June 18-22, 2009
Our first stop in Laos was the small northern village called Luang Nam Tha. It’s a tiny place. There’s a single main road lined with 1-2 story buildings, and beyond this strip you have rice paddies and bamboo huts in all directions.
It was early evening when we arrived, so we took our time choosing a hotel. But after looking around for 1-2 hours, we ended up returning to the first hotel we saw, a place called Pheng Thavy Hotel. For 40,000 kip ($4.50) per night we had a huge room with private bathroom. It was very obvious that we were no longer in China – this hotel room didn’t have a thermos with boiling water, nor a TV, and we had to leave our shoes at the hotel’s entrance.
Pnina at the entrance to Pheng Thavy Hotel:
My first Beerlao. Every other backpacker in Laos wears a t-shirt with this logo:
On our first day in Luang Nam Tha we rented bicycles and took a ride in the nearby fields. The last time we rode a bicycle was in Dali, where we tried riding a tandem for the first time. It was funny but it wasn’t very productive, so this time we opted to each get our own bike.
Pnina riding through Luang Nam Tha’s small main strip:
Taking a break on a bridge just north of town:
Pretty quickly we left town and started wandering through tiny villages in the outskirts. Our goal was to find a waterfall, but we got distracted by a patch of flowers that was just full of butterflies. We must have spent a couple of hours, easy, watching them and trying to get better photos.
We must have burned at least 40 pictures before we were able to get this close:
This brown butterfly let Shahaf get incredibly close – what a model!
I’ve worked with better, but not many:
I could have stayed there all day, but eventually Pnina reminded me that there’s other stuff to see. So, begrudgingly, I moved on.
The road to the waterfall was interesting. Good views of rickety bamboo huts and flooded rice fields. In some cases the huts were placed in the middle of water, on stilts. But the actual waterfall was kind of a dud. By this point in the trip we’d seen so many waterfalls that it took a lot to impress us (and, frankly, a lot of the waterfalls in Washington state are much better).
A bamboo hut on stilts, in the middle of water-filled rice paddies:
Chili peppers drying on a platter outside:
The waterfall just north of Luang Nam Tha, not too exciting:
From the waterfall we continued east of town and completed a loop. It was all pretty leisurely. We couldn’t have done more than 25 km all day. But it felt exactly right. Laos has a very relaxed feel. People are friendly and nobody is in any kind of hurry.
Rice that was recently collected into bunches, but not yet removed from the field:
Two guys fixing a kind of motorized mud plow. In some places we still saw people plowing earth with oxen, but we also saw a lot of these contraptions:
Northern Laos is filled with different tribes. Luang Nam Tha is one of the better jump-off points for trips to visit these tribes. One option is to go hiking, but we decided to skip that because we heard that the rainy season brings out lots of leeches. So instead we signed up for a kayaking trip. There are a few outfitters in town that organize these trips. The best way to get a good deal is to find a tour company that already has a few people signed up, because the more people go, the less it costs per person. We ended up going with Green Discovery, which is the standard company recommended by Lonely Planet and most backpackers we met. There were 7 of us on the trip, and the price was $53 each for a 2-day trip including the kayaks, lodging, and food.
Our kayaking crew: Pnina, Lyall & Zarah (from South Africa), Scott (California) and Marie (Ireland), and Nicholas (from Melbourne):
Our trip took us downstream along the Nam Tha river (the river from which the village, Luang Nam Tha, gets its name). We used 2-person kayaks, paddling about 5 hours the first day and 3 hours the second day. It was a pretty calm river so there was no real danger of drowning or anything like that. Over the two-day trip we only had one tip-over when Scott & Marie ended up going sideways downstream and got flipped over by a rock. For Pnina and I the main hazards were the bushes along both banks of the river. It wasn’t just that they were thorny, they were also full of little spiders; nothing deadly, but not really fun either. Actually we did see one truly giant, hairy spider at one of our lunch spots. He was hanging out in one of the kayaks when we were about to get back in to paddle, and he was probably just as scared of us as we were of him. But the guides were pretty non-challant about the whole thing; they scooped him up with a paddle and tossed him into the forest.
Lyall, Zarah, and Pnina, at one of our stops along the river:
Our meals were always spread out buffet-style on banana leaves. Each person got a lump of very very sticky rice to eat with the various dishes in the center – fish, plantains, veggies, etc. Before the meal began, our guides took a small piece of each dish and threw it out into the forest, “for the spirits”.
Sticky rice and various dishes spread out on banana leaves:
We stopped in a couple of villages along the way, Ban Namha and Ban Sop Sim. These were definitely some of the poorest, most isolated people we’ve ever seen, but they didn’t seem unhappy. We stopped by in the middle of the day, so most of the men were off working the fields, which means we only saw the women and children. At first everyone was pretty shy. But then Pnina started taking photos and showing them to the kids, and they really got into it. You never know if local people will appreciate or resent being photographed. This was one of the few situations where it worked out really well.
Pnina at the entrance to one of the villages:
Kids coming close for a photograph. In some cases they got too close, and Pnina had a hard time explaining that they need to back up a little 🙂
The nice thing about these villages is that they are still relatively untouched by tourism, but you can tell that things are already changing. When we entered the second village, the ladies there immediately scrambled to pull out their crafts for sale. We have mixed feelings about this. On one hand these people are really poor and they can use the money. On the other hand, it totally changes the dynamics from local-and-visitor to salesperson-and-customer. Pnina and I really don’t like buying things we don’t need; before the trip we had to pack up all our belongings and we still remember how much useless stuff we have. On top of that, during the trip we tried not to buy much because each additional thing we bought was one additional thing we had to carry for the next few months. But standing there in the village refusing to buy all the crafts we definitely felt like cheap bastards (note – some of the money we paid for the trip goes to support the local villages).
Our guide displaying a book with local script; it looks nice, but what are we going to do with it?
Our guide really wanted us to experience the rain forest a bit, so although Pnina and I didn’t want to go hiking, we ended up doing a short 1-hour hike from one of the villages into the forest. It was nice enough, but, as we expected, there were leeches. The thing about leeches is that they are sneaky and relentless. Pnina got one bite, and I did too, but neither one of us noticed while it was happening. In my case I saw the fat bloody leech as he crawled off my sandal, and in Pnina’s case she never saw him at all – she just noticed a small gash on her foot that wouldn’t stop bleeding (leeches secrete an anti-coagulant, so leech bites take much longer to clot). After these two bites we decided we had enough, so we high-tailed it back to the river and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. Yeah, we were complete whiny bitches (especially me), but we don’t care. Leeches suck.
Marie and Pnina heading into the forest:
Back at the riverside we found several butterflies that were attracted to a red blanked left on one of the kayaks. Can’t get enough butterflies:
This is a popular road-side snack in Laos. A tube of sweet brown-color sticky rice, wrapped in a thin sheet of bamboo and topped with coconut flakes at both ends. We liked Laos food well enough, but as with other Asian countries, the main courses are often better than the desserts (i.e. this was so-so).