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