China to Muang Sing, Laos

The only thing interesting about Mengla was the brothel across from our hotel. In fact, our hotel may have once been a brothel because in our bathroom was a tile with a picture of a nude woman, which was spray painted over at one point, but someone had curiously scratched the paint away. We caught the first mini-bus out of Mengla the following morning, and Adam sat next to two monks in the backseat. One of the monks had the newest Canon camera and was taking hundreds of pictures out the window as our bus drove towards the border.

Our driver stopped along the way to deliver several packages, a theme common in Asia (especially China and Vietnam). We forgot to mention in our post about the rice terraces in Vietnam that the minivan we took to get to Sapa was fairly empty. We started off and arrived 10 minutes later at a brewery. Every last bit of breathing room was filled with kegs of beer and some sort of bagged snack food. Of course, the goods were delivered before we arrived in Sapa which added on quite a bit of travel time with no discount in price. The road we took towards the border with Laos winded along hills and was bumpy despite being paved in most sections. We jumped onto a nice highway for a good 20 minutes, but then suddenly jumped back off onto another dirt road. Again, 20 minutes later we took a dirt ramp back onto the highway, enjoyed the luxury, and then jumped off again. It quickly became obvious that makeshift, dirt ramps had been constructed by the locals allowing us to use sections of the highway while avoiding the tolls!

We arrived at the Chinese Immigration building and were immediately swamped by money changers. One woman actually gave us a really good rate compared to what we had researched on the internet, but she then proceeded to use every trick possible to try to screw us into a bad deal. The money changer women first handed us stacks of 2000, and 5000 bills (some of the lowest denominations). To their astonishment, we proceeded to count all the bills, and check for damaged ones. More than a handful of bills from each stack were torn down the middle and taped back together. The women were very reluctant to trade them for good ones. The older women were angry, but we did catch a younger money changer laughing to herself. Since we were asking for upwards of 3 million Kip, it didn’t make sense to collect stacks of 1, 2, and 5 thousand denominations. When we asked for the larger denominations, the older women were angry. They wanted to unload all of their crappy, small bills on us. Luckily, the younger money changer handed us a few piles of larger bills. It seemed as though all of the women worked together. When we were still owed 250 000 Kip, they tried one final trick in giving us only 25 000, which is a fairly large difference. Once that was quickly sorted out, we walked away happy, and probably with more than a few fake bills. Luckily, we are in Laos, and these will probably be accepted everywhere anyway. The ladies were not impressed to see that we weren’t going to accept their rushed trade. More than a few times, they tried to quickly hand us all of the stacks of money and walk away.

We were quickly stamped out of China, and shared a tuk-tuk to the Laos border with a man from Thailand. We purchased our Laos visa on arrival without hassle, and even helped the Chinese monk from the mini-van since he could not read Laos or English. When we finished the paperwork, we walked down the steps where a Taxi tried to charge us 150 000 Kip for the ride to the next town. The driver would not bargain. This trick was very similar to Thailand. We walked around the corder and caught the bus for 40 000 Kip in total. Two hours later, we arrived in Luang Nam Tha. The ride, although bumpy, was extremely pleasant compared to China. Suddenly, everything was peaceful as we bounced through rolling hills dotted with bamboo shacks. Thankfully, horn use was kept to a minimum. Chinese (and Vietnamese) drivers must be a little absent minded since they are always slowly drifting in between lanes. This leads to the custom of the approaching vehicle (from in front or behind) to keep honking before, during, and after passing. Sometimes even then, the drifting vehicle doesn’t pull over to the side of the road. In Laos and Thailand, two quick honks and most vehicles move over for us to pass. The rolling hills are beautiful, but clear cutting is occurring in large patches everywhere.

We arrived in Luang Nam Tha and had to wait an hour till the next bus left for Muang Sing, a small village known as a base for trekking to nearby villages. Luckily, the bus station television was playing highlights from WWF wrestling, boxing, kick boxing, and mui thai, which was entertaining while we ate our roadside stall sandwiches. We caught the next bus and two hours later we arrived in Muang Sing, but not without one final scam. Instead of letting us out in the middle of town, the driver took us to the bus station, a few “blocks” (or dirt roads) out of town where his taxi driver friend would drive us back into town for a price. We chose to walk.

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As we were walking back into town, we saw a massive rocket shoot into the sky. This was no toy or hobby rocket. This thing sounded like a jet and reached hundreds of meters before disappearing. After finding a room and a quick bite to eat, we wandered to where the rocket must have taken off from. Apparently, we had arrived on the day of Prapheni Bun Bang Fai, also known as one hell of a party. Prapheni Bun Bang Fai is a rocket festival to encourage the coming of the rainy season. We walked through an alley of makeshift stalls and tarps set up in the middle of a field behind the village. Some stalls were selling all kinds of food from fish heads to chicken feet. Others were full restaurants packed full of locals dining on massive meals and drinking Laos Beer. There were small fair rides for the young kids, and also games. The most popular game had balloons inflated inside small wooden boxes or cubbies. If you could pop three balloons with three (highly tampered) darts, you could win food, beer, or candy. There were several separate sound systems playing traditional or folk music, and no shortage of Laos beer.

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As we approached the main rocket stand we saw a huge group of women dancing a traditional dance in a long line. There were also a large number of chinese tourists drinking and dancing in traditional clothing. A group then passed us carrying a platform raised on their shoulders. On top of the platform was a man sitting on a wooden saw horse type thing with cases of full Laos beer in front and behind him. As we passed them, and got closer to the group passing, we heard a loud noise and the sound of broken bottles. We turned around and the men parading the man on their shoulders had fallen because they were too drunk. There was so much beer that many of the drunk people dancing were regularly dousing each other in beer as if it was champagne and they had just won the Tour De France. At the edge of the party, we finally reached the rockets.

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There was rockets of all sizes ranging from small to some that required a few men to carry. Each rocket was made from bamboo packed with gunpowder and reinforced with rope around the outside to prevent them from exploding. There were so many that a rocket was launched every five minutes or less. Every single person there was drinking beer – some was even offered to the kids. Of course, there was no shortage of locals offering us some of their beer. One extremely intoxicated woman, which we were having a good time watching dance, finally stumbled over to us carrying a plastic bottle with clear liquid. She literally forced a shot of moonshine down both of our throats. It tasted awful. One girl said she thought it tasted like feet, whatever feet taste like. It was rice whisky, or lao lao. We could actually have filled a litre of it in our own water bottle for less than dollar. We would say that the price reflects the taste in this situation.

We ended up staying at the festival for at least an hour or two watching more than one hundred rockets launch into the sky through several downpours of rain. When it didn’t seem like it was going to stop raining and it was starting to get dark, we decided to go back to our guesthouse to warm up and change clothes. Even while we were changing, we could still hear rockets being fired in the distance. It didn’t stop for at least another hour or so.

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It was soon time for dinner and we stopped at a restaurant to eat at a table with some people who were from France. Soon, more and more western people started joining our table. Apparently, all of them could speak french and they had gone on a trek together. Few of them were interested in talking with us, and all were impatient and rude with the only waitress (who was also the cook because the entire town was drunk). Needless to say, our food never arrived, and so we left the table to go eat by ourselves. Unfortunately, the entire town was closed because of the festival. The restaurants that were open were only serving to what looked like their friends or their own family parties. In the end, we had to eat from some food stalls. Our dinner consisted of five mystery meat sticks (which were mostly fatty), two hard boiled eggs, some dried banana slices coated in sugar, and some sticky rice. It actually wasn’t that bad.

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The next morning we woke up early and headed to one of two trekking offices. Here we met a woman from England named Alice, and the three of us signed onto a 2 day trip. We left our bags at the office and followed our guide, Joy. Joy told us that the local farmers grew sugar cane in the flat plains which mostly goes to China. Large sections of forest in the mountains had been slashed and burnt down to make room for rice paddies which are only grown during the rainy season. We stopped for lunch and to avoid the rain at one of the many small bamboo shelters built by local farmers to use for the same reasons while they work. For lunch Joy unwrapped a few large banana leaves to reveal some meat with lemongrass and chilis, a tomato and onion omlette, and a heap of sticky rice. We rolled the sticky rice into balls with our hands and ate it with a portion of the other dishes.

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When the rain had stopped, we continued walking out of the farmer’s fields and through the first local village. The village was made of bamboo houses raised on stilts. There was a single pump to provide water for cooking. The villagers also used the pump to bathe. The women were only allowed to bathe in a sarong, and the men in their underwear. It was weird to see people living in these conditions, yet at the same time see a bamboo hut with a new motorbike parked underneath. Even better was the bamboo hut with the ETL mobile phone neon service sign on the side of it. The kids all yelled “Sa bai dee” (hello in Laos) to us, but then immediately asked for candy. Unfortunately, since this village has been visited frequently by candy touting tourists, all of the kids now expected it. We also saw the village’s spirit gate which was a wooden archway. Nailed to the arch were wooden guns and hammers pointed away from the village to scare away the ghosts and evil spirits.

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We walked out of the village and up into the hills. The path wandered in and out of the bush and along burnt patches of forest. Rain poured down about 15 minutes from the top of the mountain. At the top was another village where we stopped for the night. We arrived totally soaked. Previously, the rain was light and intermitant. This time it didn’t stop, and we made the mistake of not putting our rain jackets on right away. When we arrived, we quickly made our way into the guest hut on the edge of the village. This village was similar to the one below, but didn’t have new motorbikes or any makeshift moble phone stores. The village is quite large with over 70 bamboo houses. Our bamboo hut was fairly spacious and was divided into two areas by a thin wall. The small of the two areas was for kitchen use. In the kitchen were a few shelves and a rectangular fire pit with three large stones to hold a wok above the fire. Our guide started cooking dinner above the fire and first made another tomato and onion omlette. After that, he started making a soup made from onions, tomatos, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, chillis, water, and some mushrooms that he had picked from the side of the trail. After about 10 minutes he gave the soup a taste and quickly started to discuss with some locals that had been around us since we arrived. They all had a taste and all agreed that it tasted very bitter. They then started examining the soup, and found that the cooked mushrooms had turned green. Our guide was extremely upset, embarrased, almost mortified at his mistake. Apparently, the mushrooms looked the same as another type because all of the villagers had said they should be OK. We had to pour the soup out and start again. The soup was delicious on the second try and without the mushrooms. We ate it with the cold omlette, more rice, and a spicy peanut sauce.

After dinner, one of the local men offered us more lao lao “to help us sleep.” Then, four women appeared in our hut and told us to lie down. It turned out that our trek included a massage by some of the local women. Unfortunately, the massage was not very thorough, but it still felt pretty good after walking all day. Afterwards, we rolled over to discover that our hut was pitch black except for a single candle. The curious locals soon retired to their own huts and we quickly fell asleep on the foam mattresses and a few blankets. The night was cold and we were all woken up at the sound of at least 50 roosters at 4 in the morning. When got up, it was still cold enough to see our breath, but somehow kids were running around outside in only their t-shirts.

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After some noodle soup for breakfast, we made our way down a slippery path out of the village. As we were leaving, Joy told us that this village had just voted on a new chief. Each village chief travels to Muang Sing to discuss and vote on issues with the chiefs from other villages. The old chief from this village had been voted out of his 16 year reign because he had grown too old and now smokes too much opium. The new chief has a term of four years before a new vote can occur. On the way down, we stopped in another village and had some sugar cane. Tara had a hard time ripping pieces off of the cane and chewing on it. We then walked through fields with piles of harvested and bundled sugar cane, which our guide helped himself to along the entire way. After a quick lunch, we arrived in yet another village for some more photographs, and our guide bought a dish with jelatonous cubes made from rice. Added to the cubes was water, chilli paste (and a lot of it), and fresh parsley. It didn’t taste like much other than spice. After another half hour of walking or so, we met with our taxi which drove us all back to Muang Sing.

When we got back to our guesthouse, we showered and took a nap. Afterwards, Alice phoned Joy so that we could take him out to dinner as a tip for his help. We ate dinner with him and had a few beers. The dinner conversation mostly included talk about contraceptives and HIV. First, he wanted to know how we could have lived together without having children yet. He told us that in Muang Sing, women have three options: the shot, the diaphragm, or the pill. However, the women only take it when they have already started a family and do not want anymore children. Adam told him about a vasectomy, but Joy said that it was not healthy for men and then laughed. After all, what happens if he has a divorce, and then needs to have children with another woman. We didn’t pursue it any longer. Then we talked a bit about HIV. The first question startled both of us since it came from a 45 year old man. “How do you catch AIDs?” It seemed as though he already knew the answer, but was double checking to see if it was true or if we believed it. Thankfully, he knew that condoms were the only thing to protect him from HIV. He did mention on the walk, however, that some villagers get condoms for free from festivals and other events. Sometimes, the villagers put them on bananas (as in the demonstration) or even on their fingers while having sex, and then wonder why they ended up having a baby. No one had actually told them exactly how to use the condom – only provided them with it. This isn’t too surprising since we’ve heard of similar stories in Africa, and because Joy told us that the average age for marriage and children in the villages is 15 or 16 years old. We forgot to ask if the marriages were arranged or not.

After a late dinner, we all went to bed. The next morning we had a quick breakfast and caught the bus back through Luang Nam Tha. We’ve decided to stop for two nights to get a chance to do our laundry and rent bicycles for the day. Then we’re off to take a boat down the Nam Ou river.

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