We have finally had our last goodbye party and taken our last goodbye photo in Xiamen.We have returned our house keys and our teachers’ cards and boarded a bullet train to Shenzhen.After a couple of days there we crossed over to Hong Kong and after a couple of days there and a bit of sightseeing we boarded a flight to Chiang Mai,Northern Thailand,with a slight bit of trepidation due to the recent military coup and curfew there. However on arrival in Chiang Mai all was well despite the lack of tourists and the restaurants shutting down very early. We felt safe,even though we saw soldiers stationed at the city gates.I will kind of catapult the trip from Xiamen to Laos, since there is so much to write about in Laos,I don’t want to bore everyone with minutae,especially since we have visited both Shenzhen and Hong Kong before.
Chiang Mai is a well-known tourist destination,full of attractive Buddhist temples, massage salons and lovely really cheap restaurants. We did take one trip from there to the Tiger Kingdom,which is definitely a must see.According to the internet it it not one of those places where tigers are subdued with drugs.The tigers there are genuinely placid as they have been reared there from birth,and are not capable of hunting in the wild.They are sleek and well-cared for,and you pay a price to stroke smallest,small or big tigers for about 20 minutes.It is an amazing experience,rather hard to describe.You walk into a cage full of tigers (and the small are pretty large!) together with a handler,who reassures you.You leave your bag outside and enter only with a camera.You must not touch their paws or head,just tickle their tummy and you can move their tail and sit next to them,and even lie down next to them and put your head on them if you are feeling really brave.It is well worth it in my opinion.I was overawed by being so close to such a beautiful creature.
From Chiang Mai we took a minibus package with a few other people which picked us up at our hotel,and drove us via Chiang Rai to the border with Laos,and helped us cross the border,including do all the visa paperwork and deliver us onto the bus from Chiang Khong (the Thai side) to Huai Xi (the Lao side) and then get a Lao bus to Luang Namtha. On the way we stopped at the beautiful Wat Rong Khun,or White Temple in Chiang Rai.This temple was damaged in a recent earthquake and has since been restored.
When we arrived at the border,we just had to fill in a couple of forms and [ay $35,add a passport photo and board a shuttle bus to cross the 4th Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos.On the other side we were dropped off at the Bus station for the trip to Luang Namtha.This was rather longer than we thought and the bus was a bit ramshackle and the road very bumpy and primitive compared to the Thai side.We finally arrived it Luang Namtha,northern Laos at 9.30pm.The bus station was in the middle of nowhere,and there were no taxis or tuktuks in sight.Eventually we asked a guy to help us by borrowing his phone and calling our guest house.They thought we wanted a room,and said they were full.Finally we explained somehow that we just wanted to reach the place and had no transport.They didn’t really understand.The man with the phone pointed at a minivan which was loading local people and goods,and said he could take us for 40,000 Kip (about $5).The man said he knew our guest house.So we climbed on and at 10pm reached our guest house.The main street of Luang Namthat was just one long strip of backpacker guest houses,restaurants and tour companies.THere was very little else there.The scenery was stunning.After discovering that our guest house had no hot water we moved the next day to a neighbouring one called the Zuela,which is without doubt the best bet in Luang Namtha, a gorgeous log villa,with hot water,clean rooms, a/c, a downstairs restaurant, tour operators and intermittent wifi connection.
After spending a day strolling around Luang Namtha and discovering its very basic charms. we opted to take a one day tour to see ethnic hill tribes in the area by tuktuk, near the town of Muang Sing. There are some beautiful treks around that area which you can do if you are looking for something more challenging, most include a homestay with some ethnic peoples. During the wet season (when we were there) trekking is more strenuous,due to the mud and the hilly terrain. We took the trek with Elaine, a Californian who had spent 5 years teaching in SHenzhen,China and now lives and teaches in Indonesia. The tour was wonderful.Our guide,Hak, from the Black Tai minority was wonderfully knowledgeable and charming with a great sense of humour and excellent English. He took us to various ethnic minority villages. We began at the Muang Sing market,about 3 hours driver from Luang Namtha. The road was pretty bumpy and rough in places.IT was also muddy so you had to watch your step. We took lots of photos and of course asked people before we did this. Most were happy to be photographed,although some younger women were very shy. WE then saw some Hmong, Yao, Lolo and Leu. There are many ethnic minority groups in Lao, some originating in Tibet,others in Vietnam but most have been there for a few hundred years. They speak Lao language but also their own language which is very different, and each group cannot often understand the others’ language. They are mostly Buddhist,but some are also animist.One very intersting part of the trip was a long chat we had ( with the translation of Hak) with a lady who does hand embroidery. She provides pieces for an NGO which sells her work in the capital and abroad,and gets paid over $100 for most pieces,as her work is very fine,and often takes more than a year to complete. She said she has a brother living in Santa Barbara, and has visited him there, and she produced photos of her visit there,and also of her two sons at university,one here in Laos and one in Guangzhou,China. IT was hard to imagine her travelling abroad let alone to the US whilst seeing her squatting in the mud hut of the village,surrounded with ragged children….
Temple wall drawing showing punishment for gossip and lying
We had lunch in one village house, and ate sticky rice (with our hands,rolled into a hard ball) ,spicy pork and chicken,bamboo shoots and spinach.IT was delicious but rather spicy. Dessert was a small very sweet banana. We also saw a village temple,with some amazing wall pictures,highly ornate, depicting the fate of those in the afterlife who have gossipped or lied about their neighbours.IT reminded me somewhat of Hieronymous Bosch. Towards evening we drove back again over the bumpy road back to Luang Namtha,which suddenly seemed like a throbbin metropolis in comparison to the tiny villages around the area.
The next morning we boarded a bus at the Luang Namtha bus station to travel to Luang Prabang, the famed UNESCO heritage city of North Laos.I had been anticipating this city very much and was afraid to be disappointed. After a 9 hour extremely bumpy bus journey the risk of anticlimax was pretty high. The bus journey itself was pretty great. The air conditioning consisted of travelling with the door open. There was a mix of passengers, locals, foreign backpackers – young Americans and French, a Chinese guy from Shandong who works in Shenzhen,and a couple of very well-travelled Liverpudlians.At one point,it being rainy season, there was a landslide on the road,and we had to get out of the bus and wait for the road to be cleared by bulldozer.There were several food and toilet stops on the way in some tiny rural villages. The view was stunning all the way- thick jungle, tall mountains swathed in mist, river valleys of the winding Mekong and its tributaries, rice paddies complete with picturesque buffalo – all you could ask for in a South East Asian travel video We finally arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6 pm and very easily got a tuktuk to the hotel,glimpsing a tantalizing view of a gleaming gold Wat on our way there.
More about Luang Prabang later. IT is an amazing town.
Will continue later as internet here is a little intermittent….
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