Breakfast with backpackers, our fourth snake sighting, and high fives all round.

Day 24: We got up a bit later than usual, and headed over to have breakfast in the dining area at 8.30am. We had a quiet 30 minutes having eggs and toast and coffee, then at 9am a deluge of young backpackers started streaming in, to cook their breakfast and make endless bowls of instant noodles and cups of tea. First time on our trip that we had to wash our dishes ourselves – Jim did a good job. 🙂

We chatted to a couple of the guys – always interesting to hear where people are from, where they’re travelling to and from, and their backgrounds. While we were chatting, someone pointed out a fabulous (quite large) praying mantis on the fence – spectacular creature.

We headed back to our bungalow, and while we were getting our walking gear on, listened to the plinky plonk sounds of the French guy from the bungalow next door practising ukulele. Jim says he reminds him of Cacofonix, from Asterix. We even spotted him later in the day playing air-ukulele.

Then we set off for a long walk to explore the local area. As we headed out of town, we spotted an indoor food market so steered in to have a look. It smelt absolutely rank. Possibly due to the catfish and chicken sitting out in the sun. We had a very quick squizz around, then headed back out for some fresh air.

As we walked up the laneway from the indoor market, we smiled at some loose cows (no idea where they came from) eating leftovers from the outdoors market which was now closed. They looked very happy with their lot.

Then around the corner, we spotted another group of animals – this time goats, chomping flowers in someone’s front yard – brilliant.

We wandered up and down a number of laneways, trying to find a route to the paddy fields towards the mountains, and eventually found our way through. The scenery is the best we have experienced yet in Laos – absolutely superb. Huge limestone karsts, bright green rice paddies, farmers out manually ploughing fields. We weaved in and out of the rice paddies, clambering along the narrow ridges. Lil’s only worry was how many snakes were lurking in the long grass.

As we started our walk back to town, Lil was in front and shouted out “snake!” – and there was a small black and yellow snake, slithering across the muddy ground. A baby Yellow Spotted Keelback – venomous but not overly dangerous. Our fourth snake sighting so far – two alive, two dead.

Close to home, we came across a group of kids who started shouting “high five, high five!” So Jim spent a bit of time high-fiving. Then we got back to the bungalow, and had a cold shower while the clubby music got underway by the pool and the guy next door continued to practise the same song on his ukulele.

Tonight we decided to have dinner at the on-site restaurant, rather than heading into town – and we’re glad we did, it was outstanding – chicken and ginger, green fried curry, and spicy green papaya salad.

Tomorrow we’re getting in the saddle again to pedal around the local countryside. Another ordeal for Jim’s delicate bum.

More then.

A terrifying tuk tuk ride, diminishing VIP standards, and try not to break the window panes.

Day 23: We were up early again this morning (feels like we’re on repeat there) and hung about outside the guesthouse in the sun waiting for our tuk tuk driver to appear. He arrived at 7.05am – a few minutes late, which still gave us heaps of time to catch the 8am bus to Vang Vieng.

Until, that is, we stopped to pick up some French guys from another guesthouse around the corner, who thought they were being picked up at 7.30am. They weren’t anywhere near ready, and they weren’t in any rush to get their act together. The tuk tuk driver stood at their door shouting “Go! Go!” repeatedly, which achieved pretty much nothing. Eventually they appeared, dragging bags and still munching toast. The tuk tuk driver hit the gas and drove at insane speed through the streets of Luang Prabang. Humans and animals leapt out of the way as we passed, and we hung on in the back for dear life.

We screeched into the bus station, jumped out and waved our ticket receipt at the ticket counter, got two tickets in exchange, and the girl pointed to where our VIP bus was waiting.

Today’s bus looked even less VIP than the last one. For a start, it was a heap smaller – pretty much just a large minibus. But at least this one had seats. We handed our backpacks over to be loaded on to the luggage roof rack, then sat and watched in amusement as a motor bike was also hauled up the side of the minibus, and tied onto the roof, upright.

As we settled into our VIP seats (complete with patterned curtains, though missing lots of hooks), a huge terrifying looking bee-like insect flew through the door and landed on the window next to the guy in front of Lil. The guy shrieked and shot out of his seat. Lil was just about to whack the insect with her book but as Laos is a Buddhist country, she wasn’t sure if killing insects might be frowned upon. It seems not – the driver wandered over and with a quick swipe, mushed the insect with the curtain leaving a big brown splodge. Problem solved.

We set off towards Vang Vieng, with a crew of 4 bus staff to manage 20 passengers. There were two drivers to share the driving (though one drove all the way to Vang Vieng which was odd); a guy who handed out free sponge fingers and water; and another guy who barked orders at the guy who handed out free sponge fingers and water. Guess it keeps people employed.

The scenery along the way was phenomenal – craggy mountains, limestone cliffs and lush green rice paddies. We had to sneakily pull open the curtains to check out the landscape as Free Sponge Finger guy wanted everyone to keep them closed to stop the sun heating up the bus. Spoil sport.

The journey took a little longer than needed. After only 30 minutes we stopped for a loo break. Then another loo break 60 minutes after that. Then a lunch break three hours later. Our tickets included a lunch voucher this time around, a single menu choice of pork noodle soup which was pretty good – there was a bit of a production line happening at the counter, as the girl flung various bits and pieces into bowls.

Six and a half hours after leaving, our 183km trip was done and we rolled into Vang Vieng, a smallish town on the banks of the Nam Song river.

Vang Vieng is an interesting place. It’s been notorious as a party town for many years, and the scene of much alcohol- and drug-fueled tubing down the Nam Song river with some horrible consequences. After 27 tourists died while partying on the river in 2011, the local authorities (with, we believe, some intervention from the Australian government) at last clamped down on drugs, closed down lots of riverside bars, and removed riverside swings and ‘death slides’.

Apparently the party scene here is a shell of what it used to be – and let’s just say we’re happy we didn’t experience the bigger picture. Even in low season, it’s still pretty busy and noise levels are ear piercing throughout the town. Music blares out of every bar, motorbikes tear up and down and scary looking rental buggies growl at speed through the streets. We saw one motorbike spill already, and we suspect accidents are a pretty common occurrence.

Photo copyright Riverside Tours Vangvieng

We’re staying in a bungalow just outside the town (bungalow being a bedroom and a bathroom – certainly nothing flash). There’s also a backpackers dorm on site, swimming pool, lots of loud music and two days a week they host a BBQ party with free alcohol. It’s pretty funny staying amongst ‘the young crowd’. Doubtless it also gets pretty rowdy here at times – the list of ‘replacement and repair costs’ posted in our bedroom includes every possible item, including individual panes of glass – yikes.

But of course we’re not here for the party scene, we’re here to explore the amazing countryside, and tomorrow we’ll work out some walks and/or bike rides around the town.

More then.

A pig on a bike, kicking about town, and the beer of the wholehearted people.

Day 22: We woke this morning still feeling a bit weary from yesterday’s bus ride. Jim has been complaining all day of a constant swaying feeling, like he’s just got off a boat. In this case it’s more likely to be Laos post-bus trauma.

We chatted over breakfast about our next move to Vang Vieng, a town about 180km south of Luang Prabang. Our choices were to catch an evening bus today, and arrive about 2am in Vang Vieng – or stay another night in Luang Prabang and catch the early bus tomorrow. We chose the latter.

We spotted the reception desk at our guesthouse had a list of bus and minibus destinations and times. We scanned the list and asked the guesthouse manager if we could have 2 VIP bus tickets to Vang Vieng at 9.30am. His response was “Yes. No.”

Confused – we asked again. Turns out we could get the VIP bus. Just not at 9.30am. While that was the time shown on the list, it wasn’t the actual departure time. We asked what time we could leave. The manager said “7.30am. Or 8.30am maybe – I’m not sure. But not 9.30am”. We decided to walk to one of the local tour agents to get clarification. They confirmed there is one bus leaving at 8am, and we bought two tickets.

With a free day in Luang Prabang (but having explored most of the sights when we were here a couple of weeks ago), we decided to catch the car ferry again to the other side of the river, and walk to Ban Chan, a traditional pottery village. As we walked to the ferry dock, we saw a group of people gathered around a van and went to have a look – a guy was selling fish from a box, presumably caught from the Mekong River. (Note the hoodie – it was a parky 28C).

Further along the embankment, a couple of guys were practicing guitar and singing (not sure what the song was, definitely not blues though). We stopped and listened for a couple of minutes, then continued on our way.

The ferry was busy today – lots of people on bikes and in cars wanting to make the trip back and forth across the river. It’s surprising that they haven’t built a bridge (personally we prefer the car ferry though, way more interesting).

While we were waiting for the ferry to fill up, a moped drove on with a bamboo basket tied to the back and something moving inside. We wandered over to have a look and see what it was, and discovered a cute black piglet inside. 🙂

The ferry got going and we reached the other side of the Mekong, where a line of local kids were jumping off the wall into the river, then scrambling up the wall to do it all over again. Fun to watch.

We started the walk west to Ban Chan. It was a steamy hot 36C day, and we drank litres of water as we walked along the dirt roads to the village. We stopped at a shop to get some cold soft drinks, and the kind old lady pulled out two tiny plastic chairs for us to sit on. Jim sat with his head inside a dangling mass of snacks in coloured plastic bags, looking like a right chump.

Ban Chan has a longstanding tradition of pottery making, however the way of life is declining and today only a small number of families continue to be involved. They make everything from small pots to big jars for making the local Lao-Lao rice whiskey, and lots of animal figurines. One lady tried desperately to get us to purchase a pottery elephant – interesting as it was, there’s no way we could haul that around Asia with us. Our backpacks are exploding as it is.

We headed back to the ferry and had a last walk along the river, admiring the view and watching boats going up and up down – it really is spectacular. Despite Luang Prabang now being a fairly popular tourist destination, it’s managed to remain fairly unspoilt.

This evening we had dinner at an Indian restaurant we’ve been to before – excellent food washed down with Beerlao, the local beer. Its tagline is “Beer of the wholehearted people” – a great slogan which describes Lao people well we think.

Then a quick wander through the night market – Lil wanted to buy some more hippie pants – and back to our guesthouse for an early night. We’ve a very early start tomorrow for our next bus adventure. Hopefully Jim will have stopped swaying by then.

More tomorrow.

The bus with no seats, a monk chewing gum, and the ear rattling rustle of phlegm.

Day 21: We were up bright and early again to a sunny and not too hot day. While eating breakfast in the guesthouse garden, Jim declared his bum to be “uncomfortably battered and bruised” after the bike ride of the day before.

We needed to hire mountain bikes yesterday because of the terrain – lots of dirt roads, pot holes and mud – however had we been sticking to sealed roads, we could have borrowed bikes from the guesthouse. Or perhaps just one, as we spotted the perfect solution for Jim’s delicate bum – a bike with a big padded carry seat. So, Lil could pedal and Jim could sit on his mini sofa on the back. Next time, as they say.

We read our books for a couple of hours, then a tuk tuk picked us up to take us to the bus station for our 2.30pm bus departure. We were eagerly awaiting sight of our ‘VIP bus’ (see yesterday’s blog post for more background on that one). Though having researched Laos VIP buses online, we weren’t overly hopeful. One ad showed a picture of a bus that looked like it had been in a major scuffle with a large boulder – half the back was hanging off. We’re guessing photoshopping isn’t a thing here.

We pulled in to the bus station, waved our tickets at the lady behind the counter and asked where we needed to go. One of the bus guys walked us over to the area where our bus was waiting – and while ‘VIP’ mightn’t be something we’d apply to this beast, it didn’t look too bad. Most of it seemed to be intact at least.

On previous bus journeys we’ve been a little too polite, standing back to let locals on and holding our place in the ‘queue’ (aka scrabble). This time Lil was having none of it – she stood perched at the door with elbows perpendicular and flapping, determined to be one of the first to board and grab prime seats. She handed our tickets to the bus driver at the door (Jim was hanging on to her backpack and barely managing to stay upright in the tussling crowd behind her).

We were handed two plastic bags, which we assumed were for travel sickness – but no, they’re for your shoes. No shoes allowed on the bus. Then the bus driver marked 42 and 43 on the tickets – so we clambered on to find our allocated seats.

But here’s the thing. There WERE no seats.

As we looked down the length of the bus, in open mouthed astonishment we saw 20 double bunk beds with vinyl covered mattresses, complete with swirly metal railings that make it look like they were a bulk buy from the Santa Sleigh outlet store. Either that or IKEA was selling off kids bedroom furniture – as these certainly weren’t double size by Western standards. The badly faded Hello Kitty and Garfield blankets added an interesting touch.

We scanned the rows for 42 and 43 for a minute or two, and couldn’t see the numbers anywhere. Then we spotted them – we’d been allocated the 5 person ‘mega bed’ at the back of the bus. Oh joy.

We climbed up onto the bed, alongside an orange robed monk (who we later discovered had an impressive ability to remain cross legged and upright while the bus was swerving madly around corners). He smiled and we settled in for our journey. And then we heard chewing. Incessant chewing. It was the monk – who’s clearly a big fan of chewing gum, and a bit of a noisy chewer too.

3 people on a 5 person bed – not too bad, we thought. More people were getting on and someone didn’t have an allocated seat. A bit alarmed that we might have more company on the mega bed, Lil quickly spread herself and all her belongings out to make it look like we were full down the back. Monks are known to be compassionate – and this one was clearly way more compassionate to Lil. He waved to the stray guy that there was a spare space beside Lil – and then we were 4. A guy climbed up, burped garlic all over Lil, and we set off.

Jim joked that we were in our business class flatbed seats. He also chuckled and said “do you reckon anyone has ever tried to join the 10 foot high club here?” (Even less appropriate given we had the monk beside us.) Lil was about to offer the monk a chocolate biscuit in a desperate bid to stop him chewing, them remembered she’d read somewhere monks aren’t allowed to eat after midday. Embarrassment avoided.

Jim: “When do you reckon these blankets and pillows were last cleaned?”
Lil: “You had to go there, didn’t you?”
Jim: “Yup.”

An hour into the journey, someone else got on. The ‘spare space’ at the back was quickly eyeballed. Thankfully the bus driver must have reckoned that one female squished tightly between 4 males wasn’t such a good idea, so he rearranged things and moved us to our own top bunk double bed, where we happily left the chewing monk and garlic guy behind.

VIP buses are supposed to be air conditioned. (They’re supposed to be a lot of other things too, but let’s not get distracted). This one had a tiny puff of warm air coming out of the vents – occasionally. But in this crazy wonderful place, you can’t complain about that sort of stuff. If you wandered up to the driver to let him know it was a bit hot down the back, firstly he wouldn’t understand you, but secondly, he would think you were mad. So you just have to go with the flow and suck it up.

The 9 hour journey felt like a 9 hour journey – and quite a bit more. We lay listening to the gears grinding and crunching and the brakes squealing as we hurtled around corners (we couldn’t sit up as the slightest bump meant we bashed our heads on the ceiling above). Every hour or two the bus stopped for a quick break – we assumed loo breaks at first – but no, they were mainly brake breaks. With the heat and the hills and winding roads, the driver needed to continually hose the brakes with cold water to cool them down. A good thing, we assumed.

Half way through the journey we stopped to pick up more passengers. No beds left, so they threw some mats in the aisles, and the new arrivals spent their journey sitting and lying there. Again, doubt there are any money back guarantees, even on a VIP bus.

Later in the afternoon we snoozed for a bit, then woke to find it was getting dark outside. Lil got her book out again and prodded the night light switch above our heads. Broken. So she resigned herself to watching the sun set, then the stars and spotting random dark shapes flying past the window.

With the bus now in complete darkness, apart from some super-bright phone screens, we became more aware of the noise coming from various beds, including some ear piercing music. Lao people love their music – at one point we had what sounded like the Lao top 20, all playing concurrently, and interspersed with a couple of screechy soap operas and loud video games.

There was also another noise that started to rattle our ears. In Asia it’s common to see men hacking up phlegm repeatedly through the day – not entirely sure why, and not sure we want to research it. Outside, it’s bearable – they hack up into ditches or on the road, or pretty much anywhere really and it’s easier to ignore. On the bus, there was a chorus of hacking piercing the darkness. Except with no ditches or roads to spit into, everyone used plastic bags. The noise of the hacking and then the rustling sound as the phlegm hit plastic, convinces us to pack ear plugs for our next trip.

The bus left half an hour early today, and arrived half an hour late. We found ourselves at Luang Prabang bus station at just after 11pm, negotiating fares with a tuk tuk driver who knew he had the upper hand.

We got to our guesthouse, showered and fell into bed. It was quite a day.

Tomorrow we plot our onward journey to Vang Vieng. Which no doubt will involve another bus.

More then.

Solving saddle soreness, Jim turns down frogs, and don’t mix ATMs with water.

Day 20: We woke this morning to a bright sunny day, and headed downstairs for breakfast in the garden at our guesthouse. Our plan today was to hire bikes and head off on the Luang Namtha valley route. Thankfully, the weather has cooled off now with daily highs in the early 30s, and lows in the early 20s. We’ve noticed some locals have even started wearing hoodies and sweaters.

20 mins into breakfast, some dark clouds appeared and before long the heavens opened. We finished our eggs and coffee huddled under the slightly leaky straw canopy.

Hoping we wouldn’t have to write the bike ride off, we decided to sit it out with our books and see what happened. An hour later, the rain cleared and sun and blue skies appeared, so we legged it down to the bike hire shop, handed over 20,000 Kips each for a day’s mountain bike hire (around $3.50), got our map out and jumped on our bikes.

Our first stop was Namngeen, a large golden stupa that sits on a ridge to the north west of the town. We huffed and puffed as we dragged our bikes to the top of the hill, but it was well worth it to see the stupa, and for the fabulous views across the town. The modern stupa was built in 2003 – a replacement for the original one which was constructed in 1628 to demarcate neutral territory between the kingdoms of Lane Xan in Luang Prabang and Lan Na in Chiang Mai. Sadly, the original stupa was demolished by a bomb in 1966.

Next we pedalled through Ban Nam Ngaen, the largest ethnic Tai Dam village in the area. The village is famous for traditional alcohol distillation, and silk and cotton weaving. It’s a gorgeous traditional village, and as always, it was lovely to see families sitting out eating and chatting together, and kids playing along the roads.

The countryside here is fabulous – very green, pretty and unspoilt. We cycled past lots and lots of rice paddies, with locals out tending their crops. It’s a great opportunity to see rice production up close, and we read that some farmers are now able to produce two crops per years due to a successful local irrigation project. Given rice is a primary source of income for lots of people, that’s very good news.

We cycled across open farmlands and through a series of different villages over the next couple of hours, stopping for water and photo breaks. Neither of us has padded bike shorts, and at this point Jim was getting a bit saddle sore – so he got creative and made his own padding by stuffing Lil’s sarong down his shorts. Never a dull moment.

Then the heavens opened again. We put on our waterproof jackets, and continued on. We were fine to keep going, until the rain turned into a torrential downpour and growling thunder started up. We saw a group of people sheltered under the cover of a closed petrol station, so turned in and joined them. As always, we were a great source of interest (and amusement).

Once the rain eased off, we finished the valley route and ended up cycling into the back streets of Luang Namtha, and over the bamboo bridge (not the easiest, given how uneven it is, and with no sides to the bridge).

Then we dropped the bikes back, and home for a hot shower and change.

We needed to reach a decision about the best way to get back to Luang Prabang (from there we will be journeying south to Vang Vieng and then on to Vientiane, before flying out to Bangkok). Our options were to catch a bus; take the 2 day Mekong slow boat; or fly (which seemed like a bit of a cop out given we are here to experience the countryside). We eventually decided on taking a bus – but not a minibus this time given Jim’s newly acquired hatred of the things. Instead we have upgraded to a ‘VIP bus’. Apparently the pictures of VIP buses in the tour agents seldom match what actually turns up – guess we’ll find out.

We went out to book our bus tickets, and visited the ATM to get more Kips (it’s a cash society here, credit cards are seldom accepted anywhere). There was an interesting notice in the ATM about Lao New Year Festival (which took place in April) – and keeping water and partying away from the ATM. Intriguing.

The night market had opened further along the street, so we wandered past to have a look at the different foods. Among the more usual meats, fish and vegetables, we spotted skinny bony fried frogs piled up on plates ready to be chomped – the sort of thing that Jim usually jumps at. He thought about it for a bit, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort given how little meat there was on the frogs. Lil was about to point out he had eaten a mountain of crickets in Vietnam and they didn’t have much meat on them, but it was one of those conversations that probably wasn’t worth starting…

Then back to the guesthouse to catch up on some online admin and book accommodation for tomorrow night in Luang Prabang.

Dinner this evening was at a great little restaurant called The Minority. It’s run by a husband and wife from the Black Tai (Tai Dam) tribe and specialises in tribal cuisine, with Tai Dam, Akha and Lisu dishes on the menu. Once again, the food was superb and we were lucky to try some more traditional Northern Lao dishes.

Lil had Chicken Aw – a Tai Dam chicken stew cooked with local herbs. Jim had Pork Som Lam – another Tai Dam dish, with finely sliced pork, garlic and som mom, a tart local herb.

The restaurant has paintings of local ethnic tribal people placed over tables – it’s lovely to see local tribes and traditions being respected and kept alive.

When we were nearly finished our meal, the husband came in with no shirt on and said ‘it’s too hot’. He went over and switched a fan on, which we thought was for us, but no – he untied a hammock in the corner of the restaurant, in front of the fan, and climbed in to cool off.

Tomorrow we pack up again, and catch the ‘VIP bus’ to Luang Prabang – an 8 hour journey. Fingers crossed the bus ride is a comfortable one.

More tomorrow.

Early morning snake sighting, video games in the temple, and chunks of wood in our dinner.

Day 19: We enjoyed a lazy start to the day, then got our walking gear on and headed out to explore some of the local villages around Luang Namtha. As we walked through the town, we spotted the morning market and popped in to have a look. The usual array of pieces of meat (some unrecognisable), vegetables, fruit and some fabulous displays of rice and other grains in large sacks.

After about 30 minutes walking north, we reached the first village on the trail, Hat Yao – an ethnic Hmong village recognised for traditional handicrafts, including Hmong embroidery and baskets which are made by women around the village. A great little village with traditionally built houses, and lots of friendly kids calling out ‘Sabaidee’ and waving as we walked past.

Along the way, there was a rustling noise in the ditch beside us – usually it’s a lizard scrambling to get away, but this time a long snake shot out of the ditch and slithered off up the hill beside us – too quick for a photo unfortunately. We saw another snake later in the day too, but that one had been run over and was lying dead on the road.

Then we retraced our steps and walked east to Nam Dee, an ethnic Lanten village which is famous for its cotton cloth dyed with indigo, and also for producing natural bamboo paper. We had a quick break at the visitor centre, paid our 10,000 Kip fees, then continued on to visit Nam Dee Waterfall.

Jim nearly had a bit of a run in with a goose which became aggressive and started chasing him – we both took to our heels and thankfully the goose was happy we had left his territory, and didn’t pursue us further.

The wet season is late starting in Laos (good for us, not so good for farmers). Lack of rain also means that waterfalls don’t have a lot of water, as we found out when we walked across an iron bridge to the waterfall viewing point, and discovered it was almost dry. (Guessing there is no money-back guarantee on that one).

While we were at the visitor centre, we spotted a map with a forest trek, so we – of course – decided to give that a go. It was a great walk, if a bit arduous – lots of scrambling up steep forest paths, over fallen trees, ducking underneath branches (Lil didn’t duck quick enough at one point and clanged her head heavily on a large branch), and then a very steep decline back to Nam Dee village. Challenging but fun.

As we walked into Nam Dee village, we noticed some trees nearby with little pots attached to their trunks – turns out they were rubber trees and the pots were collecting latex from the trees using a process called tapping – very cool.

Next, we retraced our steps east, and walked out the other side of Luang Namtha and up a hill. We walked past Wat Samakkixay, a large red-peaked temple which is being constructed on the hillside, and then further up we visited That Luang Namtha, a golden stupa (buddhist temple).

Neither of us are religious, though we both have a lot of respect for the Buddhist way of life. Often when we visit Buddhist temples, we take the time to light a candle or incense and sit for a while on one of the prayer mats, enjoying the peace and quiet. We did just that today.

After a few minutes we spotted a guy lying asleep at the side of the temple, presumably the caretaker. He woke briefly, looked at us then went asleep again. A couple of minutes later his daughter came running through the door with mobile phone in hand, shouting at the guy to look at the game she was playing on her phone. She lay down beside him and the racket continued, so we decided it was time to leave. As we put our shoes back on outside the door of the temple, we heard her phone ringing inside – she answered the call loudly, shouting into the phone, then appeared at the door and wandered off. Wonder what the Dalai Lama would make of that one.

By that point we had walked 18km, so decided to call it a day and head back to our guesthouse (by the time we got there, the total was 20km). We had coffee, a nap and then Lil did some research on local restaurants and picked out one for dinner, called Lai’s Place.

Pretty much every meal we’ve had so far in Laos has been really good, and some have been outstanding. However tonight’s dinner topped everything.

Lai’s Place is known for serving traditional Northern Lao food, including dishes from the ethnic tribes including Akha and Black Tai (Tai Dam). The dishes and ingredients are unlike anything we’ve seen or tried before, and the tastes and aromas unreplicable.

Lil had a Tai Dam dish called Aw Lahm – an incredible spicy stew with chicken, banana flower, rattan shoot, egg plant, pumpkin, spiced wood, and string beans. Jim had Black Tai Style Moke Ngoua – hot and herby steamed beef in banana leaf – another sensational dish. And on the side we had a sour Lao fruit Jeow (dipping sauce) with local cucumber – also fabulous.

Aw Lahm with chicken

Black Tai Style Moke Ngoua
Lao sour fruit Jeow

We were particularly intrigued by the spiced wood – a very spicy, woody vine with chilli and pepper flavours, and a lingering aftertaste (there was a bag of it sitting on the table next to us).

We thanked Lai for the best food ever, headed for post-dinner drinks at Bamboo Lounge (the same place we wrote about last night), then wandered back to our guesthouse for an early night.

Tomorrow we’re planning to hire bikes and pedal around the Luang Namtha Valley Trail.

A nightmare bus trip, Jim gets cranky, and the dog won in the end.

Day 18: It was a pretty humid start to the day, as we walked down the main street to Oudomxay bus station, to catch a bus to Luang Namtha. The town was buzzing as Monday morning got underway – given its a fairly significant commercial centre, it has more of a ‘Monday to Friday work week’ feeling than the other towns we’ve stayed in.

The bus station was buzzing with people boarding buses and waiting around for connections to different parts of the country. When we scanned the crowd, we realised we were the only westerners in the entire place, which sparked quite a bit of interest – every move we made, we could feel many sets of eyes following us. We bought our tickets, then settled down on a couple of plastic chairs, as we had some time to kill before our bus left.

Lil wandered off to see if any of the food stalls were selling bananas, which have become a staple in our ‘snack pack’. Every day we chomp our way through at least half a dozen of the small sweet local bananas, whether we’re out hiking, or just need a filler in between meal times.

Only one stall had any bananas for sale – and they only had two huge bunches. We’ve got used to using sign language to indicate cutting a bunch in half, or sometimes even less, and everyone along the way has been fine with splitting them. However the grumpy girl at the station stall wasn’t having any of it. Lil persevered, but the girl shook her head for the last time and returned to watching TV on the floor with her daughter. So Lil gave in and handed over money to buy one of the big bunches – which came complete with a large piece of banana tree trunk. The pic below is after we’d eaten at least 6 bananas from the bunch – and there’s another big layer sitting underneath too.

15 minutes before the bus was due to leave, we hauled our luggage and bananas onto the bus to find two decent seats. Only to discover that the locals had already grabbed every single seat, either by getting on early and sitting in them, or putting bags or other items on them. We looked around wondering where the heck we were supposed to sit.

The bus driver got on and tried to make us both squish in with three guys on the back seat – which wasn’t going to work, there simply wasn’t enough room. So Lil pushed in with the guys, and Jim got the last small fold-out seat in the aisle.

The bus was crammed, as they always are. It also turned out that the fold-out seats are designed for small Asians, not big tall westerners. 15 mins into the journey, as we went over a large bump in the road, there was a cracking noise from Jim’s seat as it started to bend. He persevered for a bit, but after another couple of bumps he realised the seat was close to breaking off entirely, so he had to fold it up and sit on the floor instead. Lots of giggles from the other passengers…

The 3 hour journey was pretty horrendous. The bus driver clearly thought he was competing in an online rally driving game, as we swung and swerved madly around bends and across the mountains. The roads are in dreadful condition too – we were flung from side to side and three times Lil was bounced right out of the back seat.

We reached Luang Namtha’s ‘new’ bus station early afternoon, which for some reason they decided to build 10km outside the town. Feeling bruised and battered after the morning journey, we got off the bus and straight onto a pick up truck for the journey into town. 12 of us squished onto the wooden benches in the truck, which comfortably fit 6-8 people, and one guy also hung off the back of the truck for good measure.

Jim was dead cranky by the time we got to our guesthouse, and declared “no more bloody buses, I’m over them”. Which is kind of tricky, given the only transport between towns here is on buses. Hopefully the painful memories of today’s trip subside soon – by Thursday at least, as we need to catch another bus then…

On a positive note, our guesthouse is lovely – it’s an ecotourism lodge on the edge of town, built in a traditional style with lots of wood and bamboo – the matting walls are really interesting.

Luang Namtha (or Luang Nam Tha) is the capital of Luang Namtha province, and a popular destination and base for hikes through the jungle and to the surrounding hill tribe villages. It’s also a popular stopover for anyone travelling across the border between Laos and China. There’s no shortage of tour companies offering trekking, cycling and kayaking, but there are also lots of opportunities for self-guided tours.

We popped into the tourist office to pick up some maps and leaflets (we decided to skip the ‘Best of Luang Namtha 2011 booklet), and then went to check out some of the local restaurants for an early dinner.

A couple of restaurants were closed, so we back tracked to a noodle restaurant we spotted down a side lane. As we walked along by the river, we spotted another bamboo bridge (a little more robust than the one in Luang Prabang, as motorcycles were able to zoom over it) – it also gets washed away in the rainy season, and built again later in the year. Locals were out swimming and bathing in the river in the late afternoon sun as we wandered past, a lovely sense of community.

Dogs roam the streets freely here, however in the towns we’ve visited so far, most of them are family pets and not scary strays. They can be pretty defensive about their territory though, barking and generally warning people to stay clear of their space. There was one particularly annoying yappy little dog that hassled us as we walked past the house where it lived. Jim was still a bit narky after the nightmare bus trip today, so he decided to do a standoff with the dog. After a bit, Lil had to drag him away, mainly because she was starving but also because he looked and sounded totally daft yapping back at the dog. (Guess that means the dog won in the end…)

We both had chicken noodle soup for dinner, served with a huge basket of fresh greens, mint and raw beans – delicious. Afterwards we had drinks at the Bamboo Lounge, a fabulous community initiative which employs and teaches ethnic minority people, who have no prior knowledge of English language, food and drink preparation or customer service. All profits support the Luang Namtha ‘Books in School’ program, which aims to increase the current number of textbooks from 1 per 3 students, to 1 for every student. So far Bamboo Lounge has donated over 2,800 books to the program – very impressive.

Tomorrow we’re planning to walk or cycle to some local waterfalls and wats, and explore some local villages. Thankfully no buses required.

Meeting Mr Pet, exploring a giant cave, and scoffing heavenly Lao food.

Day 17: We were up bright and early to get ready to go to Chom Ong cave. The big question was – will Mr Pet the driver turn up? (See yesterday’s blog post for background on that one).

At 8.20am we were sitting in the guesthouse lobby. 8.30am came and went – and just a few minutes later we saw a young guy in a denim jacket and baseball cap strolling through the car park – it was Mr Pet!

We climbed into his monster 4 wheel drive car and set off – he spoke only a few words of English so we fell into silence as we drove out of the town. After about 10 minutes, he pulled over, hooted his horn and another young guy appeared from a house and jumped into the passenger seat. He spoke a little more English. We asked his name – he said it is Nanung (the spelling is made up – in reality we have no idea how to spell his name – for the purposes of this blog we are going to rename Mr Pet as Pet1, and his friend as Pet2).

Chom Ong cave is about 43km from Oudamxay town. We drove along 25km of regular surfaced road with fiendish hills and turns across the mountains, followed by 18km of dirt track which is in a pretty horrible state. There is a project underway to improve the road for better access – as of January this year 10% was complete and the article we read said the proposed completion date is December 2019. From what we saw today, we have our doubts.

There was one exciting moment where the car was slipping and sliding in deep red mud, and we realised the way ahead was completely impassible as a digger was working on the road project. Pet2 got out of the car, walked up to the digger guy and spoke to him for a couple of minutes. He got back into the car and we watched, amazed, as the digger guy set about clearing a passage for us to get through.

It took about an hour and half to reach the entrance to Chom Ong cave. Now what to do about a guide? Thankfully a couple of cave guides were hanging about in the local area, and we were hugely lucky to get a guide called Thong Khan (we’re confident we’ve spelled his name right, as he wrote his details down in Lil’s notebook).

Thong’s English is excellent, and he’s incredibly knowledgeable about the cave and the local area. That’s in part because he grew up in the local area and as a kid, 20 years ago, he used to hunt bats for food in the cave with his family.

We had an intro briefing from Thong about the history of the cave and the local village. Chom Ong is Khmu dialect, meaning ‘follow the wasp’ – there’s a long story behind that one, too long to go into here. An alternative name for the cave is Tam Chia, meaning ‘bat cave’.

The cave is 16.4km long, making it the 6th longest cave system in the world. In 2006, the Oudomxay department of tourism found out about the existence of the cave, when they were looking for new tourism initiatives in the province. Local villagers had known about it for generations before, as it was used for hunting bats and extracting guano (bat poo) which was then used to make explosives. The cave was first opened to tourists in 2010, though given the restricted accessibility visitor numbers are still building. Once the new road is completed, and a pathway laid in the first 800m or so of the cave, tourist numbers will soar.

We entered the cave with our torches, and with caps on to avoid bat poo getting in our hair. The next couple of hours were spent exploring the first section of cave, continually stopping to scan the walls, floor and roof with our torches. Incredible rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere. The size of the cave is astonishing – in parts it is 20-25m wide, and 20-50m high.

We clambered and climbed up and over rocks, and after some time reached the point where the new ‘tourist pathway’ will extend to, when it is completed. That’s as far as tourists will be able to go when it’s in place. Now, however, there are no restrictions so Thong invited us to go further into the cave. We went another few hundred metres, with access getting increasingly tricky. We reached a junction where it’s possible to go left or right – Thong suggested left was easiest, but when we saw the steep descent we would have to make over slippery rocks go get into the next cave section, we decided we’d gone far enough for today.

Thong suggested we sit and rest for a short while, and turn our torches off to experience the peace of the cave. It was totally totally black, very eerie but also very peaceful, with the only sounds being water dripping and occasional bats flying around in above us.

It’s possible to do a 2 day, 1 night guided tour into the cave, to explore the full 16km and then walk back again. Today was a fabulous experience, but neither of us is sure we would want to spend two days and a night inside the cave. We felt incredibly lucky to be able to explore Chom Ong before it gets overrun by tourists, which we feel sure it will do, once accessibility improves.

Pet1 was keen to get some photos with us, so we all posed for different combinations – us with Pet1 and Pet2, us with the guide, us with Pet1 and the guide – etc. Afterwards we drove back to Oudomxay with Pet1 and Pet 2 – they dropped us off at our guesthouse where we fell asleep for nearly 3 hours, tired out after the cave adventure. Then we headed out for dinner to Souphailin restaurant, which is reputed to serve the best traditional Lao food in Oudomxay province – some also say the best in the whole of Laos.

Jim & Lil with Pet1 and Pet2

Souphailin is tucked down a laneway, behind a screen of bamboo and plants. It was early, and we were the only people there. Souphailin is also the name of the old lady who lives there, and who does all the cooking single handedly, from scratch and with fresh ingredients. Occasionally she is known to run out to the local market to buy any missing ingredients.

Souphailin came out and introduced herself, waved at us to sit down at the table on the verandah and then spent a couple of minutes flicking leaves and insects off the tablecloth. She gave us two menus, along with a pile of visitor books going back nearly 20 years.

We read online it’s best not to go to Souphailin if you are in a rush – as all the food is cooked from scratch, the wait can be quite long. However, we were in no rush and quite happy sitting with our drinks, reading the pile of visitor books and watching Souphailin cooking in the kitchen behind us.

The food eventually arrived and it was beyond amazing. Chicken cooked in banana leaf, Lao beef, fried vegetables, sticky rice. Every mouthful was sensational – the mix of Lao herbs and spices is very unique.

Halfway through our meal, Souphailin placed two small bananas on our table and said “Sorry I must go out now, hope you don’t mind, I will be back in a while”. She took off with her granddaughter while we finished our meal and wrote an entry in the visitor book. Eventually she returned, and plonked herself in front of a local version of Masterchef in the room behind us. We called her to ask for the bill, thanked her profusely for a wonderful meal (she asked if we would go for breakfast there tomorrow) then headed back to the guesthouse.

It was a huge day. Tomorrow we pack up again and catch the bus to Luang Namtha, a town on the Nam Tha river, about 115km away.

More tomorrow.

Our first monsoon rain, a termite nightmare, and will Mr Pet show up?

Day 16: Last night it rained. Unbelievable volumes of water. It sounded like someone was turning swimming pools upside down on our roof, all night long. It was our first experience of monsoon rain, so we couldn’t resist getting up during the night just to sit and watch the crazy weather.

We eventually got back to sleep again, and woke to a nice cool morning, with mist sitting on the mountains and the rain reduced to just a drizzle.

We had breakfast, then got our packs together and headed to the bus station. Thankfully the guy at the bus station was awake today, so we bought two tickets to Muang Xai – confusingly also spelled Muang Xay, and Oudomxay. The 11am bus eventually left at 11.45am – it’s what we now fondly call ‘Laos time’.

The trip to Muang Xai took three and a half hours, along winding mountainous roads. We were lucky this time to get the back seat in the minibus to ourselves, so we had just a tiny bit more room to breathe and stretch our legs.

Muang Xai is the capital of the Oudomxay Province. It’s an intriguing place, with a very obvious Chinese influence. Along the town’s main road, there are Chinese shops, businesses, restaurants and guesthouses. There’s even a Chinese casino complex combined with a hotel and shopping mall. We haven’t had time to research the background to the Chinese investment and development, however one general article we read about the town says that the Khmu used to be the largest ethnic group in Muang Xai, but that new Chinese migrants now dominate the local economy. We definitely need to read some more background when we get a moment.

We walked from Muang Xai bus station to our guesthouse, which is fairly basic but lovely. The room regulations warn that guests must inform the hotel if they have any objects of high value and goes on to say “to ensure damage it will then be responsible for the loss of your breasts”. No idea what got lost in translation there. Lil – of course – wishes she could help to sort out these language hiccups.

We headed out for late lunch, and found a great restaurant serving noodle soups and rice soups, with fresh beans, mint and chilli on the side.

Afterwards we went in search of the tourist office to find out if we could join a tour to visit Chom Ong cave, a huge cave system around 45km west of the town. Turns out the tourist office only opens Monday to Friday – and today is Saturday. While we were standing reading the board outside, a guy from the tourist office happened to pass on his motorbike, saw us and stopped to ask if he could help.

Turns out organised tours to the cave are really expensive for small groups (and we were the only ones wanting to go this weekend). So the tourist office guy suggested he could organise a driver for us, and we could hire a local guide at the cave. Still pricey, but around half of what the organised tour would cost. So we agreed, and he said to expect a driver called Mr Pet to collect us from our guesthouse tomorrow morning at 8.30am. We’re now intrigued to see if Mr Pet shows up as planned – and really hoping he speaks at a least a little English, as we’ll need his help with recruiting a guide in the local village near the cave.

This evening we wandered around the town to check out a couple of wats (monasteries), walked around the outside of the local museum, then wound our way down back streets to check out the Saturday evening action.

We passed lots of restaurants and noisy karaoke bars, and groups of people sitting having dinner in the warm evening air. We also spotted – and heard – a group of teenagers sitting in a yard with music blasting out of an incredible sound system built into the boot of a car – very cool, if a little deafening!

As we walked around the back of the town, we spotted and followed some bright lights and stumbled on a huge market and fair. We spent a while wandering around the stalls and smiling at the various brand rip offs, including ‘Live’s 501s’.

The only downside of walking around the market was the many many thousands of termites flying in huge swarms around everyone’s heads – after rain, the termites leave their colonies to mate and set up new colonies. It’s an incredible sight, though having to constantly brush them off your clothes and out of your hair isn’t so nice. There were thousands of them lying dead along the pavements too – a really eerie sight.

Then it was back to the guesthouse, ready for an early night as we’ll be up early to get ready to go Chom Ong cave and meet Mr Pet. Assuming he turns up of course.

More tomorrow.