It’s hard to believe I’ve been travelling for eight weeks already! I spent the past 24 days in Laos, where the sight of beautiful, mysterious and majestic mountains were such a treat to my adventurous and nature-lover self! I was at home!
Here’s a summary of my Lao adventure:
I left Cambodia and landed in south Laos at Pakse airport, from where I jumped on a local bus direction north. Seven hours later I was in a small town named Thakhek with one objective in mind: the loop! The loop is a three or four-day motorbike ride (about 500km) which goes through beautiful scenery: caves, mountains, little villages, lakes with dead trees and the likes. Fortunately, the morning of my departure, one of my dorm mates who was planning on leaving for the loop the next day only changed her mind when she realised I was ‘Quebecoise’… as she was too! So we both hired a mighty four-speed manual Korean motorbike and headed off on our tour. The brochure didn’t lie (well, there wasn’t any brochure… so to speak!). The landscape was amazing and it was so much fun driving around the curvaceous mountains. The second day had 85km of dirt, rocks, mud and so on… a lot slower and harder, but all the better! I did slip on two occasions in the thick red mud, but managed to put my feet down in time to avoid complete embarrassment. Obviously, my travel partner was quite happy to let me go first so I could test out where NOT to ride… 🙂 The universe got her back in the last 30km when her bike’s chain broke! I was out of sight ahead of her. I pulled up on the side of the street and had been waiting for her for about 15 minutes when I saw her in a tuktuk with her motorbike!
During the loop, we went through a small village named Konglor (check out my blog ‘A taste of authenticity‘), famous for it’s 7.5km long flooded cave which I visited on board of a little wooden boat. It was slightly eerie, but felt so magical when we came out on the other end surrounded by a lush green forest. All in all, amazing three-day trip!
On my way to Luang Prabang
Back in Thakhek, I jumped on a night bus to go north of Laos… a 22-hour trip with a changeover in the capital city, Vientiane. It may have been a long trip, but it was well worth it. From Vientiane to Luang Prabang, I witnessed nature at its best! Breathtaking mountains my eyes and adventurous heart couldn’t get enough of… At some point, the sunshine managed to pierce through the rainy clouds to give us the gift of two bright rainbows colouring the sky from one valley to the next. Then, the sky painted a lightly pink and orange above the mountains just before letting the big glory moon take over the night, guiding us through the ups and downs of the curvy mountains… A spectacle for the eyes and the soul! Bliss.
By the Mekong river, the city of temples is surrounded by mountains… and filled with tourists! It is a nice place to stop by for a few nights for a bit more ‘luxury’, to relax, visit some temples including the stupa on top of the hill for a nice sunset view, go for a swim in the surrounding waterfalls (and some Tarzan rope fun!) and do a bit of shopping! Following my tradition started in Vietnam, I also did a cooking class. I also visited the Big Brother Mouse shop (read my blog ‘As the Lao proverb says…‘) where I purchased a few kids books to take with me to ethnic minority villages in far north Laos.
I was in Luang Prabang for the Ork Phansaa festival (end of Buddhist lent) which was so vibrant and colourful. A parade of about 20 gigantic handmade bamboo boats, all illuminated with candles, flew down the main street before being let onto the river along with smaller lit banana leaf boats people could buy on the street. It was packed with locals and tourists.
Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi
I jumped on a boat to Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou river with four other tourists. Just as a bit of background, boats in Laos are not quite the same as in Australia or Canada… They’re little (literally… about 1m high) colourful wooden boats with, most of the time, planks to sit on and engines so noisy you can’t have a conversation with anyone. Not the most comfortable, although very charming! Despite the lack of head space (yes, the roof was too low for me… the other passengers, a lot shorter, didn’t seem to have the same problem!), the six-hour trip to Nong Khiaw was beautiful. High mountains; at times tumultuous, at times calm waters; kids bathing bare skin on the river banks greeting us with big smiles and hand waves; grey and pink buffaloes submerged in the river to hide from the heat; farmers cultivating their land; women washing their clothes in the river; a man in his life jacket checking his fishing line… It’s village life in Laos. So foreign, so welcomed!
I stayed in Nong Khiaw one night only as I had heard of smaller and more charming Muang Ngoi, a one-hour boat ride north of Nong Khiaw. And again, it was all true! Muang Ngoi… a one street village accessible only by boat and surrounded by tropical mountains. Bungalows on the riverside with hammocks await for the next boat of tourists stopping by. A generator provides electricity to the village only between 6pm and 9pm. Around 5:30am, the roosters start singing proudly to the sunlight (as it is in every village across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos!). People are already up, ready for their big day of work with pots and pans busily cooking our food. The lady at my guesthouse seems like she’s running off her feet all the time. I suppose when you’re a host, a cook, a laundry lady, a cleaner, a cultivator and a mum (and sometimes a shop attendant too!), you have a thing or two to keep you busy… That’s the norm around here!
I walked to Ban Na, a small village one hour into the mountains, and saw hundreds of the most beautiful and colourful – and ADHD-prone! – butterflies! Blue, red, yellow, green, orange, turquoise, brown, black, white, small, big… All shapes and colours! Laos is famous for its butterflies and that’s where I saw them all. I few of them were kind enough to stop for a moment and let me photograph them… 🙂
To my delight, Muang Ngoi celebrated Ork Phansaa (the festival I experienced in Luang Prabang) while I was there. It was on a much smaller scale, but even more charming (except for the kids setting off firecrackers in somewhat dangerous ways… but hey, you’re in Laos!).
A pleasant four-hour boat trip took me to Muang Khoua (pleasant because this boat had car seats! Luxury!). Muang Khoua was only a stopover for the night before heading further north to Phongsaly. I was ready for a good night sleep but the paper-thin walls surrounding the bed of my guesthouse did nothing to stop the cacophony of the snorer to my right. It was like a defected engine or a full orchestra stuck in a metre square room tuning their whole battery of instruments all at once! My left side neighbour also tried to give him some competition for five minutes, but realised he couldn’t win and gave up. When I thought he was done, he would rev up the engine again and sound like those old and sick Laos boats going up the Nam Ou river. The roosters even tried to give him change for his money around midnight, but my snoring neighbour conquered there again! I tried listening to music, pulling the three-kilo pillow over my head (they must have filled it with sand!), but it was all futile efforts! It’s only when I started imagining a roaring elephant sleeping outside my tent (I thought it was quite fitting with the environment and the sounds of crickets down by the river) that I managed to trick my brain… Finally, a few hours sleep until the roosters take over again!
Pain in the butt… literally! Seven painful hours on a boat filled with 26 passengers (7 tourists, others locals), with water from rapids splashing over me, no leg room and the seat as hard as wood… well, it was wood! I couldn’t have done another minute of it and was so relieved to finally arrive in Phongsaly, my ultimate Laos destination. I desperately wanted to come here because it’s so far north that not many tourists come this way and I had heard that the trekking was amazing. The town of Phongsaly was slightly disappointing… I had imagined a small village with huts, but instead it was a relatively well off town due to all the Chinese influence and money (China isn’t that far away). I made some amazing encounters however from Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the USA and hung out with them a lot.
But my main reason for being here was trekking, so I organised a three-day trek with a local office and headed off further north, alone with my guide Khamla and his guide Mr Lai (my guide didn’t know the way to the villages for the second day and doesn’t speak the Akha dialect so he invited his friend… but his friend doesn’t speak English so can’t be a guide!). Khamla was a monk for 12 years before coming to Phongsaly four years ago. He was very nice and made sure I was ok the whole way (to tell you the truth, I think I felt better than he did on the very challenging second day of our trek!). As for Mr Lai, he was quite the hunter! As we were walking along, he would pick seeds on the ground to eat and berries in trees. He picked a few yummy leaves on the side of a river at lunch time. I even saw him doing the split over a creek trying to reach far into a flooded hole for a frog he had spotted… Khamla and I kept walking and about 10 minutes later, Mr Lai appeared behind us with the frog in a plastic bag! That same frog was roasted as a whole and put on our breakfast table the next day! Wild!
The scenery was absolutely splendid. We went up steep slippery slopes (I mean, pretty much 90 degrees!), down muddy mountains, across rivers (at times with thigh high waters), through fields and thick jungle. We fought hundreds of leeches (a few won, most lost!). In the morning, the mountains would be swimming in a lake of clouds, only shyly showing off their peaks. Such foreign, blissful and peaceful place of the world…
The villages were just as foreign… Little wooden and hay huts with compacted dirt for a floor; wood fire in the centre of the house on which wives and daughters would busily cook the next meal; hard, uneven – and painful – planks for a bed; women dressed in their traditional navy Akha costume with their high headdresses; cows, buffaloes, horses, pigs, ducks, dogs, cats and chicken walking about with just about the same rights as the inhabitants… Although I stayed among them, my interactions with villagers were minimal because they just kept going on with their daily routine. Plus, they were shy and certainly didn’t want to be on camera. At every village we would stop, all the kids would congregate to where I was to stare at me. They’d be standing in a corner with blank looks on their faces. I could smile, pull a face or say ‘Sa bai dee’, there was no reaction on their part. In fact, the only reaction I got was when I took my camera out: they would all run away! But that’s ok, I got the real far north, secluded village experience. We stayed in the village chief’s houses on both nights.
The food was excellent: mainly vegetables from their garden or the forest, eggs, beans, sticky rice (Laos’ best!!), a bit of chicken and pig skin. Oh! And of course, the frog at breakfast (which I decided to skip)! So nothing very different. Although when I asked my guide what one of the meals was, he said turtle, which I thought was quite strange considering we were high in the mountains and far from a water source big enough for turtles… I confirmed with him again. I decided to give it a go a few minutes after the start of the meal and was surprised by how much it tasted like potato. I shared this thought with Khamla and he said “Yes, they grow in ground”. “Aaaah! So it is potato,” I replied. “Yes,” he said. When he realised he had said ‘turtle’, he launched into a loud, genuine laughter… and I joined in! With every dinner we also had Lao Lao, the local whisky made from rice. I find it interesting how a country names its national liquor based on twice the name of its country… Must show how devoted they are to it!
I had trekked with my 20 kids books bought in Luang Prabang and gave 10 of them to the teacher of the first village where we slept and the other 10 to the village chief of the second village where we spent the night. The teacher was very grateful and said it is difficult to create lessons for the children, so the books will be very helpful. As for the village chief, he was going to give them to the school teacher as well. On both occasions, young boys in their 20s surrounding us would grab the books and start reading them… not just for the kids it seemed like!
I made it back to Phongsaly on the third day completely exhausted, dirty and smelly – having spent day in day out in the same clothes with no shower – but oh so happy and having grown from this fantastic experience. That’s what I was looking forward to the most in Laos, and I got it!
Welcome aboard Lao Air
As I had already made my way through Laos from south to north by bus, motorbike, boat, tuktuk and on foot, I decided to treat myself with a flight back to the capital city of Vientiane where I had to finish my Lao journey and fly onto my next destination. Phongsaly has a very small regional airport with flights to Vientiane twice a week.
That Tuesday morning , I witnessed a very efficient, transparent and quite comical part of Lao transport services as I was heading to Vientiane on board of Lao Air. I had never seen such a great use of personnel – no wastage! The guy who works at the front desk of a hotel in Phongsaly where we have to buy plane tickets, also sells these tickets – which he prints out on a Word document – drives passengers to the airport in neighbouring Boun Neua to then become the check-in crew. When you think it’s over, you see him put his safety vest on and go outside to guide the plane for landing. He then becomes the baggage handler and pretty much the conveyor too! Quite multi-talented our man! One would have thought he could have been our pilot, but no, the latter was taking a leak on the side of the runway as our handyman was emptying the plane for the next load of passengers.
As for the plane, well, it was one where the window and aisle seats and the back and front of the plane are all much of the same! With prime view on the cockpit, it felt like the whole 12 of us were onboard of a flight simulator. The air hostess, which didn’t join us for the two-hour flight, gave us a bottle of water and earplugs before entering the DHC-6 Twin Otter Series 300. A rocky and noisy flight was on the horizon… But when I saw the trusty Garmin GPS equipment turned on by our pilots, I knew we were in good hands! Welcome aboard Lao Air. Please sit back, relax and enjoy your flight!
Boring Vientiane! Not much to do or see in this capital city… Unfortunately, due to the timing of my flight from Phongsaly and my outgoing flight to Sri Lanka, I had to spend four days here! The highlights were my visit at the COPE (read my blog ‘An impromptu protest‘) and a visit to Buddha park, with a story worth telling…
I decided to hire a bicycle from my hotel to head to Buddha park, 25km out of the city. In ‘normal conditions’, 25km would be fine, but see, Laos bicycles for rent don’t subscribe to ‘normal conditions’. My 1950s model was decked out with as many gears as my legs wanted to have, a high curvy handlebar to add a bit of style, a forward tilting seat to remind me at all times that I do have bones in my butt and great storage capacity (a basket at the front!). About 10km into my ride, my two-wheel dull silver metal companion started sounding like it was growing an engine, but with quite the opposite effect: it became harder and harder to pedal! With another 40km or so to do, I couldn’t let that happen! A quick stop and readjustment of the front wheel protector and brakes sorted it out. Then, about 2km later, my front brakes broke! Luckily, my 50s model featured the added benefit of rear brakes too! Every 30 minutes or so, I would stop for a couple of minutes to stand up and let the blood flow back into my posterior. About 3km before Buddha park, the road turned into the equivalent of a 4WD track to my trustee companion: humps and bumps, mud and sand, rocks and all! Unfortunately, my Rolls Royce was lacking the suspension and gears of Tiger (my friend Jo’s 4WD Jeep)! A nice reminder of my butt bones there again… After two hours of pedaling, I finally made it to the park! Although the way back was just as hard (however flat the road was, it constantly felt like I was going uphill… tricky little pushie!), I had a very nice reward waiting for me at the end: a herbal sauna and massage at a beautiful, peaceful, zen centre in the middle of the woods. Perfect reward for my hardened body!
Next destination: Sri Lanka!