As I headed into northern Laos, things got more and more remote. I went a week without seeing a car. Nong Khiew, and everything I saw afterwards was real Laos. Vang Viene was a backpacker bubble. Vientiene and Luang Prabang were cities, with roads that had street signs. Nong Khiew had women skinning chickens outside their store, 8 year-olds fishing with a stick, a mesh bag and weights. 60 year old ladies were carrying more than their body weight on their head and back.
Watch This - There are no roads from Nong Khiew to Muang Nhoi, only a longtail boat. On board I struggled to use the laws of physics to find a reason why the boat wouldn’t tip over from the tiniest obstacle. The boat was 3 feet wide by 40 feet long, the driver sat up front, controlling the rutter with pieces of string pulled back and forth. Everytime someone got on or off, we had to readjust the weight as the boat wobbled. The wakes of the passing boats made me worry about the security my backpack - all my possessions on this side of the world.
the reward for the boat ride was a few days of sitting on hammock in Muang Nhoi. Everything was cheap and the pace of life was slow. Everything in Muang Nhoi was on the main street. The dusty road took about 5 minutes to walk from end to end (even at my pace).
My next destination was Ban Na village. Walking past forests and workers laboring on rice paddys, I left my hammock, with all my 30 pounds of belongings. 2 hours later, I was greeted with a Laotian smile and a menu. I gladly sat down and massaged the part of my shoulders supporting my pack. The menu was quite extensive considering where I was. “I’ll take a mango shake and barbecue beef” “baabeque beef no have” replied the lady, holding her 3 year old son. “How about chicken curry” “No have” “Chicken chow mien” “No have”. This game went on for a while, until I asked what they DO have. My pancake and vegetables would have been mediocre, but I had to wait an hour and a half for her to walk (or stroll) to the other side of the village to get fire wood, light up the grill etc. My pancake and vegetables were fantastic.
Ban Na was tiny. And removed. Every water bottle, every toothpaste bottle, every bag of cement had to carried from Muang Nhoi. While the men worked in the fields, the woman walked back and forth. Old fragile women, walking 2 hours, carrying more than I was.
On my third day at the village I decided to walk to the next village over to check out the waterfall. 3 hours there. 3 hours back. One second I walking down the steep muddy trail. The next second I was on my back, on the steep muddy trail. Lying on the ground I realized how I was from medical care. 2 hours walk back to Ban Na. 2 more hours walking to Muang Nhoi. An hour boat ride to Nong Khiew. A windy 4 hour ride back to Luang Prabang. Then a plane ride to Vientiene or Bangkok. Sometimes I write things to make my parents nervous.
When I got back to Ban Na, everyone was in a good mood. A guy shot a water buffalo, and for the first time in a while there was meat at the village. I got my BBQ beef.
To get to Luang Nam Tha, I had to take a bus from Nong Khiew. Above the ticket shack, there was a faded sign, well actually it was a 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper taped to the wall, that said “NK to Luang Nam Tha 40,000” (1 dollar=8600 kip) Of course, since it was a slow day and there were only 3 westerners, they tried to charge us 70,000. Only when they started loading the minibus with rice, wood, and locals, did we get the price that they advertised. We switched buses halfway through, this time we fit 40 people into 25 seats. I had a 4 inch stool in the aisle. I felt all 4 hours of bumps in the road. I don’t think Laotian buses are built with shocks. Also, it was funny how they didn’t try to charge us less if the bus was more than capacity.
On our trek to an Akha village our guide let us in on all kinds of local knowledge “we make tea out of this root when you get sick. We use this tree to dye your clothes red, and eat this bark to stop constipation” We were constantly eating different berries and leaves. We even saw a tree that smelled like tiger balm "icy hot"