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Striking it rich in Lao!

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As you could probably tell from that last email, the novelty of Northern Thailand was wearing off and we were happy to be back on the move, albeit with a bit of a modified itinerary. Early in the morning we grabbed breakfast, some lunch food and went through a passport check on the Thai side before taking a small boat across the Mekong river to Laos. Hordes of tourists were arriving for the boats - fast or slow, and we all had to go through customs in full, and then exchange some money. One must take care at the money exchange otherwise one will need an extra hand bag to carry away the loot. The current exchange rate is 10,625 Kip to $1 - and the largest note is 5000Kip!! I changed a $50 check which is like taking a $100 to the bank and asking for "all $1's" - produces quite a pile! Perhaps this explains why there are no ATMs here -they can't cope with spitting out a cm thick wad for $50!
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And finally we were in Laos!

First off, the name: it's always pronounced "Lao", sometimes spelled with the "s", sometimes not. I assume this is the fault of the French since Lao was under French rule for quite some time. On the brighter side, they left a legacy of baguettes, coffee and ice, so I can't complain too much about their spelling disabilities. The colonial heritage apparently lives on at tour offices as well - many French tourists here, possibly even outnumbering the Aussies, and that's saying something.

But first we had to ride a speed boat down to Pak Beng - 3 hours south by speed boat (or 7 by the slow boat). The boats left about 4km south of the ferry landing, and everyone else was piled into tuk-tuks (little 3-wheel taxis), but they just had us follow moped on bikes. We pulled out on the road - to the left, and then realized they drive on the RIGHT here! excellent!!

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Next for the speed boat, to describe in detail: These are brightly painted wood chips, with a big in-line 4 cylinder Toyota engine on the back, the whole engine mounted on a double gimbal - one pivot drops the long prop shaft in the water, the other moves left/right to steer. They're almost as fast as they are loud (no muffler, just a tuned pipe for more power). They're maybe 30' long, of which 1/3 is engine, 1/3 is cargo, and the last 10 feet has 6 people crammed in, 2 abreast, knees up by your chin. Life jackets and Helmets are handed out, no earplugs (just a napkin if you want it) and away you go in a curtain of spray and enough noise to wake the Buddha. After 45 minutes or so of deafness we pulled over to a floating mechanics shop - our boat had a bad propeller, so we switched to a new boat, gear and all, and away we went again. Scenery was spectacular - very little evidence of human activity on either side, rocky shores, tall green mountains, and lots of brown water. Finally at 1:30 (hour later than "scheduled") we arrived at Pak Beng. I was rather nervous by this time because we had Gretchen's bike, but mine was on another boat, which I was sure had passed us during the mechanical difficulties period, and I was really hoping it had not continued to Luang Prabang without me. Ran up the long steep staircase with first round of gear -no bike, and then it arrived right behind us. Gear was carried up by porters for a generous tip, and we headed out of town.
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We are carrying 3 Lonely Planet publications, a map/gazeteer, the Laos book , and the cycling book. The map listed the trip to Muang Houn as 44 km, on paved road. The book called it "about 50km on a road more pothole than pavement". The book was right. 55km of bone jarring occasional-pavement-mostly-gravel later we hit Muang Houn just as it got dark. Along the way we felt like quite the celebrities. At EVERY little village we went through - and there was one about every 5km or so - ALL the children would run out and wave, screech, yell "Sa Bai Di!!" (hello), and, for some reason, as we neared the end of the village, would start yelling "Bye!!". How odd they would pick that but not hello... And Gretchen had been worried that people wouldn't be friendly here. I had been worried that there would be trash everywhere, as happens when a western, throw-away culture meets an indigenous culture with no idea, or need of idea on waste management, but it wasn't too bad. It was, however, gorgeous! The river was running blue, not brown, the hills are beautiful, and, as mentioned, the people are super friendly. The Lonely planet map department, however, is getting a nasty letter on revisions necessary. And also a reprimand for not reading their own damn books.
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We had seen almost no electricity before arriving at Muang Houng (makes the photography easier by a darn sight!), but the city did indeed have electricity - and one damn big set of speakers with a live keyboard and singer. hoooboy. so much for the peaceful night. We went to the one and only guesthouse, which charged 20,000Kip for a night (one room, shared bath, no hot water), an outrageous price until you remember that it's roughly $1.90. Then in search of dinner. We showed the guy cooking soups our "only eat vegetables" sign, he smiled, pointed to the noodles, and the vegetables, we smiled and nodded, sat down, and he brought us 2 bowls of beef soup. hmmm. something didn't quite communicate there. By this time the village English speaker had found us and was chattering away. Among other insights:

It was high-school graduation, hence the noise, and they'd be having a party for a while -he played the keyboard.

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"bye" is the Lao word for "go"

so maybe the kids were telling us to "go" instead of "goodbye" hmmmm.

Got more food elsewhere - good fried rice & vegetables this time, with Beer Lao (usual Asian, weak beer, good for re-hydration), and then took a short walk, past the graduation bruh-ha-ha. BIG MISTAKE. Our chatty friend was now manning the mic and gave a big "hello to the English speakers" so that all the graduating folks could look up and oggle as we walked by. We decided to slink off and go to bed instead. Here's a detailed account of the night:

  • 9:30 pm - go to bed; the graduation celebration is mostly drowning out the local television and the music from the military base just outside of town.
  • 12:30 am - electricity to the town has been turned off (this explains the banks of car batteries everywhere), but the happy teenagers party on, loudspeakers powered by an equally large generator. re-stuff ear plugs in my ears and go back to sleep.
  • 1:30 am - graduation party ends, all is quiet. briefly.
  • 3:30 am - awakened by screaming baby, and the first rooster or two warming up
  • 4:30 am - roosters kick in as per usual
  • 5:30 am - someone is awake nearby. and smoking a cigarette
  • 6:30 am - town PA system kicks into full broadcast mode, probably with radio Lao, some music, news, and the national anthem. sleep abandoned in favor of finding Lao coffee (thick, rich stuff with sweetened condensed milk) and Chinese donuts.
but what can one expect for $2/night?
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For lunch we stopped in a hill tribe Village. Gretchen gave the little girls brightly colored bracelets, and then I pulled out the Polaroid I-Zone - a mini-Polaroid camera which spits out 2x4cm pictures. They take about 3 minutes to develop, but as the kids got the idea, the word very quickly spread and in no time I was facing a wall of about 25 kids and a few adults asking for their picture! I did about 12 pictures, and then we wandered around the village for a bit, before a second deluge of picture requests and when that roll was gone, it was time to go.

The street traffic here was almost non-existent - very nice change!!

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Arrived at Udonxai in daylight; nothing particularly recommends the town, but had some good food; spicy but not quite the gargling-napalm firepower seen in Thailand. And while we're suddenly mostly out of language again, some useful words like "egg" and "rice" and "water" are the same. $3 for the hotel in Udonxai - moving up in the world with our own bathroom and sorta-hot water. Mattress was hard as a brick though. Much quieter that night, except for some guy playing the drum at 04:00!!?

Grey cool morning as we set out on the 31st. The day's plan was bike the (map-listed) 60km to Pak Mong and bus from there to Luang Prabang. We wanted to be in LP for the Chinese New Year for one thing, and we both needed a rest day off the bikes for anther, and Pak Mong is just a cross-roads while Luang Prabang is a relatively large, and very historically interesting city with museums and more Wats than you can count without taking off bike shoes. (Clarification: a Wat is a Buddhist temple.) Anyway, the map had indicated "very hilly" and at least got that part right. But the temperatures were really not bad in the hills, with partly cloudy weather, and mostly shaded road. We stopped near one village for a snack, and this odd little guy hobbled over, and then started chanting at us, probably asking for money. Kids were staring too, and not in a good way, so we left quickly. The odd little guy though... did George Lucas spend time around here when dreaming up characters? Or Tolkien??

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[need picture here of the frond things]

Overall though, there have been amazingly few touts / beggars here, almost none. We were now on the "main highway", and lest the term confuse anyone, this meant simply that there were 25 vehicles/hour instead of 6. And as we approached Pac Mong, there was a white line down the center of the road.

At 44km and "getting there" we met 2 more bike touring folks coming the other way - Dutch of course. The kids in that village had a field day watching FOUR big blond (uh, sorta) people on bicycles conversing. The Dutch said "60km?? no no no, our map says 84km, and we've done 37 so far". Oy. At least we found that out before hitting 60km and wondering where we went wrong. Another nasty note for LP.

All the villages we went through were busily harvesting mystery green things; light, wispy fronds of some sort which they bunch together, pound on the road for a while releasing some fine dust which gets in the eyes, and then they lightly roast them over an open fire, but to what end, we have no idea. Brooms? Roofing??

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At 82 km and 4:20pm we pulled into Pac Mong, and were just about to figure out the bus situation and get some food when a big bus pulled up. Within 2 minutes we were onboard, heading to Luang Prabang with bikes strapped to the roof. There is NO WAY we could have done that by planning if we'd tried. But dang, I was hungry for that papaya salad and sticky rice I was about to order! The scenery out the bus window was fantastic -very sharp mountains, sunset over a river, very beautiful. Wished we'd biked it, but my legs were feeling otherwise. The bus ride itself was terrifying, as can be explained with the following information:

  1. The roads are narrow, twisty, windy, full of blind corners
  2. There is very little traffic, so horse drawn carts, small children, big children, mopeds etc. all lounge around or move slowly on the road
  3. The bus driver goes as fast as the bus possibly can
  4. The bus is at least half as wide as the road
  5. occasionally there is something coming the other way, usually in a village, with mopeds, small children and dogs in the middle of the mess. 6. our driver used the horn a lot; and when that failed (but not until) the brakes.
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Luang Prabang is a charming city; but also very touristy. On the main strip here you can get Indian food, French food, bakery goods, more bakery goods and even burgers and pizza. You can see more Farangs than natives, and avoid having to even know "Sa Bai Di" (greeting) and "Kup Jai" (thank-you) in local dialect. You can spend $5/night,or $150/night, $2/meal, or $20/meal. You can arrange treks into the hillsides to see the rustic villages. But we've done that already, in places not jaded by excessive tourist exposure. So while the rest day has been very good for the legs and morale, and the food is good, it hardly feels like Lao. Tonight we'll see some native dance / music performance, gather food from the street vendors for tomorrow and then leave very early. The book shows a brutal 130km to the next town; brutal because there's close to 2000m (m!!!!) of climbing in there. Not really expecting to make it all the distance - for one thing, there's a net gain of almost 1000m (M!) for the day. But we'll take a whack at it, and maybe the town at 82 km actually does have a place to sleep. Otherwise we'll have to hitch / hope for a bus miracle when the darkness catches up. BTW, the map shows tomorrow's 130km as "82". lying bastard indeed, Lonely Planet is way too big for their britches.

Oh, and another thing; after all that push to get here by 31/1 THERE IS NO LUNAR NEW YEAR's CELEBRATION IN LAO!!! So much for the Chinese influence. Or even Thai -they were gearing up. Figures. will have to come back some other year and go to a country which does celebrate. (how was Tet there in Saigon Katy?)

cheers,

M<
P.S. It's 01/02/03 here!!



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