A Tale of Two Towns, Muang La and Muang Khua

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Dancing in the Street, Muang Khua

After our energetic two days trekking and rafting we hobble downstairs to catch a songthaew to the bus station so we can continue our journey through Northern Laos. Our small bus is nearly full of local people but we find some space and are soon on our way. We start with a 3 1⁄2 hour journey to Oudomxai, also spelt Oudomxay or Udomxai and also referred to as Muang Xai. No wonder we keep getting confused when we looked at maps. We’re not in the protected area any more but we have great views as we travel along the ridge tops descending into valleys now and then to cross a river or stream then climbing back up to another ridge. As before tiny villages and small towns make use of any available flat land and some agriculture extends around the village and along creek sides but much of the country is too steep and difficult to access so lots of forest remains in this region.

Oudomxai is a major interchange bus station and a busy city and we are just in time to catch a minivan for the one hour trip north to the village of Muang La. This time we’re joined by two other westerners who are travelling further than we are and the mini van is packed full. We’re stopping in Muang La because we read of a pleasant guest house, some hot springs for soaking in and we’ve seen lovely photos of the area around the Nam Pak River. We aren’t actually sure what we’ll find however as recent reviews suggest the situation has changed. That proves right; the guest house by the river is closed for renovations following flooding and the springs are not available to the public any more as they seem to have been closed off by a new exclusive, and very expensive, resort.

We find a guest house easily enough but finding a place to get a late lunch proves more difficult. A nearby place is sign-posted as a restaurant but the roller shutter doors are firmly closed and we can’t find anyone who speaks English to ask for information about the restaurant or where else we can get a meal. I knew we should have made more effort to learn Lao but suspect even if we did we would still struggle in a place like this. The centre of town is about a kilometre away and we figure if we don’t find a restaurant along the way we should get something there so we head in that direction. There is a small market including a couple of stalls selling cooked meat and a few other things but just before it are three noodle shops and we pick one and are very happy with the flavors and freshness. In fact it is so nice we return to the same place for our evening meal, the menu might be limited, to only one choice, but the food is good.

By now it’s mid afternoon and hot so we take a back road to the guest house for a rest until it cools. On our way to dinner we meander down a back road taking in the views along the way. When we return via the main road we find the restaurant which had been shut earlier is now open and a couple from Germany are finishing their meal. They rented a motor cycle in Oudomxai so they have more freedom to explore the countryside and are staying the night in the same guest house we are.

Paul is up early, again, for misty photos, they sure make the place look good. He also visits Wat Pha Singkham, the local temple on a hill overlooking the town. Later we have our breakfast in the nearby restaurant and, as there is no regular bus stop in town, the helpful owner writes a sign to alert the driver of the bus we want to catch. He turns up right on time, and has room for us so we are soon on our way to Muang Khua arriving there in the middle of the day.

Muang La, “Please stop to pick up two farang bound for Muang Khua” or words to that effect

Muang Khua is the last town I visited on my previous trip to Laos, five years ago, and is the kick off point for our trip down the Nam Ou (Ou River) which we have been looking forward to. It’s an interesting town in its own right though with a busy market, lots of photogenic old buildings and interesting laneways and paths to wander down. It’s built at the junction of the Nam Ou and the Nam Pak rivers. Travellers passing through either travel up or down the Nam Ou or along the road between Oudomxai and the north west corner of Vietnam. It’s well set up to cater for backpackers and we soon find a comfortable guest house and explore the town.

There aren’t a huge number of restaurants but we enjoy our meals, particularly a dish of stir-fried mushrooms which is packed with fresh shiitake mushrooms plus other varieties as well. In between meals we wander through the town taking in the sights, and taking more photos.

Morning photos include the early morning alms giving, school children and workers heading off for their day and boats on the misty river. After breakfast we line up by the Nam Ou river with other backpackers ready for our boat trip down to Muang Ngoy.

Trekking and Rafting in the Lao Jungle

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Heading into the Nam Ha National Protected Area

We are sitting on the banks of the Nam Ha River in northern Lao thinking life doesn’t get much better than this. We are in the tiny village of Nalan Neua surrounded by rain forest in the middle of the Nam Ha Protected Area. To get here we’ve had a day’s trekking with our guide Toua through the rain forest up and over a steep hill and down to a small creek which we then followed for another hour to the village. We arrived sore, sweaty and tired but a rest and a swim in the cool river have helped a lot and a Beer Lao while we sit on the banks with our feet in the river is fixing the rest.

On the way here Toua cooked our lunch at a clearing in the forest at the top of the hill. The table and benches are totally constructed from materials that were gathered there and Toua made a pot from bamboo to cook a mushroom and herb soup to accompany pork barbecued in split bamboo and sticky rice, lettuce and pork salad bought in the market in Luang Namtha this morning. The soup was simple with a couple of different types of mushroom, some wild greens and a bit of mint, water, two types of salt, a few whole cloves of garlic and a couple of whole chillis for luck. Toua is a member of the Khmu people who follow an animist religion and, once the meal is served, he takes a small ball of sticky rice, touches it to the different foods saying a quiet invocation to the spirits and tosses it into the forest then repeats the process tossing the second ball in the opposite direction. We aren’t sure if the blessing made any difference but the food sure tasted delicious, it is certainly one of the best meals we have had in our whole trip.

The beginning of the trek, when we left the road behind was very steep but fortunately the steep section was not too long and the track settled into a gentle climb and we could gather our breath and enjoy the scenery on the way up to our lunch stop pausing a few times along the way to enjoy the forest. The trek down the hill was much longer and very steep all the way, pretty hard on our old joints even with the bamboo walking sticks that Toua cut for us, so it was lovely to get down to the pretty creek. Our progress was slowed by numerous rocky creek crossings we had to negotiate and photo stops to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

Nalan Neua has a population of over 200 Khmu people in 30 families. The Khmu people migrated from northern Cambodia 2,000 years ago. Each family has two or three elevated huts. One is used for sleeping and for guests, another for cooking, and if they have a third it is used for storage. We are here in the dry season so much of the cooking is done outside on small communal fires so they can socialise while they prepare their meals.

A road into the village was completed a year ago. Before that the only way in was to follow a walking track or travel upriver by boat. New Zealand provided financial aid to build a primary school for the children, pipe drinking water from a stream high on the hill opposite the village and bought small hydro electric units to supply each family with a limited amount of power. The large school building has three rooms but only two are used at present and there are two teachers for the five year levels. Children attending Secondary School in Luang Namtha stay in a dormitory in town during the week then return to the village Friday afternoon. During the weekend they gather food to take back for the following week and they return to town on Sunday afternoon.

Soule, our second guide for the next day of our trip, was waiting for us in the village when we arrived. He’d come in with a raft which we are going to use on our way down river. After our relaxing swim and beers, and a quick nap for some, Toua takes us for a walk around the village explaining different aspects of lifestyle and culture while Soule begins organising our evening meal with the help of one of the local women. When the meal is ready she joins us together with Toua and Soule. We eat by candle light with our fingers and spoons from the dishes which are served on a large banana leaf. Sticky rice is eaten at every meal and is formed into balls and dipped into dishes. Sure cuts out the washing up! After our meal we sit around a fire while Soule goes frog hunting but it’s an early night for us after an energetic day.

Paul has an early start with more photography.

Breakfast of sticky rice and an omelette cooked with tomatoes, garlic and herbs is complemented with some barbecue frogs. They are tiny with soft bones and eaten whole. Guess what, they taste like chicken.

Barbecue frogs for breakfast, Nalan Neua

Stomachs full with sticky rice yet again we stuff our gear into dry bags and hop onto the inflatable raft for our trip down the Nam Ha River. Soule is on the front, Toua at the back and Paul and I have a side each. We all paddle but Soule has the trickiest task of getting us over the rocks in the numerous small rapids. It is fairly late in the dry season and most tour companies have stopped rafting or canoeing on this river but with only four of us in the raft plus skillful guidance by Soule and energetic paddling by all of us we bump our way through most of the numerous small rapids scraping the bottom of the raft on the rocks as we go. The few times we get hung up on the rocks Soule hops off the front and drags us through. The only time we all need to get out is when a fallen tree blocks the river and we all need to get out and lift the raft over a large branch. It’s lucky the inflatable raft is strong enough to handle this rough treatment but it still needed to have the air topped up before we started rafting in the morning and after our lunch break and we had a small amount of water sloshing around our feet, just enough to keep them cool.

The trekking yesterday was great but this is even better as we drift and paddle through pristine rain forest. The forest comes right down to the river and at times we have to duck to dodge overhanging branches. Strands of bamboo appear amongst the tall trees and hundreds of shades of green delight our eyes. We hear quite a few birds and see a few but the flying creatures we see most are brilliant butterflies providing splashes of colour. As we float along Toua and Soule are softly singing traditional Khmu tunes, a perfect soundtrack for the voyage.

 

The only people we see while we’re in the Nam Ha Protected Area are in two other villages. The first is another Khmu village very similar to the one we stayed at last night. The next, NamKoy, has people from a different tribe, who are originally from China and their huts, language and way of life are quite different. Huts are not elevated and have no windows, just a front door used for most purposes and a back door to let the evil spirits out. The general level of health and vitality appears less although we don’t stay long enough to really know.

We stop along the way for lunch, not a barbecue this time but some delicious dishes including sticky rice, a couple of types of pork and vegetables, bamboo shoots and a chili dip. These were prepared in the village before we left and we eat with our fingers from a banana leaf. The river shore we landed upon had dozens of butterflies with colours of yellow, green, blue, black, gold and more.

More wonderful scenery follows our lunch break and by mid afternoon we reach the end of the Nam Ha River where it joins the Nam Tha River. This is the boundary of the NPA and one side of the river is covered in plantations and the trip is far less enchanting. Most of the tour companies are only kayaking and rafting down the Nam Tha, we are sure glad we found the one to take us deep into the forest.

We drift down to the next village where a songthaew meets us and transports us back to town. We have sore muscles for the next couple of days but we are taking away memories that we will treasure.

 

Onward to Luang Nam Tha

Luang Nam Tha Morning Market,
Timeless elegance

After our delightful stay at the Bamboo Nest outside of Chiang Rai we are dropped at the bus station in town and just have time to buy a couple of mango smoothies before we catch a local bus to Chiang Khong. It’s situated on the Mekong River which is the border with Laos. We have an overnight stay and it’s enjoyable with a guest house by the river, a stroll along the waterfront and through the small town in the late afternoon followed by a pleasant dinner.

Mural in Chiang Khong

In the morning, after coffee, we take a songthaew to the border where we pass through immigration on the south of the river, take a shuttle across the bridge then enter Laos. We need US$ for our visa and Lao Kip for our onward travel and with an exchange rate of 1 Aussie dollar to around 6,500 Kip we become instant millionaires with one visit to the ATM.

Instant Millionaires

Another songthaew takes us to the local bus station where we planned to catch the 12.30 bus to Luang Nam Tha but the time table has changed and we have to wait until 3.30 for the bus. Once again it’s a local bus and we are the only westerners on board. The scenery in the first part of the trip is great, especially when we enter the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). By now we are deep into mountains and it is very steep with few patches of flat land. Villages use those patches and they are filled with a line of huts built close together right beside the road and, if space allows, a second row behind them. We catch glimpses of village life as we drove past, it sure wouldn’t be an easy life out here but they seem to be close communities.

Because the bus left later than we hoped it gets dark all too soon and we miss some of the views we would have liked to see. The distance to Luang Nam Tha isn’t great but the trip is slow with narrow and winding roads through the hills, lots of heavy trucks and lots of potholes and broken tarmac. It’s late when we arrive at the bus station and we’ve booked accommodation at the Tai Dam guest house which is a short distance outside the town centre so we grab some cold snacks and take a songthaew the 10 km to town.

In the morning we wake to delightful views and we’re glad we picked this place to stay. We are only a ten minute walk to the centre of town but we look out onto a rural view. The bungalows are constructed of timber and bamboo and have decks overlooking the low lying land below. Mud walls have been used to form fish ponds and rice fields with plenty of crops around the edges. Paul catches the early morning mist in his photos.

Boiling water is available on the verandah so we have a leisurely cup of tea and then coffee then walk to the local morning market just a few minutes away. There are several places to eat and no signs in English but it seems the main dish available is a noodle soup so we order two. It’s probably the best noodle soup we’ve had, at least since Chiang Mai. It’s fascinating to watch the preparations.

We wander around the colourful market after breakfast taking photos and wondering what some of the unfamiliar foods are.

The main part of town has most of the tourists and restaurants and we stroll around calling into several of the trekking and adventure companies along the main street. We’re keen to get into the NPA and we book a two day trekking and rafting trip to commence the next morning. Our other meals in town aren’t as inspiring as our breakfast. The restaurants seem to have modified the dishes to western tastes but we do find some tasty barbecued duck and pork in the night market, some excellent coffee in a small restaurant and French style baguettes with tasty fillings which make an excellent breakfast before the trek the next day.

Our excursion into the NPA begins next morning with a visit to the local market for supplies for the day and a drive through the country past rice fields.

After the trekking we’re weary and aching and just back in town for the night so we stay in a guest house in the centre of town and book our tickets for a songthaew to the bus station and a local bus for our onward journey.

Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai

Another Bamboo Nest Chalet

While we were passing through the hills north of Chiang Rai on our boat ride south from Tha Ton we enjoyed the scenery so much that we started looking for a quiet place to stay for a while before we cross the border into Laos. We found a small place in the hills that looked just the job. We couldn’t find out much about it on the Internet but the few reviews we found were all very positive. I phoned and left a message and it wasn’t long before Nok phoned me back and we were booked in. Nok told us where and when to meet her at the ‘old bus station’.

So here we are, mango smoothy in hand, waiting for Nok at 4pm at Bay No. 1 at the bus station. She arrives just after four but we have to wait a while for everyone else to arrive. There are seven of us plus Nok to fit into and onto a dual cab Ute. Three of us try and fit into the back with all the luggage but it is quickly apparent that this won’t work, especially as we expect some of the roads we will be travelling on to be fairly rough. After we voice our concerns Nok trots off and organises a songthaew for us and we get underway. After a while we are driving alongside the Kok River and we start recognising places that we passed in the boat a few days ago.

Travelling with us in the songthaew is Michael from Toronto, Canada. After a few stops for Nok to buy some supplies we cross the Kok River and drive past the national park headquarters and the hot springs which we visited on our way down the river. Then we start heading up into the hills which get steeper and steeper. The songthaew struggles to reach a small village where the driver announces that he can’t go any further and we have to walk the last 500 metres. We climb out and quickly see why. The last section up to the Bamboo Nest requires low range in a four wheel drive and it sure has us puffing! The country is fantastic and we stop to enjoy the view and catch our breath at the same time. Our bags travel in style in the back of the Ute.

We are quickly checked in and briefed on the honour system for drinks and snacks and the serving hours for breakfast and dinner. We take a short stroll down to our bamboo chalet and check it out. Wonderful! A verandah with a bench and a hammock and we can lie on the bed and catch part of the view across to the mountain rice paddies and the green hills beyond. Almost all of the chalet is constructed out of bamboo including the hammock. The floor of the bathroom is concrete and the roof is thatched with palm tree leaves, but that’s about it. A mosquito net hangs over the huge bed and there is a low bench where we place our backpacks. Two bamboo-shuttered windows frame views of the hills and the banana plants. Otherwise the room is free of clutter.

At dinner we meet Michael’s wife Tracey as well as Margrit from Holland, Sue from England, and Luc from Belgium. We are all of a similar age and it is fun catching up on everyones travel stories. Luc has been traveling extensively for several decades and has visited many countries in every continent. Sue and Margrit both lived in Kenya for a while and that’s where they first met. We enjoy chatting about the places we all know there. We also enjoy the small fireworks display from the village below where they are celebrating Chinese New Year.

The next day we decide to relax and catch up on our reading plus some writing for the blog. We have brought our coffee plunger and a supply of ground coffee and there is plenty of hot water available so we are set. Luc visits the village and the rest of the mob walk up to the waterfall. It is so peaceful sitting on the verandah and we manage to get quite a bit done. After a while Luc gets back from the village where he has been plied with Beer Lao and offered two women as prospective wives. He soon trots off to his chalet to sleep it off. We enjoy a light lunch and the others get back a little later. During the afternoon we have a brief nap down in our chalet. We leave the doors and windows open to let the breeze waft through.

In the early evening we stroll back up to the dining area. After the hustle and bustle of Chiang Rai the contrast of this sleepy hill village with its far flung vistas is a wonderful change of pace. We stand on the patio which looks out over the chalets to the rice paddies in the valley and the hills beyond and breath deeply. The gardens are rich with tropical flowers, banana plants and there is a fireplace on a bamboo platform off to one side.

That evening another couple, Bill and Paula, arrive after traveling cross country from Chiang Mai. They are from England and Paula is another amateur photographer so we have a couple of sessions chatting about photography.

The days begin to blur into each other. We spend time reading and writing with afternoon naps when we feel like it.  I am up early in the morning taking photos of the mist-filled valleys. We get some exercise walking back down to the village in the morning and in the evening to take photographs. We are greeted as we pass through the village and the kids often stop to look at my beard. The odd firecracker goes off but otherwise it is pretty quiet.

We are having such a relaxed time we decide to stay a fourth night and our decision comes with an added bonus. In the evening we are treated to a demonstration of how to cook sticky rice in bamboo. Lengths of green bamboo are cut just below one joint and then a couple of feet above to create a long thin receptacle into which water and rice are placed. The open end is sealed with green leaves and then several such bamboo sticks are stood in the burning fire. The bamboo doesn’t burn because it is so green but the rice inside cooks pretty quickly.

Once the rice is cooked the tough outer layer of the bamboo sticks is removed with a sharp knife so that the remaining bamboo can be easily split and peeled back to reveal the sticky rice. It tastes great and there is plenty of other food to go with it.

We could so easily stay a little longer but we both know that we have some other great places to visit in Laos which is where we are headed next.