Ever since Kelly and I returned from our 101 Days of Travel, the first question we frequently get asked is, “So, what was your favorite part?” It’s a fair question, with so many questions to choose from. Having answered it so many times, I’ve learned to manufacture default answers. And that answer is usually, “Well, I really liked Northern Laos.” The inevitable follow up question is, “Why?” Rather than making the futile attempt of trying to answer with a bunch of clichés and typical backpackery reasons, I thought I’d throw up some shots instead.
But I’m also gonna talk about it…
Kelly and I, along with our good friends Sarah and Kelsey, and new friend Ted, had a chance visit a couple of small towns in Northern Laos, one of the less visited parts of the country. We took an extraordinarily bumpy (but cheap) minivan ride from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. The vehicle was meant for 8 passengers but of course packed with 15 (SEA style!). Upon arrival, we, being able-bodied adventurous backpackers, refused to pony up for the taxi ride from the bus station into town, and decided to take matters into our own hands. Guided only by the 2-inches of map space Lonely Planet was able to cough up, we headed into town with the hot Southeast Asia sun hanging above us.
Inspired by visions of dirt cheap bungalows with hammocks overlooking high cliffs and riverlife (and yes, tubing!), we wandered until spotting our first ferang (white person). One of us went to ask for some guidance when she lifted a finger as if to suggest “Shhhhhhh!” and delicately lifted the analogue SLR camera from her neck strap to document the critical moment of a child crossing a dirt road. We waited with baited breath, the weight of hundreds of pounds of collective baggage sinking into our shoulders. Just as we were about to move on, she turned to us with an “Ugh, I can’t believe there are other tourists here” look. We asked her if she knew of any bungalows in the area. ”I’m staying over there,” she pointed to a bridge that seemed like it was 20 miles away. “There might be something available. I really don’t know.”
We didn’t think we would make it that far anyway. The only morsel of food I had tasted all day was a bite of Ted’s dragonfruit in the van. (And dragonfruit was the one SEA fruit I didn’t care for.) It was a while before we actually found a place that had the resemblance of a hotel, but it wasn’t the bungalow of our dreams, so we kept moving. Suddenly we were almost to the bridge. We looked at each other. ”Can we do it?” We spotted the bungalows the white lady had mentioned and decided we might as well keep going, having come this far.
And there it was. As soon as we plopped out bags down, we knew we weren’t going anywhere else. Kelsey and Ted were discussing the best way to transport beers while tubing down the river (the answer was eventually settled on tying one bottle to the next one and having it trail down the river like a row of ducklings). After a meal, I opted for a quick nap on our bungalow hammock and watched Magic Hour settle into Nong Khiaw. A bunch of kids were kicking around a soccer ball at the river’s edge. Others carried down empty pails to fetch water and bathe and wash their blue boats. After a while, I couldn’t lie down any longer and grabbed my camera and wife to explore our new town.
The next day, some of us went on a long hike to explore caves at a nearby national park while others napped. (And that’s what I like the most about SEA and extended travel in gerneal. You can either go on an adventure or you can nap. And it’s totally cool either way.) On the way back we stopped at a restaurant which was the kitchen of someone’s home. We had apparently startled the owner, who was a man watching Laotian karaoke music videos with a baby on his lap. We pointed at a handmade sign that contained the promise of noodles (soup or fried, beef or chicken — the usual fare). Everything was basically free. The owner pointed at my big camera and then at his baby. “You want me to take a picture of your baby?” He smiled deliriously and nodded. I went to the crib to take a few shots and then showed him the back of my camera’s LCD screen. He clapped with excitement. I was going to ask if he wanted me to somehow send him a copy of the image, but he didn’t seem to care. The actuation of me clicking the shutter with my big camera was all the pleasure he needed.
The next day we hired a boat to take us to Muang Ngoi, an even more remote part of Northern Laos. The only way to get on/off the island was by boat. It was a blissful hourlong journey during which no one said anything. Or if anyone did, I didn’t hear it sitting on the front row with the cool, late afternoon breeze blowing on my face. The saddest part, I suppose, was that I didn’t realize this would be one of my favorite parts of the journey. It’s so rare to know these things when you’re in it, although there were certainly signs. I had just experienced a second wedding ceremony in Bangladesh and then traveled the country with a dozen of my bestest friends, so I was still coming down from that high. Plus, Laos was just supposed to be “that thing” between Thailand and Vietnam, which was where we were really trying to get to. And of course, I had already bought a flight leaving Luang Prabang for Hanoi in a couple of days, so it was too late to delay such things.
Which is probably all the more better because you gotta leave a few things for next time. Southeast Asia, being one of the most heavily treaded parts of the tourist map, is still Southeast Asia. It doesn’t matter if it’s all been explored before, the fact that there are shitloads of hippies, ferangs or college kids that have just discovered the fascination that is beer. You can still find small pockets of paradise if you look in the right places.
Thailand to Laos via 2-Days on the Mekong
Nong Khiaw, Laos
Muang Ngoi, Laos
Top left: boat carved out of a missile. NBD.