The local bus takes us two hours up, through and over the mountains towards Muang Sing. I put on my newly downloaded Hospital Records Podcasts. The sun shined. Traditional villages, bamboo huts, lush jungle, dirt roads and rural Laos life passes me by. The small signs made from cement on the side of the road counting down the kilometers left to go. I had no idea what to expect. Not one tourist to be seen, I am the only English speaking human on this bus. I love my life.
Destination Muang Sing, middle of the golden triangle. According to the governments and media, the opium trade no longer exists. And Scotland has no issues with the consumption of heroin. Money talks. Corruption is rife.
The bus station was dusty and empty. I walked out onto the road. This was also dusty and empty. A motorbike passed me by, kicking up even more clouds of dust. I had arrived at a ghost town. No tuk tuks. No sign of life. How bizarre. I liked my situation instantly. This type of situation is something I have learned to love, I now thrive on it. Thailand doesn’t offer this, neither had Laos so far. Easy travelling has its place but difficult travelling creates the stories down the pub, the real memories. Muang Sing didn’t disappoint. My love affair with Laos was about to start.
Luckily for me, the Americans from Luang Nam Tha had given me a map. I located a cheap guest house and received a damp, scruffy and relatively cheap room, reminiscent of a budget Indian hostel. I checked for bed bugs. I wasn’t convinced the mosquito net would protect me from whatever was lurking in the room at night. I had no choice. The other guest house had all its three rooms booked out. I was in no mans land. Best I get a bed than not.
This was the main road. Near on deserted. A few mechanics, ladies sitting on stools and children riding bikes greeted me along with the passing traffic. I sat at the only restaurant, ordered a local chilli dish called tauw and after ten minutes of attempting to ‘people watch’, I finally spotted a tourist. I was immediately harassed by some old ladies wearing traditional Hmong attire. They pulled out old coins and talked a soft sales pitch. I shook my head and declined politely. They flipped them over and whispered and whistled signalling that the substance in their hands was opium. Drug dealers in the UK choose a different attire, usually young dudes with a screw face, wearing flat caps who kiss their teeth and occasionally call you ‘blud’ or ‘fam’. When in a sleepy dusty town like Muang SIng the last thing you expect is grandma drug dealers in traditional Hmong dress selling you opium. I was taken back. Good cover. No one would ever expect her and her little friends to be knocking out some of the Golden Triangles finest. Although they were a little pushy, they were the nicest drug dealers I had the pleasure of meeting, ever. Alas, I felt bad for them. The market was not strong that day. There were more dealers than customers.
So take note, for those that don’t know, whispering granny in traditional Hmong clothing = opium selling drug dealer.
It was almost 5pm and the night was drawing in so I hunted down some of the guides and trekking agencies. They were shut. A couple of them had the guides sat outside downing Beerlao and playing cards. They were also shut. One was open but had no treks booked. He wanted to charge me a million kip a day. Some people clearly don’t want business. As the entire ghost town was clearly busy earning mega bundles from opium, trekking was not on the agenda. Maybe they were just cover up businesses to keep the Police at bay. I decided to go it alone. I booked a Trek mountain bike from an empty hotel. Bike, map, a variety of ethnic minority villages, the wilderness and me. What a very strange place. What a very strange situation to put myself in. No one spoke English in this town. No one was in my hostel. Not even a person at reception. I felt alone. I felt an adventure was on the cards. I liked it. Check out this turkey.
Early rise, early breakfast, no bites to report, I was on form and ready for it. The Laos wilderness beckoned.
Map in hand, I hit the road, the only one with tarmac and appreciated the gears and the light frame but was a little miffed by the non existent brakes. Either way, freedom flowed through my considerably shorter than usual hair and I was buzzing, high on life. No idea where I was going or what to expect.
I passed through a number of remote villages, witnessing their normal everyday lives. Traditional methods of production, living off the land, animals playing, monasteries, a mountain stupa, bamboo houses on stilts, weird tractors, banana trees, rubber trees, herbs growing, jungle, rivers, temples…
I rode my bike. I walked. I observed. I learned. I smiled. I sweated. People’s everyday, mundane life fascinating me. I didn’t meet anyone that spoke English for two days. Two days learning about a culture and way of life unknown to me.
I visited Tai Neau, Akha and Tai Lui villages. They don’t speak Laos or English. They smile lots and the kids love to chase and wave at me. Nothing will beat my village experiences in Myanmar but this was close. Some villages had been visited by tourists many times, you can feel it and others had rarely seen a falang, let alone a sweating, sun burnt, six foot tall falang on a flash mountain bike with no breaks.
I rode down dirt tracks and through fields, village hopping. In a small village I can’t remember the name of, I saw two blind cats creating a baby. I’ve never seen cat sex. I didn’t know whether to watch or leave them to it. I was a little shocked. So I took a picture and walked on, whispering my apologies.
Both the men and the ladies in these villages worked hard on the fields, picking, watering and putting the crops out to dry. As I passed, some waved and smiled. They were almost as friendly as the Burmese. No wonder people fall in love with this country.
Spring onions and chilli drying, ladies in traditional head scarves, women working on huge sewing contraptions made from bamboo, dirt tracks, rice paddies, cycling through rivers, getting lost, children playing games with stones, sticks and flip flops, shouting ‘sabadee’, the towering mist settling on the Npa hills in the distance, mums talking, cockerels screaming, novice monks on bikes, I took it all in. Mike ‘The Explorer’ they call me. Cooke ain’t got nothin’ on me.
I stopped for lunch in an Akha village. Two ladies, a fat man and a couple of kids sat outside a house. A few brightly coloured packets of something Chinese hung down from the ceiling, a cold pot of noodles was on the floor by the woman’s feet and a variation of spices sat on the small table in front of her.
I spoke the little Laos I had learned. I ate noodles and a spicy mix of whatever was on the table for 1000 kip (11p). That’s 14,000 kip cheaper than in town. They talked about me in their own language. They smiled and talked to me in Laos. I had no idea what they said. I smiled and repeated ‘sep lie’ which means delicious, like the ignorant tourist I was. I also had an ice cream, surprised that the village had electricity let alone a refrigerator. That was 1000 kip too. She then gave me a complimentary homemade Laolao. Then another. I had to escape before I got pissed.
I rode my mountain bike on dirt tracks from 9am until 5pm. I was dirty, hungry and tired. I stopped in Namdaet Mai, an Akha village, hoping to get a bed for the night, a home stay would have been cool.
The first thing I noticed was the older women walking around with no tops on. As in boobs out. Full frontal exposure. The posters at the boarder said that tourists must dress appropriately. What about the locals? These ladies were obviously a little rebellious and flouted the Laos PDR rules. Not that I minded, it seemed sensible, it was a hot day. They wore a traditional head scarf and dress to cover their bottom halves.
A bunch of kids greeted me. Smiling and shaking my hand they were what all the Laos kids appear to be, very cute, scruffy, covered in dirt and donning huge cheeky grins. These little ones soon turned into my personal tour and body guards for the night.
I haven’t spoke English for a while and the lovely people in the village weren’t going to start any time soon. I signaled with my hands that I wanted to sleep. The kids lead me through the village to a bamboo hut on stilts. It was locked. I seriously doubted the kids knew what I was talking about until the shortest one, maybe four years old max, disappeared and came back producing a huge set of keys. He opened the padlock to my house for the night and the team of kiddies made me a bed to sleep in. This hut was obviously used by a trekking company when they had night stays in the village. The thin mattresses, blankets and netting hadn’t been used for a while but I was pleasantly surprised that a bunch of kids, no older than 10 years old, had found me a place to sleep and laid my bed for me. Nice. Easier than I thought.
With digs sorted, I signaled to the my newly adopted little chav’s that I wanted to eat. They lead me to a very old ladies house who then tried to sell me some tatty bracelets. She smiled. So did I. We talked in different languages and I gave her some money for a weird coloured thingy that I attached to my bag. Another good luck charm. It holds a good story, worth every penny. I left the old ladies hut with a bright coloured bobbly thingy but without being fed. We bumped into a couple of large, hairy pigs having some sexy time. The kids were in hysterics.
We wandered the streets. No concrete, no cars, no Internet. Electricity was supplied via solar panels. Animals ran riot. The topless ladies and the younger ones cleaned dishes in the well, kids washed in the stream, women cooked dinner, men returned home from work and people stared at me, mostly smiling. The sun was setting. This was home for the night.
Still hungry the kids took me through the village to Nong’s Mums place. He was the cool kid who the others looked up to. I sat in the dark room and watched her prepare my food. She smiled lots. My companion, tour guide and number one fan, Nong, lit the wood for the pan. Next to this pan was a huge dead rat. I pointed and looked surprised. Nong picked up the rodent and posed proudly for a picture, probably his catch. His mum cooked me a feast which included lots a MSG, salt, egg, tangy green stuff and sticky rice. I was famished. I cleaned up quickly and thanked her. I drank the water unsure if I was to regret it later. I didn’t have any change so I gave her some money that was equivalent to a months wages and she gave me a huge bag of nuts. Lovely old bird. Her son and his gang were intense but a pleasure all the same.
Excited, the boys took me down to the village center, where there were two rastenball courts. One for the boys and one for men of the village. A few more younger kids joined our gang. It was the evening, so everyone had stopped working and were socialising, laughing, joking and playing games before darkness fell. There was a nice feel to the village.
I danced the ‘Gangnam Style’ with the kids. One even had jeans with a flashing picture of the ‘Gangnam Style’ dancing sensation Psy. I washed my hands and face in the well. I was filthy and tired. As we returned to my new home for the night, I wanted to sit down and relax. My crew of kids weren’t so relaxed as me. Hyper active and buzzing with energy they played and climbed all over the hut, swinging like monkeys from the roof. My presence had clearly excited the little fellas.
I went to bed and slept for twelve hours. The only thing that woke me up occasionally was the pigs and chickens that walked around and under my hut on stilts. At 3.50 the cockerels started. There are loads of them too. Hundreds. By 6am the village is alive with activity, men hawk and spit as loudly as possible and the women prepare their families breakfast. I was awake and ready for more action.
Nong greets me with a tired smile the minute I open my door. We had a good bond. He’s a good kid. I like him.
As I left a lady was waving and shouting at me. After some confusion I was confronted by a man who said I must pay 20,000 kip for my nights sleep. He explained in broken English that the money goes to the village. I gave him the money. A crowd had gathered. I think they thought I was a cheat and wasn’t going to pay them. I thought my generous payment for my food last night included my lodgings, obviously not.
I said my thank you’s, danced the Gangnam Style one last time and got on my bike and rode out of the misty town down a dirt track back out into the wilderness again.
I passed through more villages on my way back to Luang Namtha. My body was aching from my excessive cardiovascular bashing I gave it the day before. The morning mist was hanging on the hills and the fields. Taking in morning life in the villages was a different experience from yesterday. The hunters, the workers on the fields, the mechanics, the farmers, the drivers, the builders and the school children all hung around in large groups, presumably waiting to go to work, or to school. As I rode through the villages, I gathered a lot of attention.
My journey through the ethnic villages of the Luang Namtha Province was complete. I picked up my bag from the crazy woman at the hostel, had a much needed cold shower from the rusty pipe sticking out of a wall and walked to the local bus station. My bus took me back to Luang Namtha, where I got a tuk tuk bus from one bus station to the other before waiting two hours for my bus to Pak Mong. My final destination was meant to be Nong Khiaw. The man at the bus station promises me that there will be a connecting bus. I believed him. Maybe I am still a naive traveler.
After six hours on a hot, sticky bus I get to Pak Mong. The air on the bus was filled with dust from the road. The experienced local traveler wore dust masks, I just suffered. Pak Mong is a tiny stop off town with little charm. After walking around a while, I found out that the man at the bus station was talking crap. I was stuck in Pat Mong.
I had to stay in Pak Mong. Forced to stay due to lack of transport. The place was rough. Not many people lived there but many stopped on route. Pak Mong was just a road with minging restaurants, shops and a couple of guest houses. Only one lady spoke English in the town. She also owned a guest house, ironically named Alone Guest House. Travelling at its best. Unexpected stay overs in weird little towns no body ever wants to come to. Classic.
The hostel was grim. I was the only guest. I presume only people who can’t physically escape Pak Mong have to stay here. I was the only guest. My bedroom was crawling, spider webs cover the ceiling and the dust made me sneeze. This place had crime scene all over it. This picture doesn’t do it justice.
I head downstairs to eat a plate of rice and vegetables, washing it down with a cold Beerlao. I may need some help sleeping. This was when a man with a huge, furry, bloodied, dead cat-cross-badger type thing walks into the restaurant, has a chat with the owner next to where the buffet food is and calmly walks back out. I’m stunned. What was that animal? Was it road kill? Was he trying to sell it to the lady? Where am I? What’s going on?
That night, my sleep was broken. I prefer sleeping on in bamboo huts on the floor than a dirt hole like this. I was paranoid of bed bugs eating me and the cockerel didn’t help things either, screaming to its maximum volume early doors. I bloody hate cockerels. I dreamed it was inside the room and I was chasing it. The weird dream ended, luckily for the cockerel, it survived and I woke with a clear conscience. Strange place, strange nights sleep, I needed to escape.
I returned downstairs to the weird restaurant to see the same meat dishes on the table as yesterday. Nice. I swerved breakfast and waited for my tuk tuk. A short and chubby Laos man takes me to Nong Khiaw after we negotiated a price we are both happy with. I, again, am the only tourist, and am attracting curious stares from the locals. I was happy to get away from Pak Mong and delighted to see the beautiful Nong Khiaw,
Bus journeys in Laos. One thing I won’t miss.