Canadian cyclists Charles and Jen, who we met in Luang Namtha, gave us some great advice about our route from Luang Namtha to Nambak. We’d been intending to cycle there on the most direct route, but the news that the road from Udomxai to the junction with route 13 was hilly, busy and had a terrible road surface quickly put us off. So instead, Charles and Jen suggested that from Udomxai we head northeast to Muang Khua and take the 5 hour boat trip down the Nam Ou river to Nong Khiaw. What a brilliant idea! The scenery was beautiful: flocks of white birds flew in formation alongside the boat; weirdly shaped rocks jutted from the foaming water around the rapids; semi-submerged water buffalo blended perfectly with the rocks – until you noticed their ears moving; and emerald cloaked karst pyramids pierced the sky. If you could ignore the roaring engine and pumping Lao pop music with which the driver was trying to drown out the roaring engine it was a relaxing and enjoyable way to travel…albeit a bit expensive for our budget: 150,000 kip for each of us and 100,000 kip for the bike – a total of around £40.
From Nong Khiaw it was an easy morning’s dawdle along the river bank to Nambak, where we were met by our couchsurfing host Phew (pronounced Pew not Few) and his wife Nang. Couchsurfing isn’t really possible in its usual sense in Laos as Lao nationals aren’t allowed to have foreigners staying in their homes, so we stayed at the local guesthouse, but that was no problem as the real draw of Phew and Nang’s invitation was the chance to do some teaching at their English school, and to spend a day with them up at Phew’s family farm. In addition, Phew had agreed to receive a parcel for us so we were also eagerly awaiting some much-needed bike parts from England (chains, chainrings, cassette, jockey wheels and gripshifts if you’re interested).
Our teaching wasn’t up to much I’m afraid. Despite having had a chat with Phew in the afternoon we found we’d misjudged the level of the two classes we took, underestimating the level of the ‘pre-beginners’ and overestimating the level of the ‘beginner class’, which meant our lesson plans had to be hurriedly changed as we went along. But Keith in particular enjoyed himself and hopefully the students didn’t find it too baffling. The topic we covered with the beginner group was ‘telling the time’ and it really brought home the difference in lifestyles between the Lao people and, well, pretty much most people in any of the other countries we’ve travelled through. Lao people are real early-birds. I suppose this is not surprising when many villages are still without electricity and most of the population still scrape a subsistence living, but even in the towns it’s the same. Most people we spoke to seem to wake up between 4.30-5.30am…even the school kids. The market in Nambak, which is absolutely buzzing from 6.30-7.30, is all but over by 8am. At the other end of the day, 10-10.30pm is closing time for most bars. Even in Luang Namtha over the New Year holiday when the days were filled with karaoke and celebration, by 10pm the high street was eerily empty and silent until the squawking of roosters heralded another day.
There were three other Westerners ‘couchsurfing’ in Nambak at the same time as us, and then a further two arrived the day that the first three left. On the nights we didn’t teach we all had dinner in the restaurant opposite the school and some of the more advanced students joined us to practice conversation after their lessons had finished. It’s either testament to their desire to learn or an indication that life in dormitory is rather tedious that after a day at school and then an hour and a half of English evening school they still wanted to spend a couple of hours chatting with the “falangs” (interestingly, whilst this word is commonly understood in Laos and Thailand to mean ‘foreigner’ it is actually specifically the Lao word for ‘French person’ – Laos used to be a French colony).
Keith quizzed the students on motorbike ownership (every Lao teenager has one it seems) but unlike Western boys who would know the size and horsepower of their engines, the Lao boys didn’t know and didn’t seem interested. Nor were they comfortable about talking about girlfriends (all were eighteen but none of them confessed to having had one). Instead they wanted to know the difference between the use of ‘recently’ and ‘lately’, and other linguistic conundrums. It was a humbling experience. They could really see that learning English was key to fulfilling their aspirations to have a better life, be that as a tour guide or a doctor. We also tried to ask them how they feel about the influx of tourists in Laos, but sadly their command of English just wasn’t up to the task. We couldn’t even get them to understand the question, so we’re still in the dark. Are tourists simply a necessary evil? Are we something to be tolerated for the revenue we bring? Or is there in any way a genuine exchange of interest and mutual enjoyment?
We like to think that our way of doing it….on a bike….on a rather weird bike…brings at least a little bit of pleasure to the folk who giggle and wave as we pedal by, but when we’re off the bike we’re just another Western face in the crowd….and ones who begrudge spending too much at that.
We’re particularly grateful to Phew for letting us teach at his school. It makes us feel like we did just a little something extra (even though we got way more in return from our visit to Nambak than we gave). We’ll be staying in touch and wish the school every success in the future. It’s a new venture and has only had permission from the authorities to trial for this current year. The next big step is to get permission to continue…paperwork, paperwork! We really hope Phew succeeds. The difference he’s making to the next generation is enormous.
The day after our teaching experience, Phew and Nang took us to his parents’ farm.
The men were armed with knives and set off to clear the undergrowth whilst the women went to pick beans, chillies, ferns and other vegetables for lunch. I was a bit jealous of the guys’ task so after the veggies had been picked and Nang and her mother-in-law were preparing lunch I joined the men and spent a happy time hacking down banana trees with a small machete. In the afternoon Phew had hoped to take us fishing and had been mending his home-made harpoon especially, but in the end it rained so we contented ourselves with swimming in the river instead. All in all it was a fascinating day. We didn’t do much work, but can well imagine what it must be like to do it all year round. At busy times of the rice season there’s so much to do, particularly guarding the crop from marauding birds and rodents, that the family sleep at the hut in the field and just send one person into town from time to time to buy sticky rice (the staple food of Laos). Rain or shine, through thunderstorm, mud and discomfort, the work goes on.
One of the other interesting things we learnt from Phew was that Christianity was banned in Laos as recently as 4 years ago – you could be sent to prison for professing the faith. Today the attitude is more relaxed as membership of ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has necessitated a more inclusive approach, but proselytising and open displays of non-Buddhist worship are still definitely frowned upon. As our little party of travellers included two atheists, a lapsed Catholic, a Protestant and someone who’d been brought up as Jehovah’s Witness we had some interesting, frank but thankfully good-natured discussions on the relevance and rationality of faith over a beer that evening.
After three days, the other Westerners had set off to continue their respective SE Asian journeys, but we remained in Nambak, waiting for our parcel that had, at great expense, been sent ‘guaranteed 3-day delivery’. Hahaha. As we’d taken the long-route from Luang Namtha instead of cycling to Nambak directly the parcel should have got to Nambak ahead of us…in honesty though we weren’t too surprised that it hadn’t. Phew went to the post office a couple of times and never found out what caused delay but eventually he was able to confirm the parcel had made it as far as provincial capital Luang Prabang and would definitely be in Nambak the next day. In the event it was the day after that, but to our relief arrive it did.
Our parcel arrived on the Thursday afternoon, but as we had decided to apply for our Vietnamese visas in Luang Prabang (which is only 120km from Nambak) there was little benefit in us leaving as soon as we got our parcel – we’d just end spending too much money in pricey Luang Prabang. So we stayed a further day in Nambak during which Keith fitted the bike with its new bits and pieces and we then spent the weekend trundling at a leisurely pace to Luang Prabang. To add a bit of interest we decided to go via the caves at Pak Ou. At least that had been the plan. The guidebook says the caves are only 20,000 kip to enter, but failed to mention that after cycling 10km along a dirt road to Pak Ou we’d be prevented from entering the village and would have a ‘parking fee’ extorted from us by the local teenagers who then wanted even more money to take us by boat to the cave entrance. We hadn’t realised but the caves are actually on the opposite bank to the village. Anyhow, all this would nearly double the price of the visit and whilst it’s not a huge amount of money we have to guard our money a little carefully to keep the wheels turning so just weren’t prepared to do it. We were particularly irritated as we were hungry and had wanted to get lunch in Pak Ou before entering the caves and also buy some eggs and fruit, but the parking fascists didn’t even seem keen on letting us go to the restaurant immediately on the other side of their makeshift rope barrier without incurring a parking fee. In the end a glowering Keith rolled the bike past the rope to the restaurant and we had a passable lunch, but decided not to spend any more money in that particular village and instead made our way back along the dirt road (in torrential rain) and bought our provisions from friendlier faces. I guess we can’t condemn people for wanting to make a living and do sympathise given how uncomfortable we sometimes feel being part of the horde of voyeuristic tourists, but it did rather feel that the line between providing a service for tourists and exploiting tourists was being blurred a little.
I’m probably labouring the point too much, but cycling in Laos is a real change from China. Perhaps our view is a little skewed because we’re trying to stick to asphalt and so end up taking the few main arterial roads through the country, but Laos is just so much more touristy than anywhere else we’ve experienced. We’ve stopped for lunch at little out-of-the-way villages, and watched with wry grins as a phalanx of white faces has emerged from an overcrowded local bus. It’s a harsh reminder that we’re following a well-trodden path…and a bit disappointing after feeling like we’ve been blazing our own trail for so long.
We’re spending so much time stationary for a change rather than relentlessly pedalling that we’re even joining the ‘normal tourists’ by spending far more nights in guesthouses than we usually would. We have had a few nice nights camping though, and none nicer than the ones where we’ve been able to discard the tent (which is a sweatbox) and sleep under our mosquito net on one of the raised platforms that farmworkers use as a shady resting spot during the heat of the day. We’ve done it twice now and both times have been discovered by people returning home from the fields, but both times we’ve been met with friendliness and then left in peace. The first night was the most surreal. We were engrossed watching part one of the Top Gear Africa adventure, cocooned in our little white mosquito net that was really hard to see out of with the light from the tablet screen bouncing off it. Almost too late we became aware of approaching people, and for one long, ridiculous moment, neither of us could remember where on earth we were (Africa? China?) and what would be an appropriate greeting. At the last moment I managed to gasp out ‘sabaidee’ and got a big grin from the approaching pair. They were perfectly happy for us to sleep there and it was deliciously cool with a gentle breeze wafting through the mozzie net all night long. Definitely recommended.
Even though our wheels have been turning slowly here in laid-back Laos, time has ticked on and our Laos visas expire on 8 May. Where shall we go next? After discovering there was a Vietnamese consulate in Luang Prabang we planned an interesting little route taking us through Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, and then on through Sam Neua and into Vietnam. If we got our Vietnamese visas as soon as we got to Luang Prabang we reckoned we could just about do it. This morning (Monday) we rolled into Luang Prabang at 8.30am…..and found the Vietnamese consulate is closed until Thursday. B*gger! This is a major spanner in the works. We spent the rest of the morning trying to agree on a plan B. We’ve managed to come up with several plan Bs but so far can’t agree on one. And then one of those serendipitous meetings came about that happens with surprising frequency when you’re on the road. We treated ourselves to lunch at a lovely restaurant with an exhibition of photography of Lao people on the walls, and it turned out that the photographer was actually the husband of the lady who owns the restaurant. We admired his work and enjoyed a superb lunch, and then as we were leaving the man himself came back from shooting some unusual bees that live on the outside of their hive not the inside, and, after we got chatting and mentioned our dilemma, he told us that it was possible to extend our Laos visa in Luang Prabang and thus buy ourselves a little more time to get the Vietnamese visa and follow our original plan to go via the Plain of Jars. We’ll be knocking on the immigration office’s door at 8am tomorrow morning to find out if we can indeed extend our Laos visas. If not, then it’s back to arguing over who thought of the best plan B.