Northern Laos: Nong Khiaw, grumpy people, opium ladies, driveway sleeping, & goodbye

I like Laos, but it reminds me of going through Vietnam in that the people get a bit colder and more serious as you get further north. The warmth and open arms of the the people in the south slowly cools down and isn’t as inviting. At least that’s my experience. For the first time of my trip, there were people who didn’t want me camping, and even a temple that told me no foreigners. Instead of going into restaurants and being welcomed with big smiles, the faces were usually expressionless and emotionless. The weather summed up the attitude of a lot of the people for me, cold.

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The sun warmed everything up during the day, but as soon as the sun snuck away and until it climbed back in the sky it was cold. Everything got a nice layer of condensation by the morning. My favorite spot in the north was definitely Nong Khiaw. After being on the move pretty continuously, it was a perfect spot to put down some roots for a bit.

The setting is in between limestone cliffs along a large river. It’s a small place that hasn’t gotten hit by the tourist route too hard yet. For six bucks a night I had a little bungalow with a view of the river. Laying in the hammock on the porch you have a mountain towering above you on the other side of the river.

I got lost for four days here hiking for miles, eating fresh spring rolls, and swaying in my hammock. Outside of the village are tiny little villages where the people are living lives as simple as you can imagine. The basic human necessities are all that matter. Having a roof over your head, enough food for everyone to eat, and family. The children play games in the streets with sticks, string, and bottles. A kid from the west would go insane with boredom, but these kids laugh endlessly with enjoyment.

From there I snaked my way to the very northwest corner of Laos to Luang Namtha and then out to Muang Sing. At one point I was only eighteen km from the Chinese border before veering left.

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The road out to Muang Sing was nice, but there was only one tiny section where there was still thick forest. Pretty much the rest of it has been turned into rubber tree plantations by the Chinese. This time of year the leaves are turning a golden orange, which gives everything an autumn feel, but it’s a shame what has happened to the nature. The majority of the land has been leased out to the Chinese to rape and use up the resources. Entire hillsides are slashed and burned to make way for rubber trees.

The big draw to Luang Namtha for tourists is the trekking. The main street in town is lined with tour agencies. I went in and talked to one just to get an idea what they offer. When showing me the different tours on the map he had to tell me at least half the trails were no longer used because the area had been torn down. On top of that they charge really high prices to go walk in the forest for a couple days. From what I saw, it wouldn’t be my first choice of places to go trekking. I spent my final night in Laos in Luang Namtha. I thought I’d just find a temple to camp at outside of town, but the night took a different road. They have a small night market in town, which has lots of food to fill up on. I was so hungry that I sat down at the first noodle soup lady I saw. Unfortunately she was the one with broth full of liver and kidney chunks. With the chopsticks, I picked out the noodles and vegetables. I’ve never been a fan of the organs.

If I wasn’t already disappointed enough, a young Chinese girl came up to me and said, “are you sure you want to eat that”? “I think it’s very unhealthy”. She was on vacation with her family and they were looking for dinner, but couldn’t find anything. I ate the rest of my soup feeling ashamed and then grabbed some pad thai. Always a safe choice. The young girl came to eat at my table with her dad. He didn’t speak a word of english, but hers was ok and she wanted to practice. I ended up talking to her for almost an hour. I learned a lot about China. In spite of the open mouth chomping of her food splattering projectiles at me, she was a nice kid. At this point it was dark and I couldn’t be bothered to worry about finding a place to stay. I met a big Maori guy from New Zealand who teaches english in China and was on a motorcycle trip south. We drank Beer Laos at the market and were pestered mercilessly by the little saleswomen. There’s a group of old ladies who dress in really pretty and colorful traditional clothing, and try every trick in the book to get you to open your wallet.

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I think some people finally buy something or just give a little money to make them go away. I had a fun time with them. You just have to give it right back and joke with them. They have bunches of bracelets for sale as well as old French Indochina coins from the early 1900’s. These appear to be their main wares for sale, but you have to look closer. They lay out some bracelets in their hand and in between them are little packets of opium or bugs of weed.

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Some don’t worry about being too secretive and just hand you some opium and give you the please buy puppy dog eyes. A couple of them had big plastic bags full of weed in their colorfully stitched handbags. My buddy had a big ball of hash from China so we passed on all the drugs. After the market, we ended up back at his guesthouse and drank Beer Laos all night with a group of friendly young Laotians. A perfect way to say goodbye to the country. We met some characters that night, but the best had to be the guy who showed us pictures of his new son and told how he named him iPhone. No joke, he loved iPhone so much he wanted to name his son after it. My Kiwi buddy inspired something new I’m doing on my bike. During all of his travels around China, he has a white out pen that he lets people write on his plastics with. He had different languages all over the front and it told a story.

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I started that night letting people write on mine. One guy wrote the name of the town we were in in elegant Laotian writing, I received a good luck, and of course in the circumstances somebody wrote Beer Laos. It’s already kind of fun looking back on the things people have written and the different languages.

I woke up at sunrise on the ground in the concrete driveway. I was smart enough to get out my pad and sleeping bag. With a bowl of noodle soup breakfast, some goodbyes, and a Beer Laos hangover, I hit the road for Thailand. It was over three weeks in Laos filled with ups and downs. There were heart opening experiences, breathtaking scenery, miserably cold nights, generosity, scary situations, and a lifetime worth of noodle soup. I will always remember the happy times, like bathing in blue mountain rivers, entertaining groups of curious kids, the twinkling stars in remote villages, and magical sunsets over the Mekong River.

The not so happy moments will be remembered just as well, if not better, but not with bad feelings. Looking back on them, they bring a smile to my face. The tough times in traveling are the ones you will never forget. They prove that you can handle any situation, and that in the grand scheme of this crazy life we live it was just a blip on the screen. A trip like this is a roller coaster of emotions. Some days you want to burst with joy, and then an hour later you might feel like screaming. When I was being held at the police station, when my battery was dead and I had to use all my strength to push it fast enough to pop start it on mountain roads, breathing dust for hours on mangled bouldery roads, and going to bed in my tent with no dinner except a few cookies. It’s times like those that I look back on and remember so well. They make me laugh now, because I remember the emotions I was feeling so well. I was excited to get back to Thailand. Laos is similar in many ways, but also another world. Off the beaten track in Laos is difficult travel. Thailand is just easy. The mighty Mekong River was all that separated me and on the nicest road I had ridden in all of Laos I opened it up towards the friendship bridge. It felt like months since I was able to get into fourth gear and even fifth. Being able to open up the throttle and go fast is a good cure for a hangover. Bye Laos!

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About Trueworldtravels

Following my heart around the planet. Bringing to life the unique world around us through writing and photography.
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