- Crossing the Thailand-Laos border on a longtail boat
- Welcome to the the jungle
- Western influence and its tragic legacy
- Luang Nam Tha – soup, Beerlao and nightmarkets
- The Gang cruising on jungle roads
- Laos leading the way – Ecoutourism
- Mud, jungle and Rambo
- One night with the chief of an Akkha village
- Existential thoughts and the way back to civilisation
- Back in Muang Sing – the small luxuries of life
I don’t even know where to start, the last days have been by far the most intense and memorable I had on this trip so far. Incredible Laos.
Crossing the Thailand-Laos border on a longtail boat
Ok where should I start? When I left you I was about to take the bus in Bangkok which should have brought us to the northern Thai-Laos border. The bus ride was standard Thai: AC to the max and very comfy seats. We arrived in the border town of (Chiang Khong in Thailand and Huay Xai in Laos) around 8am and had to deal one last time with the horrible Thai tuktuk mafia tactics. I just hate how they rip you off. You arrive in a bus station somewhere but you don’t know where, you have to take a tuktuk and they will tell you any price, and you have to agree to it, but it didn’t matter because we were looking forward so much to Laos that nothing could have stopped us.
The borders in Asia are very geographical. Laos for instance has a border with Thailand which is marked by the flow of the Mekong, one of the biggest rivers in Asia. So crossing a border is not like in Europe where the only difference when you get from Germany to Austria is that you have to slow down to 130 km/h on the highway. We got our stamps on the Thai side of the Mekong (mine took 10 times longer than the other, but that was obvious) and then we took a longtail boat to cross this huge river (click here for the video of us crossing the Mekong). On the other side we got a new stamp and the Laos experience could start!!!
Welcome to the the Jungle
Most people take a slow boat from that border straight to Luang Prabang (the fastest way to go tubing in Vang Vieng), but we came to Laos to see another side of this laid back country. we went to the local bus station which was basically a hut with two buses in front and found out that Laos is a little bit different from what we imagined, not necessarily in a bad way but different. The Chinese are gaining a lot of influence in their neighbouring country and are investing lots of money; the consequence is that they are building very good paved roads all over Laos connecting the most important cities. Therefore the information of our guidebook that all roads were dirt tracks is not true anymore, which is good for us because travelling is an adventure but still not too difficult here. We took the bus to Luang Nam Tha (Luang means fertile place to live; Nam is river, and Tha the name of the river). This bus ride showed us immediately what Laos would be like: jungle, hills, jungle, hills and jungle. It’s incredible. Look at the country from Google earth and you will see what I mean, it’s just green. There are a few plains where people started gathering and built “cities” but a part of that, nothing, a few huts every 10 km. that’s it. And the jungle is the lushest, densest jungle I have ever seen.
Western influence and its tragic legacy
But before I continue some history of Laos. It was quite an influential kingdom in the medieval times, and then it was invaded by the Thai kingdom (that’s why they still use a very similar language) until the French forced Thailand to give them the power to rule this country. The French didn’t give a damn about the wellbeing of anyone here and the only thing they started was starting huge opium plantations all over the country to guarantee a steady supply of this drug to the French oppressors. Because of this Laos still has a massive problem with illicit trade of opium and drug addiction, which the government has been trying to fight since the 1990s. The French were fought by the Japanese in WW2, and after these left in 1945 the French came back but lasted only until 1953, the year of Laos´ independence. But Laos´ ordeal was not finished and the US´ secret massive bombing of the country in the 60s threw it back to medieval times (“Operation Menu”), destroying not only the landscape and the little existing infrastructure, but especially the people, until today. Dictatorships followed and only in 1990s foreign help organisations were allowed in. Today it is still an autocratic regime, but the country is slowly modernizing, and is taking an incredible approach to tourism. They are launching an ecotourism wave, which is both sustainable and different from any tourism offered in the neighbouring countries, but to this ecotourism later.
Luang Nam Tha – soup, Beerlao and nightmarkets
So we arrived in Luang Nam Tha, a little city or bigger village and were immediately confronted with Laos´ contradictions. They have Wi-Fi everywhere, but in the same place where you can go online from your laptop the food you order is cooked on wood fire. I haven’t seen one place where they didn’t cook on wood fire. Another peculiarity: the currency is Kip. The smallest currency is 1000 Kip and the biggest 50000, which means that the biggest bill you can own in this country is worth 5€! Now you can imagine the prices. We go to restaurants, order 3 starters, 3 mains, 3 deserts. beers, shots, and pay 12€ in total, craaaazy.
The standard meal is soup. The daily life of a Lao person is waking up early, eating your substantial soup, go work on the fields the entire day, come back around 6, eat another soup and go to bed at 8. I mean we are obviously not having the same routine but it still influences our lifestyle a lot. These soups are just sooo good. They serve them in huge bowls, and you know me, if I say huge I mean gigantic. The basis is a meat broth with homemade thick rice noodles. Then they add different kinds of meat and serve it with a big plate of vegetables and fresh herbs you can add (beans, leaves, mint, lime…). You pimp your soup and if you eat the entire bowl you can go all day. The price is standard, 10000 Kip, 1€. Also we had some difficulties with the currency because you go to a street stall selling fried bananas, and they ask 3000 Kip for 3, and at the beginning we were looking at them as if they were insulting you, because it sounds so much, until we realised it´s only 30 cents :)
But finally coming back to Luang Nam Tha. We found a really nice guesthouse and decided not to go for the cheapest options in this country (as the cheapest shitty accommodation would be 5€ for 3 people a night, and the one we take 9€ per night for 3), because what you get is amazing. Nice beds, hot shower (!!!!), a fan, and then they even give you a towel each, some soap and a bottle of water! That’s what I call good service! And the houses are these French colonial time buildings, nice interiors, huge terraces overlooking the rice fields!
In Luang Nam Tha we went to the markets, as in Laos there are no shops, there are basically no restaurants, and everything is settled on the markets. There is one for the morning to do the shopping and have breakfast and one at night (means 6 to 8 pm) to have supper and meet people. They sell everything and as they do not understand English we just wander through their stalls, point at random stuff, give them money hoping they give you back the right amount, and just try. What we thought was chicken turns out to be a root, and the sweetest looking deep fried thing has meat inside, adventure! Ah and they have Beerlao. This is the one and only beer brand in Laos and I have to admit, it’s really really good. I bet it was set up by Germans. It’s damn cheap as well, as a 650 ml bottle has the standard price of 10000 Kip, 1€.
The Gang cruising on jungle roads
The reason we came to Luang Nam Tha is that it is the gateway to Muang Sing, a village north of this city and the starting point to the apparently most authentic jungle trekking in Southeast Asia. To get there it’s a 60km ride through the jungle on a paved road, most people take a tuktuk there, but we thought, screw that, we are professional scooter drivers now, let’s do it! They told us that you can drive 20km with one litre. When we filled up the tank we tanked 2.8 litres, for 60km. Hmm, well adventure!
The road was incredible; no other words can describe the landscape. You make your way through the jungle and the landscape changes every 5km. The villages on the way look like European ones must have looked like 600 years ago. They have bamboo roofs (you can imagine how effective they are during the rainy season) and the few which have an iron roof are the pimps of the village. The families live all together in one house, or better, one room, which is elevated from the soil. Underneath the house is the toilet/stall, with pigs, goats, and chicken running around everywhere. I know this sounds far fetched, but if you have seen Rambo 4, can you remember the village which the militias destroy; well it’s exactly like that. The children on the street start running next to you when you drive past, everybody is smiling at you, and the men try to sell you everything from vegetables to squirrels while you pass them.
And it’s incredible which effort they put into this road. for the whole way, 60km, the locals cut the jungle for 2m on the right and left to avoid erosion and destruction of the road, but they do not have anything automatic or powered by electricity, they do it with knifes! 60km! I think that in the last mail I wrote, I quote “rainy season is overrated”, sorry I have to correct that. Rainy season in Laos is RAINY season, but we got used to being soaked wet and to wear a poncho and look like astronauts 24/7. But the bright side, imagine the jungle in Laos, then imagine it in the rainy season; it’s just the greenest vegetation on this planet, amazing!
Laos leading the way – Ecoutourism
In Muang Sing we stayed in a colonial guest house again with a stunning view on the valley. It’s heavily influenced by China, as the border is only 10km away and you can see it both in their food as in the names of villages and people.
But now to ecotourism. Many people go “trekking” in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. When you talk to these people this is what you usually get: you walk for 2 hours in a huge group, reach an “authentic” tribe village where at least 10 other groups are getting to the same day. In this village a circus is basically performed as they are trying to artificially hide the fact that the village is far from laid back and they sell you everything from bracelets to girls. Then of course, the must for every person coming to such a village in Thailand, you smoke opium (because this is apparently authentic as well…) and trek back the next day for 2 hours. This is the reason why in 3 times visiting Thailand I never went to that area. I mean if people like it, fair enough, but it’s very bad for the native people and the landscape. Culture is destroyed, drug addiction fostered, nature polluted…… we also heard stories of murder, rape, forced prostitution and so on. Laos is taking the opposite approach. Ecotourism means that a large amount of the money goes straight into sustainable projects in the villages (such as hydro or solar power) or into healthcare of the villagers. The agencies here show you exactly how the money is spent (in our case 50% for the agency/guides and 50% for the village). Small groups, long treks, no plastic or garbage, and more things you will learn from the trek we did later.
Mud, jungle and Rambo
We signed up for this trek in Muang Sing not knowing what it was, a part of the duration, 2 days, with an overnight stay in an Akkha village (these are the local tribes, with an own language and culture). When we got there in the morning they told us that we are young and strong and will do a difficult trek. After the trek I would have to redefine two words: challenge and mud! We paid 45€ each and for that price got 2 guides. Bond, who is a local from Muang Sing, has studied and knows English quite well. He is 31, has a son, and works on his family´s rice field. And the second was Rambo. I mean he had another name obviously, but we would refer to him only as Rambo. This was the scene when we picked him up with our tuktuk on the way to the start: he walked out of the jungle, smoking a cigarette and his HUGE jungle knife swinging through his legs. He is an Akkha, a local from this jungle village, does speak neither English nor Laos, only Akkha and uses his knife for everything! And I mean everything! He knows the way through the dense jungle and was literally freeing our path with his knife.
So the trek, I don’t even know how to describe this challenge! First day was 1200m uphill. This is more then we have done in the Himalayas. But there it was a nice path, we took our time and so on. Here it was not even a path, just a small 20cm wide track with knee high mud. I know why rain forests are called rain forests now. In the city it rains, then it stops, then it rains. In the jungle it rains every single minute, every second! The only thing changing is how heavy it rains. We put on our ponchos, off after 5min, back on and so on, but the rain was sooo heavy. We did not have proper shoes as we sent them off from India. So I was trekking in the running shoes my father wanted to throw away already and I told him that I would destroy them first in Asia. Well they are in a waste bin now. Every step we took we slid down half of the way again. Sometimes the jungle was so dense that you could not see further than 50cm because of all the plants everywhere. The humidity was probably 90%.
So Rambo at the front making use of his knife constantly then us and then Bond at the end laughing at us all the time, because we kept on falling into the mud and the other two were walking with flip flops and didn’t have any problems at all. In German we have a word for this trek, it´s knechten; this is exactly what it was. It was just sooo hard, because you cannot stop and chill, you have to make it to the village, which is an 8 hour walk, and otherwise you are stuck in the jungle. You don’t want to stop, because otherwise the wet clothes will make you feel cold. The uphill part was just the most tiring thing ever, but the downhill was even worse. We had to walk down the same altitude on a mud track. I had to concentrate on every single step, as I knew that if I trip and twist my injured left ankle, nobody will get me out of here and I have a serious problem. Still I fell around 15 times, but developed a technique with which it didn’t even bother me, I just looked like a mud ball. At one point we got to a river, about 1m deep. But in the monsoon season these rivers are just so powerful and frightening. Rambo looked at us and pointed to the river. We thought like, sure he is making a joke, the bridge is around the corner, but the moment he started walking inside the river we realised it was not a joke! Camera, backpack, everything we had was on our backs. I don’t know how, but we made it putting all our weight against the stream, using the Rambo-carved made bamboo sticks to find some grip between the mud and the stones of the river. And this was after 8 hours of jungle trekking. When we finally reached the village we just felt dead!
One night with the chief of an Akkha village
The village has about 40 houses and has been cooperating with this agency for 1 year. They didn’t have any visitors (I really don’t know why considering it´s soooo easy to get there) since 2 months and we were hosted by the chief of the village. This is the most remote place any of us has ever been to. The houses are like those in bigger more civilised villages, but even simpler. You get up a wooden stair, inside there is one big room, a fire place, a place to eat and a place to sleep. The families stay together and the wives move into the husbands families. That means around 20 people per house. When I asked where the toilet is Bond laughed at me and said “toilet is everywhere”. only problem is that being a white foreign person the moment I stepped outside of the hut around 20 children started following me everywhere and well you can imagine how difficult it is when nature calls.
The chief of the village is a hereditary position. The women cook and work, the men hunt and work. People get married around 15, if the wife does not bear a son; the man has a right to marry another woman. The Akkha believe in a spirit which safeguards the village and make sacrifices for it. What I liked most about this experience is that, contrary to conventional village tours, these people did not change anything because we were there. They just kept on doing what they are doing usually. This led to some awkward moments of us standing there not knowing what to do, but at the same time it just made it so authentic. When I asked him for a place to change clothes, same reaction as the previous question, so I changed in front of 10 children lurking through the walls.
Dinner, what an experience! We had sticky rice, which is always the basis for everything. They use this plant for everything, building houses, roofs, chopsticks, food. They cook it or fry it with loads of chilli and garlic. And the best part of the meal, squirrel soup. Very harsh, special taste, but good. So we ate all together on the floor. Afterwards we got the welcome gift, which is a tradition in Akkha villages for the guests, an Akkha massage. We didn’t do any massages in Thailand or anywhere as this is just another way of saying brothel in those places. But this was just sooo good. The girls of the household massaged us for like an hour, and we are all pretty sure, without this massage we couldn’t have been able to move the next day. Then the women went to sleep and the men stayed awake and we started drinking.
They brew their own liquor (Chita in Akkha and Lao Lao in Laos) which is made by distilling rice with herbs and roots from the jungle on the wood fire. It’s very good but soo strong. And we were sitting in this round learning Akkha and Laos language (we know about 20 words in each now) and drinking to every word learned. When one bottle was finished, the chief brought the next and the result was that we all got quite drunk, David a little bit too much :). But I mean if I know one thing, it’s never to refuse something from such people. at one point the chief takes out this green, dry stuff, breaks it into pieces and puts it in the glasses before pouring Lao Lao on top. When we asked what it was they explained that when they kill a porcupine in the jungle, they take its stomach, empty it and dry the stuff inside. We waited for it to mix with the alcohol before drinking it. It is supposed to have virile effects. Horrible, bitter taste, but as Bond said every time we had to do something borderline “adventure adventure”. They even grow their own tobacco and are completely self-reliant, as the fastest way to civilisation is the path we took. But they have electricity (provided by solar panels bought and installed by the agency) and dental care (also agency money). After hours and hours of drinking we finally went to sleep.
Existential thoughts and the way back to civilisation
When we were woken up we just felt horrible, absolutely horrible. My legs hurt so much, plus a massive hung-over. And I had a feeling I never had before. The conviction that if I do not make my way to civilisation on these two hurting legs, nobody will come and get me. If you get ill, injured or anything, well I don’t want to know. I literally thought the whole day that I didn’t have a choice, and I think we all thought that. The programme for the day was to walk 10 hours on a relatively flat path. But before that, breakfast.
Rice and bamboo, what else? We really didn’t feel like eating, especially David as you can imagine, as it was the exact same food we had 8 hours before and we all felt sick form the homebrewed Lao Lao. But we had to eat, we all knew that we needed energy and swallowed as much as we could. Rambo had quite a few shots of Lao Lao to cure the hangover and he was absolutely wasted the first hours, singing, talking to himself and to plants and trees. We crossed the stream again, which was even stronger after the storm at night and reached our hips, even Rambo nearly slipped. We then started this amazing trek. I mean most of the time we had to concentrate on our feet and it was just too exhausting, but at the same time I don’t think many people have ever been in such a jungle. I mean we are in one of the most laid back countries on the planet and went to one of the most remote places, amazing.
Around noon we met these two other Akkha men who were having lunch and we joined them. The two had captured a bee hive from the ground and were smoking the walls of the nests, as these are full of larvae. The bees are bigger than in Europe the larvae are also about 3cm long. They had them with rice, that’s it. Then of course they offered it to us and I mean, never refuse anything, so I ate larvae. Tastes like corn and the consistency is well, interesting. After this peculiar lunch break we kept on walking, and it was amazing, words can’t describe this forest. Constant rain, animals, huge butterflies, insects and stunning views. Our minds were in some kind of a limbus, just not thinking, as we had to reach the end, there was no other way, and our legs hurt so much that the thought was not bearable. Plus leeches. Everywhere, sucking your blood. It was just hard. and Rambo was running upfront with the pace with which we could have reached the village that day. After 10 hours of walking we reached civilisation. Even Rambo looked tired; we were just somewhere else with our minds.
Back in Muang Sing – The small luxuries of life
The moment we got back to the guesthouse I felt a sort of happiness that I didn’t know before. The feeling of safety, of water, of a bed. We slept 14 hours straight and all agree that if we knew before what it would have been like we would have refused to do it. We would never do it again. We would never recommend it, but we are sooo happy we did it. I will never forget this experience. I don’t think I will ever get to such a remote place again and you learn to appreciate soo many things when you don’t have anything but the simplest food and shelter.
Now soup never tasted so good, beer has never been so refreshing, a warm shower has never felt so pleasant and a bed has never been that comfy. Today I can’t move, but it doesn’t matter, I have a scooter. I don’t think that people generally go trekking in this season and the reason is obvious, I mean we are 3 strong 20 year olds and we nearly collapsed, but this is exactly why I am travelling, experiences, and this is definitely a big one. I am very proud of all three of us, because nobody complained at any point, we all couldn’t walk anymore, but we all knew there was no choice and just kept on walking. And the things we have seen, eaten, experienced are special indeed.
So today, chill out. We took our scooters and drove to the Chinese-Laos border, just to stand in front of the stop sign and take tourist pictures of the other side of the line. We didn’t even dare to cross the line with one foot as a Chinese angry looking soldier with an AK47 was watching us. But I saw China :). Then we drove our scooters back 70km to Luang Nam Tha in heavy monsoon rain, which doesn’t even bother us anymore and now here I am. In 1 hour we take the night bus to Luang Prabang. David´s parents, who traveled a lot, say it is the most beautiful city they have ever seen and I can’t wait. It was the capital once and must be the most laid back, chilled out city ever.
This was a long mail, but I needed a few lines to describe this incredible experience, I hope everything is good back home and I will write soon.