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Forget Alcatraz, try escaping Luang Namtha

I touched down in northern Laos, thinking that I was about to be immersed in culture overflowing. All I discovered was a fantastic Indian restaurant that served spinach and mushroom ‘heate’, and that it wouldn’t be completely out of place to see tumbleweeds bouncing down the main drag. If there is nothing to do in Vientiane, you may as well sleep through the day in Luang Namtha. The name Luang stands for ‘area’ , and Namtha for ‘around the river Nam’. Just for interest’s sake, the Mekong is an ochre colour, whereas the Nam is olive green. Further south, in Luang Prabang, the two rivers converge, creating a mosaic of earthy tones worthy of painting. Not being that creative, I just took a picture.
I was desperate to plunge into the wonders of the tropical jungle in this remote, fabled corner of Laos, but going on a mosquito-infested trek into imminent inundations of the wet stuff was of little interest. I think Nepal spoiled me, because not a single trek has intrigued me since!
I sat in the hotel café dreaming up how to make some fun, and decided to reserve a motorcycle in the morning for a ride up to Muang Sing, a supposed cultural mecca of Laos. There are several different tribes residing near Muang Sing, each abiding by distinct customs and rituals, so I was pretty excited about my plan. In order to kill some time that afternoon, I rented a bicycle and tried to find my way up to the massive, golden stupa on the top of the highest hill overlooking the town. I laughed when some French tourists asked me for directions. They probably never made it, because it took me three hours to find the path, and the stupa was in view the entire time. At one unfortunate moment, the asphalt turned to dirt, then to rocks and holes, and then into a private residence guarded by a minimum of a dozen angry, blood thirsty mongrels. There was no gate separating them from me, so I turned about and prayed that my legs would not get chewed off as I bounced down the badly rutted path.
Doggedly determined (get it?) to make my way up to the monastery and stupa on the hill, I finally spotted a staircase leading ‘up’. I dragged my bike hopefully up the stairs (see photo), only to meet an orange monk staring at me, bewildered. He nodded to the paved road directly in front of me, and walked away. Apparently, I took the hard way. After wiping my brow, I locked my bike and carried on by foot, eager to see an ancient stupa steeped in history. I first noticed a plexi-glass window built into the structure’s side, and then a sign indicating 2009 as the date of construction. This is actually very typical in Laos, as so much of the country has been bombed and ravaged by war over the years. The only city that has any real history still standing is Luang Prabang, and this is just because both the Japanese and the USA felt it was a neutral zone at the time.
After gazing at the jungle from the hill’s zenith, and hoping to witness something ’jungly’ (like a monkey), I noticed the looming, dark storm clouds positioned right above my head. The instant torrential downpour enveloped me as I raced down the hill, but blocked my sight so that I missed my turnoff for the hotel. I suppose I cannot blame the weather, based on my track record for rarely knowing where I am. I stayed in that night, dried off, licked my wounds, and shuddered at what trouble I might create the next day.
The next morning, and upon reassuring the Lao owner of the motorcycle shop that I would not kill myself, I aptly stalled the bike 30 seconds later as I tried to ride up the ramp into the gas station. Trying to get the bike started facing uphill was a bad idea, so I will leave the visuals to the imagination. Muang Sing is about 2 hours north of Luang Namtha, approaching the country’s border to China. It is only about 50 km, but I very quickly understood why speeding is impossible in Laos. I encountered roosters, piglets, ducks, and water buffalo on the road, mixed with an unrelenting, cool rain that mashed up the dung patties strewn across the road. That stuff is slippery. Being prepared like a good Brownie, I pulled out my pink poncho, figuring I could at least stay dry. Once the wind picked up, the poncho started flying, and I got drenched. Ahh, the glorious introduction to the rainforest. I tried to outrun the clouds, but they followed every weave, bend, and turn, all the way to my sorry little destination. Upon arrival in Muang Sing, every single member of every single tribal community was intelligently tucked away under shelters, hidden from the pelting sheets of water. I, on the other hand, was shaking my head in the middle of the intersection, soaked to the core. There was no sign of the rain letting up, so I turned around and started back towards Luang Namtha. I did not see one car or motorcycle the entire way back, but had to laugh when I realized I was pure entertainment for a group of kids heading home from school. That pink cape was useless, but funny. I did not stop to see the famed waterfall either, but I was wet enough, thank you. Four hours later to the minute, the motorcycle shop owner came out and asked me if I had fun. I giggled and exclaimed, “No!” Needless to say, no explanation was necessary, but he took a picture after telling me I made good time :).
The next morning, I bounded onto a very nice double decker bus by Lao standards, and snagged a spot up top for my 8–hour trip to Luang Prabang. My excitement dwindled about 55 minutes out of the bus station. Our bus sadly broke down, but we did not know this until 90 minutes after we stopped. I thought the driver had disappeared for a booty call in the village. At one point, we heard a rumble, sputter, and horn up the road, and turned to witness our rickety, replacement jalopy, resurrected from the local junk yard. Fortunate enough to sit in the front seat, I bore witness to the inventive ways one can use string, bandaids, and palm fronds to keep bus parts together, wired, and functional. I kid you not. The entire front dash resembled several intricately connected games of cat’s cradle, and I only wished the horn had not been rigged. I learned very quickly that the horn represents the soul of the Lao driver, and 13 hours of soul was more than any of us could take without some Tylenol 3s.
The slow-going bouncing, twisting movement was amusing for all of 20 minutes, as we wound our way around every mountainside in Northern Laos. At one point, we actually saw another vehicle on the road as we whipped around a cliff. Unfortunately, the vehicle was in our lane. As our driver braked and swerved, I was catapulted out of my seat and thrown into the stairwell of the bus, followed by both of my seat cushions and a bag of rice. I lost my breath as I turned to face a wide-eyed group of sweaty tourists, but strictly from sheer laughter. The driver and the porter were so worried, which made me laugh even harder. We rebuilt my chair, and fired up the bus for more adventure.
When darkness came upon us, we had to stop the bus because the headlights did not work. I was completely mesmerized by the driver’s ingenuity in tearing apart a plastic bag and twisting it around the steering wheel so tightly that it held the headlight wiring in place. Upon arrival in Luang Prabang, I would have been happy to sleep in the parking lot dust, but found my way into the back of a tuk tuk taxi. The driver dumped me at the top of a quaint little alley, and I crookedly wandered through it until I found a guest house that had space for the weary. I was about to learn the art of true relaxation, as a week in Luang Prabang will lull even the most resistant into an inescapable trance.

Posted by Lana007 04:25 Archived in Laos

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Hi Lana, wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

by YTH

Ah my dear Lana- I can picture you riding the motorcycle in the pouring rain with your pink batman like cape billowing out around you. Merry Christmas my friend! I'm sending you big hugs! xo

by Angela Gillis

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