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Laos Letters

Up
Mekong River
Luang Prabang
Luang Namtha
Northern Laos

Luang Namtha

Dear Friends and Family,

On May 21 we left the quiet city of Luang Prabang and headed north into the hills of Laos.  Our 10 hour minibus ride was a real shocker, with 4 hours on a broken road that was more potholes than paving, bouncing, jostling, swaying, and banging along at perhaps 12 mph (20 kph).  Gorgeous scenery, but still lots of clear cut slash and burn farming.  Lunch was at a roadside kiosk that held no appeal, so we snacked on our peanut butter and crackers, and had cold cans of fresh coconut milk to drink.

We rode this badly broken road for 4 hours
We rode this badly broken road for 4 hours
Bugs for lunch? - No thank you
Bugs for lunch? - No thank you

Luang Namtha is a provincial capital of the northwest corner of Laos.  It's spread out in a valley of green rice paddies, with only 1 main street.  Being situated near a variety of hill tribe villages, it's a trekkers' haven, offering many options for exploring this hilly region.  There are several guest houses and a couple good restaurants for cold Beer Lao or icy blended lemon "shakes".  We stayed at lovely Thoulasith Guest House in a ground floor room with a/c for $12/night, but ate each meal at Zuela, just a couple blocks away.  There we were introduced to one of our favorite Laotian foods: peanut Jeow: a dish with fresh steamed veggies and a thick, spiced peanut sauce.  Yum!  Zuela also had good breakfasts: fresh baguette, fried egg, Lao coffee (heavy and dark), and fruit, which gave us fortitude for each day's wandering.

A  Laotian specialty - peanut Jeow
A Laotian specialty - peanut Jeow
Zuela Guest House had lovely breakfasts
Zuela Guest House had lovely breakfasts

What to do in this trekkers' paradise?  Well, we nixed trekking as the leeches are out and we only brought sandals, and we reluctantly nixed kayaking as the rivers are too low.  It might have been worth it if there was the chance of seeing wildlife, but in truth Laos is pretty barren of wildlife.  Bird count per day: about 1, other than an occasional small (8‑10) flock of Asian Tree sparrows.  Not one egret or heron on the river.  No cattle egrets on the water buffalo.  One small sunbird over the river in Luang Prabang, and only a few mynahs.  Birds, it appears, are a cheap source of protein.

So we rented a scooter each day to explore the surrounding countryside.  The helmets were just Styrofoam but there were very few vehicles on the roads we chose.

Pretty views, but too much clear cutting on the road to Luang Namtha
Pretty views, but too much clear cutting on the road to Luang Namtha
We were glad to get off that bus!
We were glad to get off that bus!

Our first adventure took us north on a good road to the town of Muang Sing, which is touted as a good trekking base.  The trip there (about 2 hours) wound through the Nam Ha Protected zone where the ancient trees were tall against the sky, and bamboo stands draped over the road.  What a pleasure to have the road virtually to ourselves!  This is what northern Laos looked like before it was logged.  But the town of Muang Sing was dusty, hot and busy with traffic.  It spread out over miles of dry rice fields, with no central area that held any appeal.  We were glad we hadn't counted on staying there.  On our return trip to Luang Namtha the heavens opened and we biked on the forested road in the pelting rain.  It was the coolest we had felt in weeks!  By the time we arrived in town, about an hour later, we were dry and warm once again, and the roads were almost dry.

Lovely mountain tropical rainforest going to Muang Sing
Lovely mountain tropical rainforest going to Muang Sing
The Muang Sing valley was agricultural & not so interesting
The Muang Sing valley was agricultural & not so interesting

One afternoon we scootered to nearby villages in search of the ones known for weaving and making whiskey.  Never found the lao-lao booze, but did find a Tia Deng (Red Thai) village known for its textiles.  Under each thatched hut was a loom, and we got to watch the women at work, and then see their sales room of silk and cotton weavings.  It felt good to contribute to their efforts.

We made our way to a hill with a new golden stupa on top.  It was sad and disconcerting to see, next to the new stupa, the bombed out ruins of the original, centuries-old stupa, courtesy of American bombers during the 70's.  But the site had great views over the valley in the afternoon sun.

Tia Deng village woman showing off her weaving
Tia Deng village woman showing off her weaving
The bombed out stupa next to the new golden stupa
The bombed out stupa next to the new golden stupa

Our second big scooter trip took us on a gravel road to the south of Luang Namtha, towards the town of Nale.  This road was a bit disconcerting as we were never sure what would be around the corner: landslide, loose gravel, big boulders, or a one-lane bridge.  Far below us the Namtha river lay brown-green and sluggish.  Near some picturesque thatched hut villages, we saw children jumping into the river and playing in the small sets of rapids.  Fishermen fixed and set nets.  Many villages have become modernized with satellite TV antennas and western clothes worn by all.

Jon explores a rickety walking bridge over the Namtha River
Jon explores a rickety walking bridge over the Namtha River
A slightly less rickety bridge built to take scooters
A slightly less rickety bridge built to take scooters

We passed through corners of the Protected Area, but also saw lots of plantations of rubber trees and teak.  Nale itself wasn't much of a town, just a few streets above the river.  A new big concrete bridge crossed the Namtha River and we had a picnic lunch in the shade of a covered eatery by the river.  We explored the far side of the river, thinking we might make a loop through the hills to return, but the road was reputedly in poor repair, and our maps were pretty hopeless, so we just returned the way we'd come, which was pretty enough.

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon and Sue Hacking

Laos Letters: Up | Mekong River | Luang Prabang | Luang Namtha | Northern Laos

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