Laos - Land of the Million ElephantsA travelogue written by Bernhard Heiser
www.asiaphoto.de > Laos Pages > Travelogue
part 5: Up to the north
Thursday, Dec 3, Mekong river
Today, I have to get up early. No problem, my new neighbours already make
at lot of noise anyway. At 7 am I walk up to the main crossing and look
for one of the moneychangers and change 20 US$ for 87.000 Kip, not bad.
This black market is widely tolerated here as all transactions happen visible
for everyone. At the boat pier I decide to take the cargo boat to Pakbeng,
which is halfway upstream to Huay Xai, and buy a ticket for 19.000 Kip.Aaron and Nirit do not show up, they probably do the speedboat ride,which departs a few kilometers upstream. (Why, because of the noise?) I'm
sure we will meet again later on our way up north. I hurry back to the
guesthouse, pack my stuff and say goodbye to Louis. The boat is supposed
to leave at 9 am, so I have to be quick now. I buy two frech baguettes,
a bottle of beer and some fruits for the trip. It's 10.30 when we finally
leave Luang Prabang. There are about 15 passengers on board, including
a small baby and a chicken. Tom, Patricia and Ben are from Australia, we
are the only foreigners on the boat. We pass the Pak Ou caves, on the opposite
side the Nam Ou river flows into the Mekong.
Departure from Luang Prabang
Now the Mekong is more narrow
and the landscape gets more interesting. I grab a towel to protect myself
against too much sun and climb on the roof. This is the place to really
enjoy the trip. During the next hours the view is changing very slowly
but steadily. We pass some rapids, where our speed over ground is reduced
to almost zero.
| Attack from outer
From time to time speedboats pass by and disturb the peaceful scenery.
Before we can see them, we already hear the strong noise of the engine.
These really fast going, colourful painted Thai speedboats look as if they
come from a different planet with their passengers wearing helmets and
life-jackets. I do not regret my decision for the slowboat. We stop now and then to let people disembark in small villages. A hilltribe family, dressed in their traditional clothing, comes on board. It's almost dark when we arrive in a small village where we stay for the night. We
are directed to a small bamboo hut with small, separated beds. They even
have mosquito-nets out here.
The dinner is included in the price (9.000 Kip). A woman brings us
instant noodle soup, sticky rice and a few bottles of beer. About 20 small
children, quite amuzed, watch us eating in the candlelight. We seem to
substitute the non-existing television program (there is no electricity
in the village). We take our torches and go for a short walk. Most villagers
are busy inside their simple houses, preparing food. I go back to write
postcards. The view over the moonlit river is marvelous.
Friday, Dec 4, Pakbeng and Muang Houn
At 6 am someone wakes us up "Breakfast ready". It simply consists of a
can Lao coffee, so I don't miss much. One hour later we are on the boat
again. Six more hours to Pakbeng. The mountains are still hidden in the
mist, it's quite cold. Later we move to the roof, where I try to sleep.
At 1 pm we arrive in Pakbeng, nothing much to see, just a few houses
line a street, half a dozen speedboats anchor in a small harbour. Patricia
and Tom want to stay here for the night and take a room in a guesthouse.
I have a foe with Ben at a small foodstall. I go back down to the river,
where pickups are supposed to leave. Indeed, there is a pickup with two
soldiers in the back, waiting for more passengers. They go to Muang Houn,
a small village about 50 km from here. The price is quickly bargained from
60.000 Kip (for the whole car) down to realistic 6.000 Kip. 20 minutes
later we go. I'm the only farang, nobody speaks english. The bumpy, chinese-built
road doesn't allow much speed. That is more than compensated with gorgeous
views on mountains, valleys and primary monsoon forest. It's already dark
when we reach Muang Houn. The pickup stops not far from one of the two
simple guesthouses here. I take a room without asking for the price (4.000
Kip). I take a mandi (the asian style shower) and feel much better after
two days without a shower. When I look for some food, I realize a lot of
small lights (candles?) arranged in a semicircle on a field. I get closer
and see many people standing in front of a stage, music is playing. The
lights stand on small tables where locals serve fresh food and sell all
kinds of sweets and chewing-gums.
best place is on the rooftop
I sit down to eat the ultra-hot version of a noodle soup and a piece of dry cake. I have no idea what kind of festival this might be.
Later I learn from a boy who speaks a little English, that the Udomxai army is celebrating
their 21st anniversary or something like that. On a table, schoolboys play
the Lao version of pinball: Just nails and pits on a board. They try to
shoot a little metal ball into the pits, which are marked with the number
of points. Right next to it a large wheel with painted-on numbers it is
turned and people put banknotes on a roulette-like gambling-table. On the
stage, men in uniforms hold speeches, scetches are performed and young
girls dance to Lao folk music. Nice show.
In the mountains north of Pakbeng
Scenic road to Mouang Houn
Saturday, Dec 5, Road to Luang Nam Tha
At 7 am it is time to move over to the little marketplace. Another
pickup goes north to Udomxai. It's quite chilly in the morning hours and
I'm glad to sit near my backpack, so it's easy to reach a warm pullover.
We reach the Udomxai bus terminal at 11.30 am. The search for the bank
is finally succesful, but it is closed today. The blue bus (yes, a real
bus this time) is supposed to go to Luang Nam Tha so I get on and wait
what's going to happen. We are leaving soon, picking up more people in
the village here and there. Again we return to the bus terminal to wait
for 10 more minutes, then we finally leave Udomxai. at 1 pm. Another 117
km of all-weather route 2 lie ahead. The chinese-built bitumen road consists
mostly of big potholes and travel is slow. Up in the mountains the clouds
get darker and heavy rainshowers come down. Brownish-red water runs down
the road. I hope road conditions will not get worse. Half an hour later
the cloud-burst stops and the sun shows again. Most mountains are still
coverd with clouds and I enjoy the scenic view out of my window. We have
a short break at the Boten junction.
It's almost 6 pm when we come down to Nam Tha valley. The view is really
breathtaking. Rice paddies in yellow and brown colours, rising smoke and
dark mountains in the background. I should come back here to take a picture.
We arrive in Nam Tha and I ask for a room. The Darasawath guesthouse is
completely booked out, but the friendly women offers me to sleep in a kind
of garage, where they have a single bed with a mosquitonet. I decide to
take it and put my stuff in. I walk up the main road and pass a dozen foodstalls,
lit by candles. Children offer fried bananas, soup, sweets and sate. Many
locals wander around on the dark road, there is almost no traffic. Back
in the guesthouse, I have dinner. They make excellent fruit shakes here.
I join the Australian girls for a beer. At the next table, I hear a German
guy discuss the Y2K problem with some elder Lao or Chinese men, funny,
isn't it? I grab a candle and go to my garage to spend the night with two
motorbikes. During the night I can hear strong rain beating on the roof.
half way to Luang Nam Tha
Top of page