It’s often said that time flashes by when you’re having fun. Three weeks in Laos, was that all?…305 days in.
Oudomxai. I’d no idea how to pronounce it either, which makes for a tricky exchange at the bus ticket office, especially when the locals refer to it as Muang Xai! But we managed and arrived in this town, a travel hub in the northern provinces and had the pleasure of a bus station within a one kilometre walk of town; how on earth they expect the tuktuk drivers to make a living I don’t know. It turned out to be a pleasent few days in yet another laid back part of Laos; we spent an hour chatting to the museum curator (incidentally, informing him that his job was a curator), coming up with ideas on how to improve the exhibits and discussing the regional system of government. I had a similar experience in the men’s sauna with a man who introduced his occupation as SME and we chewed over the cons of Chinese investment and how Brexit gives him new opportunities. Most importantly though, we were both fully recovered from our slightly iffy tummies and with few tourist attractions to visit I was now back to clocking up the miles in my running trainers. It’s such an enjoyable way to pass through the countryside, and as my runs are often out and back along the same route (to avoid getting too lost) I end up passing the same bewildered onlookers twice.I’ve never seen a cock fight, but I’ve now heard one. Proceedings were swiftly aborted as we rounded a corner and chanced upon five young men who, noticing us, pulled their cocks apart and began an immaculate grooming session, including a feather down the gizzard! We watched them preening their cocks for a full ten minutes, wondering if round two was any closer, but the petting continued. Of course, no sooner did we continue on our way did squarks fill the air!
We did make it out of town for a trip to a nearish by hot spring and after a morning of misadventure, we needed a lie in the warm waters. We wanted the bus to Muang La, we started off on the bus towards Meng La, Meng La is in China. What we didn’t need was the local monkey to launch raids on our items by the poolside.Laos only has a population of 6 million, many of whom work away in agriculture content on selling broom grass to the Chinese and sticking with their local communities. This is where the tourism industry concentrates its efforts, selling guided hikes into the jungle to visit the villages. We therefore opted to give it a go at our penultimate destination, Luang Namtha. Ten kilometres along from the local bus station, (just who decides these things!) the high street stretches for two hundred metres and houses some dozen companies who all run village tours (clearly the PR department have not got round to branding them as the essential Laos experience yet, but soon no doubt). Scrolling through TripAdvisor the reviews were certainly a mixed bag, so with a bit of Christmas money in pocket, we plumped for the second most expensive company. We met our guides Noy and Gud first thing the next morning and our fellow hikers, three Korean students, Bella, Jenny and Hannah. Along with our village assistant Loi; we had a crack team, if only the company invested some of the cash into less strap-bare rucksacks we would have looked the part too. We spent the next two days hiking up and down relentless mountains through the densest jungle we have experienced in SE Asia, but one thing was most definitely absent, wildlife. Birds did sing a fine tune from the tops of the canopy, but this is the first forest we have encountered that has been bereft of any mammalian encounter, not even a pesky monkey! At the end of an arduous day’s trek we spent the night deep in the protected area of Nam Ha national park (well, 90 minutes walk from the nearest village, but that’s some tortuous 90 minutes), shared ghost stories and corn whiskey and slept on bamboo stilts under a rattan shelter. We awoke to a cold misty morning and Helen got straight on with fire duty. Our second day was a similar slog through the jungle, with views just as rare to come by as the animals. We stopped by a village with old women laying out broom grass in the sun and the girls looking after their younger siblings with the village chief one of few men not out tending the fields. I thought a little magic may be a welcome attraction and performed my three rope trick to the crowd of thirty, I’ll assume that the silence at the end was due to my God-like status leaving them mystified; the Koreans applauded. We left the village women smoking their pipes along a half constructed road, dug out by Chinese money in collaboration with a local government official, through the heart of the protected area. However, intervention from the national government halted the works, but an ominous line of unstrung pylons heading north hints that the Chinese collaboration will out in the end. After a full day’s walk we hit the main road where the minivan was waiting to whisk our exhausted bodies back to town; The Hiker Co had certainly been that, but for food, wildlife and value for money it certainly was not in the same league as other trips we’ve taken in Cambodia and Borneo.
Jungling done we left to head to another impossibly named village, Houayxay, where we were reunited with the Mekong and a view across it’s mahogany waters to Thailand; tomorrow’s destination! Overall, Laos promises a lot with its large mountain ranges and great scenary, but high prices for tours and a surprisingly high cost for food, accommodation and transport left us spending our days looking disconsolately into the mountains from the dusty roadside, views we shared with our fellow travellers, in all senses of the word.