Hello Family and Friends,
When we last left you we were dashing through Thailand en route to Laos. The most recent Lonely Planet guidebook we could find for Laos was published in Jan 2002, which is ancient in guidebook years. But, it was certainly better than nothing. From the guidebook is sounded like we would have to obtain entry visas to Laos prior to arriving at the Chiang Khong/Huay Xia border crossing. We were planning to take care of that in Chiang Rai, Thailand hoping that it wouldn't take more than a day to arrange. We were pleasantly surprised with the news that Huay Xia was recently changed to a visa-on-entry point. However, until we were actually standing in front of the person issuing this alleged visa-on-entry we were not totally convinced this was true. But we headed to the border, visa-less, hoping for the best. The whole trip from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai was amazingly easy, stress-free, and smooth, though swelteringly hot, but that was nothing new for us.
We took a local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, which was a 2 1/2 hour ride. Though the bus was not air-conditioned it was retrofitted with about 10 oscillating fans on the ceiling, which were surprisingly effective at keeping the bus comfortably cool. As soon as we were dropped off in the one-street town of Chiang Khong we were whisked away by two tuk-tuks (the local transport--half motorcycle-half carriage. Generally they fit both of us, but with our packs one each was more comfortable), for $1 each, to the Thai border post. Sweating profusely in the unforgiving heat we got the Thai exit stamp in our passports then walk about 50ft down to the river. The border between Thailand and Laos is the Mekong River, which figures prominently in our travels in Laos, and starts in China, passes through the length of Laos, into Cambodia, and into Vietnam where it divides into hundreds of small rivers heading to the sea, forming the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.
Upon reaching the river we were directed to climb into one of the dozen or so long boats pulled up on the shore. For a dollar each the boat took Snow, me, and 3 other passengers on the 5 minute ride across the river to Laos. While still trying to climb out of the boat precariously balancing our packs, camera, and guitar trying not to end up in the water we were approached by the "visa-on-entry" people. On the potholed road that led down to the river they had set up a flimsy card table, thankfully in the shade. We filled out the required forms and a guy scurried off with our passports and $30/each for our visas. While we were waiting for our visa we could also purchase our boat ticket to Luang Prabang from the same table. One-stop shopping--gotta love the convenience. Then, 20 minutes later our trusty visa guy reappeared with our passports and our visas. Then we filled out another form, remarkably similar to the previous form, and walked up to the same building the visa guy had just come from and talked to the same guy would had probably just stamped our visa in our passport, and received our entry stamp, and we were now officially in Laos PDR (People's Democratic Republic, which is Communist, go figure). We were very pleased that the whole visa-on-entry worked out. We later learned that, while it had been available at this border crossing for almost a year now, it was abruptly stopped about 4 months ago when the government learned that the visa-on-entry guy was on the take. Instead of $30 a visa he charged $50, pocketing the rest. They shut it down for about three months and had just recently been reopened. Our timing, it turned out, was good.
Huay Xia, pronounced "wha sigh", is a tiny little town in northern Laos very close to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar), most notable for the opium trade in the area. Huay Xia is on the map mainly because it is the northern most border-crossing from Thailand, generally just a pass-through point for most travelers, often not even spending the night there. Snow and I stayed for 2 nights. The first night we enjoyed a yummy dinner at a street side stand serving grilled meat (think BBQ'd satay without the peanut sauce) and sticky rice. Never having been huge pork fans we hadn't realized how much we had missed it. Malaysian restaurants, with the population being predominantly Muslim, all prominently display signs reading "Serve no pork", which I took to mean that that particular establishment served no pork. For 4 weeks we had eaten mostly chicken, with occasional largely meatless joints of beef. The BBQ'd pork at the food stand was amazing.
The food stand was run by a little guy named Lit (he was truly little, I towered over him—check out the photo of him next to Snow The Giant). During the day he drives a little covered pick-up with seats along the sides, mostly carrying tourists from the border-crossing to where the slow boats and speed boats leave for Luang Prabang. From an English speaking Lao (he had studied in Melbourne, and was a tour guide. He had just dropped off his British group after their 7-day trip up from Vientiane) who was also enjoying some grilled meat and sticky rice, we learned that Lit offers a 3-4 hour drive through the countryside surrounding Huay Xia to visit a hill-tribe village. Lit's English is minimal but we were able to set up a trip for the following day through the bilingual guide, who was very helpful.
The next morning Lit picked us up promptly at 9am. We loved driving through the countryside, seeing the bustling activity of the morning. We felt like we were back in Africa when the children would ecstatically run out towards the street, hands waving wildly, yelling "Sabaideeeeeee!" (hello in Lao), grinning from ear to ear at the sight of a falang--white person. Our first stop was a place where they were making lao-lao, the toxic local spirit, rice whiskey. Unfortunately, no one spoke any English so we just watched quietly observing their process, and of course, enjoyed a little taste.
Our next stop was at the hill-tribe village, which was a very awkward, uncomfortable visit. There were few people around, as the oppressive heat of the day had set in, and we were very aware that we were intruding on their day-to-day life. The occasional child would approach us to sell us homemade paper, but beyond that most people avoided us. We are both a bit uncomfortable with the concept of visiting remote villages just to see the people, as it feels very much like we are going to watch them as if they were animals in a zoo. We enjoy seeing how things are done, like how to make rice whiskey, observing crafts being made, or later in the day was saw some girls making rice noodles, but this particular visit seemed to bring out tourism's worst light. We only stayed about 10 minutes.
The noodle making shop also prepared the noodles and small rice dumplings to be made into a soup. Fortunately, Lit knew exactly what to do. We were served a bowl of fresh rice noodles and the dumplings, a teapot of hot water, and a plate of various greens. The table already had a stack of bowls, a pile of chopsticks, soup spoons, a quart container of spicy black bean paste, and bowls of sugar, salt, and pepper. Lit took a bowl, poured some hot water in, added a scoop of the spicy black bean paste and stirred it up. Added some sugar, salt, and pepper to taste, then added noodles and dumplings to the mixture. After he passed it to me, he gestured that I could added any of the greens that interested me, then he went to work on Snow's mixture. It was a very simple, tasty meal, though quite spicy. This was in a very out-of-the-way roadside restaurant with all the tables out in the yard and a couple of cats weaving through our feet.
The other thing of note that happened while we were in Huay Xia was our wide-angle lens (28-80mm) that we've used for about 90% of our pictures on our trip (we also have a zoom (55-200mm) that captured all the animals in Africa) died. It was very sad. The best we could tell the aperture got stuck closed making it too dark to take any pictures. We are suspecting that extreme temperature and climate changes and general rough life on the road is to blame. But, it meant our picture taking was limited to using just the zoom, which doesn't capture landscape and scenery quite as well. I have also been carrying our Olympus old-school film camera for 6 months, just in case something happened to our digital camera. I almost sent it home from Malaysia when we were trying to lighten our loads, but was very glad I didn't. Unfortunately, in the same vein of load lightening, we did get rid of 7 of our 10 rolls of film we had been carrying. But the three rolls got us through much of Laos. While it was a bummer that this happened our second day in Laos, which doesn't have a single ATM in the country, much less any camera store that carries anything other than film, we were glad that our next stop would be Singapore. We knew we could both replace the broken lens and develop our film and have it scanned onto a disk so we could still use it for our update. So, not all was lost. Several of the pictures in these updates are from the trusty Olympus--a few of them are obvious as they boast pictures of Snow wielding the digital camera.
There are two main options for getting from Huay Xia east to Luang Prabang. Both are on the Mekong River, one is the speed boats which make the trip in 6 hours, the other is the slow boat which is two days with a night in the village of Pakbeng. While making the trip in just 6 hours sounded appealing, everything we had read about the speedboats made us decide to go the two-day route. Once we say them fly by us on the river we understood all the danger warnings. They are about 15', flat boats with a pointy bow, very colorfully painted, with a HUGE engine resembling something that came out of a muscle car from the 70's perched on the back. The main danger is that they are going so fast that they often hit one of the numerous half-submerged floating logs or debris in the river, causing the boat to flip at high speeds. We were also pretty sure that the passengers are partially deaf on arrival---they are extremely loud. The danger warning was legitimized by the motorcycle helmets worn by the passengers and the driver. Keep in mind, this is a country where no one even wear helmets on motorcycles.
Our chariot, by contrast, was a very long flat boat about 10' wide with a wooden roof and open sides (see the pictures above). Thankfully, there was a bathroom in the back, that was really just a hole in the floor. There were walls on three sides, but I didn't realize there was a door, too. It didn't really matter as it was tucked away and no one from the boat could see the bathroom. However, I chose to relieve myself just as we were pulling up to a village. I was a bit surprised to look up and see all the villagers on shore watching me mid-squat. The middle section of the boat had wooden bench seating on each side that should fit two people per bench, but was far more comfortable with only one person, particularly if your legs are as long as Snow's. His legs simply didn't fit between the benches. His height has been a bit of a frustration to him in Asia. While at 5'4" I am tall, at 6'1" he is a giant and never seems to fit anywhere. He had a long, cramped two days on the boat.
When we first arrived to the boat promptly at 9am for the 9:30 scheduled departure we were the only ones on the boat. After waiting another 2 hours our boat filled up with a rambunctious array of backpackers from Europe and America, most of whom crossed over from Thailand that morning. There were about 25-30 of us aboard, which made for 25-30 new friends walking around Luang Prabang when we arrived there. We were delighted to meet Justin and Rebecca, a fun, arty couple from LA. Rebecca is pursuing a Ph.D. in art at UCLA concentrating on textiles in Asia. While she was quick to point out that their trip to Laos was not really research she mentioned that it was sort of pre-research as she will have to return to the region, Thailand and Laos, within the year. Justin, who is an artist, concentrating on sculpture, was able to take enough time off from his job at a museum to join Rebecca in her pre-research trip. Sounded like a pretty good deal to me. They were loads of fun and we enjoyed meals with them in both Luang Prabang and in Vientiane. We also befriended several Europeans whom we enjoyed running into frequently during the following week.
Our night in Pakbeng was a welcomed break from the boat. Upon arrival, as all of us carefully descended the precariously placed plank to get from the boat to the muddy bank touts from all the guesthouses in town swarmed around us. While Snow waited for our packs to emerge from the bottom of the pile at the back of the boat I headed up to town and got us a double room for $2. No luxury affair, it was all we needed for the night. We were on the second floor of a bamboo building. Our double bed almost entirely filled the room (Snow had to sleep diagonally to fit, which means I'm curled up in a corner). Thankfully, we had a fan. The shower was down the steep, almost ladder-like staircase, on the other side of the building. The two toilets were across the street. But don't worry, it wasn't as if we had to dodge traffic in a mad rush to try to make it to the bathroom, it was a one lane dirt road that rarely saw any traffic other than pedestrian. The whole place was spotlessly clean, and the proprietor was very friendly and totally understood the routine. In addition to offering breakfast in the morning he also offered packed sandwiches for the trip the next day. That night we enjoyed Indian food with the other people staying at our guest house, in addition to Justin and Rebecca, there was Phillip, a Brit starting out on his year of traveling, David, also a Brit traveling for 3 months with his girlfriend, Henrietta, a Dane, and Mariya, a Dutch woman finishing up her year of traveling with her trip to Laos then Cambodia. It was the best Indian food I've ever had. The owner was Indian and, in addition to cooking all the dishes himself, he also happened to be the local pot dealer. We were rather amused when the teenage boys who kept offering to sell us all weed on the street congregated on the deck of the restaurant right next to our table while the owner counted up the money they had made in sales.
The next morning we awoke to rain that increased throughout the morning. It was a nice break from the heat. The first few hours of our trip were actually quite cold. Our 8 hours on the river was broken up by several stops at villages along the way to pick up locals, a few with bags and bags of rice, that were dropped off at other villages further down the river. The true entertainment came when we pulled up to one village and from the trail leading up to the huts a couple of disgruntled pigs were being coerced down to the river. They let their discomfort be known to all when their legs were tied and they were hoisted up on the bow of the boat. Once they were in place, lying on their sides, their feet facing each other, they were quiet for the rest of the trip. No doubt they were on someone's menu in Luang Prabang later that week.
We were so relieved to arrive in Luang Prabang around 4:30pm. We would definitely make the same choice for transportation if we had to do it again, but we are glad we don't have to do it again, 2 days was more than enough boat time for us.
6 things we couldn't live without:
1. headlamp--an absolute must for camping in Africa, but infinitely useful in dimly lit hotel rooms, frequent power outages, and helping my poor tired eyes read the frustratingly light maps in Lonely Planet books (thanks, Kerry Murphy for plugging headlamps—Snow was a reluctant convert, but now he is a loyal user)
2. silk sleep sheet--can get it in cotton, but we LOVE the silk. More comfortable, way more compactable, and useful in a wider range of temperatures. A sleep sheet, of any material, is a must on our trip. We've had more than one dodgy bed that we were happy to be sleeping in our own sheets. Also, in these warmer climates in several guesthouses they only bedding we've been given is a blanket way too heavy for the heat, oddly enough. The sleep sheets were perfect.
3. big plastic zip-locking compression bags--the ones we have are equipped with a one-way valve at the bottom to squeeze out the air making them very compact. They save space, help organize our clothes (we each have 4 or 5 so they are kind of like "drawers" in our packs), and keep our gear dry when our packs get wet--not uncommon in the tropics.
4. quick drying camping towel--that says it all. We don't always need them as we often get a towel with our room, but when we need them we really need them. Also, invaluable while camping in Africa.
5. flip flops--an absolute must. Rarely do we take a shower without them.
6. hand cleaner--Again, Snow was dubious in the beginning that we would need this and now is 100% sold. Soap is rare in most public bathrooms. The hand cleaner has been essential.