Buses, boats and treks in Northern Laos

Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Sneaking a peek Photo: Rice field Photo: Boys posing

After Luang Prabang I spent 10 days travelling around Northern Laos by slow boat and bus. I took a scenic boat ride up to Nong Khiaw, another to Muang Ngoi and back, then a series of buses to Huay Xai on the Thai border with a stop in Luang Nam Tha.

Getting around Northern Laos can be slow and unpredictable so after getting caught up with work in Luang Prabang I took the next two weeks off since I knew I wouldn’t be able to get much work done anyway. This was really the only part of my trip where I was able to do the carefree backpacker thing without worrying about getting online or timing my travel around my work weeks, which was really nice.

Northern Laos is known for its mountainous terrain and trekking opportunities, through villages of various ethnic minorities that make up a large percentage of the population. After seeing pictures of hill tribes in their colorful traditional dress I was excited to do a trek to take pictures and learn about and interact with them.

I did a two day trekking/kayaking trip on my first weekend in Luang Prabang that included stops in Khamu and Hmong villages but it was much different than I had expected — almost nobody in the villages wore any kind of traditional clothing, and when we arrived they usually just stared at us with confused looks on their faces. We didn’t learn anything about them or get to interact with them much at all. I think organized trekking trips would be better elsewhere, e.g. out of Muang Sing further northwest.

Photo: Rest stop Photo: Boys with tire Photo: Bottomless boy Photo: Errand girls

On this trek and throughout my time in Laos the air was constantly thick with smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture, which had to be the worst thing about my visit here. My eyes were constantly burning; in Luang Prabang I would spend hours working offline at Joma just because it was air conditioned, the only clear air I could find in town. The smog was so bad that last month Thailand declared a state of emergency in Chiang Rai, a province nearby. I enjoyed my time in Laos in spite of the smoke but would definitely try to avoid visiting during the dry season in the future.

Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Stream crossing Photo: Trekking trip Photo: Trekking trip

From Luang Prabang I took a slow boat up the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw; the only other passenger was a Swiss guy. It was a really nice trip, I would recommend it over the 3 hr bus ride even though it took 7 hours. Since we were near the height of the dry season the river was very shallow in places, and our driver did an excellent job navigating through shallow rapids upstream; it was pretty fun to watch, but looked really stressful for him.

At one point the water was so shallow he couldn’t use the engine any more, so a bunch of kids (about 20 of them) came running out to push us up the river for a few minutes; the driver paid them a bit afterwards.

Photo: Shallow water Photo: Gold panners Photo: Kids waving Photo: Water buffalo

When we arrived in Nong Khiaw I told the Swiss guy I planned to stay at a place that had been highly recommended by my fellow trekkers a week ago (Nong Kiau River Side) even though it was more expensive than the others, $25/night for two people.

On the way there we stopped by another place just to check it out and the room looked nice but at $20 it didn’t seem much cheaper than the one highly recommended to me so I told the Swiss guy I was going to continue across the bridge to stay there; he said he was going to check out one more place and would meet me across the bridge later.

So I went on my own to NKRS, asked to see one of the bungalows and was blown away by how nice it was: tons of space, beautiful furnishings, a nice big balcony with a hammock, awesome bed and bathroom, and only $20 for one person.

I grabbed a room, dropped off my stuff and went back across the bridge into town, laughing at my good fortune and thinking “ha ha, silly Swiss guy thinks he knows better than me”; I actually felt bad that I didn’t try harder to convince him to follow me, it was so much better than the other one we had seen.

Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side Photo: Balcony view Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side Photo: Nong Khiaw River Side

I met up with a German couple we had met earlier in town, we tried to find the Swiss guy for a while without success, and as I was raving about the place I found for the same price as the one they had, they corrected my math: the one we had seen earlier for 20000 kip was only $2 USD, not $20. Doh!

Still, I was delighted to pay $20 for the place I had — it was by far the best place I had stayed in the last 4 months.

I had a very enjoyable evening of dinner and drinks with the Germans who were extremely well-travelled and had lots of good stories. We discussed such things as which countries are the best in which to get kidnapped, and what’s the cheapest haircut you ever had. Mine was $2 last week at this place in Luang Prabang; the German guy’s was $0.25 in Uzbekistan. (When he mentioned Uzbekistan I had to resist the urge to launch into a bunch of anti-Uzbek vitriol in my best Borat voice.)

Photo: Nong Khiaw Photo: Boys posing Photo: Nong Khiaw Photo: Boat ticket office info

I would have been happy to have spent several days there but didn’t have many spare days left so the next day I continued up the river by boat to Muang Ngoi, a small town about an hour away.

The only access to Muang Ngoi is by boat, so there are no motor vehicles there at all, and they only have power for a few hours each night from generators.

It has quite a healthy backpacker/guesthouse scene, the main attractions being its laid back atmosphere and do-it-yourself trekking. The accommodation all seemed quite similar: bungalows with balconies and hammocks overlooking the river for about $1-2 each; a few nicer places had private bathrooms and hot water showers for $5 or so. I chose a bungalow at Nicksa’s Place for $1.50/night.

Photo: Muang Ngoi Photo: Bungalows Photo: Main street Photo: My bungalow

The day after I arrived I went for a trek; 30 minutes away from the village are some big caves where people lived while the country was being bombed, and a little bit further were some small villages.

At the first village I ran into a couple I had met on the boat ride the previous day, and when I was at the caves I saw a couple girls from the boat, otherwise I didn’t see any other foreigners all day.

I found the first village pretty boring so planned to head back to Muang Ngoi but on my way back at a fork in the paths I reconsidered: even though the first village was boring I did get one of my favorite pictures there (kids watching TV through a crack in the wall) and I had nothing else to do today so I might as well walk another few hours to see what else I could find.

Photo: Ban Na Photo: Sneaking a peek Photo: Bombshell Photo: Ban Na

A bit later there was an unmarked fork in the path and I took the one that seemed to lead away from where I had just been; this turned out to be the wrong choice, and after wandering across dry rice paddies for a while the path became less and less clear so I gave up and turned around. I had a hard time finding my way back to the main path and ended up hacking my way through some thick brush for a while; when I finally stumbled onto the main trail my legs were all muddy and I was covered in thorns; just then a local guy came walking along, probably laughing at the stupid foreigner as he helped remove thorns from my back.

He made a “sleep” gesture, indicating I should follow him to a guesthouse in the next village, but I already had one back in Muang Ngoi and didn’t want to follow him because I expected he would want money for his guide service. But I did want to go in the same direction, so I walked behind him for a while. When we got there he led me to a guesthouse and I had to try to communicate that I already had a place in Muang Ngoi. He offered to lead me to a waterfall nearby and I tried to figure out how to get rid of him before heading there on my own, when luckily a bunch of his friends came running up and dragged him away to drink lao lao. It seemed from their reaction when they saw him that he had been away for a while, maybe attending school in the city or something.

I explored the village a bit and had started on my way back when a young girl came up and made a frisbee-throwing motion while pointing to the frisbee sticking out of my pack, so I played catch with her for a while, happy to have someone to throw with. We were soon joined by another half-dozen kids, and about 20 of the villagers came to watch for a while. One lady with a child in a sling on her back watched with a smile for a few minutes, finally worked up the nerve to ask if she could try, then threw it once and burst out laughing.

Photo: Signs Photo: Ban Huay Bor Photo: Playing frisbee Photo: Playing frisbee

I played catch with them for about an hour before calling it quits so I could head back before it got dark.

On the way back I checked out the spot where I had taken the wrong fork in the path, and I still think my way looked like the better way to go.

Photo: Paddy shelter Photo: Water buffalo Photo: Dim sun Photo: Paddy shelter

The next day I caught a boat back to Nong Khiaw; I just missed the passenger ferry so I hopped on a cargo boat with a family transporting big sacks of rice etc. I had to pay a bit more than the normal rate, but it was still only $3 and I wouldn’t have to wait around for the next boat or sit knee-to-knee with other passengers.

On the way back we made about 4-5 stops to exchange goods with others on the way (one of the transactions seemed to be conducted in hushed voices at the far end of the boat — opium?)

At first I was a bit annoyed by the delays but then remembered why I was in a hurry to get back to Nong Khiaw, to go take pictures of people down by the river; the slow cargo boat was the perfect place to do so: no need to worry about the camera getting wet or carrying a pack around, or being conspicious while taking pictures; all the cool stuff I wanted to see would just come floating past. (though I only got a couple decent pictures)

I spent another night at Nong Kiau River Side, then took a series of buses to Luang Nam Tha, via Pak Mong and Udomxai.

Throughout most of my trip I rarely booked anything more than a day or two in advance but that all changed once I booked my return flight, because there were a few things I really wanted to do before returning home and time was running out.

So in Nong Khiaw I had gone to the bus station several times to confirm the route and schedule that would get me to Huay Xai in only three days. (maybe a total of 500 km or so; I can do that in three hours in my car at home :)

The morning I left I met a couple cute girls at the bus station who were headed in the same direction, Hanita and Veronica; we got along well and spent the next few days together. The first bus was scheduled to leave at 11am; shortly afterwards the guy selling tickets said there weren’t enough people so we’d either have to pay some exhorbitant fee per passenger or wait until tomorrow. (I forget how much the fee was, maybe $40 or so — I would have paid it since I had stuff booked later but don’t know if they would have)

I complained that I had explicitly asked him about this yesterday, whether the bus goes every day, or only when there are enough people, but he stuck to his story and there wasn’t much we could do about it. I don’t know if that was standard practice for this route, or just an opportunistic money grab.

We asked about alternate routes and he said if we made the short trip to Pak Mong there would be more options there and we might be able to catch a ride to Udomxai, so we did that and were able to make it there and even further, to Luang Nam Tha. And there was a daily bus from there to Huay Xai so I would be able to do the whole trip in only two days instead of three, woohoo.

We spent the day on a variety of local buses, none of them very comfortable. Some people complain bitterly about these trips but we agreed they weren’t that bad… so you’re uncomfortable for a few hours, so what?

Photo: Soup place Photo: Bus station Photo: Bus repair Photo: Hill tribe lady

We ate dinner that night at a place with a hilarious menu featuring delicacies such as:

  • Fish Koy
  • Nonpeer
  • Duch,chichken soup with soup
  • Insipid soup
  • Hard boiled soup
  • Geilled meat with drip water
  • Acidfy pork
  • Yo
  • Noodle pok pok
  • Cucumber pok pok
  • Papaya pok pok
  • Roast giant

In Luang Nam Tha we rented mountain bikes and spent a day exploring the countryside, riding past rice paddies and through about 3-4 small villages.

Photo: Rice field Photo: Rice field Photo: Rice fields Photo: Rice

A few weeks earlier I started looking forward to being back in the Whistler bike park and today I was so excited to be back on a bike that I had tons of energy and was bouncing around on it all day.

At one point I turned off onto a side road to wait for the girls to catch up, and it was apparently the wrong road to turn onto because a guy holding an AK-47 yelled something at me before he realized I was just doing a little loop at the intersection.

It was a really fun day; the people in these villages were friendly, obviously accustomed to tourists passing through but not so many of them that it had become a big tourist trap.

One girl saw us stop for a second and called out “hey, come visit my house” because she wanted to practice her English. We sat and chatted for a while, much of it without really understanding each other but with lots of smiles and friendliness on both sides. She served us each glasses of water of unknown origin when we arrived, which we politely pretended to drink.

Photo: Making rice paper Photo: Rice paper drying Photo: Making rice paper Photo: Girl eating Photo: Friendly girls Photo: Friendly girls Photo: Hanita and Veronica Photo: Boat Landing Guesthouse

After we had gone through the last village on the short loop through the countryside I spotted a guesthouse/restaurant I remembered reading about in my guidebook reputed to be the best in the area (Boat Landing Guesthouse), so we stopped for lunch/dinner and ended up spending hours there enjoying the view and a really nice conversation.

It’s amazing how quickly you bond with people on the road: after just a couple short days together we were chatting away like old friends, much of it lighter stuff like travel, health and nutrition but also a few more personal things like family issues, and hopes and aspirations. Hanita and I were both near the ends of 5-6 month trips so I think we were both in reflective moods.

The next day Veronica continued north to Muang Sing (which sounds like an excellent place to do responsible trekking trips — if I had a few more days I would have liked to have gone), and Hanita and I caught a bus to Huay Xai, then she continued on to Thailand.

That trip was entertaining too but this is way too long already.

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