May 06, 2007

221206 way off the banana pancake trail

Wandered into the compound of several ministries before finding the right government building with the provincial tourism office - a one room one man one mobile phone operation:


Housed in the building of the 'Organisation of the People Prosecutor Provincial Phongsaly Province':


Had a long chat with Mr SKST, a Luang Prabang native who speaks good English & was posted all the way here by the government to sit in this little room surrounded by posters of butterflies & beetles of Phou Den Din NBCA, a table & shelf full of information leaflets, a whiteboard plastered with 3R colour photos of locals from various ethnic groups & tourists in villages taken during treks, & another whiteboard with maps & details of multi-day treks in the province.

Mr SKST has been in Phongsaly for 4 years, & misses his family back in Luang Prabang, where his brother runs the Blue Lagoon cafe. In this time he seems to have built up a relationship with the people in the villages around Phongsaly, who will inform him whenever they are having some special celebrations that outsiders may join in, so that he can send interested tourists their way. He has picked up a bit of Akha language, & could explain a little about some of the Akha subgroups found in the province e.g. Pala, Nakui, Akui, Pusang, Oma & Muchi.

Nice thing was how Mr SKST would simply say that he didn't know when he wasn't sure about some fact. There are guides who don't bother to learn much about the ethnic groups that they bring tourists to visit. Some even respond with inaccurate information when asked about unfamiliar cultures, which can perpetuate stereotypes & offend some villagers. The cat is sick of hearing people saying things like 'Akha do not bathe at all', equating Lolo with barbarians, & describing Katang as 'stone age primitives'.

In this little office the cat got to meet just about every other tourist in town.

Mr & Ms Sydney were the Caucasian couple having dinner in Phongsaly Hotel the previous night, & were surprised to meet the cat here as they had thought it was one of the hotel staff. They had flown from Vientiane to Ban Boun Neua, not knowing how far out it was from Phongsaly town proper, & climbed up to the top of Phou Fa hill to catch this morning's sunrise. Both are trekking guides back in Australia & were here to sign up for a trek.

Mr French & Mrs Thai are a middle-aged couple from Bangkok who were also heading for Hat Sa to travel downstream on the Nam Ou river, albeit a day later than the cat. They were here to ask about the dates of the Hmong New Year celebrations, but Mr SKST had no clue - Phongsaly is one province in Lao where one can hardly find any Hmong. The cat told them about the celebrations it had seen from the Luang Namtha-Udomxai bus - if they were lucky they would still be able to catch it as it lasts for 12 days. A week later, the cat would run into them again in Luang Prabang, where they gave it directions to a good guesthouse in Pak Beng =)

A grand total of four others.

Phongsaly seems to be a good place to escape from the 'pounding the banana pancake trail' type of backpacker tourists doing the Chiangmai-Huay Xai-'backpacker ferry' slow boat-Luang Prabang-highway 13-Vang Vieng-Vientiane route, far from the fisherman's pants, 'happy pizzas' & 'happy shakes' ;)

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