Caught the bus from Chiang Rai north to the border town of Chiang Khong where we got our first glimpse of the mighty Mekhong river as we crossed over the border by long tail boat, landing in Houay Xai on the Laos side. After about 2 minutes it was clear the place was out to scam as much money from westerners as possible, from expensive bus tickets and guest houses to border guards charging an extra dollar overtime fee for the weekend (I wouldn’t be suprised if they have a sign saying $1 overtime fee for Monday, Tuesday etc etc!). We decided it would be best to take up the offer of an expensive, aircon minibus to Luang Namtha rather than hang around and get ripped off any further so off we set about 4pm in a luxurious minibus which we had been promised would be just for us and would take only 3-4 hours. Unsurprisingly we had barely made it down the high street before we had stopped for the driver to get out and talk to some people and have the tyres checked! This set the tone for the entire trip, stopping to pick up a couple of locals, then to go and visit a friend, then to pick up a rat for dinner (which was stowed in plastic bags on the floor), then to stop at his parents village to pick up some alive baby chicks which were stuck in the boot, then to stop and look at a bus that had crashed and rolled off the road down the mountain killing 2 people and injuring several others! It became apparent pretty quickly that things in Laos were a little different, more relaxed and slow paced so we sat back and enjoyed the show, took in the stunning scenery of forest covered mountains and took on the Laotian philosophy of “Baw Pen Nyang” (no problem) as we wound our way slowly towards Luang Namtha. We finally arrived, a couple of hours after sunset, tired but highly entertained with our bus journey and just in time for some lovely Laos style dinner in our lovely guesthouse (Zuela guest house) in the centre of town.
After a nice long sleep we wandered into the heat of the day to explore Luang Namtha town, which didn’t take long! Aside from a very long main street with trekking agencies, restaurants and guest houses, the town sprawls off in all directions into small ‘villages’ of traditional wooden huts and faded colonial buildings with cows and water buffalo wandering the streets. A bit of a funny town which seems to be modernising at a rate of knots because of the China-Thailand trade route that runs through it, leaving the rural people that live around and in the surrounding countryside looking even more contrasting to the modern town centre. Spent the evening wandering around the night market, essentially a large communal bbq with a couple of clothes stalls where everyone seemed to be going for dinner so we took the plunge and joined in to sample the delicious local wares – the buffalo kebabs with rice noodles and some kind of sauce went down a treat, as did the big bowl of vegetable and noodle soup, the large bottle of Laos Beer and the bbq’d bananas stuffed with coconut – all for a grand total of about 2 quid!! As was the case in Thailand, but much more so here, the old is mixed with the new everywhere with brand new pick up trucks and 4x4s sharing the roads with battered old tuk-tuks and farmers herding their cattle – an incredibly interesting, friendly place with tons of character which makes me really excited about seeing the rest of Laos and south east asia after that. once we’ve been through China! Off for an early night tonight after a glass of Lao Lao whisky to toast Rob’s birthday, up early for a bus to Jinghong in China – our 4th country in week!!