times. It had been raining for most of the time we were in the house, but as we finished the meal the heavens really opened. Us three farang all agreed that we'd had a great adventure, and that there was no point in even attempting to reach the cave; we thought it might be a good idea to head back to Vieng Phouka, before the rain made the roads impassable - or the lao-lao made the driver incapable. Waving goodbye to the slightly sozzled bunch, we set off in the downpour retracing our steps. I asked Seecup whether the lao-lao drinking had been for our benefit, or if it was the normal state of affairs - or maybe it was just the village headman that hit the bottle? He told me it was pretty standard procedure - I guess that if its raining, there's not too much they can do in the fields.

We travelled for about ten minutes before we met a slight hiccup: one of the log-and-mud bridges had been washed away. Not to worry, though, a JCB was onhand (the ongoing road-building means that a number of heavy plant vehicles are scattered along the route) to move the mud from a nearby landslide into the required position . . . all we needed now was a tree. I stood listening to the buzz of a chainsaw, and watched while a tall, old tree was felled before my very eyes; it was a simultaneously exciting and sad experience. The air was filled with the strong smell of sap after the tree crashed to earth. It was not too much longer before the bridge was completed and we were able to pass; I wondered how long it would take to replace a bridge in England.

Despite the heavy rain, the spot where we had been unable to pass earlier was unrecognisable - the water was back to two streams, and the road between fully visible again. It gave me some idea of how much rain we must have had the previous night. In no time at all we were back at Vieng Phouka, sipping Beer Lao and discussing our exciting day. As darkness fell some people entered the restaurant, and a bit of a commotion ensued. One of them was a Thai guy with a little English, who explained that he had - amazingly - made it through from Luang Nam Tha. Three songthaews had somehow got through . . . and there was rumour of some farang amongst them. I was into my third or fourth beer by now, and I have to admit I got very excited by this news - farang heading in my direction . . . maybe I'd make it to the border before my visa expired after all! The German's, too, were pleased; they were heading in the opposite direction, and if vehicles had made it through from Luang Nam Tha that day, then something should be travelling back the next.

We said our goodbyes, and returned to our respective guesthouses, and I had another drink in mine before retiring to my hammock, and singing along to Pink Floyd (yes, I do believe I had reached the state of drunkenness by that point). Sometime later a whole heap of farang turned up - five Israelis and an Irish couple - it was the most farang I had seen in one place for quite some time. I joined the lovely Irish couple and a nice Israeli guy for a few (more) beers, and listened to their adventure: it had taken the three passenger trucks eight hours to make the journey, and they'd spent about as much time out of the vehicles as in them, wading through streams while the stronger vehicle towed the other two through. The seven of them had been in their truck, with a few random Lao guys stood at the back; another had been all locals; while the third was mainly locals, but also an English girl travelling with her 70-something-year-old granny - fair play! They were leaving for the border in the morning, and the drivers seemed confident they would get through, the more precarious section of the journey now being behind them.

I was in no fit state to pack before I went to bed, and not much better in the morning, but I managed it somehow. When the truck showed up at the guesthouse the cab section was at full capacity, and an elderly Lao couple and their young grandson were already inside the back. One of the Israeli girls lost the plot at this: she stood at the back of the songthaew pointing at the couple and shrieking at them to get out like a thing possessed. I climbed in the vehicle and smiled my hello at the family, telling her to pull her head in - you can't tell the locals to get out of a "bus" in their own country; anyhow, that only left ten of us and a child in the back - we weren't even full, not by Lao standards, anyway. Her friend calmed her down, and persuaded her grudgingly to get in the vehicle, though she continued to be rude to the sweet old pair throughout the journey.

The driver was an impatient man - I have it in my head that he was Vietnamese; I loved the Vietnamese people, but their personalities are decidedly different from the docile Lao . . . and this guy was the antithesis of a typically placid Lao person. He was a good driver, though, and he got us through, so any character faults may be forgiven. To say that the road was muddy would be an understatement of the highest order. In many places it was buried under several feet of mud - sometimes by design, where the workers were widening it, and in other places due to landslides. We had to stop several times, and wait for conveniently placed JCBs to move blockages, or attempt to smooth our passage somewhat; at other times us fat farang had to jump out of the vehicle, and walk through the thick, sticky mud behind it. I didn't mind this so much, especially when the truck was slipping and sliding, wheels spinning in an attempt to find some traction in the porridge-like sludge that covered the road . . . and especially not when the drops at the side of this muddy mess were of "certain death" proportions.

The ride was of course uncomfortable but, by this stage of my journey through Laos, my pain threshold had increased considerably; the physical discomfort was more bearable that the mental discomfort, and my nerves were pretty ragged by the time we were through the worst. Fortunately we only had a few hours of rain and none of that as severe as in previous days, although it did cause red-brown rivers to flow along the track. The original completion date for the project was September 2005, but this had been put back to sometime in 2007; we just couldn't envisage the road ever being finished, it was such an unbelievable mess. We pulled into Huay Xai a bit after five, and I elected to stay in the town that evening, while the others raced to catch the border before it closed at six. I encountered the first Western (sit-down) toilet I'd seen for a fortnight, and did a bit of Internetting. I discovered that the excessive rain had not been confined to Laos (as daft as I knew it was, part of me was convinced that just over the border in Thailand, the sun would be shining); Northern Thailand had been hit by severe flooding, particularly in Chiang Mai, where lives had been lost and millions of pounds worth of damage done. Pai, a small town popular with backpackers, had also been hit hard with many homes and businesses washed away. It seems strange to me that these events were not reported at home.

The next morning I indulged in my last tasty Lao baguette (the French can be thanked for that, at least) washed down with a Lao Coffee, before getting stamped out of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and catching a small boat across the Mekong to the Kingdom of Thailand. I'd liked Laos a lot, but I couldn't help a quickening in my pulse as I returned to Thailand, a country that I love. Once I'd officially entered the kingdom, I made my way to the bus station, and boarded the bus for Chiang Rai. On arrival I checked into Chat House, where I've been ever since. I've now fulfilled my main requirements for washing my filthy, sodden clothes, and eating as much delicious pad thai as I can get my hands on, and have spent the rest of the time exploring the town - which Lonely Planet described as having "no intrinsic interest" - and surrounding area. On the first day of Buddhist lent I went of a pilgrimage to nine temples here in town, to gain merit; I got the order wrong, but I'm hoping Buddha won't mind. Yesterday I hired a motorbike and took a trip up to the Burmese (Myanmarese??) border, and visited the Golden Triangle (which Thai tourism authorities have redefined as being a certain strip of road lined with tacky souvenir stalls) where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar/Burma converge. If you use your imagination, and peer hopefully up the Mekong, you can pretend to see China as well.

As always, I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy being on a motorbike (well, a Honda Dream step-through). It's the first time this trip I'd hired one; the Vietnamese are crazy riders and drivers, and the roads and hospitals are too bad in either Cambodia or Laos for me to have felt confident in hiring one in either of those places (although the south of Laos is said to have good roads for motorbiking - and Thailand's hospitals are not too far away, if the worst happens). Strictly speaking, I was meant to ride in the half-lane at the side of the road, but as that tends to be full of slow vehicles, parked vehicles, oncoming vehicles, pedestrians, animals plus general detritus, I refused - to the annoyance of other road users, no doubt, but what do you expect from a dumb farang? I noticed that I seemed to be going faster than most bikes (though I hardly took it much above 40 mph - don't worry, mum!), which I put down to the fact that I was wearing sunglasses. Later, when it began to rain (there's a surprise) and I had to take mine off, my speed slowed to no more than a crawl, as I blinked rapidly, trying to get the rain, insects and assorted crud out of my eyes.

I think I've been here long enough now, so I'm going to head off to Chiang Mai tomorrow. The floodwaters subsided days ago, and I'm hoping that most of the smelly silt that had been deposited in the town has gone as well now. I think I'll wait until Natalie is over (12 days and counting) to visit Pai, as the Bangkok Post reported shortages of food and drinking water there. Between Chiang Mai and the capital I have to do a visa run, and am hoping to hop into Myanmar to get another 30-day stamp in my passport; this should give me enough time to get a proper visa for that country after my sister leaves. I'll leave you with a few thoughts on the differences apparent to me in crossing from Laos to Thailand.


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