Sunday, June 1, 2008

Backpacking in Laos: Pak Ou Caves, Laos Hilltribes, Muang Sing

Pak Ou Caves and further up north

So the next day we did "go see cape". A slowboat took us upstream on the Mekong to the mouth of the Ou river. It is on this spot where the caves are located. Two caves in the lower part of a limestone cliff facing the river are stuffed with Buddha images of all styles and sizes. Maybe it was because we were a little hungover but Pak Ou didn't do it for us. The two hour boat ride was nice though.

Pak Ou Caves
Next day we got up at five in the morning because somehow we thought that the bus went that early. We arrived at the busstop at 5:30. The place was deserted. We got a row over who's idea it was to get up at this crazy hour. The sunrise and the waking up of the town was an unexpected bonus.

It seemed like the busstop was also a market. We passed the time by eating and walking around. At 8 we finally departed. The truck was full with locals and some other backpackers. We stopped at Udomxai and decided not to go any further. We were totally gone to pieces after six hours driving on very bad roads.

The infrastructure in Laos is virtually non-existant. There is one "sealed" road going north to south. Other roads are just dusty paths that get very bad during the rainy season. There are no roadsigns telling you where to go, no markings on the road and almost no traffic. Going north we saw some trucks but they were mostly from NGO's like UNICEF and the European Union. It was a smart move to get some rest. The following day was again very exhausting. A small bus took us to Muang Sing, our next destination. The bus was packed with Chinese workers going home. It was so crowded that we had to sit on boxes filled with beer bottles.

After taking two turns the boxes tore open and the bottles got stuck up your arse. You can imagine that when the bus got a flat tyre it was a very welcome break. The spare tyre was also broken but the driver took the innertube and put it in the outertube. That worked. Just stand on it with two guys and inflate it with a regular bicycle pump and you are ready to go again.

Laos Hilltribes

When we finally arrived in Muang Sing the first thing we were offered was opium. Yes, we were in the infamous Golden Triangle and it showed. We just stuck to the tea and papaya the friendly couple from the guest house gave us. When you travel long and hard sometimes you haven't got a clue where you really are.

This place was as far from western civilization as I've ever been and I was wondering what Muang Sing would bring us. We watched the sunset from the roof of the guesthouse and somehow knew that this place was special. We rented bicycles from Mouse Mr. Ping and rode to the Chinese border, only 6 miles from Muang Sing. This was easier said than done, the road was very bad, the state of the bikes even worse. There is nothing to see at the border, but because you lose 3 liters of sweat to get there, you have the feeling that you have accomplished something very special. The guard understood a few words German and he let us past the barrier for a few meters.

A few hundred meters of the "main" road lies the Adima guest house. This place is the starting point for treks into the hills. This sort of eco-tourism left me with an uneasy feeling. Of course, everybody welcomes you when you enter the village. And all the children run up to you. But in this village (Nam Ded Kauw) the begging was incessant.

It seems like tourism has made monkeys out of the kids. They demand money for pictures and ask for pens and coins. I waited for the kids to calm down on the outskirts of the village. That is where I took these pictures. Sure, these scenes make great photo opportunities. But still... tourists don't belong here and I was relieved to leave this place and just walk on.

Muang Sing

We got up one morning at six to see the morning market. It's a typical Lao market where you can buy anything and everything, from vegetables to clothes to illegally made LaoLao (some sort of brandy that will leave you blind and with no throat left, you should try it sometimes...). The thing that stood out was a small butchershop. I felt like I was on the set of some horror movie with blood everywhere. Just before I took this picture a dog was licking this bowl of bloody livers. Yummy!

Right across the street there was a nice little restaurant. It was very relaxing to sit there and watch all the things happening around you. One day I could see the lady from the guesthouse wash our clothes and hang them to dry on the roof of the building while pigs and waterbufalloes where walking aimlessly through the streets. These ugly little fellas wandered on the road to China.

Between 6 o'clock and half past eight in the evening the town has electricity. After that the lights in Muang Sing go out with a single flick of the switch it seems. People put candles on the table and in the toilets so you can go on fraternizing with the other backpackers. A couple of people we saw in Luang Prabang and traveled with on some parts also made it to Muang Sing. We especially had a great time with a Scottish girl called Niamh (procounced as Neve). We hooked up with her on our way to Thailand. After 3 nights in Muang Sing we took a truck to Xieng Kok. The Lonely Planet guidebook warned us for this trip. Xieng Kok is "roughly 75km from Muang Sing via a tortuous road. It takes all day - up to a day and a half under certain road conditions." So we prepaired for the worse.

We were surprised that after three hours we drove into Xieng Kok. We were lucky because it was the end of the rainy season. From there we had to take a speedboat downstream on the Mekong to the bordercrossing with Thailand.

We were a little apprehensive because we heard that in the past a couple of people got killed on this trip. We comforted ourselves with the notion that "the driver wants to keep his boat in one piece and wants to stay alive, so he must know what he's doing". So, get in the boat, squat down on half a square foot of space and brace yourselves. Imagine sitting like this for four hours, slaloming around rock formations, doing 70km an hour. Myanmar (Birma) on the right hand and Laos to the left. Yeah baby! On this picture we took a brake on a sandbank, hence the smiling faces!

After 11 nights we said goodbye to Laos by lighting some firecrackers in Huay Xai. The next morning we crossed the Mekong and entered Thailand...

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