In Laos Until February 30th

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Our mini bus arrived in the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu. Aboard were ten western tourists here for the same purpose: to leave Vietnam before the country came to a standstill while celebrating Tet. Our only problem was that all the buses were already full. There were enough of us though to make hiring private taxis to the border a cheap option, which is what we did. For the remainder of the evening we ran around town. In the market, amongst the chickens, beef entrails, and pork sides were a few freshly butchered dogs.

The next day we got up with the sun and fared goodbye to Vietnam. We arrived at the sleepy border before it opened and roused the tired border patrol. It took some time before they got dressed, arrived at their posts, and woke up. Eventually, we had our passports stamped. The next problem is how to get to the Laos border post. The two are separated by about four kilometers, and the weather was not cooperating. It was foggy and rainy and no one felt like walking. Eventually we negotiated with the customs people to ferry us across but the price was still an exuberant $4 per person for the short ride.

In Laos the weather was not much better. It was not raining but the fog was as thick as milk and the air was chilly. The Laotian border folk took their time processing our visas and stamping our passports. In the meantime we ate some instant noodles and they carried a hog-tied sizable dog on a stick — presumably dinner. When we eventually got our passports, we were puzzled to find out that we can stay in Laos until February 30th, 2011.

The border outpost was just that. It was a small office building and around it were a few huts. What we needed was a bus station or a friendly tuk-tuk driver, but found neither. Our options for getting to the nearest town of Muang Khua were limited to none. When a big earth-mover truck came across the border from Vietnam — the only other person crossing that day with us — we did not waste the chance. We negotiated, begged and pleaded until we found ourselves on the back, slowly rolling along the graded but unpaved and bumpy road into Laos. The party lasted for a good six or so kilometers, until the truck got to its destination were the road was being worked on. We could not convince any of the workers there to give us a lift further on, so we hit the road walking.

Muang Khua was the town on the river we were all trying to get to. From there on, transport is straightforward. In the meantime, we were walking. Supposedly there was a village coming up where transport to Muang Khua could be arranged. As we walked, nothing passed us. Not a truck, nor car, nor motorbike. Our chances of hitching a ride were nonexistent. Three of our eleven decided they will have better luck on the Vietnamese border, and turned back.

As we walked, we noticed a presence amongst us. We were no longer alone. Out of the corners of our eyes we could see them slowly materializing, gaining shape and a sharp outline. They were following us now. There was no more doubt and uncertainty — the sun has come out and we now had shadows. It was such a welcome sight. I have not seen my shadow in over two weeks, and it was good to have him back.

We eventually got to another construction crew and I was able to hitch hike on the back of a pickup truck to the next small village two kilometers down the road. Our big hopes were that we could hire transport. It turned out we were right. For a tidy $35 per person a man was willing to take us the remaining 50 kilometers. My haggling was ruthless energetic and completely worthless. The man came down to $200 for our group, but this was well above the $80 we had decided was the top price we were willing to pay for the relatively short journey. I just walked away dismayed and annoyed. He did pick me up and drive me back to the rest of the group. The negotiation picked up pace and he was down to $150. Eventually, he even offered $100 as he drove away. We still though this was a high price but decided that it’s not much more per person than the $80. Besides, our other options were slim. We chased after him yelling “$100 OK” but he did not hear us and drove away.

Who did hear us was one of the Vietnamese workers with another big truck. For $100 he agreed to take us all to Muang Khua. The seven of us piled into the cabin on his insistence. It was cramped but everyone was on good spirits. One guy fished out three cans of beer he bought with the last of his Vietnamese money. Along the way, we picked up the eighth guy traveling with us, who decided this is all too frustrating and walked on ahead. He had to ride in the back.

The weather was getting better. However, the remaining 50km journey did take over three hours. The dirt road was unbelievably rutted and the truck slowly rolled through the landscape making sure not to tumble from any inconvenient cliff. When we arrived in Muang Khua, we crossed the river by ferry, found comfortable basic little rooms overlooking the river, and quickly discovered Laos’s national treasure: a frosty 640ml bottle of Beer Lao. The view was stunning as the sun set behind the mountain. The river looked fresh, the forests a deep green, people washed up on the waterfront and kids played. We had an exhausting day filled with adventure and were wondering what else awaited us in Laos.

We hopped into a long slow boat and after two hours arrived in the river village of Muang Ngoy Neua. It is unbelievably beautiful. It sits high on a riverbank and the view across the river onto the mountains and limestone karts cliffs is tremendously stunning.

In such a scenic place Weronika and I decided we need a bungalow with a view, so we climbed the stairs from the river and stopped at the first hotel. There were many Lao people sitting around eating and drinking in the open air restaurant in front of the hotel. Someone said that this hotel was full and tried to shuffle us to another place. Out of the crowd of people in the restaurant a kind faced middle aged man in a red shirt emerged and told us we can stay here. He said to drop the bags in the room. The room still needed to be cleaned and the sheets changed, but in the meantime he urged us to sit down with him, his family and friends. It was Chinese New Year and he was of Chinese descent. There was a party in full swing and he was insistent that we join him. There was just no saying no.

He started telling us about his family and introducing us all around. We were eating the sticky rice, salad, and chicken and pork. Everyone would come by, fill our glasses with beer, and after a cheer, bottoms up. We quickly learned that the glasses should not be fully filled, as you don’t sip the beer. You take the whole thing down at once. Keep in mind that this is around 10am at this point and the only constructive thing we have done since arriving to this village was climb a flight of stairs to this hotel.

Needless to say we’ve spent the rest of the day there. The family slowly ate and left, and other people came by. We settled down with some other westerners who were also staying in the same bungalows and were also celebrating the Chinese Happy New Year with the owner. A lot of beer got drunk that day.

Muang Ngoy Neua is a fantastic little village. It is essentially a one road town. Being deep in the mountains, it is only accessible by boat. There is not one car or motorbike anywhere to be seen. The people are very friendly and speak really good English. The vibe here is just really good.

The next day Weronika came down with a cold and wanted to stay in bed and relax. I decided to go for a hike to see a cave and a village. With me came Andre, a German guy who was there at the Chinese New Year celebration.

We found the cave without problems. It was a little cavern out of which a crisp and clean stream flowed. Going deeper into the cave involved wading neck deep in water, as I have found out from another person the day prior. Unfortunately, Andre had busted his shoulder a month earlier while walking on some slippery rocks and now had an uncomfortable fear of walking on wet stones. I really wanted to head in and explore, but without a partner and a backup light I was not about to go swimming into a dark cave.

We hiked on and our trail disappeared. We found ourselves walking along dry rice terraces searching for the path to the village we wanted to visit. We followed cow paths here and there, but every time came upon a stream that was begging to be crossed. Andre’s fear of walking on wet rocks halted our progress and we turned back. Eventually we found our path again and gave it another go. Along the way we met two French girls lost in a similar fashion. When we came upon the same stream and Andre would not go. Luckily the girls did not have a paralyzing fear of walking on wet rocks, and the three of us waded across the ankle-deep water to the other side. Andre returned but all was not back since he had a futbol match to catch on TV. The three us stumbled upon the path and found the village a few more kilometers down the road. It was a quiet and unspoiled place. I was falling in love with Laos more and more. It was the Asia I have been looking for and was unable to find until now.

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