Val’s feet splash down on the wet sand and it’s official, we’ve reached Laos. As we walk up the hill to immigration the a brilliant sun sets over the mighty Mekong river. Getting our visa is the first taste Laos bureaucracy, a legendary monster of lethargy feared by travelers round the globe. Fortunately the hype is from a bygone era and we move through quickly and efficiency, losing only $1 for an “overtime” (read: bribe) fee.
We’re in Huay Xai, and being as close as we are to an international boundary our full defenses are up. As we walk around the town we find the hair on the back of our necks resting calmly, our palms dry, our eyes focused and relaxed. What’s going on here? Ah yes. This is Laos, where the pace is so slow that even the border towns won’t be seedy for a good many years. Goodbye Thailand, welcome to a new world.
We spend the night in Huay Xai and get moving early the next day. Sadly the bus system in Laos does live up to the hype. We wait hours for our ancient bus to get rolling. The road we are on is supposedly one of the best in Laos, built by the Chinese in return for lucrative logging rights. Well travel in Laos is going to suck folks, because this road is a rattler.
It takes about 8 hours to cover the 250 odd kilometers to Luang Namtha, a quiet town in the Northwest corner of Laos. From here you can reach China or Burma (Myanmar) within a day peddling a decent bicycle. The weather is cool, the land is dry, and the people are shorter than Val.
The area is littered with hilltribe villages from a staggering 40 different ethnic groups. Throw in some forest and a strong dose of forethought and sensitivity and you’ve got an award winning eco-conscious trekking mecca.
We mean to get out walking right away, but our hotel room stops us in our tracks. Fresh linens, cathedral ceilings, satellite TV, and a mattress from heaven bid us to stay 1, maybe 2, okay 3 days. Ahhh…
In the process of loafing we meat a great couple from Australia, Emilia and David, and go to dinner together. We joke, with a hint of trepidation, that we’ve chartered the restaurant as ours are the only butts in seats. However, the feast that ensues is an ensemble of traditional food from many nearby tribes and it’s amazing. The flavors are punctuated by the sharing of great travel stories and a quickly growing friendship.
As it comes time to sleep I convince Val that we should sleuth out the source of some thumping music. This leads us to a local wedding where half the community has turned up for a good time. They teach us how to dance Laos style and pour us countless glasses of beer Laos. Wow, we thought the surrounding forests were the attractions but Luang Namtha has got a whole bag of tricks up it’s sleeve.