Far Northern Laos, May 10-15

We just returned from a six-day loop through far northern Laos, considerably off the beaten track.

Transportation was a study in contrasts. We began the loop with a two-day boat trip up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, on the Thai border. We splurged and took the Luang Say, a 110-foot river boat (photos 1 & 2) that offers the nicest option on this stretch of river, complete with excellent meals, stops along the way, and uniformed crew. (There were two alternatives for the river trip: a very basic and somewhat unreliable public river boat, or a primitive speedboat as in photo 3, described by our guidebook as "a low slung torpedo-canoe bouncing across the swell at such a terrifying pace that your crash helmet is more of a talisman than genuine protection ... only for the truly suicidal.") We passed the time on our safe, comfortable boat enjoying the river scenery and meeting the 24 other passengers, a friendly, international, well-traveled bunch.

From Huay Xai we traveled to Luang Namtha, four hours away and close to the Chinese border. For that leg we tried the local bus. (How bad could four hours be? we figured.) Family opinions differ on just how bad the bus ride was, and they've softened as the experience recedes into the past. We all agree on a few things:
  • The bus itself was a rattling decades-old hand-me-down from some more well-to-do country (or possibly more than one). Its condition was particularly unnerving when we crossed steep mountain passes.
  • It was unimaginably jammed with passengers. Regardless of how many people disembarked along the way (nobody got on after the start), the bus somehow remained packed completely full, including aisle and laps.
  • It most certainly was not air conditioned.
  • Only Alex had enough of a view over the many passengers to enjoy the nice scenery going by.
On the good side, there was no livestock aboard.

For the much longer return trip by road from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, we hired a minivan and driver. A friendly older Australian couple joined us, which helped defray the cost and provided pleasant socializing along the way. It was an interesting, mountainous all-day drive, with road conditions varying from smooth to appalling, one flat tire, and one cobra crossing the road.

Accommodations were also a study in contrasts. The Luang Say boat trip included a night in the rustic but very nice Luang Say lodge (photo 4), built specifically for boat passengers. Huay Xai, on the other hand, has no hotels or guesthouses in any category other than "basic." Perhaps we didn't shop around enough -- we ended up in an extraordinarily funky (but thankfully clean) place which, at $18 per room per night, was probably grossly overpriced. The proprietor was an unusually energetic and charismatic 68-year-old who travels the world with his grandchildren, has ridden the ups and downs of Lao politics and economics to his advantage, and speaks fluent French and English. He was charming at first -- perhaps that's why we signed on so quickly to his funky place -- but eventually we tired of his hovering presence and his advice about everything from how and where we should be traveling to what the kids should eat for breakfast.

In Luang Namtha we spent our first night at the Boat Landing, an unnervingly eco eco-lodge outside of town. (No hotel before has asked us to carry out their dead batteries for recycling!) We had a fantastic small cottage overlooking the river. It was a nice place to relax but there wasn't a lot happening there, and we'd been doing enough relaxing by that time. It was being taken over for a wedding reception anyway, so we moved into town where, once again, basic guesthouses rule. This time we were more savvy -- we found a pleasant, clean, utterly normal place which, at a whopping $7.50 per room per night, was certainly our best value accommodation of the year.

We had two full days in Luang Namtha, so we spent one motorbiking and one hiking. Riding motorbikes was a great deal of fun (and yes, we all wore helmets). It took a short while to learn how to operate the rented bikes and get comfortable driving them, especially with passengers on board, but soon we were cruising in and out of town with ease. We visited much of the surrounding area
(photos 5 & 6), enjoying some temples and villages, and riding some distance along a river gorge.

We then took a one-day guided hike in the Nam Ha Protected Area. The hike began and ended at an Akha hill tribe village, fairly high in the mountains and only recently accessible by road. In the protected area the jungle was dense and beautiful (photo 7), in contrast to the widespread deforestation for logging and slash-and-burn agriculture that we've been discouraged by elsewhere (photo 8). In addition to our English-speaking guide, we picked up a guide from the local village who turned out to be excellent, showing us many edible plants, spotting interesting insects and other wildlife, and fashioning various musical instruments from the forest, which he played expertly. After the hike we were invited to the village chief's dwelling for tea and local hooch, with many of the villagers standing by (photo 9). We've been on "how the natives use the forest" hikes before, and we've even had tea with village chiefs in the past. But those experiences always seemed a bit contrived; thanks to tourists still being relatively few, this one was the real deal.

As icing on the cake, when we finished the hike our guide invited us to join him at the very same wedding reception for which we'd been evicted from the Boat Landing hotel. We were perplexed at the idea of sweaty foreign tourists in hiking shoes being welcome at a wedding reception, but the hosts and other guests -- at least the ones sober enough to notice -- didn't seem to find our presence odd at all. It was fun to observe the dancing (photo 10), while much food and drink were pushed our way. The kids got bored fairly quickly, but overall it was a great experience.

No sooner had we arrived in Luang Namtha than Tim was asking around about pool tables. There weren't any tables in bars or restaurants, but there was a dedicated "snooker house" on a random street corner far from the center of town, where Tim played numerous games at 25 cents a pop. ("Snooker house" sounds mildly sinister, but the place and the clientele were just fine.) Tim's recent obsession with pool does give us a specific objective in every town we visit, for better or worse.

We recently crossed paths with our first, and soon thereafter our second, other long-term traveling families. They too were a study in contrasts. One family was from London (children ages 14 and 11) traveling for six months on a preplanned day-by-day itinerary, all hotels and transportation booked in advance by a travel agent. The other family was from Geneva (children ages 6 and 2½) traveling for a year. They're almost finished and they didn't plan even one night in advance the entire time. As usual we fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Fun fact: The Mekong River is 4800 kilometers long, beginning in Tibet and passing through six countries before reaching the sea in Vietnam. There are only two bridges across the Mekong in the 2400 kilometers between the Chinese border and the sea (neither of them on our river trip).

Sad fact: Laos is considered the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. During the Vietnam war, Laos received the equivalent of a plane-load of bombs every nine minutes day and night for two years. We didn't travel in the area of heaviest damage, though we did see one ancient pagoda destroyed by an American bomb.

Natural disaster update: No, we didn't feel the earthquake in China. Perhaps we were on the local bus at the time -- it's doubtful any earthquake would have been noticeable during that ride. We didn't feel any weather effects from the Myanmar cyclone either.

Next: It's hard to believe we have only two (plus a bit) weeks left in Asia -- we don't feel particularly in need of a travel break. We'll spend the rest of our time in Vietnam, heading back to Bangkok on May 31 to pick up our stored gear and catch our June 1 flight home.

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