Friday, July 15, 2011

Day 69 - Redemption and Depravity in Laos!

I don't think I've ever been so uncomfortable in my entire life. My shoulders ache, I feel like I no longer have movement in my neck, my knees are killing me and this is all compounded my the fact that I feel like I've haven't been to the toilet in my entire life. I'm currently crammed on a minibus on my way to Udomxai.  There are seats for 20, but there are 28 of us on this bus. But, I'm one of the lucky ones. The man next to me doesn't even have a seat to sit on, he is perched on top of a bag of rice instead. But that's Laos transport for you.  I'm sure we are bound to pick up at least another two extra passengers before we reach our destination.

I've just left the town of Luang Namtha, and the journey there was a similar story, and I'm only just recovering from the lactic acid build up in my thighs from that one.  Luang Namtha was mostly a disappointment.  I had wanted to go into Northern Laos to get into the local food, do some trekking or kayaking, and escape the tourist trail.  However instead what we found were expensive (by Laos standards) guesthouses, annoyingly slow internet connections and very over-priced trekking offerinfgs. Luang Namtha felt like a town built on tourism, with one problem, it was empty.  There were barely any tourists around.  This is not the experience I was seeking.

Yesterday Luang Namtha redeemed itself a little however.  Our original plan was to hire a scooter and just generally ride around town whilst trying to suck any fun we could out of it. But after studying the map of the city once more, Tom came up with the idea that we could do a walk through some of the nearby villages instead, and perhaps we would stumble across something that inspired us.  Stumbled indeed we did, but let me explain first.

We set off from the town centre and made our way across a little (but surprisingly sturdy) wooden bridge over the river.  As we walked through a couple of small villages, I was (apparently rather annoyingly) pointing out every species of wildlife I laid my eyes on, from butterflies and dragonflies, to cows and baby chicks.  We soon found ourselves walking along a dusty track surrounded by rice padi fields on either side.  Once we reached the main road, not so helpfully named 3A, we took a left to make a loop back to town.  As we were walking along the main road in the searing hot sun, a friendly 'Sabai Dii' (that is hello in Lao) was called out to us from a small group of locals, we smiled, waved and returned the friendly greeting.  One of the men hand signed to us 'eat?'.  Tom and I looked at each other, 'Really? Should we?', 'Free lunch! It would be rude to refuse'. So there we were, eating lunch with the locals in the middle of a rice padi. Whilst enjoying a generous spread of sticky rice, bananas, papaya salad, boiled spinach and some sort of chilli paste, we explained in broken english we we're from, how long we are travelling for, and 'why you in Laos?'. Then, with the help of a 'Speak Lao' app on our iPhones, said our names and learned there's.  Who needs to pay US$75 a day for a 'cultural experience'? Not us.  Such a friendly and generous gesture gave us both a fresh outlook on the town, and we continued our walk with a bit more spring in our step.

A couple of kilometres from town we saw a big blue tent and one hell of a sound system set up, seemingly in the middle of the street.  With a refreshed perception of the locals, we decided to gate crash whatever this party was.  We snuck around the back and found ourselves being invited to take a seat at one of the many tables set up. Immediately plastic cups full of ice and Beerlao were thrust into our hands.  After a chat to some more of the very friendly locals, we learnt we were at a party to celebrate the birth of a baby.  These local guys spoke amazing English, I was thoroughly impressed. All the while having our cups overflowed with Beerlao, we introduced ourselves, and spoke mostly to a guy named Tag.  He'd just finished studying in Luang Prabang and worked for the electricity company as an engineer.  He earns just $1 million kip per month. Thats about AU$115. I was astounded. It hit home that Laos really is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Before we could protest, our drinks of ice and Beerlao soon had a new addition: Laolao, the local spirit.  Which is a nasty spirit let me tell you. I think Laolao could strip paint stripper! So feeling rather tipsy, we were invited by a cute local girl to 'please come and dance with me'.  We danced some traditional Lao dances and were introduced to a whole new group of locals, this time, law students. Again, they spoke impeccable English.  All the while more and more drinks were being forced upon us.  After politely refusing a number of times, and after I'd consumed far far too much alcohol, it was time for me to call it a day. I couldn't walk straight, think straight or see straight. It was time to throw in the towel.  Tom wasn't quite ready to leave yet, so I left him with some very cute Lao girls and walked in what I hoped was the direction of our guesthouse, leaving the blaring Lao music behind me.

It wasn't until I was a couple of hundred metres down the road that I realised Tom had the map and I really had no idea where the hell I was.  Drunk and lost in the boiling afternoon heat, I stumbled all the way to our guesthouse. I'm not really sure how the hell I found it actually, I kind of just turned a corner and there it was; I was overcome with relief.

I shall leave the story of the remainder of Tom's debauchery for him to tell, but I will say this; Tom busted into the guesthouse about 3 hours later, stumbled up against the wall, hiccupped and then said "We HAVE to leave tomorrow".

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