I'm learning that I should never follow guidebook suggestions too closely. After all, the person who wrote that great waterfall description could very well have terrible taste in scenery. I also can't get my heart too set on experiencing something amazing I read about in a guidebook, because in a place like Laos, nothing is set in stone.
Case in point: We knew we wanted to take a boat up the Nam Ou River from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, the first stop along the famous "Phongsali Loop", a stretch of river and road in Lao's wild northern province. However, when we went to the boat ticket office the day before to reserve our seats, the kid informed us that he didn't know if there would be a boat tomorrow.
Me: "So, no boat tomorrow?"
"Maybe boat, maybe no boat, if not enough passenger," he says with a smile. Always with a smile. The Lao are unflappably zen. What he means is that the boat operator won't bother if there aren't enough people who want to go to Nong Khiaw (read: enough people paying), and there's really no way to know until you show up at the dock in the morning.
Miraculously, four other travelers wanted to go to Nong Khiaw at 8 am the next day, so off we went on a narrow, wooden affair built for little people. The seven-hour ride was unbelievably beautiful (what's new), albeit murderous on the derriere. We enjoyed the views and met a lot of curious kids along countless river beaches. Once in a while the boat would pull up to a bank and we'd all stand around awkwardly while the boat crew fiddled with the failing engine, or watch each other try to pee inconspicuously behind a shrub (made you look, sickos!).
When we cruised into Nong Khiaw, another boat offered to take us an hour further upriver to the smaller town of Muong Ngoi. It wasn't our original plan to go that far, but we were feeling adventurous and pressed on.
Muong Ngoi is the smallest, most modest village we've stayed in yet, consisting of a handful of dwellings built along a single muddy street. No motorized traffic exists. Electricity only comes on from about 6-9 pm, which keeps entertainment options very basic. Thankfully, the setting is breathtaking, at least during daylight hours.
Our first hotel was a precariously built bamboo shack on some rickety old sticks overlooking the river for $1 per night. $1 per night!!! We giggled and tittered and thought the whole thing was just precious. That is, until well after nightfall when after it started pouring rain and I had to perform my nightly face-washing and tooth-brushing routine in a pitch-black roachy outhouse up the hill, I slipped and fell in the mud on the way back down.
The next morning, we checked into a $4 room with an en-suite bathroom and admitted defeat.
Most travelers come to this region of Laos to take "treks" to even more remote ethnic minority villages, of which there are many. The Hmong tribes are the most accessible here, but a handful of others exist if you know where to hike. While it's not really feasible to attempt it on your own, for about $20 you can hire a local to take you around for the day. So early one morning, we set out with an older guy (name sadly forgotten) to see the countryside. He didn't speak much English but was very chatty all the same, and the three of us got along just fine. He had heard of California and asked us lots of random questions about our lives there.
Our guide: "You know Mike Tyson?"
Me: "The boxer Mike Tyson? Oh, yes. Well, no. Well, yes, I know him, but he is not my friend."
Guide: "Does Mike Tyson live in California?"
Me: "I do not know."
Guide: "Oh. I heard that it is so hot in California that people die."
Me: "Oh, ha ha, well yes, sometimes that happens, but only in certain places and not very often."
Guide: "Oh. What time is it in California?"
Me: "Um...it's about 8 pm yesterday."
Guide: "Hmm. I saw Mike Tyson on TV."
And so on.
A few hours into the day we stopped in a Hmong village
for lunch, and were immediately surrounded
by dozens of small children who stared at us and squealed with glee when we waved at them. They all were fascinated with our eye-wear, but the real hit was the video feature
of my digital camera. I'd record two kids looking shyly into the lens while off-screen I coaxed them to "say hi, say hi", and every time I played it back through the little viewfinder the whole group would go nuts. Too cute. Even the older folks got a kick out of our funny toys and made us feel welcome.
What's interesting is that Hmong people (and other minority tribes in Laos) don't speak the official Lao language and have very little interaction with the rest of the country other than to trade goods here and there. Our guide added that Hmong people are forbidden from marrying Lao people, though he wasn't sure why.
The second half of the trek was a little too muddy for my tastes, especially in the dense jungle areas where B and I started picking leeches off our ankles (rubbing lime juice on your skin helps them fall off, but screaming and crying does not, go figure). However, I survived to tell the tale, and overall it was a great experience.
The original plan was to continue north along the "Phongsali Loop" from Muong Ngoi up to the small town of Hat Sa, but when we asked about getting boat tickets, we got shot down. Apparently outside of high season (November-March), it's impossible to cover the whole loop without hiring a private boat and paying a lot more. So we went back to Nong Khiaw, secured an ultra-private cottage (en-suite, natch) on the hill for $7, and settled in for a few days.
At this point, we had time to kill before flying out of Vientiane on 9/26, so we took a minibus back to Luang Prabang for a couple more days. Once there, we enjoyed the luxury of 24-hour electricity (hooray!), day-tripped to the Kouang Si waterfall (awesome!), and replied to our parents' emails that no, we hadn't been caught in the Thai coup (silly parents!).
Retracing our steps on the same stretch of Highway 13 back down to Vientiane didn't exactly appeal to us, but taking any other route would have added days to the journey, so we boarded The V.I.P. Bus That Acid Flashbacks Are Made Of and sunk into our iPod hazes for ten hours.
To be completely honest, arriving in Vientiane was a little disappointing after Luang Prabang and the north. It's not much to look at for a capital city, plus it poured rain the entire time we were there. I think more than anything we were mentally ready to move on from Laos and just kind of gave up for three days. The only thing I can confidently recommend is the Sticky Fingers bar (great salads!). I'm sorry, Vientiane. You deserve better.
Next stop on the world tour ... Phnom Penh, Cambodia!
PS- I've stopped taking my anti-malarials, but you'll have to tune in next time to find out why. It isn't pretty.