Muong Kai was our introduction to Laos, the first place we stopped, and it’s hard to understand what it’s doing there.
To call it a one horse town would be to bring a horse to mind and in all honesty I’m not sure it’s big enough for one.
The road to the hotel is down little dirt tracks that meander between houses and chickens and people and shops. Many shops.
The village is at the place where two rivers meet – one of them is the Nam Ou – and perhaps it serves as a market place for local villages. I can’t imagine why else this town would be here.
There are several cafes, with not a Michelin star between them and several food shops and hardware shops selling pots and pans, motorbike parts, water pumps, paint, batteries, and incongruously, solar panels.
These shops and restaurants line what you might refer to as the main street, but that would imply that there is another street, a minor one and there isn’t, there’s just the one street and some mud tracks.
And the mud tracks are very muddy, due in a large part to the regularly beating down rain and to a lesser part on the fact that the drains empty out onto the ground. Not the toilets, but everything else do.
The hotel homestay place was huts on stilts, with rain in the mornings, a storm in the evening and burning sun in between.
Laos people are so laid back they could reasonably accuse the prone position of being a bit stressy, and it wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They barely lift their heads as you walk by and like in Vietnam, it’s hard to see how people make a living, hard to see what they do all day long.
Muong Kai, somewhere in Lao
I was up early a couple of mornings ago looking out at the road bridge over the river Nam Ou thinking ‘I’m sure that pier is leaning’, then thinking ‘nah, it’s my imagination it can’t be’.
Later that day the hotel owner was telling me in between chuckles that the bridge is sinking, and the men down there with a digger were excavating a huge hole around the pier to try and push it back upright somehow and refill it with concrete.
Good luck with that.
The bridge is still in use, cars and bikes and lorries going ever it all day.
Whenever you go for food or spend a couple of hours in a cafe just drinking tea and looking around, they will have no idea what you’re doing there and will have to ask you to remember what you’ve had.
This morning I got up early and went over the road for tea and pancakes. The bloke took my order and then got absorbed by something on the tv (television) on the way to the kitchen. Ten minutes later I had to ask him again. Later on, when Nel came over I ordered two teas and they forgot one of them! How? How can you possibly mess up an order of two things, two cups of tea?
We arrived by boat in Nong Kiaw two days ago, a different town. We’re on the way to Luang Prabang but we’re not sure we want to go by boat now. Actually we don’t want to go by bus either, not really but that’s the choice we have, boat or bus.
We boarded the boat for Nong Kiaw at about 9.00 in the morning. Us and about fourteen others, and we were definitely overloaded with people and rucksacks.
The boat is about forty feet long or so, and about four foot wide with seats down the sides. We were among the first to board and we got a cushion. Most people didn’t so we considered ourselves lucky. The journey to Nong Kiaw was six hours or so, and we had one stop to get off for a pee-pee and stretch our legs.
All the way we were seated opposite somebody, all twenty eight of our legs in the way, mine more than most, and I can’t sit still for an hour. I was cramped, crushed, crammed and uncomfortable.
About ten minutes into the trip I was wanting to get out. Just about when we saw the first set of rapids in fact, but that was just the first of about twenty.
These weren’t the kind of rapids that you see people wearing orange ‘shooting’ in rafts in Colorado, not white water, but rapid enough to give us a soaking every twenty minutes or so.
The engine compartment was opened to help cooling. And it probably does, but it was noisy. God it was noisy. For six hours!
All along the way you see people fishing or washing or doing the laundry, or kids just swimming and laughing. It really is idyllic.
The rapids aren’t that quick, more sluggishes really
Laos is made of mountains it seems. I don’t know if there is a flat part anywhere. Well I’m guessing the Plain of Jars is probably fla, it’s a plain after all, but since Sapa we haven’t seen a horizon, we’ve only seen mountains on all sides, and we’re still so high above sea, so high in fact that if you’re up early enough in the morning, you will see the clouds come rolling across the bridge.
The view across the river from our hut
The view of our hut from across the river
The view straight down
…Well ok, not across the bridge, but the clouds ain’t very much above your head, maybe two or three feet. You can look across the river in the morning and see clouds falling down the mountainside. It’s beautiful. Truly beautiful, but we’ve become accustomed to this stunning landscape.
We just walked from the Hive Bar across the bridge.
The Hive Bar.
The only bar in town! The owner comes to the restaurants giving out photocopied flyers with a crude drawing of a beehive on it and the words ‘The only place to bee’ on it.
I mean, it would be so easy to laugh, but these people are so lovely that all that cynicism leaves you.
I lost my phone last night. I will admit I’d had a couple of Beerlaos, and I did leave the bag in the bar, which is impossible, I mean I always keep the daypack with passports and camera and stuff really close, with the strap around my leg. I panic if I can’t feel it next to me, but I walked away without it and the manager chased us down the road to give it back.
I’d had a couple, and when we got back I couldn’t find my phone but I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to worry about it, or even care really.
This morning I had a bit of a panic, but not much of one to be honest, I thought ‘ah well’, that’s lost then, and we went back to the bar we were in the night before but he hadn’t found it, and then for some reason came back to the hotel and asked.
I don’t know why we didn’t ask here first, seeing as how Nel said I’d had it back here and was using it to light the way down the steps.
Well they had it here and gave it back quite happily. I think if I’d have lost it in Vietnam there’s no way I’d have got it back, but I knew if someone had found it here in Laos they’d give it back to me. And we’ve only been here a few days to have got that impression of Lao people.
Right now it’s nearly one in the morning and we’re going to take another bus tomorrow to Luang Prabang at eleven, but right now there’s a power cut and I’m sat on the balcony over the river and the only light I can see apart from the phone here is far away lightning strikes that silhouette the mountains every three or four seconds. The storm is getting closer because ten minutes ago I couldn’t hear the thunder but now I can, and the wind is getting stronger. Maybe half an hour more and the rain will come, and when it does it will be pounding down.
There’s nothing, no light, just the wind and the flashes and the thunder, and just this second the rain has come, sooner than I’d expected.
The wind is warm and I’m sat here in just shorts under the hugeness of the mountains across the river. The power has been restored over the bridge because a few lights are on now but I still hear nothing but the thunder and the wind and now the rain on our corrugated steel roof.
I wish you could see it and hear it.
We’ve been eating and drinking with Willy and Fanny, the French people we met and I can’t remember whether I made a childish joke about their names in the last post or not. If I didn’t, you can probably imagine what I would probably have said. They have been excellent company for the last three or four days and I’m going to miss them.
They’re soo French. I imagine that Wilf reads Satre every night and talks philosophy. He probably would if I gave him the opportunity. And Fanny is soo lovely too. I really like them a lot.
Yesterday was hot. Hotter than the sun, and we decided that we were going to walk to the caves a couple of km down the road. Wilf and Fanny came with us.
Two km down the road in this heat past houses that look like they’ve probably not changed much in a hundred years, and bars with loud music. Always the huge speakers.
There’s a sign by the side of the road pointing the way to the caves and then there’s a little hut where you pay 5000 kips. I don’t know if it’s an official hut, but we all paid just over half a dollar and followed a path across a stream and up to the caves where apparently some people stayed, according to a young boy who appeared from nowhere to accompany us. That was more or less all he told us, apart from that he’s fifteen and his name. God.
‘Scuse me, did you say God?’ yes he did, God.
And then he asked for money, which we were expecting, so I found out a dollar and Fanny looked for a dollar too, eight thousand kips. He asked for fifty thousand. We pointed out to him that’s ten times the entrance fee so he came down to forty, then thirty, then twenty. Fanny refused to give any because he was asking so much and I gave him a dollar. He wasn’t very happy, but if he gets away with that once a day he’s probably earning a lot more than his dad ever did.
So beware God trying to extort money from you if you’re ever down this way.
Where God hangs out and tries to extort money
There’s a pretty good Indian restaurant in this little village owned by some Indians and an excellent moustache.
Only the older man, the daughters are clean shaven, and so we took the opportunity to eat western food again.
We’d gone there the night previously actually and had an interesting night with two Australians who weren’t particularly weird, unusually. That was the night when I lost my phone but last night we went out with Fanny and Willy to the same place again.
We’d stopped off on the way back from the cave earlier for an aperitif
‘you do not do zis in England?’ they asked.
They’re soo French.
Yes, we’d stopped off at a cafe on the way back for an aperitif. I had a Beerlao, not being French, and being very very hot and sweaty, and there were hundreds of insects flying about the lights. And their wings kept falling off and they turned into little anty things and mated on the table. I had to put my cigarette pack on my glass. You don’t want that sort of thing going on in your beer, do you?
We had an really good Indian and went back to the bungalow thing on stilts by the river with gaps between the planks.
I was sat outside on the balcony for a while smoking and watching the lightning, like I said earlier, and the power went out.
Well the lights I saw across the river must have been a generator because there was still no power this morning and hence no atm. And we really wanted to leave for Luang Prabang.
There was an atm on the other bank and by the time we’d paid our hotel bill we didn’t have enough money for the bus but we thought we’d try the one of the way to the bus station. That one was out too and the bank was shut for labour day.
We had about 50 thousand kips and no idea how much the fare is so we carried on anyway. The fare to Luang Prabang is forty thousand each, about five dollars and we borrowed the rest from a Kiwi, which is the only bird that has its nostrils on the end of its beak, my brother tells me. Nice one Kiwi. It was going the same way as us and we said we’d give him the money back first atm we got to.
We hung around and around and around and finally the bus left. Only it’s not a bus, it’s a songthaw, like they have in Thailand, a Hyundai pickup about the size of a Hilux with benches for about twelve people on the back. At least there would be a breeze.
Will and Fanny turned up heading for somewhere else and we all hugged and promised to stay in touch. It was about a four hour journey and not as bad as the boat I think.
I was sat opposite a Lao man of about sixty. Lao people like to laugh, I may have said that, and he had all of the other Lao people on the bus laughing. He spoke no English but he’d look at us and grin and say something that we didn’t understand, but everyone else laughed. He was including us I think. He may have been saying we”re ugly and smelly for all we know, but they really don’t seem to be at all unkind.
There were three young girls on the bus, and they were preening themselves.
The slightly chubby one had some make up and a little mirror and they all put lipstick on and then covered their faces with dust masks so only their eyes were showing. Weird.
The mischievous older man would pull on the chubby girls sleeve when she wasn’t looking, and then turn away like it wasn’t him that had done it and then grin at us and later, when one of the girls fell asleep somehow, he took some ice from a flask of fish someone had bought along for the trip and he was going to put it down her top. We were laughing and encouraging him to be naughty but in the end he put it in her hand, and then quickly turned away. Weren’t me!
People are the same same everywhere and we know people just like that back home.
A woman and two young children got on the bus.
The women wear their babies around their necks in a sling and this one can’t have been more than six months old if that.
I don’t know that much about babies, never having watched one grow up but Nel reckoned that it’s development was far more advanced than a western child, the way she was mimicking her when she waved to the little thing, and it was definitely a she, don’t know how you can tell because they only really look like babies but she was definitely a little girl.
The bus rattled and bumped into Luang Prabang station and we looked for an atm.
The tuk tuk drivers were asking us where we wanted to go, but in a nice way and they told us that the nearest atm is about six km in town, so not knowing any better we had no choice but to go with him. Us and another three blokes who were looking for a place to stay, and stop off on the way so we could pay the fare.
We walked around a few guesthouses and looked at a few rooms and we’ve got a really lovely place, all dark wood and a bathroom that flushes, that you don’t have to soup water in with a plastic saucepan like in Cambodia and the last two places in Lao and it doesn’t smell like Satan’s arse in there. It’s one hundred thousand a night. He did say one hundred and twenty, and we said too much, and then he said one hundred if we promise not to use the aircon, and laughed. We agreed.
Lao people are even more laid back than our hippie mates back home on the canal. I wish I could find out more about Lao but it’s really difficult to get internet here.