Luang Nam Tha, and Along the Nam Ou

Laos is not China, as the three Americans and I immediately realized upon arrival in sleepy Luang Nam Tha. We’d had a long day of taking a minivan over the most dreadful roads I’d experienced in China, crossing the border (totally hassle free – I got a month-long visa and all my RNB exchanged into kip without so much as having to wait in line), and finally riding in the back of a pick-up with a German girl who’d come (as Chris said) from Lhasa with BO.  

Laos is all green rice paddies dotted with little thatched-roof huts, and small villages of bamboo bungalows on stilts, and smiling Laos people who don’t stare at you and couldn’t care less about your money. The Laos are mostly Theravada Buddhists, which means they have a moral imperative not to stress themselves with too much work or worry very much about the future, which really explains a lot of Laos (well, that and extensive US bombing). They also believe it’s bad form to show strong emotions, so everyone’s very chill.

Luang Nam Tha is a two-street town and consists of a lot of old French colonial mansions turned into guesthouses. We stayed in a gorgeous, spotless place with private bathrooms and hot showers for $2.50/person.

In Laos, you rise with the sun (between the roosters, the pigs and the monks, it’s impossible to sleep in even with earplugs) and go to bed when it sets. There’s no nightlife in Laos, and sometimes a curfew. I’ve been up at 6:30 every day and it’s all I can do to stay awake until 9 p.m. Other random trivia about Laos: you leave your shoes outside when you go in a house or living area. There’s only one beer in Laos, appropriately named ‘Beer Laos,’ and it’s easier to come by than food (which isn’t nearly as good as the food in China). One hundred US dollars yields one million kip, and the largest kip bill being 20,000, I’m toting a gangster wad that will barely fit in my purse. Laos is one hour behind China. At the border, I set my watch up an hour instead. I was the only one in the group with a watch, and we didn’t realize we were two hours ahead for a couple days. It didn’t matter.

I stayed in Luang Nam Tha for two nights and did very little. On Wednesday, I went to the bus station with the idea of proceeding to Udomxai. When I got there, it was 11:00 and a minibus was scheduled to leave at noon. The driver loaded up my bag and showed me a seat I could have, but I was not anxious to sit in a hot minibus for an hour, so I walked up on a porch and started talking to some Aussies. When I turned around not 15 minutes later, the minibus was an absolute clown car of Laos people and I had lost my seat. So had two utterly bewildered European ladies who’d bought their tickets at 9 that morning. ‘We have tickets,’ they kept repeating, irrelevantly. The next bus was supposed to leave at 2:30, so I ordered a bowl of noodles next door, but before they arrived, a giant bus pulled up and the confused ladies got on it. I paid for my unconsumed noodles, ran over to the bus and put my butt in a seat. And sat there for three hours.

At any rate, I eventually got to Udomxai, spent a depressing, dusty night there, and took a pick-up next morning to Nang Kiew, a small village on the Nam Ou river. The Nam Ou is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The mountains surrounding it are high and green, and the vegetation around the villages is tropical: palms and elephant ears and so forth. I tried to take a walk around Nang Kiew on arrival, but the broiling afternoon heat soon drove me back to my guesthouse’s shady porch overhanging the river. I spent the evening drinking Beer Laos and talking to other travelers. By the way, I met a wide variety of travelers in China, but in Laos they all seem to be attractive, thin white couples, so to save space, I’ll just refer to them as ATWC-[city-or-country-of-origin]. At Nang Kiew, I fraternized with ATWC-England and ATWC-San Diego (actually, he was Vietnamese, but whatever).

Next morning, I took a wooden long boat upriver to Muang Ngoi, another, even smaller village with a pretty wat at one end. Again, the afternoon walk proved too arduous, so I swung in a hammock all afternoon getting to know the other guesthouse occupants. Eventually, we drug ourselves out for pumpkin curry and sticky rice; I was on my floor mattress under my mosquito net by 8:30.

The Muang Ngoi monks begin to bang the temple drums at 4:30 a.m. sharp (bless them), and at 6:30, they proceed down the main street. As the monks chant, the villagers run out to kneel and offer them sticky rice, which offerings constitute the monks’ only food (they typically eat one meal per day). I believe most Laos males do a stint as a monk, sometimes just 40 days and frequently prior to marrying at the demand of the bride-to-be’s family.

Sunday, I took a little hike up to a nearby cave, which was filled with a cold, clear stream and surrounded by gigantic butterflies. The butterflies in Laos are spectacular: monarchs, and those electric-blue shiny ones, and tiny florescent green and bright red ones, and on and on. Along past the cave, after fording a creek, hopping a stile and winding through a labyrinthine rice field under the roaring sun, you arrive at Banna Village, placed at the edge of a valley of rice fields with mountains on all sides (quite Cades Cove-ish). I walked up the main street, nodding and saying ‘sabaidee’ to each of the villagers, who were busy washing laundry, bathing children, arranging food in baskets and cutting old men’s hair. When I reached the end of the village (which took half a minute), I repeated the whole exercise in reverse, and after that, I had no idea what to do in Banna Village: repeat my one-woman parade five more times? So I just walked the hour back to Muang Ngoi.

The heat really got me on the walk back. I was dizzy and exhausted and spent the afternoon crumpled into a ball under my mosquito net feeling really ill. By dinnertime, however, I’d sufficiently rallied to relocate to my hammock.

Next day, I took a longboat back to Nang Kiew (with ATWC-German), where I was immediately approached by three ATWCs (-England, -Belgium and -Unknown) who needed a 7th for a boat to Luang Prabang. We had a placid, six-hour downriver ride, to where the Nam Ou joins up with the Mekong, and into Luang Prabang (Laos’s second biggest city and number one tourist destination). We even had little chairs with cushions. Unfortunately, at a landing en route, our driver was given an enormous, not-at-all-dead fish, which he stored under the little wooden platform where he sat. The fish threw itself around with great violence before finally subsiding, much to the horror of all the ATWCs, but (except for the fish) we all made it to Luang Prabang safe and sound, and that is where I find myself today.

(Click here for more pictures of Nang Kiew and Muang Ngoi.)

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