The bus back to Luang Nam Tha turned out to be similar to a Thailand songthaew which was quickly packed full of people and bags of rice or grain. Along the way and older western man brought out a bag of candy. A local woman sitting on the floor of our ride quickly snatched it out of his hands and took it upon herself to spread the wealth. Little did the man know, she fully intended to distribute all of the candy. She gave a few rounds of candy to her friends sitting around her, and then some to everyone sitting towards the front of the truck. Tara and I each received a generous three pieces. Then she scooped about 3 full handfuls for herself, and the poor man was left with about five pieces, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He probably had a few more bags of candy with him.
We arrived in Luang Nam Tha about two hours later and found a guest house for the night. This gave us a chance to do some laundry. There are plenty of trekking opportunities in Luang Nam Tha as well as kayaking and bicycling, but during the two days we stayed there, it was extremely hot. We made an attempt to walk to a hill top pagoda, but ended up lost and had to turn back. We spent the rest of the time reading and drinking fruit shakes or beer. The last morning in Nam Tha, Tara ordered a banana pancake which turned out to be a small cake cooked in a pan with bananas. It was thick and delicious! We then took a local taxi to a long distance bus station which was 10 km out of town.
Signs at our guest house said that the bus times to the next city, Oudomxai, left at: 8:30, 9:30, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00. We arrived at 7:45 and bought our tickets for the first bus. It was a full two hours later that we realized two vertical lines written on our paper that might mean the bus doesn’t leave until 11. We ended up leaving at 12:20 when the bus was full. The bus this time was a proper bus, but looked like it had gone through a tough 25 years in China before being donated to Laos. It was in rough shape with everything falling apart. Three hours later we arrived in the empty town of Oudomxai. Although our guidebook deemed this town under-rated, we decided to skip it and checked into a guest house across from the bus station.
The next morning we woke up early to try to catch the first bus possible since none seemed to follow any sort of schedule. We bought our tickets for a bus to Muang Khoua. Since we had been some of the last to buy our tickets, all the seats where taken and we had to sit on small plastic lawn chairs in the aisle. We had to brace ourselves on every twist and turn to keep from sliding or toppling over. During the ride we ate breakfast purchased from a vendor in the bus station. We each had two freshly baked, small baguettes and a fried piece of dough that tasted more like bread than a dough nut. Another popular option was sticky rice cooked with coconut and packaged in a thin piece of bamboo. Three hours and one security checkpoint later we arrived in Muang Khoua.
Muang Khoua is a small town on the Nam Ou river which serves as a small port and a gateway to Vietnam. We went to the town for the opportunity to take the river south to Muang Ngoi, which was supposed to have fantastic scenery. We found a guest house and took a stroll through the small town. There was not much except for the dock and boat ramp. The streets were lined with large beds of corn that the locals were drying in the sun. We noticed a large number of trucks parked along the road on the other side of the river, and one that was almost fully submerged which must have crashed right into the river. A team of men were slowly winching out the truck with a large pulley by hand. That evening, we met an independent photographer named Geoff that was on his sixth annual visit to Laos. He was writing a story about the rapid growth and development in the country. We also found out that he was going to sell his story and photos to National Geographic. He informed us that the trucks parked on the other side of the road were actually apprehended by police. The illegal logging cargo was on its way to Vietnam and concealed by mounds of corn which must have been donated to the locals after seizing the trucks. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with Geoff who had some wild stories of running into the Laos Mafia and drug smugglers. Apparently, shipments of heroin are smuggled in from Myanmar, through Laos, and distributed from Vietnam. He also told us about how China and other countries are stripping Laos of its resources. This was interesting since when we were in China, the English speaking TV channel full of propaganda (CCTV 9) told us a story of helping Laos by building an extensive road network. Although, we have yet to see a newly paved road or constructed bridge.
The next morning, we went to the pier to catch a boat, but were told that we’d have to charter the entire boat for one million Kip. After an hour of waiting and asking other boat captains, the first captain lowered his price to 600 000 Kip. Adam offered 200 000 Kip and was refused so we continued to wait. This process went on in the longest bargain or negotiation that we have had on our entire trip. Unfortunately, only one boat passed through the town in about four hours, and it was heading North. The only thing we could do was sit and watch the submerged truck slowly creep up the boat ramp as the men winched it. Eventually, we settled on a price of 450 000 Kip which was split between three people: Adam, Tara, and another girl named Tara.
The trip out of our way to Muang Khoua and the wait for the boat was worth it. The Nam Ou river carved its way through spectacular limestone cliffs. We hopped in a long skinny boat and snaked our way through the cliffs, and even navigated through rocky outcroppings with small rapids. The journey lasted around four hours with a few delivery stops along the way.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in the tiny riverside village of Muang Ngoi. The village runs on diesel-electric generators and is overrun by backpackers. Fortunately, the town was not too busy during our stay. We checked into a guest house in the middle of the only street in town and spent the rest of the day in a hammock.
The next morning we were woken up at about 5:30 to the sound of rhythmic drum pounding. We looked out our window and saw a line of monks walking down the main street. They stopped with their backs turned to our building and started chanting in unison very slowly. It looked like a scene from Indiana Jones. People were kneeling on the ground and giving offerings as they finished chanting and continued down the road. After this display, it was quiet except for the sound of at least 30 roosters crowing, and it was impossible to go back to sleep. We went for breakfast at one of the many bamboo homes turned into a cafe. The Israeli food on the menu confirmed that we were in a well traveled, backpacker area. Tara had yet another banana pancake, and Adam ordered shaksuka.
After breakfast we were left with a few options: trekking, kayaking, tubing, or fishing. We decided to do a little trekking on our own and walked out of the village and through a wooded area to some caves. Since we only had a single flashlight without any backup batteries, we thought better than to go to far into the cave, and continued across two streams and through some rice fields. In the middle of the rice fields, the path split into two directions, each with a sign to advertise waterfalls and guest houses. We picked the shortest route, but were quickly cut off by another river with fairly high water levels, which made it impossible to pass without swimming. Instead, we turned back and went to a village down the second path. We had lunch in another bamboo hut cafe and relaxed for a bit before heading back to Muang Ngoi. It was in the early evening when we got back to Muang Ngoi, and so we spent the rest of the evening drinking beer until the sun went down with some other travelers.
The following morning, we awoke again to the sound of chanting monks, and we went back to the same place for breakfast. This time we had Falang (foreigner) rolls. These consisted of sticky rice rolled around a piece of banana and cut into pieces like sushi. Each piece was coated in a drizzle of honey and a spoonful of home made peanut butter, and then covered with sesame seeds. They were pretty tasty! Unfortunately, the rolls took around an hour to prepare and serve, and so we had to quickly run down the street to buy our tickets for the boat out of Muang Ngoi. We jumped on a larger boat and headed south to Nong Khiaw. One hour later, we jumped off the boat and were in another songthaew headed for Luang Prabang. After arriving at the bus station in Luang Prabang, we had to take another taxi to the center of town. Our old guide book tells us that the bus stations used to be inside or at least walking distance from the towns, but it looks like that has changed. The bus stations were moved out of town, perhaps to help traffic flow, but with the added benefit (unfortunate to travelers) of creating a small taxi mafia with a standard price of 10 000 Kip no matter what the distance into town.
We are currently still in Luang Prabang and expect to stay here a few more days to visit the surrounding temples, waterfalls, and relax next to the Mekong river.