Friday, February 20, 2009

Sabaidee - Part II

Luang Prabang

We were supposed to meet up with Kevin Bell on the 14th of January in Luang Prabang. We were very excited about him coming to meet us and already had planned the next two weeks we were going to travel together in North Laos. We arrived the day before in Luang Prabang to find us accommodation. We picked the Pakam guest house, a small place with only 6 very nice and clean rooms. The price was above of what we were usually paying for rooms but it was very quiet and comfortable there. The location was perfect.
On the next street there was a produce market every morning and we loved going there in the morning and looking at all the stuff they were selling there. From fruits and vegetables to all kinds of meat - raw and fried rats, buffalo legs and ears, bats, squirrels and worms. Yumm, yumm.
We also sampled local food there. My favorite - purplish sticky rice with coconut custard on top & fried onions and sweet corn.

The day we were supposed to meet with Kevin, we went to Internet to do some errands. I checked our bank account and almost had a heart attack. For the past few weeks someone has been making withdrawals from our savings account and we had only a few thousand left. I was in total shock and couldn't talk. I kept thinking there must be a mistake. We immediately called the bank and they started an investigation. They told us to call back in a week...
Dealing with this issue we almost missed our meeting with Kevin. It was actually really nice that he had arriv
ed at that time. It made us think about something else besides our bank problem. Hopefully everything would get resolved and we won't have to go back home too early :{
After talking to Kevin on our terrace for a while, it already felt so normal that he was there with us. We spent the next two days visiting and enjoying Luang Prabang.
It is a very nice city. We really, really liked it. It was the first time we found a city beautiful since we started traveling in Southeast Asia. Phnom Penh was kind of ugly. In Vientiane they don't seem to care about the conservation of the old architecture. Walking around, there were very nice colonial buildings but in front of them, they had built these ugly, concrete, garage-like shops. Very sad. Likely Luang Prabang is not like that. It is cute, small, green and very charming. The city is really beautiful probably because of the houses built by the French, but never mind that ;) It seems that every villa is converted into a hotel or a guest house. There are so many restaurants, cafes, gift shops, art galleries. Obviously tourism is the main source of income here and it is also very expensive. The prices have doubled or even tripled in the past few years. Even though it is super touristy, it still makes you want to stay for more than 3 days, or a week, or a month...

The highlight of our walks through the city was the visit to the main temple Wat Xieng Thong. The temple is very richly decorated. Every surface has either paintings, or stencil, or mosaics, or wood carvings. So rich in texture and so colorful. The two or three surrounding halls look as if they have paintings on the exterior walls but it is actually mosaics. It is really stunning and nothing like we have seen before.

Every morning we would go to the produce market and every evening to the night market. A great place to shop and eat. Miko and Kevin bought "Beer Lao" t-shirts there (like everyone else... f.....g tourists), and Hana got a pair of earrings, a scarf, and a skirt :) The only thing we didn't enjoy there was the cold. It was freezing at night and in the morning. During the day it was nice and warm in the sun, but as soon as the sun went down it became cold. We had to layer all our clothes and sleep with a couple of blankets and a sleeping bag.

Speaking of blankets, we have a little story to tell here. Since we were freezing in our rooms on the first night, Miko asked this sweet little kid who was guarding the guest house that evening, for 3 more blankets. Well the kid was just about to eat his noodle soup but he jumped and ran outside to take care of our request. Then 10 minutes, sweet little kid came back running up the stairs, caring in his hand.... 3 BAGUETTES!!! The poor kid had ran who knows where at 9pm to get us 3 baguettes, when what we actually asked for was in a closet right next to him. We felt bad for interrupting him just when he was about to eat. But we couldn't stop ourselves from laughing at the surprise of seeing him holding 3 baguettes instead of 3 blankets.

Also while we were in Luang Prabang, we bumped into Daniel & Alice, a couple that we had originally met in Bikaner at the beginning of our trip in India. Then we saw them again in Phnom Penh in Cambodia 2 months later. And now again in Luang Prabang. Right after bumping into them in an cafe, we recognized another familiar face. A guy from Estonia that we met almost 3 months ago in Jaipur, India. Who's next?

Luang Nam Tha

After three days in Luang Prabang, we headed to Luang Nam Tha in the Northwest Laos. Luckily we found a minivan which was returning there and it was all for us. Three seats each if we wanted to. The best vehicle we traveled in for a while. But most of the road was in such a bad shape that we were constantly bouncing and jumping out of our seats. It brought back memories from our bus ride in Bundi, India.
It took 9 hours to do about 400 km! Still it was a beautiful ride. The landscape became more and more mountainous and green. We were passing villages built along the road with barely enough room for the houses. In front of the house was the road, and behind nothing but beautiful panorama. I wondered how many landslides happen here every year during the rainy season. Somehow it reminded me of our boat ride between Battambang and Siem Reap in Cambodia, passing the floating villages built on nothing but water along the main transportation artery. When we finally arrived in Luang Nam Tha, we were all feeling a little like those wobbly head dolls that people put on their dashboards.

The town of Luang Nam Tha is not very pretty. It is actually ugly. They also have the worst pancakes we have ever tried and it's also where I had my worst haircut experience. It was funny though. I love trying
out different hairdresser shacks everywhere we go. I didn't try it in Thailand, but I did in India (the best so far), then Cambodia (very good also despite the shave without water or soap). I usually show them a photo from my ID to show them how I would like my hair and the beard to be trimmed and so far I came out with an excellent trim and super clean shave done mostly with scissors. So when I went to the "hair salon" in Luang Nam Tha and saw that they had trimmers I was pretty confident about the outcome. Plus the guy looked like he knew what he was doing. Catastrophe. I don't know how he misunderstood what I wanted after showing him the picture, but he trimmed my sideburns and then decided to shave my beard! When I realized what he had started doing on one side, I told him it was a mistake. He said OK, and was going to trim correctly the rest of my beard, leaving the hole he had made on the other side. Anyway, I came out with short side burns and a bad shave. I wasn't going to make a fuss for $1.25. It's all part of the game.

The next day we went on a 2 day trek in the Luang Nam Tha forest, visiting Akha people, a tribe that has moved to this area from China long time ago and has kept most of their customs and traditions until today. The trek was organized by Green Discovery and it's part of eco-tourism. We were told that 35% of the money goes to the village itself. They don't get more than 2 tourist visits per week and the idea is to not make them dependable on tourism.
We had a nice group of 8 people on the trek: 2 girls from Holland, Sam - Swiss-German doctor, Nick from Australia, Dave from the UK and the 3 of us, plus 2 local guides.

The trek was very nice, we all got along and everybody came back happy. The vegetation was beautiful. There were so many shades of green and different kinds of leaves. A beautiful forest. For our lunch picnic, the guides cut big banana tree leaves and used them as a table cloth. Then they dumped all the food on the leaves and we were all eating with our hands - Lao style: taking sticky rice and mixing it with vegetables and meats in every bite.

The highlight of the trek was the visit to the Akha village where we were going to spend the night. The hut for the visitors is a bigger version of the Akha huts. Sleeping on some kind of wooden platform on one side, everybody lined up like sardines under mosquito nets. Cooking on the other side, above the fire pit in the middle.

The Akha people work hard, I mean
hard, physical labor. Recently they got electricity in some huts, but everything is very primitive. Simple huts with dirt floors, covered with roofs made of some kind of layered, dried, bamboo leaves. Women walk around without their shirts after they get married. They have a lot of children and most of them are running around naked or half naked, dirty, with shaved heads.
The most interesting part is the "sex shack". Throughout the village there are tiny huts on stilts. When they are 14-16 years old boys & girls from the village live in these tiny huts until the girl gets pregnant and then they get married. And if they the boy does not want to stay with the girl, the boy's family has to give money to the girl's family. Nothing is arranged by the parents, the kids pick each other. The hut has room only for the mattress and on a little shelf, we saw a boom-box (batteries neatly aligned), beer Lao bottles, perfumes, hair gel, all the teenage stuff. Fascinating.

That night, our village host prepared dinner for us: beef laap (traditional Lao dish - meat with chopped mint leaves and other herbs), a soup and two veggie dishes. We ate around a small table, while our host kept handing us glasses of lao-lao (kind of a Lao whiskey). We all drank from the same glass, one after another. That's how they do it here.
As we were finishing our delicious meal, young girls from the village (between 10-14 years old) started entering our hut and calling each one of us to go lay down in the sleeping area for a massage...? Soon, we were all laying side by side with young girls massaging us (if you can call it a massage). They were pressuring, squeezing and shaking our arms, legs and the back. Cracking our toes and fingers. The entire thing was not very gentle and they really had strong and rough hands. Probably from all the physical labor.
The massage was supposed to be the Akha people custom to welcome their guests. Ok, but they were still expecting a tip at the end. There was even a man from the village overlooking the whole operation from the background.
The atmosphere was euphoric and we could not stop laughing. The whole t
hing was weird and it felt so wrong. Kevin took a great picture of Nick, who was smiling behind one of the girls while she had a blank stare.

The only sad thing about this trek was to realize how much deforestation was going on in the area. So many hills completely shaved. This is done by the villagers who then plant the rubber trees to sell to China later. When I asked one of the employees at the Green Discovery what was up with the deforestation in an area which is supposed to be protected, he told me that the villagers were there before and it seems they have the right to do as they want. The government did not declare this area protected until maybe ten years ago or little more. What we saw of the forest was beautiful. I wonder how long it will last?

After Luang Nam Tha everything went really fast. Kevin was with us for a short time so we sped up the pace.

Our next destination was Nong Khiaw where we would go up the river to Mong Noi Neua, only accessible by boat. We ended up spending 2 nights in each place. Too short in my opinion to really get a feel for the place.

Even if Mong Noie Neua was more isolated than Nong Khiaw, it was touristier. And this tiny village is (sadly) starting to look more and more like a little country side resort. It is still somewhat authentic, but for how long. Like Don Det in the South, it has no electricity, just generators running from 6 to 10pm, or less. There are no cars or motorbikes. It is really quiet except for the freaking roosters who start whenever they feel like. Even in the middle of the night. There we enjoyed the beautiful scenery by the river and ventured a little in the surrounding country side visiting villages.

Nong Khiaw (my favorite) is a place where tourists stop over for only night only to take the boat to Mong Gnoi Neua the next day. We noticed a lot of signs telling people to stay longer. That they were blinded by the tourist guide books which only talk about Mong Gnoi Neua as the place to go to.

For 3 hours we tried to catch fishes by throwing a round net in the river or by slamming the water with large bamboo sticks to scare the fish into a rectangular net with which we surrounded a specific area in the river. We came out with 11 small fishes all caught by our guide Deaume except for the 3 smallest fishes that I proudly clamed. Hana still had the style, while Kevin would mostly enjoy the beautiful surrounding because he did not want to wet his pants J Back on solid ground we spent the rest of the afternoon at Deaume’s little restaurant shack making a fish soup with our catch and preparing a delicious green papaya salad. Here is the receipt for the salad:

Shredded green papaya (add to the mixture at the end); One clove of garlic, one green chili (ground everything), 1 spoon of sugar and salt, some cherry tomatoes cut in half, 1 lime squeezed, 3-4 splashes of fish sauce

It was very nice to spend most of the day with local people and I wish we had done it more. We ended this wonderful day with Nick and Dave, who came to Nong Khiaw with us from Luang Nam
Tha. We had Lao beers while watching the sunset by the river and then another traditional herbal sauna session.

It was very nice to spend more time with travelers we had met before. We meet a lot of nice and interesting people on the road with whom we have a lot in common, but because we all go different places, we only get to spend a few hours with them. This time we were all happy to hang out longer. We ended up traveling with Nick until we had to leave Laos. But Dave went to Luang Prabang before us and we did not get a chance to see him again.

There is more to explore in this part of North Laos, and we could have stayed in even more isolated villages up the river or further inland. But we were running out of time. It would have to be on our next trip to Laos.

After the two nights in Mong Gnoi Neua, we took the boat back to Nong Khiaw where we met up with Nick and got into another boat for a 7 hour beautiful ride down the Lam Na river back to Luang Prabang. Again the scenery was amazing. At some point, as I was listening to the soundtrack of “The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford”, I felt so relaxed, happy, totally absorbed like I was at the view point in Vang Vieng. Just the last hour and a half felt long. That’s when I realized that we made a good decision by choosing not to start with the north of Laos and a 2 day long boat trip from the Thai border to Luang Prabang. It would have been too long and uncomfortable, and too touristy.

The next morning Kevin left for San Francisco. It was great to travel with him for the two weeks (little too short) and it felt so normal to have him with us. We were very sad to see him leave…. But we got his room at the Pakham guest house J He was already talking about meeting us in Bolivia later. We hope he does. It was nice to be back in Luang Prabang and to spend our two last days in Laos relaxing, eating baguette sandwiches with Nick, and drinking Lao coffee in the morning at the market.

Then on January 28th, we sad goodbye to Nick and sadly left Laos for Bangkok. We spent a couple days in Bangkok buying fake Diesel and pretty flowery rings for Hana, then off to our next destination: BALI.

Laos ended up being a really interesting place. It was nothing exciting or extreme, no crazy stories to tell here just many, many nice little moments. We have spent a month there and it went by so fast. We were not sure what to expect at first. A lot of people told us that we are going to love it, but after Cambodia we were not sure if Southeast Asia was our thing. This time, the entry in the country was great, but the motorcycle trip in the Bolaven Plateau, even if it was very nice, it was not unforgettable. As we headed north, it kept getting better and better and soon, without realizing it, the country had sucked us in. The very slow pace of Laos can be a little disconcerting. Hana liked it right away but personally I was not sure it would go well with my hyper active temper… Well, I was wrong. I felt like I was hypnotized and I liked it. I only wish we had met more locals to get a better sense of the culture. People were really nice but I felt that they were keeping distance with the foreigners. Or maybe it was the language barrier? We also did a lot in one month and probably too much.

Besides the Akha people (in the village we have visited) being so culturally different, the Laotians were not. At least not compared to the Indian culture. Men still have the power, but you’ll see women everywhere riding motorcycles, running businesses, working. In Muan Ngoi, this tiny village in the North Laos, I even saw three women sitting around a table on the main road, drinking Tiger beer. Not even Beer Lao. Women don’t smoke of course. But they wore tight jeans (sometimes even tights only) and shorts. You can see boys and girls walking to school together. And both men and women eat together (for the most part), and party & drink together. Sometimes you could see a woman riding a motorbike pregnant (big belly in front of her) with one or two kids on the bike behind her. Or a working mom, picking up her kids from school on a motorbike, one in front, and one behind her. No helmets of course. These images just became normal to us.

So, these are the highlights from our trip to Laos:

· Don Det (hammock time by the river)

· Herbal sauna (the best in Forest Temple in Vientiane)

· Buddha Park in Vientiane

· Caving in Vang Vieng (for Hana), the View Point (for Miko)

· Luang Prabang, a very beautiful city (Lao coffee and the morning market + Nick’s favorite food: baguette sandwich)

· Luang Nam Tha – trek to the Akha village

· Boat ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

· Learning to fish Lao style and cooking the catch

· And Mr. Bell joining the travel team J :

here are is pictures and some of ours