March 2, 2020 Pak San, Laos
Time flies. We have been in Laos for two weeks now. A lot has happened since the last post. We took a two day trip down the MeKong river with a package tour. We were shown a cameo of Laos and wound up in Luang Prabang, a big city by Laos standards with good services for tourists.
We said good bye to Christian and Caroline, the Brompton contingent. They took a plane to Vietnam. The Azub four were better prepared for the rough backroads of Laos that followed.
We then headed into the mountains. Here the roads are sketchy and steep. We recruited a local taxi (truck) to haul us through some of the worst part of the road up to Chou Koun. Here at 1400m altitude we stayed warm in our tents through the windy cold night. There were beautiful mountains and many small villages as we proceeded down through the heavily traveled road. Vieng Vang was another tourist town we stayed in on the way to the Nam Ngum Reservoir. The roads in between have many unpaved dirt roads with a lot of large trucks moving through stirring up the dust, to the extent that the trees nearest the road are no longer green. They are the color of dust. These roads have long stretches between villages.
Nam Ngum Reservoir is formed by a large dam across the MeKong river. This is a large inland sea forty kilometers across. We stayed at classy resort on the west side. There we found a boat that would take us across to the other side of the lake. This was not a tour package boat. It was basic transportation for the locals and their chattels. A very different experience from our earlier river tour package.
A Newcomers PerspectiveLaos is a communist country of seven million people. Twenty percent of the population are illiterate. Forty percent of the population are indigenous tribes, of which there are many. The GDP per person is about $2700. Yet it is one of the fastest growing economies in the region. We have seen a large new rail line construction project, involving Chinese contractors.
The currency is the kip. There exchange rate is approximately 9,000 kip to the dollar. All of the money is paper notes. There are no coins. The largest note I have seen is the 100,000 kip note, worth about $10 USD. In many of the small village shops this note is not readily accepted, because the shop owner is not able to make change.
Tourism is the fastest growing segment of the economy according to Wikipedia. While we are here in Thailand, the tourism is sharply down because of the Corona Virus (CoVid 19) currently shutting down tourism from China.
Much of the transactions are without any paper receipts, and only a sketchy understanding from both sides. This could be troublesome, except for the fact that Laos people are honest even when dealing with us, foreigners on weird bikes.
We stopped at a guest house recently. The shop keeper wrote out the price for the rooms in the dirt with his finger in the parking lot. We accepted and moved our many bags into the two rooms. Later I saw the shop keeper in the parking lot. I was unsure if Joël had paid for my room, or if I should pay directly. With a complete language barrier, I asked the shop keeper by pulling out a 100,000 kip note and offered it to the man. He simply shrugged his shoulders and refused to take the money, as if to say ‘buddy you don’t owe me anything’.
We like to stop in the small shops in small villages. These places are family run in an unusual way. The dividing line between business and home are not at all distinct. Some have a few tables and a menu, others are more free form. For example, this morning I had breakfast at a place where we sat at a table that set up on a concrete slab front porch. On this slab there was also a fellow working on a motorbike. During breakfast there were people dropping off motorbikes for service.
The Lao People
Later this morning, we met up with Joël and Irène. They were in the midst of breakfast in the home of a family along the Mekong River. One thing you learn about Irène, she can make language barriers disappear. Maybe this is because she works with deaf people. If you watch her face while she talks, you mostly understand what she is saying, even if you don’t speak the language she is using.
Before we got there she was on a first name basis with many of the family members. They had already been on the phone with relatives living in Idaho. Ok, so the relatives provided good English to Lao translation momentarily.
By the time we got there. There was a huge spread of food on the table; many containers of rice of different types, a whole roasted fish, and a variety of spiced sauces. We were immediately invited in. Seats were vacated so that Lucy and I could be seated. There was an abundance of food on the table. New plates were readied for us. We wondered if we were in a restaurant, or in a family home. We could see they had a fish farm 25 meters below in the river. The rooms were separated by woven bamboo walls and curtains instead of doors.
In the front room there was a barber’s chair. I needed a shave and signaled my interest by stroking my stubble covered face. I was invited to sit down in the chair while one of the family members shaved me.
In the middle of breakfast a motorbike arrived. We made more room at the table for the newcomer. Instead some of the food was moved out to the motorbike. It was explained to us that the newcomer was taking food elsewhere for his father.
We asked if there was any coffee. The immediate answer was no. We had begun our departure, but without realizing it, one of the family members took a motorbike to a local store and came back with coffee powder. He made coffee. We sat down and continued our language barrier breach while we finished our coffee.
Finally when we got up to go, we wanted to know how much to pay. We got confused shrugs. We did not accept the first answer, which was ‘free’. We got them to accept the equivalent of $4 total, for breakfast for four and a shave for me.
It left me scratching my head about the experience. This family clearly understands the way things work in business. They run a good size fish farm. Yet they simply open their arms for us without any interest in compensation.
When we first arrived in Laos, we booked a river tour on the MeKong river with Smile Tours. This was very worthwhile. The boat is called a ‘slow boat’. It is 35m long and is powered by a six cylinder turbo diesel. It has more than enough room for 30 people to ride in comfort, even some beds for those who want to sleep. There is a galley which provided fresh cooked meals and snacks along the way. You see many boats of this kind.
The six of us, Caroline, Christian, Joël, Irène, Lucy and I boarded in Housei Sai. We stopped for short visits to villages along the way. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Pak Beng. On the second day we reached our destination in Luang Prabang.
We traveled south with the swiftly moving current through mostly uninhabited land. The sandy beaches and massive rocks protruding from the water provided great scenery. There was some white water in places. Occasionally there were villages of sizes ranging from a few primitive structures and cattle
The tour guide, Kat took us to tiny villages of indigent tribes. He explained that he grew up in a remote village like this, and left to find his way in the world. He still speaks the local dialect. Children of the village wear mass produced clothing.
It made Joël and Irène a little uncomfortable to have humanity on display like some kind of petting zoo. I did not understand this until later in the trip.
I think everyone of the 30 or so guests on the tour were from Europe, except Lucy and I. It was a great opportunity to meet new people. Lucy found Luz, a Spanish woman from Barcelona. Lucy got to speak Spanish at full speed with all cylinders firing. I think she needed this.
In fact Luz is fluent in at least four languages (English, French, Spanish, and German). Her husband Sasha, grew up in Germany and is currently learning Russian. After the tour we were all staying in Luang Prabang. The four of us met for dinner there.
Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos. It is a tourist hot spot. It has a an open air market place with food, clothing, it is well equipped to handle the needs of the western tourist. We rented motorbikes and visited many of the local attractions, including a spectacular waterfall, an Asian bear preserve, a butterfly hatchery. We even found a place that serves civet coffee.
Joël tells me that there is also elephant coffee. Hmmm.
Joël pointed out that the road headed east from Luang Prabang to Phon Koun would be steep and rugged in places. We decided to load the bikes onto a truck (taxi) for this leg of the trip. Though the route is rural, it is the only road headed this way and so there is lots of traffic, including large trucks, busses, etc.
In the few days during and following our visit to Luang Prabang each of us experienced a little disorder in our digestive track. This added to our struggles through the rural mountains. We all survived it.
In the mountains east of Phoun Koun, The road points mostly downhill, but there are points along the way where the road surface is dust churned up by heavy trucks rolling through with regularity. We did our best to laugh our way through it. We slept in villages where the trees near the road were all reddish brown with a layer of dust covering the green leaves. The rough roads bounced my fender off of its mounts causing an annoying rattle. It happened often enough that I gave up stopping to fix it.
Irène did her level best to keep the esprit du corps. It was a relief when we finally made it to Vieng Vieng. It is definitely a tourist town. This was welcomed. Lucy and I rented a motorbike to scoot around on. $8/day. Irène and Joël found the Parisien Cafe which was also the Pizza King. OK, we needed a vacation from Thai food. Lucy was able to eat bread, something she had been longing for for days. On leaving Vieng Ven we carried two baguettes which she coddled until we got to Nan Ngum Reservoir, days later.
Some of the many hot air balloons that frequent the skies above Vieng Vang.
Nam Ngum Reservoir
The Nam Ngum Reservoir is formed by a large dam on the Mekong River. It forms the largest body of water in Laos. The dam is equipped with hydroelectric system that provides one of the biggest export of Laos, electricity. It also provides a market for dried fish.
Near this damn there is a high end resort where we stayed. This was the most expensive hotel we found in Laos. ($36/night/room). We also found an entrepreneur that said he could get us across the lake in his boat. It would take $150 USD. We told him we were interested but were looking for a better price. We found one.
We found there was a regularly scheduled boat that crosses the lake. We lacked complete information on where to meet this boat and only a rough idea of what it would cost $24 USD.
We eventually found it and loaded our bikes on the roof. Along with us was a crowd of locals looking to cross with motorbikes, farm produce, including a rooster. We four were the only western people on the boat. What a contrast with our Smile Tours ride down the Mekong!
As this boat was loading, I was thinking when does the captain call it full? It got very full. I was thankful that the lake was flat with no wind. To my untrained eye, we were overloaded and no life preservers to be seen. I rehearsed in my mind that if we started taking on water, I would hurl one or two of the Ortlieb panniers overboard and Lucy and I could jump for it. There were many islands in this lake. It would be a short swim to safety.
The ride was gentle. I stopped worrying. I noticed that Irène and Joël really enjoyed interacting with the families there. Working their magic across the language barrier. I believe this is the sweet spot of the journey for them. To engage the locals in a meaningful interplay.
The boat arrived on the far shore. We had anticipated that it would dock close to the town of Long San. We were not even close. We were in a tiny village with 40km of mountainous road between us and our expected destination. We were under the false assumption that the boat would take us to the furthest point in the lake. Now we had to scramble for a solution late in the day.
Joël found one person on the boat that spoke French. He knew this tiny village and the people in it. Joël and he disappeared on a motor bike. We waited. Joël returned about 30 minutes later with a truck that could take us all to our Long San.
Along the way
On the way to Pak Seng we found a process for making tapioca. Here the locals have harvested a root that must be sliced up. It is a crude process that generates a material that can be used to make tapioca. It is also used for other purposes, including animal feed.
Some of the most educated people that you can find living in Laos, are the monks. They typically speak English. They know a lot about the area in which they live. They are generally pretty good about being approached but there are some rules to follow: Be respectful, Be male (women do not speak nor even approach monks), Listen well.