We convinced the cooks to start early so we could dine on the glorious Sapa breakfast buffet one last time before catching the painfully early bus to the town of Dien Bien Phu, heading in the direction of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos to its mates. Our early morning suffering was shared with Iida, Joona and Eileen, who were also Laos bound and made up our party of five. It was a dysfunctional journey, stopping every few hours for the road to be constructed before us while layers of dust formed on chairs/faces/clothes. We had planned to overnight in the border town however Eileen’s visa expired that day, and so far our border crossings have been far too smooth so we thought we’d put the Vietnamese immigration to the test and head off to the border crossing with just 90 minutes before closing. It took an hour to get there and we got our exit stamp with ten minutes to spare. Ingeniously the Laos immigration office was another 6kms away (great planning) rendering it unlikely we were going to get there before closing. Turns out they were already closed so there was no need for the rush! A caretaker was just closing up when we arrived and he told us we weren’t getting Visas now. I’m not sure where that leaves us having legally exited Vietnam and not entered Laos, we perhaps should have thrown a no mans land party free from government rule, instead we did the sensible thing and begged the caretaker to call someone who could process us. He came and called a friend with a pick up to take us to the next town and we arrived into Laos somewhat poorer and marginally above illegal immigrant status. Happy days.
The next morning we quickly learned travelling long, or even short distances in Laos is both torturous (thanks to the music) and time consuming (thanks to the mountains) detouring in Udomxai we did eventually arrive into Luang Namtha after another full day on the road. That evening we supped on juicy BBQ pork from the night market while politely refusing the offers of opium from the local women. We discovered the national drink Laos Laos, a type of rice whiskey that tastes very similar to the stuff we were drinking in Mae Sot during the build. A local stand was selling various mixes so it would have been rude not to sample all the variations, lemon and ginger came out on top. The next day we recovered from our journey and spent our time planing a 3 day trek up into the surrounding protected jungle leaving us a day to rent bikes and check out a couple of the local waterfalls. Not too much to report here as its dry season but still a nice way to spend the afternoon and enjoy more driving through winding mountain roads. Although trying to take corners at speed in Laos is not recommended as you might find yourself rapidly approaching a pot hole the size of a cow.
We met up with our guide Sing for our first day of trekking, beginning at the rubber plantations and slowly ascending up into the hills, very slowly infact as Sing was hanging from a wedding the previous day (although his speed didn’t seem to increase over the three days) after bamboo soup for lunch we carried on to the small village where we would be staying for the night. We arrived early allowing us time for a quick shower (jumping in the river) and time to enjoy the puppies, piglets and children running around. One local paraded his huge owl for us to admire, for what reason he owned an owl I’m not sure but it was impressive to see. After more sticky rice for tea we were debating turning in when a man grabbed me and Joona for a quick English lesson (for him not us) we managed to teach him duck, helmet and shovel and in turn we learnt one to five in Laos and the obligatory how to order a beer.
We left the lovely village behind for another long day in the jungle. At one point a tree nearly fell on us as Sing attempted to grab a banana flower but we arrived safely at our beautiful stop for the night. We were sleeping in open air shacks sitting on stilts directly above the river surrounded by the forest on both banks. It was a memorable place to stay and it inspired me and Joona to do a bit of fishing with our shoe laces, safety pins and some lychee sweets which the fish of Laos didn’t find compelling as we were left empty handed for all our endeavour.
The final day was spent on the water kayaking which sounded like a great idea at the time, and was lots of fun but bloody hard work. Especially as Eileen and Sing were setting a good pace, Iida and Joona in a comfortable rhythm leaving me and Sarah (who would be the first to admit she wasn’t born to hold a paddle) floundering at the rear. Nonetheless for the times we were pointing in the right direction it was a hugely enjoyable day but we were both glad to hop back into the Tuk Tuk at the end heading for town to rest our weary little arms. To the groups dismay, particularly Iida, the local pizzeria was closed denying us our post trek chocolate pizza we had all been looking forward to so much. We had our final meal at the night market before resting our heads before the journey south to Luang Prabang.
Courtesies go to the workers and caretakers of the Laos immigration control office Tay Trang. We know your reading.