After crossing the border from Thailand to Laos, I jump on board a bus full of beds. These beds are not designed for Europeans and rather small. My assigned bed is also broken. Cramped into my uncomfortable bed, I am starring out the tiny window and see miles of dense jungle while the bus crawls up the hills in first gear. The scenery is occasionally interrupted by trucks, fully loaded with cattle, overtaking the bus. I am talking to the other backpackers, but all of them seem to travel to Luang Prabang and leave me wondering what to expect from Luang Namtha.
Around 11pm, I arrive at the bus station in Luang Namtha, the largest city in Northwest Laos. The bus station is next to the main road and 10 kilometres outside the city. Moving on from Thailand, I was expecting at least a few overpriced tuk-tuks, willing to drive me to the city centre. Not in Laos! Anyway, I haven’t got local money and there is no ATM machine at the bus station. If someone expects my Swedish Kronor? It is pitch black and walking to the city centre will take at least an hour. I meet Manuela, the only other backpackers from the bus stopping in Luang Namtha. She is smarter than I am and carries at least 10.000 Lao Kip which is about 10€. We share a guesthouse on the main road. Bargaining is essential because we need money to get to the centre in the morning.
Arriving in Luang Namtha on the next morning, a friendly tour guide offers Manuela and me a jungle trek for two people starting in half an hour. Bargaining is Manuela’s realm and she pushed the prices tremendously. Things seem to go well. I withdraw some money and have some breakfast, but when I come back the deal is off. We are suppose to join an another group of twelve people. This seems to be a common procedure to trick tourists. We change our minds and take a bus to Muang Sing. A few days later, we arrive back in Luang Namtha and the same tour guide tries it again. We book through a different tour agency and I rent a scooter to explore the surrounding valley.
The jungle trek is mind-blowing. Nam Ha National Protected Area is the densest and wildest jungle in the country and I can barely see ten metres. Lunch is served on the floor and eaten with hands. The rice comes in banana leaves. It is delicious! After hours of trekking, our group arrives at an open space inhabited by an ethic tribe. Kids run around naked, women wash clothes in the river and water buffalos graze between bamboo sheds. This is where I will spend the night. Surprisingly, some bamboo sheds are equipped with a satellite dish and some older kids have smartphones. Later that day, an old diesel engine is running. You can’t stop technology from advancing! Diner is served with rice schnapps and the one bamboo glass takes turns until the bottle is empty. At 8pm, it is pitch black and the village is dead only to come back to life at 5am the next morning.
I am moving without Manuela, taking a bus to Muang Khua. Again, no tuk-tuks at the bus station, but I can convince a car-driver to give me a ride. Muang Khua is a small town built along the road to Vietnam. A suspension bridge crosses the Nom Ou River and a Wat is hidden in the back streets. I travel down the river by boat to Nong Khiaw. Somewhere on the way, the engine breaks down. The locals fix it naturally, which makes me believe this happens quite often. Limestone towers grow almost vertically towards the sky. I love this place.
In Luang Prabang, I am enjoying a Café Au Lait and a Pain Au Chocolate thanks to the colonial influence of the French. Early in the morning, everyone is heading to the local market to watch the monks collecting alms. However, the monks don’t quite like this because most tourists show little respect. Some vendors specialised in selling bad quality rice to tourists which is then given to the monks and usually ends up in the trash can around the corner. I decide to skip it and visit the local market when the ceremony is over.