Laos - Land of the Million Elephants

A travelogue written by Bernhard Heiser > Laos Pages > Travelogue

part 5: Up to the north


Thursday, Dec 3, Mekong river

             Departure from Luang Prabang
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.

               Slowboat impressions
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 space

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.

                     Hilltribe family
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.

           The best place is on the rooftop
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.

            In the mountains north of Pakbeng
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.

                   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.

         Village half way to Luang Nam Tha
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.

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