Monday, 5 October 2009

My Favourite Place in Laos

My experience in Muang Long was probably my favourite in all of Laos. This statement is more accurate than Muang Long being 'my favourite place' as it was not necessarily just the town itself that made it so memorable. Let me begin...

We rolled into a small, fairly dusty town around an hour and half, maybe two, hours from Muang Sing. I had come to Muang Long because i knew they offered treks into the surrounding area and that few tourists came here. Our logic was that fewer tourists would mean a less well beaten trail, especially compared to Muang Sing or Nam Tha. As my purpose was to trek around Muang Long i didn't care too much what the town was like. I didn't expect to spend much time dossing around. As soon as we found a decent guesthouse (HomePhan G.H) and had put our bags down we headed to the tourism office located along the main road on the west side of town.

Muang Long (the sign on the left you can just about see if the hospital, where the main road takes a right leads to bus station/market. Where i am stood is toward the top of the hill next to Home Phan)

The Tourism office was closed. Luckily for us there was a jolly decent chap in the Planning office opposite, he spoke excellent English and was very friendly. He rang someone (the head of the office, it turned out) and told us to return at 2pm. Apparently they are planning to be internet enabled in Muang Long within the next two years. The head of Muang Long tourism office turns out to speak pretty poor English which fustrated my friend no end. I take a more laid back approach, i had no real questions to ask but if i had i knew there was little point in pushing this man to give us answers when he couldn't understand our questions. In the end we asked if Tui was around [head guide, famous in some circles - small ones] but he had gone to Luang Nam Tha for the boat race. We were told to return at 6pm when Tui would have returned. At 6 we were met by the manager again and told to return at 11am the next day, we balked at this and agreed 8am would be a more appropriate time. I think he was quite suprised that i knew of Tui but no more so than Tui himself, when he eventually turned out the next day at Breakfast. His boss had left him 8 voice messages telling him of two falang interested in doing a trek. I felt bad when i found out he had to leave Nam Tha at 8pm with his wife and motorbike all the way back to Muang Long.

We had arrived late afternoon the first day. The second day we dithered over a 2 or 3 day trek, So long, in fact, that we wasted another day. Annoyingly if we had just chosen a 2 day trek in the first place we could have done it that day Hesitation meant it got too late in the day to begin, too late to organise things. The trek cost 50 dollars each for two days. A small fee when you consider what you get in return.

Tui (translated as 'fat') turned out to be a great person and guide, we could not have wished for a better companion throughout the two days trek. The first day was fairly leisurely and involved a good amount of banter, some swimming/napping along the way and great scenery. We bumped into a villager heading into Muang Long who told us to hurry to the village as there was a party and lots of lao-lao being drunk. It turned out it was teachers day; celebrate your teacher by getting him, and yourself, ruinously drunk. We attempted to avoid the party at first, Tui was worried we would be drawn into the celebrations abit too much and it might ruin the next days trek. The village home brew Lao-Lao can be a variety of strengths; the one we sampled was probably around 60%. We were spotted by a few children and eventually followed by about 30, ranging from 3 to 13 years old, as we headed to our home for the night.

The Nambo Waterfall [day 2 of the trek]

The local policeman and afew other guys came to greet us and eventually convinced us to join the party; they had slaughtered a medium-sized pig that morning which explained the huge amount of pork being passed round. It was a very merry affair and i'm glad i attended, even if it did mean having to drink more lao-lao than i would have wanted [one for each leg and them some]. Everyone was very welcoming, as i've come to expect in Laos. They are very friendly drunks. We stayed in the ex-chief's house with his wife and son. We slept in their living area and were supplied with blankets and mosqueto nets. Unfortunately his house was the party house so we didn't end up sleeping untill quite late. The ex-chief, Ali, was also to be our guide the next day. I was impressed by his ability to finish off two whole lao-lao bottles himself and was suitably amazed when he necked two more shots the next day after breakfast. One for the road i guess. From what i can gather, Ali is the oldest man in the village and still carries alot of weight, he speaks 6 languages and knows the surrounding forest area very well.


The village near the Nambo waterfall ('Ban Nambo' - 'Nambo Village') is actually two villages twinned by the Lao government. As a result there are two ethnicities present; the Lahu and the Hmong. Ali is Lahu. Tui explained that the Lahu are the poorest of all the tribes in that region but that this situation has been brought about by there own attitude to work rather than any external circumstance. The most obvious indicator was firewood; in a Hmong house there is firewood piled high, to the ceiling but in a Lahu house there is just enough. When opium was widely cultivated the Hmong grew huge quantities for sale but the Lahu grew just enough to serve there own needs...

Day two of the trek began well enough, even with the promise of leeches ahead, but soon descended into maddness. At least it seemed that way at the time, in retrospect of course you can laugh and DO laugh about such things. We had arrived at the a stretch of river where we were required wade across to the other side. The river was the highest Tui had seen it; not level with our waists but with our noses. Plan A seemed to have failed as we could not wade across. The current was too strong and the water too high. This hadn't happened before. Bring on Plan B. Build a bamboo raft. Ali and Tui quickly set about building a raft out of bamboo and other materials provided by the forest; it was fairly awe inspiring and a truely impressive feat when, half an hour later, we had our raft.

Even Ali agreed; the raft idea was too dangerous. He barely made it back from the other side, it was only thanks to some rocks that he wasn't swept down river when he temporarily lost control. Plan C. My friend asked if Ali knew another way, he said yes. He promptly set off through the bush, there was no trail, just Ali. The route we took meant we had to walk on a 70degree gradiant for most of the way, up and down, up and down, up and down as we avoided the thickest areas of bush. All the while the ground, loose dirt, slipped below us and the threat of falling 50 metres down a hill became very real. As we weaved up and down the heavens opened. The rain made the mud even more unstable, i resorted to crabbing my way across the face of the hill/cliff in an effort not to slip. As this went on we began to question the wisdom of Ali. Did he know where he was going? These fears were real at the time, it was going to get dark sooner than we would have liked and it felt like we were endlessly being lead up and down. Looking back i think the language barrier didn't help. Ali obviously knew this forest well and definately knew the rough direction of where there was a bridge/trail but we mistook this for knowing 'the way'. When he had to stop and think, scout a head, come back, scout in another direction...this didn't fill us with confidence. After two hours we we reached the bridge. We were wet through. Tui was very apologetic and Ali was a lot richer, having been paid for the extra services rendered. The relief was short lived, it was still raining and we still had two hours of forest to walk through before we would emerge high above the road into Muang Long. It was a further couple of hours to make it down to the road. On the way we managed to see the funny side of what happened, tasted giant cucumber and dried off.

So, eating in Muang Long? There is one English menu restaurant in town (translated by Tui). If you are walking toward the bus station, its on your left, keep walking. There is a small unnamed restaurant next to a phone shop on the same side as the bus station but further along (past the market). You'll know you have the right one if you see a large menu on a whiteboard complete with english translation. Another good choice is about 500m out of town on the road to Muang Sing. The restaurant had no name when we went but served good food and had cracking views overlooking the rice terraces. The market is a great place to see some ethnic colours and to pick up some tasty lao snacks.

Tasty Lao food (does anyone know the Lao name of the meat? it was beef i think)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sabaidee Laos

As we left the border checkpoints behind, our bus rumbled on towards Luang Nam Tha town. The scenery opened up around us and we were met with jurassic-like greenery, surrounded by rolling hills and dense forest which only give way to lime green rice fields stretching far into the distance. It seemed that October was a good month for Laos, the worst of the rainy season was over yet the plant life flourished, lush with the recent rains. I could not put my finger on it then and I definitely cannot do so now but Laos smelled different too. There was just something in the air that had changed in the short distance between borders. No smell dominated, nothing was missing, there was just a noticeable difference. I did mention this to another passenger who agreed but in such a way as to make clear that we would not continue down this conversational hamlet any further.

The visual feast was quite overwhelming. I had never witnessed anything like what I was seeing as we weaved further into Laos. I fobbed off any attempts at chit-chat (beyond my above observation) and tried in vain to take in the scenery from both opposing windows of the bus at the same time. The contrasts between Laos and China could not have been made more apparent than when crossing from one to the other. I had moved from sprawling metropolises dominated by concrete to an agrarian economy where wooden huts were infrequent blips on the landscape. Yet these countries seem to be ideal partners, if only for tourisms sake, as they act only to accentuate each others features while forcing you to become more aware of your surroundings.

I will be honest, after being more inspired than I ever have been by a landscape I was left slightly deflated when we reached Luang Nam Tha. I am not sure what I expected of this large provincial town but when I arrived in the afternoon haze, met by small dusty strip of a town, I was caught off guard. I was worried that I had made a mistake in leaving China, that Laos could not occupy me enough to be worthwhile and that there would be no one around to converse with (should I wish to). Any negative feelings I was experiencing were compounded by my transport induced migraine which led to a complete system shut down. I barely continued to function and was in bed before dark. I am not sure I gave a great account of myself to my new found bus friends. I guess It was lucky that, like so many others, they were simply using Luang Nam Tha as a pit stop on the way to Luang Prabang (Many use it as an extension of the V-VV-LP loop too).

Any worries I may have had at first were gradually melted away as I got to know the immediate town and all it had to offer. I walked to a waterfall that had been recommended, passing through a Lantan village on the way, where I was met with a chorus of Sabaidees! The fall was not that impressive but I continued to follow the path over the hills until I was too far into the wilderness for my own comfort. On the walk back into town I was offered a ride on a motorbike and some of the best bananas I had ever tasted. I took a small boat across the river that makes a quicker connection for a Black Thai village to the west of town, on the way I accidentally walked through a school function and laughed with locals as I tried to figure out how to make the boat move. I would also recommend a walk up to a large Stupa towards the south west of town (behind the Chinese market) for pretty good views.

I soon realized that Nam Tha isn't really so small after all and my perceptions may have been warped by my experiences in China, where a 'small coastal city' has a cosy 5-6 million inhabitants. On first impression, the main road that runs through the northern part of town also caters very well to almost all of your immediate falang needs which lends itself to the belief there is not much else around. At least this was the case when I first arrived; the bus had stopped on an adjacent road outside the 'minders' relatives house (a good guess) but it was not had to find my way to the main road with the rest of the tourists and the three Chinese girls in 6 inch heels. In truth, this town offers plenty of opportunity for a nice long walk and I would recommend exploring the west of the town when you first arrive. There is a 'Chinese market' which includes a small food section, many clothing stalls and other various knick-knacks. If you are interested in the local ethnicities (you should be!) then the Luang Nam Tha museum is worth a look – it is small but worth the fee.

By far the best option when you arrive is to stroll down to Green Discovery (LINK) once you've checked in and ask them for a photocopied bicycle map (free). This will be your guide round town and enables you to explore the many surrounding villages. Renting a bike would give you the best range and allow you to see more but some can be done on foot too, although this would be a bit more limited (I know, I walked). Nam Tha is popular for the range of treks offered into the Nam Ha protected area which is one of many protected areas in Laos designed, in part, to promote Laos as an eco-tourism destination. Green Discovery are the most established company and you can read two experiences of trekking with them through the Nam Ha here and here.

There are various companies offering treks in Nam Tha so it may be worth looking around for the best deal as well as trying to find a company that has other people signed up to go on treks. Almost universally, the more people sign up, the less expensive the activity it. Each office has a board outside that lists the activity and the number of people signed up already. I had a good look at all of the options available and found many of the companies offer similar routes and experiences. At the time, there were too few foreigners in town and no one had signed up at any of the offices. As a result, the cost was far to prohibitive for me. I was keen to arrange a trek from Muang Long, a small town within Luang Nam Tha province, just past Muang Sing and pretty far off the beaten path. I had hoped that the villages en route during any trek from this town would have been less exposed to falang which would make it a more unique or worthwhile experience.

The Basics:

Accommodation: I stayed at Zuela Guest house which is family run and in the process of expanding; they are adding more rooms and a restaurant serving Western and Lao fare. I would definitely recommend staying here for the friendly staff, clean rooms, hot showers and decent rates. Just look for the large BCEL bank and opposite this is a small alley (if that) where Zuela is located. On the way through you might notice some old tribal ladies chattering under a barn to your right – they might try to sell you bracelets or opium but are harmless really! I stayed in a room for 40,000 kip as the bathroom was not en suite but I think 50-60,000 kip is standard.

Food: A short walk from Zuela are two basic look restaurants side by side. The one on the right was my favourite purely because of the Lao lady / cook who ran the place. I always appreciate a pot of tea too. The restaurant on the left had a more extensive menu and I'd recommend any kind of fried noodle. The Minority Restaurant is also worth a look as well as the market and surrounding area.

Transport: The bus station a short 10 minutes walk from the centre of town only serves the rest of the district (Muang Sing and Muang Long). For Luang Prabang and elsewhere you will have to hop on a tuktuk further south (10,000kip each for 2 people – not willing to negotiate).

Money: The Lao Development Bank is past the BCEL bank away from the centre of town and will exchange travellers cheques. The Chinese Yuan exchange rates were poor here. The BCEL bank has an ATM.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Crossing China/Laos Border

Mengla (pronounced Mongla) in China has been given a fairly bad review in Lonely Planet but the 3 hours i spent ambling around the area near the bus station were pretty enjoyable. This was despite having spent 15 sleepless hours on a "sleeper" bus from Kunming to Mengla. It was quite nice to see somewhere that looked small, at least for China, and where we seemed to be a novelty. I am sure many foreigners pass through Mengla on the way into Laos but there was little information as to how we could get from A to B even with the aid of a Austrailian-Chinese woman i had met on the coach. In the end, a small man on a bike who attempted to sell us US Dollars or Kip turned out to be very helpful. At first we thought he was leading us on for his own gain but we should have had more faith. It turns out other people i met along the way had been helped/hassled by the same chap, if you are ever in Mengla and approached by a small grey haired man who speaks excellent English don't be too quick to snub him.

Sometimes there is a direct bus, sometimes there is not. Talking about buses isn't too interesting though...

After a month spent in sprawling cities and urbanised, concrete towns i was plunged into a completely different world. The contrast between China and Laos was fairly breathtaking and i spent most of the bus ride attempting to avoid conversation and just take it in. The road was surrounded by rolling hills thick with forest or these would level out and lime green rice fields would take over, rolling on endlessly into the distance. This may be a fairly romanticised version of what i actually saw but somethings deserve to be treat in this way. Laos actually smelt different too, of nothing in particular but then again of something totally different to China, just a stones throw away