February 25, 2007

191206 Luang Namtha town

Main street of Luang Namtha:


Building on left with blue signage is the local BCEL branch, where the cat obtained more than half a million kip:

LNT bank

For 'address in Lao PDR', the cat got away using the name of whatever guesthouse it was staying in, even if it was checking out in less than an hour ;) Fortunately this branch was well-stocked with crisp 20,000 kip notes. The cat would have run out of double clips if it were issued with smaller denominations (rubberbands are provided though). As with all BCEL & Lao Development Bank branches the cat visited, staff were fast & efficient, & would write out the breakdown (above, bottom left) of denominations to help tourists reeling from shock at the thick wads they had to count & stuff into their money belts without bursting the seams.

While waiting to be served, the cat watched bank staff sitting at a table in a room at the back, manually counting & tying bundles of kip into 'bricks'...if this were some movie they would then be stuffed into black briefcases, picked up by dark-suited men in sunglasses & delivered to some mafia boss =P A real contrast to the modern looking LED display with the latest exchange rates at the front, sans any buying rates for kip ;) If Lao banks aren't interested in their own currency, it isn't too surprising that the kip is practically worthless outside of Lao. This branch & the Luang Prabang ones had extended operating hours (including Saturdays!) to make the most out of the annual influx of much-needed hard currency that comes with the peak tourist season.

& then it was off to KNT internet (300 kip/min) to report on the cat's whereabouts, & the post office for stamps. Wonder how many have mistaken this for a mailbox:


The tiny words at the right say 'NOT FOR LETTERS' =P

Next up was noodle soup brunch & a stop by the local branch of Big Brother Mouse:


The books here make wonderful gifts for locals, & those that the cat bought here would end up travelling to places way beyond the cat's route =)

On this trip the cat would meet many young Lao eager to read anything the cat had with words on it - printouts of travelfish eFish & scanned pages from travel guidebooks (lighter than carrying entire guidebooks with irrelevant info), the cat's journal & Thai-English dictionary, museum exhibition pamphlet, namecards, maps, recycled NUNC ziploc bags, postcard captions - such is the thirst for the written word...reminded the cat of its kittenhood days, when it read words on anything from ingredient lists on shampoo bottles to warning labels on insecticide sprays to discarded magazines dug out from recycling bins (straycat dustbin-digging instinct at work).

Outside of major towns, books are hard to come by in North Lao. The only bookstores the cat came across catered to tourists - not surprising since there seem to be hardly any Lao books in publication (except for textbooks), & most locals can't afford textbooks for their kids anyway.

The cat saw newspapers only once during this trip, & it was passed around the bus for both literate & illiterate to look at the pictures. The literacy rate in places like Phongsaly is just 43%, & the cat wasn't alone in trying to make sense of signs written in Lao. At times it was approached by illiterate locals for help, who assumed that the cat was literate (correct) in Lao (how wrong!) because it wore glasses. In places like Phongsaly & Udomxai with bilingual (Lao + Chinese) signage the cat could help them, but elsewhere it was a case of the blind asking the just-as-blind, & it is when you are unable to help that you feel the most helpless & redundant =|

191206 Luang Namtha morning market

First of many beautiful but cold misty mornings to come:


In Chiang Khong, the slider of the zipper on the cat's thickest jacket broke. Great start to a trip that would run right smack into a cold wave sweeping across the mountains of North Lao. Faithful old ~SGD50 jacket was bought way back in 1999 & still going strong after the cold + wind + snow + hail + ice + rain + mountains + rocks in national parks & forests of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Mt Lassen, Mt Shasta, Tasmania, Nikko, Kyoto, Chiangrai & Mt Kinabalu...until hours before entering Lao!

But just as well, since Lao is a place where people know how to extend the shelf life of any non-living thing by several incarnations. Lacking the wasteful buy-use-&-throw culture of developed nations, everything from buses to bomb casings are repaired, reused & finally recycled when beyond repair. & so the cat was off to the market to hunt for a new zipper slider...

Luang Namtha market from balcony of Keosouphone guesthouse:


Big fat white-roofed structure at upper right houses the 'dry goods' section - everything from cooking oil to clothes to (not sure if legal) currency exchange (stacks & stacks of kip in glass cabinets) to chalk (for writing).

Songthaew central:


Fresh produce section:


Vegetables section with plenty of Akha & other hilltribe ladies selling rattan stems with all thorns intact:


To the cat, rattan has always been something to sit on (chairs, mats), to carry (baskets), to avoid while trekking in jungles (thorns), & to avoid when parents are angry (cane). Never knew that the insides could be eaten!

Nice to be able to walk through here without attracting any attention, unlike Caucasian tourists who tower head & shoulders (sometimes even elbows) above everyone else & stand out with their different hair colour, hairstyles (no local has dreadlocks =P), features & dressing. But the cat had to keep its camera well-hidden, sometimes literally 'shooting from the hip' (something that luthien also does), hence many photos with poor focus, exposure, etc.

Meat section, where you can buy buffalo/pig face (skin + intact whiskers & eyelashes), on top of the usual meat + bones, organs, entrails, fresh or coagulated blood, skin (for making แจ่วบอง jaew bong), ears, etc:


Catfood section - fish:


Netted in the Nam Tha river & transported here in open basins tied to the back of motorcycles & bicycles - amazing how the basins get here with so much water still left inside!

After a bit of asking around, the cat was directed to the 'repairs section', 3 tables beneath a makeshift shelter, each specialising in a different category of repairs - footwear, watches & clothing. One quick look at the slider-less zipper & they knew exactly what to do...but then the workhorse of the clothing repair stall, the sewing machine, was itself under repair - what irony =P No problem, as the girl turned around & hauled another sewing machine out from a wooden crate behind her. 5 minutes, 3000 kip & plenty of free smiles later, the cat's jacket was reincarnated & ready to last for the rest of the cat's 9 lives =)

February 20, 2007

181206 Luang Namtha

Keosouphone Guesthouse, whose owner seemed more than relieved that the cat spoke Chinese:

PC190058-keosouphone PC180042-3-keosouphone

He was fast asleep at the reception & the cat had to wake him up. Throughout this trip the cat would have to wake many people up - bus station staff, drivers, guesthouse staff, ticket office staff, locals using its sleeping bag & backpack as a pillow, cooks, fellow backpackers, etc.

Keosouphone is one of the guesthouses nearest to the bus station & market, 30,000 kip (approx USD3) for a clean double with hot shower. Cha Rueh Sin Guesthouse next door is owned by the same Chinese family from Hunan. The hot shower worked, despite a previous guest's opinion:


One thing about accommodation in places near the Chinese border (i.e. frequented by PRC truck drivers & businessmen) is the use of them for activities that warrant the need for such anti-lohk4 et3 (AIDS) posters:


After the Huay Xai-Luang Namtha journey in a bus with all windows shut tight:


In case the cat ever loses them, a photo as proof that they existed:


1000 kip (less than SGD0.17) note (below left) showing a Hmong, a Lao Loum (lowland Lao) & a lady from another (anyone knows?) ethnic group - reminder that the cat had crossed the border into a country where hilltribe people don't have to fight for their citizenship:

PC180053 PC180053a

'Home-made' currency conversion table (above right) for multi-currency transactions involving USD, THB, LAK & SGD...in this country you can pay in a mixture of 2 currencies & get change in a third.

Mr Sichuan's namecard:


How is the cat ever going to decipher Lao script?! *throws paws in air*

Tired cat wandered down the street & ended up eating Thai food (kai phat met mamuang himmaphan - chicken fried with cashew nuts), paying in Thai baht, speaking in broken Thai & watching some Thai documentary on marsupials with the owners of Panda restaurant, the only food place that seemed to be open in the (almost) pitch black darkness of the province capital at night. Perhaps the next time the cat returns to Luang Namtha, this place would have been renamed Koala restaurant, given the owners' fascination with the grumpy tree huggers on their TV screen =P

Post-dinner exploration of town - only significant lighting was from wooden huts that housed billard tables & practically every teenage boy in Luang Namtha:


& a little clinic:


It was so dark, the cat didn't realise that it was on a side street parallel to the main road where the rest of the guesthouses, restaurants, net cafes & noise were, but the stars in the moon-less skies above were simply brilliant =)

end of day 2 (181206):
noodle soup/pho/feu/khaaw soi eaten to date = 01 bowl

February 19, 2007

181206 Huay Xai to Luang Namtha part 4

Slid downhill on freshly eroded soil that the tyres couldn't grip, so everyone got off & trudged uphill to the top of the slope. Some slid downhill while trying to walk uphill. & then what else but another breakdown:

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This time not involving a tyre change, which would have meant round #4 of replacing the most-punctured tyre with the second flattest one.


HWY 3 literally dissolves in the rainy season (above), & whatever doesn't dissolve simply slips away into the valley below:


Here the PRC guys who weren't allowed to board our bus caught up with us. They'd hired 2 motorbikes with riders willing to take them the entire distance to the Lao-China border crossing at Boten. Got moving again, only to have soil raining on us. An excavator on a hillside to our right was dumping its diggings onto the road & anything that passed by. Metres later we stopped to wait for the road to be made right before our eyes, as a bulldozer created a path for the bus. Fresh instant road on demand =)

Surreal as we neared Luang Namtha & abruptly found ourselves travelling on good quality paved road with gleaming traffic signs & painted lane markings. Mr Sichuan & Mr Yunnan proudly chirped '这是中国建的!' (this was built by China!), & pointed out the wooden structure that was Luang Namtha airport (under renovation, so not in use). Quick farewells at Luang Namtha bus station before they caught the last songthaew to Boten in order to reach Mohan by tonight:


The 190+ km of HWY 3 conquered in a record 7.5 hours =) Was told it usually takes upwards of 8 hours in the dry season, & 13 hours to 2 days during the rainy season!

[041107] UPDATE: Many many people have landed here while searching for info on the Huay Xai-Luang Namtha bus journey. The cat made this journey back in December 2006. As of October 2007 there have been reports of much shorter journey times of 3.5+ hours as construction work has been completed on most sections of HWY 3. The cat expects that in time to come, vehicle breakdowns will become the main limiting factor on travelling speed =P For more up-to-date info, check the Laos section of the Southeast Asia Mainland branch of the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum.

181206 Huay Xai to Luang Namtha part 3


Another breakdown (above), & everyone lunched at the only place with food:


Tiny, but well-stocked with the essential yellow crates of Beer Lao (above) + friendly meow + squid brand naam4 paa1 (fish sauce):


Stopped again (below) a short while after this round of repairs (above). Block of wood behind tyre = parking brake:


These stops served as toilet breaks, with men & ladies heading towards opposite ends of the bus, careful not to venture far from the road for fear of being blown up by UXO. All would later return to their original seat, assembling ourselves into the 3-D jigsaw puzzle that enables more than 30 passengers & their cargo to fit into an 18-20 seater bus. Plenty of opportunities for sharing food & laughter & much bonding among passengers, who would take care of those with motion sickness, ensure that no one got left behind at any stop, & even help repair the bus!

Brief stop was made at Vieng Phoukha to drop off a stack of wedding invitations. In rural Lao, people flag down passing buses/boats & hand over letters (or even verbal messages) to be passed to another village along the way. At the letter's destination the driver honks/yells for a villager to collect the item. Sometimes it isn't the letter's final destination, but just the village closest to the road/river, & whoever receives it there is trusted to get the item (in)directly to the intended recipient, who could be in a neighbouring village a few hours walk away. Trust-based postage-free pass-the-parcel-style door-to-door delivery system that rivals FedEx & UPS! =)

February 18, 2007

181206 Huay Xai to Luang Namtha part 2

After 5 breakdowns, the cat lost count:


2 years after the projected date of completion, China & Thailand have yet to finish constructing the highway. Think they started 10 years ago? But this is Lao PDR (Please Don't Rush) after all. The entire 190+ km stretch has been dug up, & is being paved bit by bit, leaving huge sections subject to heavy erosion & landslides. Hence the cat's initial impression of Lao:

Lao in a four-letter word = DUST
Lao in one colour = BROWN


Trees & plants along the unpaved sections probably survive by a unique mechanism whereby they photosynthesise only during the wet season, when rain helps them shed their thick opaque coating of dust.

Passing through villages along the way, the cat wondered why people had chosen to build their houses right next to the super dusty road. Until it realised that the houses were there long before the highway, which was constructed such that it tears right through the centre of many villages, splitting them apart...a sign of neighbouring countries' impatience to access (& strip bare) the coal & lumber resources of Bokeo province?

Mr Sichuan & Mr Yunnan would point out which sections were paved by China, in between endless '老挝人啊' (Lao people ah!) complaints about biased Lao officials & how undeveloped Lao is, & rants about how in China, buses like the one we were travelling in would long have been deemed un-roadworthy & scrapped. Funny how the cat once listened to people complaining about biased PRC officials & how undeveloped China was. & the cat thought Singaporeans were the ones who complained the most. Maybe it is a habit of most ethnic Chinese?

Mr Sichuan & Mr Yunnan also pointed out a huge 'lake' - a gigantic quarry abandoned after it flooded - as we passed by huge trucks laden with coal making their way towards the Thai border. When they heard that the cat's ancestors were from Fujian & Guangdong, they showed the cat their entry permits & said that China herself bans her own nationals from the 3 provinces most well-known for human trafficking (Fujian, Zhejiang & forgot-what-else) from crossing the China-Lao border (or any land crossings for that matter), in a bid to stem the outflow of illegal PRC immigrants to Western countries.

181206 Huay Xai to Luang Namtha part 1


Roof of the 09:00AM bus was full, so the remaining sacks, boxes & bags had to be passed through the windows & door & stacked on the last row of seats:


The 11:30AM bus was already being loaded, with a bunch of guys hauling a washing machine onto the roof with a piece of rope.

The 09:00AM bus filled up & ID cards/passports/entry permits were inspected. Huge argument as 2 PRC guys were not allowed to board. Lao officials insisted that they pay a fine & get some stamp on their entry permit at the immigration office in town...which they had already done earlier in the morning, & so they were upset at having to travel back & forth again & pay the fine a second time in order to leave Huay Xai.

Every bit of space was fully utilised. Those with seats had to sit with their feet resting on boxes stuffed beneath the seats, knees to chest or even chin. Those without seats sat on sacks of rice stacked in the aisle or stood on the steps at the door:

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10 minutes out of Huay Xai, a Yunnan guy filled up the space behind white windbreaker lady, sitting on the sack + white plastic bag of string beans + cat's soon-to-be-paralysed knees. The cat could no longer move its paws to take any more photos, & would later sit sideways instead of facing front, in order to have space for its feet. Wonder if Mr Yunnan boarded the bus outside of Huay Xai to avoid the Lao officials & entry permit inspection ;)

During the 8 hour ride the cat spoke in Chinese to Mr Sichuan on its right & Mr Yunnan in front, English to French lady #1 on its left (who would translate into French to French lady #2) & Mr German, & broken Thai to Mr Thai & girlfriend behind, with the Lao listening in & picking up whatever words they managed to understand. Dizzy-ingly surreal when everyone asked questions all at the same time & expected the cat to translate on the fly whatever they wanted to say to fellow passengers. Much like scenes from Asterix comics where characters of various nationalities interact, speaking in different languages represented by speech balloons with different fonts or symbols like this (Gothic) & this (Egyptian) (many examples to be found in Asterix the Legionary).

Essentials for surviving a Lao bus ride:


white baci string tied around wrist (left), super sweet orange juice imported from Thailand (middle bottom), steamed bamboo rice (upper right), & great sense of humour (not in picture).

February 17, 2007

181206 Huay Xai bus station

No longer next to the morning market approx 1.5-2km out of the town center (according to several guidebooks & maps), but waaayy further south along HWY 3, in the middle of nowhere. The government has been shifting bus stations (& markets) away from town centres, boosting the income of tuktuk & songthaew drivers & making poorer locals walk & push their heavy carts a long long way.

Figuring out which bus to take was easy as there isn't much of a choice. Only one proper highway out of Huay Xai - to Luang Namtha - & only 2 buses a day, when the driver thinks it is 09:00AM or 11:30AM, which might not be quite the same as what you think. This would be the only bus ride where full name, nationality & passport no. had to be recorded in English on the ticket:


At all other bus stations & boat offices, the following would happen without fail...

staff: seu1? (name?)
cat: (says cat name)
staff: ?!
cat: koi4 bpen1 fa1 lang1 (I am a farang)
staff: !! (scribbles something in Lao & hands over ticket)

Examples of the 'something in Lao':


From top to bottom:
  • [1 & 6] dtor3 dtaa3 (ต 'dt' for 'eye') - slash - thor2 thung2 (ท 'th' for flag), an abbreviation for dtaang1 bpa1 thet4 (lit. foreign)?
  • [2] dtaang1 bpa1 thet4
  • [3] phasaa angkit (lit. English language) - cat asked if khian2 pha1 saa2 ang1 kit2 dai4 bor4 (can write it in English?), & the staff responded by writing 'phasaa angkit' as its name HAHAHA!
  • [4] no idea
  • [5] khaek4 ying2 (lit. guest female)
The cat is interested in finding out what other names bus station & boat office staff across north Lao have given it in its collection of bus & boat tickets...hope none are rude ;)

181206 Chiang Khong - Huay Xai

Today's route:

Had planned a clockwise loop around north Lao:
  • everyone else seems to take the counterclockwise direction
  • easier to find boats heading downriver along the Nam Ou
  • leave Luang Prabang (& shopping) for the last
  • clear the infamous highway (HWY) 3 right at the start, so that all other roads in Lao would seem great by comparison =P
  • boats heading upriver along the Mekong are far emptier as most tourists travel downriver (which means downriver boats get all the touts, overcharging & overcrowding)
Chiang Khong immigration at the north end of town looks more like a ticket office - no gates, no fences, no barbed wire...just a short building that anyone can walk right past & hop on a boat to Lao (or even China) or on a bus to anywhere in Thailand. No one would realise till much later (if at all), at some river checkpoint or police roadblock. This hard-to-police section of the Mekong has become the latest escape route for North Koreans fleeing across China & north Lao into Thailand in order to seek UNHCR help & repatriation to South Korea.

immigration officer: 5 baht departure tax
cat hands him a 5 baht coin
immigration officer: no, you can go, your friend pay for you
*look right look left* Thank you but what friend...?!

Freakish...Mr. Immigration Officer has a 'third eye' that can see 'people' that are invisible to the cat's eyes...


Walked down the slope to the riverbank, past a pile of backpacks with Air Asia baggage tags marked CEI & a girl wearing a NTU Hall ? windbreaker, & was directed to an empty boat after handing over 20 baht.


Shan-style drum tower of Wat Chom Khao Manirat in Huay Xai on opposite bank:

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& then backpacks, windbreaker & their owners got on....

cat: are you from Singapore? from NTU?
NTU grads: yar how do you know? (said something about having graduated & started working)
cat: saw one of you wearing an NTU hall windbreaker.
NTU grads: are you from Thailand? how do you know about NTU?
cat: ?! am from Singapore too.
NTU grads: ?!! are you going to Laos to work?
cat: ?!!! am on holiday.
NTU grads: alone?
cat: yar. where are you heading to?
NTU grads: ?!!!! (said they were taking boat to Luang Prabang, & asked about the cat's plans)
cat: taking bus inland to Luang Namtha.
NTU grads: ?!!!!!

Huay Xai immigration:


30-day visa-free entry for khon singkarpor =) The little booth (with open window) on the left is a branch of the Lao Development Bank, where tourists can load up on thick rubberband-bound stacks of kip. Nearest ATM that can accept foreign cards is a long way off in Vientiane, & there is only one, which means it can run out of kip. (update: Luang Prabang & Vang Vieng reported to have new international ATMs that accept cards with Maestro logo)

Wonder why they bothered to paint the words 'BY AIR':


Huay Xai has no airport =P
(correction: Huay Xai has flights to Vientiane & Luang Prabang served by this type of plane, but few foreigners dare risk Lao Airlines' safety & maintenance record; before ~2001 Lao had no radar system for air traffic control & relied on Thailand, Vietnam, radio communication, daylight & good eyesight & visibility!)