TUESDAY, AUGUST 15, 2006. LUANG NAM THA, LAOS. From Mengla, China, I caught a minibus to the Lao border this morning (Y14; 2 hours). The most amazing thing to see on the ride to the border was the construction of an elevated multi-lane highway through essentially jungle. The highway takes as much of a direct path as possible, cutting through mountains where necessary and mostly following the river. The highway presumably is meant to increase trade between China and Laos.
The border crossing is between the towns of Mohan (China) and Boten (Laos). There were perhaps 20 people crossing into Laos from China. Immigration officials on both sides of the border scrutinized my documents carefully, each noting that I was of Chinese decent. Both asked me where I was born, although it's clearly noted in my passport (Hawaii, USA). The immigration posts between the two towns was quite far apart--about 2 kilometers. Luckily I didn't walk it as I originally contemplated (Most the border crossing I've been through permit or require you to walk). I found a Luang Nam Tha bound minibus just past the Chinese checkpoint and hopped on (Y20). Most nationalities can get a 30 day visa at the border, including Americans (US$35, one photo) (I have run out of visa pages in my American passport--I'm not sure at this point whether or not this will effect my remaining travels).
Right away, Laos felt different than China. The Lao immigration official spoke fluent English, as have the few Laotians I have spoken with. The road from Boten to Luang Nam Tha was newly paved, interrupted occasionally by minor landslide debris on the road. The weather was hot and humid, the country side a lush green. We drove past mostly rice fields and small villages with homes on stilts and made of thatch and bamboo. Laos is definitely less developed than China.
Luang Nam Tha is the provincial capital and the base for visiting the Nam Tha Protected Area, a rainforest reserve bordering Myanmar and China, which I plan to do. The town has one main street. Most of the traffic are motorbikes and bicycles. I selected Many Chan Guesthouse as my accommodation. Mrs. Chan, the owner, gave me the fourth floor corner single in a new building for 40,000 kip ($4). As far as I can tell from the fourth floor balcony, this is the tallest building in town (the building has a fifth floor).
In Laos, three currencies are used: Lao Kip, Thai Baht, and US Dollars. Fortunately, I have both Thai Baht and US Dollars--apparently there are no international ATM facilities in Laos so travellers need to bring cash with them. Lao Kip can be used for all purchases, but is generally used for small purchases. This is because the largest note in general circulation is 10,000 Kip, equivalent to about $1! I changed CNY300 (~$37) and got 370,000 Kip or 37 10,000 Kip notes.
I plan to rent a bicycle or motorscooter tomorrow to explore the countryside.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2006. LUANG NAM THA, LAOS. I hired a motorbike today (50,000 Kip; $5) and toured the countryside where I encountered mostly rice fields and small villages with homes on stilts and made of bamboo and thatch.
I've made plans to go on a two day trek and kayak tomorrow. Our group of five will trek to and stay at a minority village and later kayak down the Nam Ha river.
On a more general note, I have one month remaining before I need to be in Sydney, Australia. Time sure flies when you're having a great time travelling the world. I think I may have to pick up my pace a bit, though, if I want to visit all the places I'd like to in between Laos and Australia. Stay tuned as the adventure continues.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 18, 2006. LUANG NAM THA, LAOS. I've just returned from a two day trek and kayak into the Nam Tha Protected Area. I booked the trek through Green Discovery Laos in Luang Nam Tha. There were five people on the tour (Henri and Anneli from Estonia; Koya and Emma from Germany and France, respectively; and me) and our two guides, Ket and Bumme. We spent the first day hiking into the mountains and their lush thick green forests. The sky was overcast, but it was quite warm and humid. Koya set the pace in front and I brought up the rear. We hiked up a mountain trail that was partially muddy due to rain the prior day. At the crest of the mountain, Ket and Bumme set out a fabulous Lao lunch--sticky rice, pork, dried beef, fish, bamboo, and green vegetables. As we finished lunch, it started to rain, so we quickly donned our rain gear and proceeded down the mountain trail to the Khmu village of Ban Nalan Tai. The village sits along the bank of the Nam Ha River and is only accessible by foot or small boat. We met a few villagers on the trail headed home. After a brief rest, we continued downriver following the bank of the Nam Ha River to the Lanten village of Ban Nam Goy, our stop for the night.
The roosters crowing woke us up and reminded us that we were in the Lao countryside. After breakfast, Ket took us for a short hike to learn about and collect some native plants and vegetables for lunch. After walking through rice and corn fields, Ket showed us, among other plants and vegetables, the local taro, papaya, mushrooms, and squash, picking selected items for lunch. After a tasty lunch prepared by Ket, we boarded our two person kayaks (three total, plus a solo kayak for Ket). As there were not enough paddles, I had the luxury of sitting back and relaxing the entire trip while my guide/paddler, Pone, did all the work. We drifted several hours down the Nam Ha river, through some of the thickest, greenest jungle I have ever seen. It was so peaceful, quiet, and relaxing here in the heart of the Lao wilderness. There were a number of small rapids, making for a wet and fun ride. As the Nam Ha river merged with the Nam Tha river, we were met by a prearranged long tail boat that would take us, our gear, and our kayaks upriver and back to Luang Nam Tha. As we proceeded upriver, it started to rain heavily. I was absolutely drenched with a few minutes. We passed numerous small villages built along the banks of the Nam Tha river with people going about their daily business--fishing, washing, cleaning. We arrived in Luang Nam Tha just before dusk--tired, but uniformly glad to have had the opportunity to visit the Nam Ha Protected Area, a wonderfully isolated area of immense natural beauty.