Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Northern Laos and Return to Luang Prabang

"Own only what you can carry with you; Let your memory be your travel bag."

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn


Photos Part I

Photos Part II

Andrea, Dave and I made our way to Nong Kiaow, about 2 hours north of Luang Prabang on a local mini-bus looking for something a little more backwoods Laos - and we definitely got it here!

We found 2 bungalows nestled into a bank along the Nam Ou River with private squatting toilet (a definite luxury), balcony (with a hammock) and a million dollar view of the limestone covered mountains, for just 45,000 kip/night (about $5 CDN). I went for a jaunt into the main centre of town to take some pics. It was obvious this town was not as accustomed to travelers coming through - even just raising my camera made everyone scatter like marbles hitting a wood floor. As per usual, it was the children who were the most engaging and eager to communicate.

We found a restaurant that looked to have a pretty good menu but continued down the street to see what else was available. We found another restaurant with the exact same menu but about 25% cheaper! This is Asia (T.I.A.) - no point in asking why. We got to know the couple that owned the restaurant quite well and we were lucky enough to see a traditional Lao song and dance from their little girl while their little boy shot at us with a toy gun. They had a cat called ‘Mow’ (rhymes with ‘wow’), which I thought was sweet at first because cats and dogs don't usually have names or treated as pets. I found out later in my travels that virtually every cat’s name in Laos, is ‘Mow’.

One morning, while having breakfast, an elderly lady leisurely strolled by the restaurant on her bicycle with a freshly chopped water buffalo’s head! It was quite a sight, especially with that unique water buffalo grin still intact on its face. After breakfast, we walked down the street a little and found 2 children thoroughly butchering previously seen water buffalo’s head. They were using every last bit of that head for something – not wasting a thing. The girl was quite amused by our apparent looks of disgust and decided to play it up for the cameras and make googly eyes with the water buffalo’s eyeballs...just lovely!

We walked to nearby Tham Pha Tok caves, which was where the entire town hid during the Indo China War in the 1960s-1970s. It blew me away to see that they had an art unit and a bank amongst other very normal things you would see in a little town – but it was all ran within the confines of the caves.

After a couple days of eating, caving and more eating – we took a one hour boat ride north, complete with beautiful views, postcard scenes with little kids running amock, fishing, swimming and waving at our boat. Among the locals in transit with us was a little boy with a chicken in a basket. I of course had to desensitize myself several times – animals are merely food in most of SE Asia and up to this point I had seen very little affection exhibited from Laotians towards an animal. But this little boy actually was comforting the chicken (I think) by putting his fingers through the holes of the basket and giving him some gentle scratches. It warmed the heart a little.

We arrived at our port – Muang Ngoi – a quintessential Laos village. Chickens, cows, goats, pigs, dogs, ducks and cats milling about amongst snickering children running through the red dirt streets. We bumped into a guy staying at my guesthouse who said there was a lady in the village rumoured to be 112. Just minutes later we saw her walk by.....if she isn't 112, well she definitely looks it!

That night we went to a place called, ‘Mama’s’ overlooking the river. It was a typical SE Asian restaurant, nothing fancy but definitely cozy with hammocks and cushions. We had met some people on the boat and at our guesthouse and ended up having a lovely dinner party. The food and conversation was great but the bugs all over the food, table and us, I could have done without. I couldn’t eat my sticky rice for all the flies and ants landing on it. It was one of those moments when I missed the west just a little.

In Muang Ngoi, the generators are only turned on for a couple of hours every evening. When I left my bungalow, my light switch must have been left on because when I arrived back, it had attracted all kind of friendly insects in all different shapes and sizes. I thought ok – I'll just turn the patio light on and open the door so they can clear out while I put my mosquito net down and all will be well!

Just as soon as the flicker of my bright idea ignited, the lights went out. I had forgotten that the generators are turned off at 10 so my next move was to get my flashlight out of my backpack, which just happened to be in a compartment secured by a combination padlock. This would be fine, if I could SEE! OK think Tracey – light source ... need a light source! Aha! My laptop – I knew that thing would come in handy on the backpacker trail! I set it on the patio hoping that some of the creepy crawlies would line up like good little soldiers and march towards the light...wishful thinking. I then spent the next 15 minutes sweeping off my bed and shaking out the sheets so I could shield myself under the confines of my mozzy net. The whole process of removing the bugs and getting ready for bed took a good hour with no light and by the time I secured myself under the net - I was sweating and exhausted but quite content. After almost eating bugs for dinner, I was in no mood to sleep with them too!

I also had a roommate living in my bathroom – an inchworm! I had only been exposed ti them as funny characters in cartoons and had not actually seen one live. It was protruding straight out from the wall wiggling around like a blind man's arm trying to find his cane when I first noticed him. He was quite a little slow mover but extremely entertaining to watch and a much better roomie to have vs. the bat in my bungalow the previous evening.

We left Muang Ngoi by boat back to Nong Kiaow to catch a sawngthaw back to Luang Prabang. I was excited to get back to so called civilization – which really just meant erratic electricity and inconsistent, cold running water . Not having these things, even for a short time, definitely makes one appreciate it so much more. The week before in Hanoi, I past a teenaged boy on the street who said, ‘I wish I was you’ as I walked past. Just being born in Canada gives me a serious leg up over so much of the rest of the world and I intend to take full advantage of what has been given to me – freedom to travel, being one of them!

Our open air truck (sawngthaw) was filled with locals, backpackers and a chicken – there always seems to be a token chicken when traveling with the locals. Watching Laos life pass by was really cool and interesting the first hour, but by the third, it had started to rain and I could hardly feel my bum anymore. We were quite grateful when we got back ‘home’ to our guesthouse where we were yet again warmly welcomed by our adopted family.

Andrea and I went for dinner that night and talked literature, photography and jewellery design over Indian. I just love that girl - one of the most thoughtful and kind people I have known. Her and Dave changed the course of my voyage for the best and made my experience in Northern Laos magical and memorable. I felt like I was traveling with old friends. Both of them are extremely talented and I know I will be able to say ‘I knew them when’ someday. Dave’s paintings can be seen here: www.davebeazley.com.

Dave and Andrea departed for the Plain of Jars and I stayed in Luang Prabang to take in a little bit more of her charm before boarding a bus to the next destination – a little town called Vang Vieng, or more accurately – the Twilight Zone?! Doo doo dee doo doo doo dee doo!

The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.

- Amelia E. Barr

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