On Traveling Northern Laos

Border towns are always a hassle. Huay Xai would prove no exception. First there were rumors that you couldn’t get a visa to Laos from Thailand at the border so I got mine in Chiang Mai, which cost an extra $30. You could get them at the border. Then again while others at my little hotel were hassling with the owner over the extra fees associated with theirs, I was glad I could ignore it all and wait for the morning.

I had decided to take the slow boat along the Mekong River right into the heart of northern Laos, Luang Prabang. The speedboats which only take a day are notorious for crashing and being terribly cramped. The slow boat was perfect, as you cruise lazily up the Mekong River through dense jungle and can take in the historic pace of Asia.

The overnight stop takes you through the town of Pak Beng. Tourists hurriedly climb the muddy banks to outpace each other to their guesthouse of choice. I stuck with my normal routine of bargaining for the cheapest bed I could find. It’s only one night. In the morning my friend and I stopped by a little German Bakery, seemingly so out of place deep in the jungle. The coffee and pastries were so good, as were the photographic opportunities in town, that I thought on a future journey I’d stay two nights instead of one.

The muddy Mekong floated steadily along and the next day we reached Luang Prabang. It felt a bit surreal to be there. There’s a perception that you’re so deep in the jungle the only thing you would possibly find would be Joseph Conrad’s character Marlow. Instead, there are cafe’s serving wine, pizza restaurant’s and a solid strip of western-style tourism. It’s the perfect stop if you’ve been traveling Asia for some time. Otherwise it leaves you wondering why people left home to begin with.

Monastery, Luang Prabang

South of town about 35km there are some beautiful cascading waterfalls and of course my favorite thing to do when exploring a new place is to rent a small motorbike and get out into the surrounding countryside.

Waterfalls outside Luang Prabang

Waterfalls outside Luang Prabang

Woman and child on pathway,  Luang Prabang

Woman and child on pathway, Luang Prabang

After a couple days in Luang Prabang it was time for the bus ride to Udomxai, a sort of crossroads to northern Laos. Many of us think ourselves more as travelers than tourists and judgments are made of each other along the way. I do my best to see the major sites, but then get as deep and authentic as possible. I was to do just that in Phongsali.

At the bus station, Udomxai

At the bus station, Udomxai

First, there was the bus ride, a solid twelve hours of brutality. We longed for each meal stop, any chance to get out of seats seemingly designed for those under five feet tall. Finally, the bus broke down well past darkness. We received the news that the engine was completely blown and we’d have to find another way to get to town, still about half an hour outside of it. When a large dump truck rolled by and offered a ride, all the passengers assisted each other into the back and on into town on a surprisingly chilly night.

Women selling goods along the road from Udomxai to Phongsali

Women selling goods along the road from Udomxai to Phongsali

Awaking the next morning in Phongsali, me and a friend found our way to the local trekking companies. I had but one request, that they put us on a trek that no one else does. Some of the treks in the area were known to have ladies dressed in traditional dress, but all done sort of as a tourist pageant. The lady behind the counter at one company said, “Here’s a trek that no one has done in over six months, a couple of European women did this trek, but that’s all I can remember in some time.” “We’ll take it, I said.”

The trek went into a truly remote part of Laos, and indeed across the Chinese border for a small portion of it. We were to visit villages tucked deep into the jungle, we crossed one river over 27 times in one day. We ate snail, and we drank rice wine so refined that you could feel the burn down the back of your throat at the slightest sip. We ate lots of rice and fish for breakfast, accompanied by brilliant hot sauces. Our accommodations were most meager, something I promised the lady at the trekking company would be no problem. In some villages when we arrived we waited as a few locals gathered together deciding what to do with us. It was perfect, exactly the type of remoteness I was looking for. The following photos are from that portion of the trip.

Boy selling birds at a market near the start of the trek.

Boy selling birds at a market near the start of the trek

friends

Friends, Naten Village

Entering a village, late afternoon

Entering Chachuluong Village, late afternoon

Mother and son watch a TV

Mother and son watch a TV

A woman and child head into the river for a morning wash

A woman and child head into the river for a morning wash

Fish for breakfast

Fish for breakfast

A handbag, the specific patterns designate your tribal affiliation

A handbag, the specific patterns designate your tribal affiliation

Smoking through a wooden bong

A family cupboard

cooking pork

cooking pork

Collecting water in the morning

Collecting water in the morning

Woman working in a banana plantation near the end of the trek

Woman working in a banana plantation near the end of the trek

After the trek we were back on the bus, picking up villagers and facing overcrowded conditions, but all in good fun.

A woman and her crops wait for the bus

A woman and her crops wait for the bus

They're as curious of us as we are of them

They’re as curious of us as we are of them

Bats for sale at a roadside lunch stop

Bats for sale at a roadside lunch stop

Young girl on a bus near Phongsali

Young girl on a bus near Phongsali

That’s it for the far, far north this week. Come back next week as we head down the road towards Muang Sing and the south.

There will be more next week as we head down the road towards Muang Sing

There will be more next week as we head down the road towards Muang Sing

Advertisements

34 thoughts on “On Traveling Northern Laos

      • And a willingness to get–and stay–dirty. I lived in wilderness Alaska in my twenties, so had the more-than-traveler-exerperience. You run risk of never leaving. Or as a few good friends found–dying there. But, would do it again, or encourage my girls too as well. No understanding like getting your hands into a culture. Love how you do that as a traveler.

      • The banality of it AND the disgusting feel of what the “outside” world feels is important used to drive me nuts. Now, I live in the outside world and spend a lot of time asking questions when it doesn’t exhaust me. But, ya, I do feel like a visitor from another planet when I dive back into writings and photos or go on a trip and “come back out.” Very few people take the privilege of experiencing your unique form of culture/travel shock. Keep sharing!

  1. Slow boat to anywhere sounds fine with me! Havent made it to Laos yet but after reading this it sounds and looks wonderful. Great photos as always. I love the kitchen cupboard one. Do you get uncomfortable taking photos inside people’s houses? Were these taken in houses you stayed in? Maybe that helps. And yes the tv…the number of times I’ve rocked up to a village, middle of nowhere, to find the batteries lined up running the tv and the dvd player:-)

    • For the most part the extrovert in me doesn’t have too much trouble making photos anywhere as long as I’ve built some sort of relationship with the people, however brief that encounter may be. I made photos inside of houses that I didn’t actually stay in. Sometimes I just stopped for lunch and sat with them on the porch and afterwards asked if they’d mind if I made a shot or two inside. Yes, and I’m no longer surprised to find a TV anywhere on this earth!

  2. Must have been a fabulous adventure. I loved Luang Prabang when I was there and am reminded that it’s sometimes a challenge to get really off the beaten track. Yep, there are travelers and there are tourists. Have you ever considered an extended river trip down the Mekong?

  3. Your pics really convey both authenticity and emotion. Your love for the people and the country show through your photography! I am touched and transported right back there, in memory… Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Laos | Social Media Marketing Website Design, Graphics and Promo Videos Southeast Asia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s