Posts Tagged ‘Villages’

Beautiful Water-pools

Beautiful Water-pools

Laos is the least visited country in the area (apart from Myanmar, of course), which does not mean, however, that there is no tourists. It is a sparsely populated place (6 million inhabitants in a country the size of the UK), and very rugged and mountainous in the north, while flat in the south along the Mekong and hilly again to the southeast. The Mekong river forms the border to Thailand for a long stretch of its journey south.

We entered Laos by taking a boat across the Mekong and headed north after a nights stopover in the border-town. The monsoon had become quite heavy by now, with irregular intense downpours, but it has still not marred our fun traveling this far.

Dining in the rice fields

Dining in the rice fields

Bus travel in Laos proved to be a good exercise in patience once more, with bussed not departing until 2 hours after the scheduled time, stopping all the time for no particular reason (or, so that the driver could sit down and have lunch, but he failed to inform any of his passengers about this 30 min break, so that we all missed the opportunity to get some food ourselves…). We traveled alongside bags of vegetables and fruit, fish in plastic-bags (still alive) and motorbikes parked in between the seats. We had leaky roofs dripping water on us, or got entirely drenched inside a soorngataau (a public transport vehicle, a converted pick up with benches and a roof, but open on the sides), when the monsoon hit-  but we safely made it to all our destinations, and after all, who does not want to travel alongside chicken and fish every now and then. What caused Simon the biggest headache is the fact that most buses play music all the time- or show music videos alongside the tunes, too. And it is not good music (it has to be agreed, of course, that tastes vary, but why force everyone to listen to the same songs?)

That's my baby!

That’s my baby!

To continue with the journey, we made our way to Luang Nam Tha, in a valley surrounded by mountains in the north of Laos, where we rented bicycles for a day to explore the area (one very unimpressive waterfall included, after we had first sweated our way up a wrong(!) steep path). We passed through a number of villages, all with houses on wooden stilts (this is the dominant style of houses both in the North of Loas as well as Thailand), had to get Simon’s bike fixed, sat down for a drink of water with an old man and exchanged lighters with him and at night explored the markets.

The next days brought adventure- we rented a scooter and a motorbike (Nico taught himself how to ride on youtube…) and we drove to Muang Sing, a village close to the Chinese border. It was a beautiful cruise through mountainous terrain. There are many ethnic minorities in Muang Sing, and the surrounding mountainside is dotted with villages of the Hmong and Akha tribes, to name just a few. We went on a trek the following day, passing through villages, rice fields (the rice planting was in full progress), and up a mountain through dense forest (very sweaty affair…). Finally, there was lunch on top of the mountain with our guide, extremely tasty pieces of pork, Lao sticky rice, chicken and bamboo shoots. After re-descending and making it back to the village, we took our bikes for another cruise and nearly accidentally drove into China- the border post was rather unassuming.

Monks collecting alms

Monks collecting alms

Our journey continued over bumpy mountain roads via small roadside villages, all complete with huge numbers of pigs and chicken roaming the streets and finally brought us to Luang Prabang, famous for its richly decorated temples. We went exploring around the city, followed by enjoying the view over the Mekong river from atop a hill.

Our next stop was Phonsavan, the location of the Plain of Jars- as the name suggests, there are jars. Many of them, all made from stone, some of them huge, scattered around he countryside just outside of the city. And nobody really knows where they came from, and what purpose they served. Phonsavan has another, darker heritage, too, though. During the Vietnam war, it was one of the most heavily bombed places in Laos (and Laos is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth- the U.S. dropped bombs to interrupt smuggle along the Ho Chi Minh tail, and to destroy communist groups gathering to fight the enemy, despite the fact that Laos had been declared neutral territory). It is estimated that after the war, 80 million pieces of unexploded ordnance remained hidden in or just above the soil in the country (of the 2 million tons of bombs dropped, 30 % failed to detonate), and these have caused many casualties. The plain of Jars, for instance, is only safe to visit in certain areas that have been cleared of bombs, and there are still visible bomb craters everywhere.

Items made of bombshells

Items made of bombshells

Clearance is in progress, but will take decades to complete. Meanwhile, some locals have adopted a more pragmatic attitude to this worrisome legacy and are using empty bombshells as building materials for houses, create BBQ’s or flowerpots out of bombs, or melt them to recast them as cutlery- we bought a set in a small village close to Phonsavan.

Our last destination in the North was Vientiane, the nation’s capital, complete with a mini arc de triomphe (the former French influence is still visible in many of Laos’ cities, especially in the architecture of brick and stone houses, but also through the presence of French cultural institutes, restaurants and schools).

Here ends the first account of our impressions around Laos, soon to be followed by our adventures in the South!

Another Waterfall

Another Waterfall

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After Mandalay it was definitely time to experience some country-life and some more traditional regions far away from the big cities. So I went on a 10 hour long very bumpy and very uncomfortable (though very scenic) train ride to Kyaukme. As I decided to save the $2 for the more expensive first class ticket ($5 instead of $3) I had to sit on wooden benches for the whole period of time while being tossed around more than your average baseball. But hey, who said backpacking was gonna be good for your bum 😉

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme

Kyaukme was an insider tip by a fellow traveler who said that it was far less touristy than Hsipaw, which is a little bit further up the road, and indeed, we didn’t really meet any other travelers and there was only one licensed guest house in town. The latter was quite unfortunate as they took advantage of their position and charged quite horrendous room rates. However, the trip was still well worth it. We met Joy, a 23 year old native who spoke Burmese, Shan, English and Mandarin and who started showing tourists around at the age of 16. He is an excellent example how education paired with motivation can be a way to make a decent living. He probably makes much more money during one day by showing a couple of tourists around than most farmers make during one week. Before we left on a two day trip into the mountains we went to visit his English class went for dinner with his students. It’s nice to see young people so eager so speak English and it’s a pity that this kind of motivation is often lacking in European countries (yes, I’ve been one of the lazy unmotivated ones myself).

Traditional Clothing

Traditional Clothing

Family at home

Family at home

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The day after, we were heading into the mountains to the north. We went on a couple of scooters in order to get further into the rural areas and walked around some villages from time to time. This is actually one of the times where it makes sense to get a guide as there are no maps of that area (except for a roughly correct hand drawn map) and as locals don’t speak English whatsoever. The landscape was just stunning; we went through forests and fields and along many tea plantations as most locals in the northern Shan state live from growing tea. We got invited into houses for tea, met some traditionally dressed local women and slept in a small mountain village.

How many chairs can you fit?

How many chairs can you fit?

The Kitchen

The Kitchen

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It was very interesting to see how traditional the village life still is in these mountain regions. Most houses are

made of wood and have a small stone square in the middle of the room which is intended as a fireplace and for cooking. The houses we’ve been to consisted of 2 or a maximum of 3 rooms and accommodated up to 10 people and if the village was big enough they even had some electricity from a turbine in the river, at least for the 6 months of the year when there is enough water to run it. Some of the smaller villages didn’t have any electricity at all. We’ve been invited for tea by a Nepalese family which basically didn’t own anything except for the wooden shack it lived in and the few pumpkins and tea plants on their fields. They asked us to stay over-night but Joy turned down the offer and told me later that he wasn’t sure if they even had enough blankets for the whole family and a couple of guests. But despite all the poverty it is still always nice to experience the great amount of hospitality from those people and how gladly they usually share food with you even though they have so little.

 

All those villages are quite isolated by the way; the “roads” leading there looked sometimes like a random accumulation of rocks rather than an actual road and getting up there on a motorbike felt more like a roller-coaster ride than anything else. I am actually surprised that all of us survived without severe injuries 😉

I am glad I went on this tour with Joy and if I had more time in this country I would love to discover more regions like this, far off the beaten track. Instead I am heading off to Inle Lake to visit the only 2 wineries of Myanmar.

So stay tuned and keep on reading (if you have any questions regarding this beautiful country drop me some lines), Rock’n Roll, Nico

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