Luang Nam Tha
Other than Oudomxay, all bus stations in Laos seem to be approximately ten kilometres outside the city/town centre. If this was the case for London, you might think it a bit strange or inconvenient. But, when the 'centre' is still 95% fields, it really is hard to understand why they can never find a more appropriate place to position it. For every loser, though, there is always a winner. In this case it is the tuk-tuk drivers who can squeeze perhaps eight travellers and their luggage on the back of their little motorised wagons, charging 10,000kip (around a pound) a time, totalling a weekly wage for many Lao.
I joined a tuk-tuk of seven continental Europeans who mostly didn't know each other but who had met on a bus which had just arrived from Laung Prabang. Dropped off in the centre and looking around for somewhere to stay, I found myself being led around a corner with Laura, a Spanish girl, and Frederico, an Italian man. The place we were taken to was OK and reasonably priced though so we all checked in. I even got what could loosely be described as a suite.
Meeting up for dinner afterwards, most people wanted to sign up for a two-day trek into the countryside. Laura and I preferred the idea of hiring bicycles though. So, in the morning we got a couple of mountain bikes from a hire shop and tried to head towards Muang Sing. It was 58km away so we weren't sure if we could get there and back in a day but thought there would be some good things to see on the way. By the time the woman in the shop had sent us off in completely the wrong direction, we had gone 5km plus another 5km back again, so our range was even more limited.
The road was up and down all the way and the sun was hot. Which is basically further excuses why we didn't actually get very far. After about 18km, we stopped at a village with some nice views and parked the bikes by the side of a river. It was very tranquil and there was a constant supply of small children coming along to bathe and play. They were very interested in us and even more interested in our photos and guidebook. Each new picture we could show them was greeted with a loud "ooohhh!!!" which everyone joined in with, whether or not the picture was good.
Laura tried to take the communication a step further by finding 'useful' phrases from the Lonely Planet. They didn't understand a word of what she was saying, but this was probably just as well given that all she could find to tell them was 'Where is the bus station?' and 'This room is too much' etc.
We took a short walk up the hill on the other side of the river to see what it was that we had seen people of all ages going to and from. It turned out that a group of men were hard at work turning felled trees into practical planks of wood. The method of sawing, with two sharing the ends of a long saw, one standing underneath the wood and one above it, was curious but the results were admirably straight and accurate.
With the afternoon disappearing, we set off for the ride home. The chain on Laura's bike had been occasionally jumping on the ride out and I had already swapped with her, thinking that as the more experience cyclist I should be able to handle it better. But with me it skipped constantly and was quickly very difficult to ride. After only a couple of miles bad had gone to worse however as my rear tyre punctured so I had to get off and push.
Fortunately we were able to wave down a passing truck and ride along in the open back. Actually, this has been a secret ambition of mine for as long as I can remember, so I was as happy as a little child as we rode back into town.
After taking the bikes back, I went back to the guesthouse for a quick* shower before finding a place for an hour's massage. The woman was using some oil taken from a cup to rub into me. When she ran out and fetched a small bottle to refill the cup, I took the opportunity to see what the oil was. I was more than a little surprised to discover that she was rubbing hair tonic all over my body - is this normal?
My stomach had been in a rotten state since entering the country, something I put down to the malaria tablets. Laura told me she had some pills that would help and I took one before I went to bed. However, my problem was that I had diarrhoea. She had assumed that I was constipated so had given me a pill to dislodge the blockage. The result was that by the morning I was gushing like a bath tap.
The plan for the next day was the same as it had been for the day previous. The difference this time was that we hired a motorbike. The price was only about three pound fifty for a whole day, which was pretty good. We had to fill the petrol tank ourselves, but this cost a ridiculous 25,000 kip, which is only about two pounds fifty! Granted, it was just a small tank (as we would discover before the end of the day), but even so, bargain!
My limited experience of driving a motorbike had been disastrous, so we had hired this thing on the condition that Laura was confident she could control it while I rode on the back. Initially I doubted her confidence when she was about to drive off and pointed at one lever and asked what it was. "That's the brake" the man from the shop told her. As we rode out of town she shouted back to me that she was pretty disappointed at how slow it was. At this point the same man, who had decided to follow us down the road for a while, pulled us over to explain to her that she was still in first gear...
Teething problems dealt with though and we were doing fine. My helmet was a bit loose and kept blowing back on my head but the clip on the strap was weak and kept coming off when I tried to tighten it so I had to put up with it. Laura's helmet was initially loose as well so she asked me to push it forward for her. I accidentally pushed it too far though, completely covering her eyes and she cried out in panic before bringing us to a halt to adjust it herself.
The road took us past our previous day's village and further onwards. At one point we stopped by a sign for a waterfall and took a few minutes to walk through the woods to give it a look. It wasn't very big but was the first I had seen on my travels so I took the time to admire it and take it all in.
After two hours on the bike, we reached Muang Sing by lunchtime and got something to eat. We soon realised that there wasn't really much else to do there though. We walked down to the tourist information and, after they had returned late from their lunch, asked if there were any good places around to ride to to take a walk. The man recommended going north towards some of the villages nearer the Chinese border. We asked if there was somewhere we could see elephants but this question was every bit as naive as we made it sound and he just laughed at us and said 'no'.
Riding again there wasn't a whole lot more to see. Before we reached Muang Sing was had passed checkpoints on the road a couple of times. We had slowed down but no one had been interested in us so we just carried on. Now we came across another checkpoint so this time we didn't even bother slowing down and carried on at full speed. Suddenly soldiers burst out of the building and shouted after us to stop. It turned out that this was the Chinese border, not even a public border, and we had come to a sudden halt just a few yards before the white line on the road. I don't know how much further we could have gone before they opened fire, but it would have been an undeniably cool way to die; gunned down by soldiers whilst on a speeding motorbike racing across the international border between two communist countries.
Coming back we tried to ride along an off-road track but it soon became too rough and the sun was too strong for me to sit out in if we wanted to use it as a nice place to rest. We went back to and through Muang Sing to begin the ride south to Nam Tha. Shortly after we began, I noticed that the petrol guage was looking pretty low, but Laura insisted that it had been half-full when we were at a standstill. She also claimed to have seen a petrol station earlier which we could fill up at further down the road. It turned out she was wrong on both counts.
After stopping for an hour in the shade near what we had thought to be another waterfall, the petrol continued to disappear faster than the distance. By halfway back, with another 30km still to go, the pin was already rested firmly on empty. We carried on, because we had no choice, looking out in vain around each corner for the petrol pump that never appeared. Finally, we coasted to a halt right alongside the 10km milestone**.
I pushed it up the next hill and we were able to coast back down the other side before stopping at a village by the 9km stone where we asked a man with his own motorbike if he could help. We tried to explain our problem and asked if he might have some spare petrol that we could buy. It turned out that he didn't but we were able to convince him to ride into town to fetch some for us. While we waited, we began exchanging waves with a couple of the village children who soon turned into a group of fifteen. We spent at least twenty minutes jumping up and down performing silly dances for them which they tried to copy. Perhaps a new career as a Lao children's entertainer beckons for me?
We had heard of a nightclub in town frequented by the locals. We were both exhausted after dinner but were intrigued to know what a small-town Laos nightclub looked like. We followed some vague instructions for a while, with the intention of just popping in for a few minutes, but all we could find were quiet back streets so walked back to the hotel.
Laura left early the next morning to head towards the Vietnam border. I planned to have a quiet day resting body and stomach, but took a walk to look at a couple of wats (monastries) in the south end of town. Luang Nam Tha is actually two towns separated by half a dozen kilometres, so I had to walk down the long road in the hot sun to get from the north to the south. I couldn't find the first -place, although in retrospect I did see it but didn't realise what it was. I did get to walk around some village-like areas and rest by the riverside for an hour as I looked around. I found the second wat much more easily, but it took about two minutes to take a couple of photographs of the front and that was about all there was to do there.
I booked a ticket at the tourist agency that evening for a bus the next morning to Luang Prabang. My stomach was still feeling pretty bad and I wasn't looking forward to eight more hours on the twisty roads, so I asked them if I could reserve a seat at the front. They assured me that this would be no problem and scribbled a note on the back of my ticket-reservation slip. The next morning at the bus station ticket office, the man there also assured me that it would be no problem, but the bus driver was having none of it and by then it was mostly full so I took a place at the far back corner and settled down for another long ride.
* - it's all relative
** - yeah, I know, but what do you want me to call it? A kilometre stone? The 6.3 milestone?