Journey to Nong Kiau
The journey from Luang Namtha to Nong Kiau would be a long, full day. The Canadian couple had stopped by the bus station the day before and gotten all the information on times, route options, and other details one may need. (Did we mention how much we enjoyed having informal travel buddies for legs of the trip?) We awoke and met them in the little lobby of the hotel at 6:30am. By 7am we were on a tuk-tuk headed to the bus station. At 7:20am we had tickets in hand for a bus departing at 8am. After paying for the bus, though, Ben realized that he probably should have gotten more cash at the ATM when we were leaving the hotel. This town only had one bank, and it wasn’t anywhere near the bus station. Knowing we were headed to an even smaller and remote location we had to hope that our next destination had an ATM. With that in mind, we were conscious of every dollar spent up until our arrival at an ATM. This meant mini-tangerines and dry crackers for our meal that day.
The bus left pretty much on time and we watched as we slowly left the Luang Namtha valley and moved up into the hills. Most of those traveling on the bus were locals with maybe about nine foreigners in total including us. Roughly an hour into the ride we began to take some steeper windy roads into the mountains. Occasionally the bus would stop for locals on the sides of the road and people would come onboard. When there were no more seats available they placed stools in the aisles (like we had experienced in many many other places).
The road was small and not in the best condition, but it was paved–which for us meant a fairly pleasant journey. Still the twists, turns, and elevation assents made the kilometers pass by slowly. The most interesting part of the ride was our discovery of the weak Laotian stomaches. As soon as the bus began making even the smallest turns at the beginning of the trip we could hear (and sometimes smell) the retching from a handful of locals as they filled little plastic bags that the driver kept a pile of in the front (barf bags). At first we couldn’t tell if it was motions sickness or something else. The ride didn’t seem to be that unsettling. Amanda even pondered that maybe some of these people were hung-over, even though most looked older than our grandparents. That Lao-Lao whisky can really hit you hard, apparently. One woman on a stool in the aisle finally gave up and just laid herself on the floor of the aisle with her child under one arm. From time to time our view of the beautiful nature on the other side of the windows would be destructed by a flying plastic bag filled with vomit or trash being chucked out of the bus. Yes, sounds like a magical ride, right? The bus ride lasted most the day. At around 4pm it dropped us on the side of the road at another ‘bus station’ which was actually just a small shaded area. This was the bus station for the town of Pak Mong, which was approximately 30km east of Nong Kiau. When we arrived there was a van waiting for all those disembarking the bus. They obviously had this routine down and knew the buses coming from Luang Namtha usually carried a number of passengers who wanted to travel onward to Nong Kiau. We were happy to not have to wait and continued towards our destination seamlessly. The van dropped us at approximately 5pm in the town right next to an ATM, and just an hour before the sun began to set. There were plenty options on places to stay and we managed to find a very decent en suite room for $5/night at Sythane Guest House. Did we mention we love the accommodation prices in Laos?
Tiny Town Hidden in the Mountains
The town of Nong Kiau itself was even smaller than Luang Namtha. It is said to be one of the most laid back places in the entire country. Centered around a bridge that crosses the Nam Ou River the town was maybe a total of 2km long. It exists around the one main road that we had arrived on and that continued onward toward the northern border of Laos with China. We immediately loved the charm of the tiny town and the beauty of it’s location. We were welcomed with stunning views along the river from the lights of the sunsetting. It may have taken a full, long, and slightly tiring day to arrive but that first glimpse of the nature after as we arrived at sunset made every hour of the bus ride worth it. We quickly realized that while the town may not be the easiest to get to, it was fairly well set up (in a small and pleasant way) for those that traveled here. There were plenty of options of places to stay, many options for food (including a couple of Indian restaurants), and a good number of travel/tour agencies that arranged hiking, kayaking, transportation, and other things.
Hiking Around Nong Kiau
We opted to do our own adventuring and exploration instead of hiring a guide. Just walking along the road beyond the town toward the east offered a deeper glimpse of the nature that existed in the area. We started our little hike in the morning, when the blanket of fog was still thick. As we walked along the road we were surrounded on either side by lush green mountains with the magnificent limestone crags among them.
In the late morning the fog burned off leaving us with blue skies and beautiful sunshine. Every now and then we would see a trail leading off the road. Being curious we would occasionally choose a path at random and follow it. Sometimes we had success and found something interesting, others it would lead to a dead end pretty fast. None of the trails led all that far, and Ben (having done his homework) was weary of straying too much into non-trailed areas in fear of encountering an unexploded device. For most the day we wandered, just absorbing and enjoying the nature around us.
Some highlights of the afternoon were coming across a closed up school, experiencing some locals making kaipen (a freshwater algae snack), and finding nice spot near a stream to hang out and read at. Along our walk home we passed by many locals, both adults and children, living in homes along the outskirts of the town. Every person we encountered was friendly, greeting us with a smile and “Sa-bai-Dee” (that mean’s hello in Laos). Thus far from our few days in Laos we took note that everyone seemed to be generally happy, even if they did only live off of $1-2 a day. It made us start to really rethink the word ‘poverty’ and the judgements and pre-conceived ideas that are so often associated with this word. We are quick to judge sometimes that living on $1 a day means people are struggling and starving when really this is not the case. Yes, Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, yet people seem to be able to live on this low level of income happily.
It made us think of the old parable of the businessman and the fisherman:
“There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach.
As he sat, he saw a fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite a few big fish.
The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.”
“Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished.
“This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said.
The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?”
The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish,
then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife,
and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink —
we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”
The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman.
“I could help you to become a more successful person.
From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible.
When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish.
Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company,
your own production plant for canned food and distribution network.
By then, you will have moved out of this village and to a larger city
where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches.”
The fisherman continues, “And after that?”
The businessman laughs heartily,
“After that, you can live like a king in your own house,
and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange,
and you will be rich.”
The fisherman asks, “And after that?”
The businessman says, “After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village,
wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids,
have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink,
play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!”
The fisherman was puzzled, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?”
To complete our day we made our way to the riverbanks to soak in the picture perfect views of the sunset complete with locals maneuvering their longboats. Laura and Brendan joined us and we all sampled the Auntie La’s Mojito Whisky that Ben had picked up in Luang Namtha along with some Myanmar whisky that Brandon was carrying with him. It had been an amazing day. We were amazed that somehow this gem of a spot hadn’t become more developed and the number of travelers (while still noticeable) had not become overwhelming. This seemed to be a great balance of what development and travel should do – keep the integrity of a place intact while bringing another source of income to the local community. We were happy to be there to appreciate the nature and way of life these people lived, and happy to be two of the travelers contributing to these local businesses.
Pha Tok Caves
During our day out hiking we stopped at the Pha Tok Caves (also called Patok Caves), which were located about 2km outside of the town. These caves were used during the Indochina War in the 1960’s as a hideout for government officials of the region. The old bamboo ladder that was used back in the 60’s is still present but a concrete (and much more stable) staircase has now been constructed to allow visitors to enter as well. We knew there would be a small entrance fee, and we were not caught off guard by the local woman sitting under a small thatched structure who was there for her shift to collect the fee. She seemed to be preoccupied with her baby and gave us a smile after we paid as the cue to go ahead. About half way along the trail to the cave we encountered a 10 year old boy. He seemed to be playing with a sling shot aiming and releasing it up into the trees. He started to follow us and eventually tried to strike up conversation. Our experiences in Laos with the locals had been very good and honest up to this point, so while we were a bit reluctant and unsure of his intentions, we were kind and engaged in the conversation. He wanted to come with us into the cave and we let him. The cave itself isn’t all too spectacular. There aren’t many remnants of any life being held in them (it has after all been over 50 years and we are sure any scrap of metal or useful material left behind was used immediately by the locals). It was somewhat interesting though just because of the history behind it. There were the occasional signs that would indicate what various ‘rooms’/areas of the caves were used for. Afterwards we headed to the smaller Tham Bank (Bank Cave) which was down a trail maybe 300 meters further. As the name indicates, this smaller (and more hidden cave) was used to hide the money and handle the financial matters. The cave had a very narrow keyhole passage at the entrance. If your aim was to hide something we could understand why you would choose this spot. Not only would the entrance be hard to find but the room that lay 300 meters at the end of the small keyhole shaped tunnel was tucked deeply and safely inside the limestone cliffs.
As we explored the caves it slowly became pretty apparent that this kid that had wanted to join us was not just a random kid playing and would probably want some money for his ‘tour’ at the end. Knowing this we prepared a bit of money to give him as we emerged from the second cave. We were a bit disappointed for not having caught-on to his game earlier but were ready to give him a couple of dollars for his company anyway. We were completely taken aback when turned to us matter-of-factly and told us it would be 80,000 kip (roughly $9) for each person. We explained that was completely unreasonable and he never mentioned a ‘tour price’ at the beginning. After handing him 50,000 for the two of us (which is the same cost as what we were paying for one nights accommodation) we continued on our way. He insisted we were getting a good deal and that he charges the Chinese 100,000 kip each. We still shook our head, said thank you, and then just continued. At this point he yelled after us in protest and pulling the very common statement we have heard many times before now, “You have much money in your country.” This statement turns Amanda off so much now that she almost wanted to go take the 50,000 from him and walk away. Instead we remained cool and collected and just continued on. After having all these great experiences we were a bit shaken at this very forward pre-teen that was trying to rip us off and insult us for not playing his game. Always wanting to see the best in people and to expect honesty, it is still hard for us (even after dealing with this over and over in the last 11 months) to encounter situations like this. The caves themselves weren’t anything too spectacular and definitely doable without a ‘guide’. But overall they were worth the minuscule entrance fee (of $0.50 each) and the history behind them was somewhat fascinating to learn about, even if it was doing some reading up afterwards. It would be our first real on-the-ground experience and introduction to how the country of Laos was connected and affected by the Vietnam War.
Sabai Sabai Sauna
Having missed the opportunity to visit the local steam sauna in Luang Namtha, Amanda was thrilled to see there was a facility that offered the steam sauna here in Nong Kiau. Even better was that Sabai Sabai (the facility) was located literally a couple hundred feet from our guesthouse. We headed over here shortly after sunset when the temperatures had begun to drop. Sabai Sabai is a sort of casual cafe/spa with a space set up for massages and saunas along with a space for ordering meals, snacks or various teas.
The facility was simple with a soothing atmosphere and lots of room to lay out next to low tables if you came for just a tea. The sauna itself was a small wooden room roughly five feet wide and ten feet deep. On either side there were double benches built so one could sit either at a lower or higher level. When we arrived we were the only people to be using the sauna. The kid working the desk provided us with sarongs (which would be what we wore instead of bathing suits) and towels (to be used outside the sauna only). Unlike the dry saunas we are used to in the west, this style was more of a steam room/sauna mix. It was super hot like a sauna but with the added element of herbal steam. About ten minutes into our steam an elder Italian couple joined in the sauna. We would take rounds of sitting in the steam sauna for roughly 10-15 minutes with min-breaks outside in the cold air sipping on the unlimited herbal tea provided. Once we had cooled down and consumed a couple cups of tea we would head back into the steam and heat for another ten minutes before repeating the entire process.
We came to learn from the Italian couple that these styles of steam saunas were common in Northern Laos. They had also frequented one in Luang Prabang at the Red Cross before coming up here to Nong Kiau. For our last round of steaming we were joined by the young local (in his early 20’s) who had been running the ‘desk’. It was funny for the guy who was supposed to be running the place to be sitting and enjoying a steam with us, but it was also very much a reflection of the laid-back Laotian lifestyle. He spoke very good English so we took some time to talk to him about life here in Nong Kiau and in Laos in general. We were only a couple of days away from the Chinese New Year so Amanda inquired if people in the area would be celebrating the holiday. He quickly responded that no one here cared about Chinese New Year and then went into detail about how the Chinese government was ruining their country, especially the many beautiful rivers with the construction of dams to divert the water back to China. There had actually been a dam construction completed recently down the Nam Ou river not far from Nong Kiau as part of a larger project to build seven dams along the span of the entire river. The repercussions of this project have already rippled to the locals villages and villagers. Boats used to ferry travelers and locals alike along the river, but this was no longer a possibility due to the dams. Local farmers were also hurting from the construction because the natural flow of waters were what they used for irrigation. He continued to tell us in more detail how his beautiful country was slowly being swallowed up by those more powerful countries surrounding Laos. It was a sad but unfortunately very true statement. The natural resources that lay beneath the beauty of this country has recently attracted a lot of international political attention. And unfortunately, the intentions behind these attractions weren’t anywhere near as beautiful as the nature and simple livelihoods they threatened to destroy.
Finding our Way To Luang Prabang
This was another one of those situations were we had heard and read mixed stories about the ever changing landscape and transit routes of Laos (and Southeast Asia for that matter). Once upon a time, not too long ago, one was able to take a boat that departed daily from the banks of Nong Kiau down the Nam Ou River and arrive in Luang Prabang a few hours later. We knew that there was a damn being built downstream but many people had told us we could still take the boat and then take a tuk-tuk around the damn and transfer to a new boat on the other side to continue the trip. Even many of the local shop and hotel owners in the town were still under the impression that this boat departed daily. So, with hopes this was the case, we awoke early one foggy morning, packed our bags, and headed to the area where the boats would load and unload passengers.
When we arrived at the bank of the river where the boats would load, those at the docks insured us that there was no longer any public boats that departed downstream. Now the only option for making this journey was to hire a private boat through one of the tour agencies for roughly 1,000,000 kip (or over $120). The boat would then do as we had been told – travel to the damn where passengers would unload and be taken via vehicle to the other side of the damn and then re-board another boat for the remainder of the journey. These private tours could hold up to 10 people, but the trick was trying to find a group of others to go with. If we had known this prior perhaps we could have found a group to book a boat with.
The change from the new dam and discontinued public boats was so new that none of the tour companies or guesthouses had caught on to a concept used in many other areas of Southeast Asia, where they would display on a whiteboard the number of available seats left, thus enticing people to join because it would ultimately lower the cost for everyone. We were sad to see this option of taking the public boat wasn’t available anymore and ultimately decided it would be too much trouble to stay another day and gather a group of people. With a bit of defeat in our hearts we trotted about 1km down the road we had entered the town on to the official bus station. There, we were told there was only one more seat available in the van departing for Luang Prabang and they would not sell us two tickets and let us share a seat. Really? After all the cramming and people laying in isles we see on almost every bus or van we take? They also told us this would be the last van to Luang Prabang for the day even though there were two more departure times listed on the sign in the ticket window. Today however, we were informed those vans would not be coming. So goes life in Laos.
When in Laos do as the Laotians do — this was exactly what we did. We sat back, not sure really what our next move would be, and just kind of waited. What we were waiting for, we weren’t 100% sure of. But our plan seemed to work. About thirty minutes later a tuk-tuk with a foreigner showed up. It turns out the van had been waiting for a couple of people who had purchased their tickets via a travel agency. One of those people were missing – and thus miraculously now two spaces were available in the van.
Voila – we were set! Luang Prabang, here we come!