Muang Sing to Luang Prabangvia Xieng Kok - Sunday 23 November -Monday 1 December 2008
The drive up to Muang Sing (MS) was again very scenic winding through the hills passing indigenous villages. The town itself is not wildly exciting but has a few nice colonial type houses contrasting with the majority which are traditional Lao wooden ones. Perhaps not surprisingly as we are now pretty close to the China, the people look more Chinese in terms of dress and outfits. We passed one villages using small stocky horses for transporting goods -very Mongolian looking.
MS is a centre for many indigenous peoples -predominantly the Akha who can be recognized by the ladies' lovely elaborate headdresses -decorated with French and Indian coins.
There is a noticeable Chinese presence in the town with a great many vehicles having Chinese number plates. We drove out the 10km to the Chinese border at Boten and there was a constant flow of huge trucks laden down with sugar cane going across the border. The MS area is historically one of the biggest producers of opium and rumour has it that the odd kilo finds its way in amongst the cane ..but we couldn't really comment! The border is Laos/Chinese only so we just had a look around the outside.
Driving across China has finally been crossed off our agenda - it is just too expensive - lowest quote was approx $1,000 USD a day ..I think there are too many people to pay off. You can greatly reduce the costs by teaming up with other vehicles which is a question of timing and we really can't hang around. We are really keen to see India before the real heat of summer -so on this occasion this border is as close as we'll get to China…anther trip! We plan to drive back down to Malaysia and ship from Port Klang to Chennai in mid January. Anyway we got some pictures of the rolling hills of China which will have to suffice for now!
Opium addiction has long been a very real problem in this area -particularly amongst the hill tribe people - one in 10 of the Akha are addicts. This obviously causes problems mainly lack of productivity and thus food for the families. There has been an extensive project to try and help this. Posters are everywhere for "The Planting Project Replace of Poppy" to try and get the villagers to plant other crops. It does seem to be working to a certain extent -apparently a few years ago opium dens were everywhere but we didn't see any - though we were offered opium 3 or 4 times.
The problem is the villagers often re-settle on the lowlands as there is little financial incentive to say in the mountain regions without the cash crop of opium. This puts pressure on space so not every family can get their own land and most of them are forced to work as labourers for farmers for very poor wages. Opium addiction remains a problem and the villages have "rehab" areas though you don't really see it..the big visible drug of choice is the far more harmless betel nut and the evidence of this -red spit -can be seen everywhere!!
The people here are certainly poor -amongst the poorest in the world statistically- but they do seem happy. When you visit the villages you always get greeted by big smiles and invited into homes. They have nothing but everyone seems able to get enough to eat ..it isn't the grim city centre sort of poverty of say Jakarta or Phonm Penh.
The town is ringed with many villages and we visited a few and then went to the tribal museum which had some interesting displays of local costumes/artefacts. There are many tribes in the area but not all of them still wear their costumes. The Akha are by far the most populous and seems to retain their lovely head dresses even if (sometimes, in the young particularly) the remainder of their clothes are modern. On one visit to a village we found an old man mending his bike. He was on a losing wicket as the chain was not going to fit so we went into town had a look round the market and came back with a new one and Andrew got his tools out and fitted it. This was a real crowd puller especially when the power tools came out to cut the old chain!! We realized we'd started something when 3 or 4 other villagers dragged out their bikes ..which were very much dead and looked liked they'd never go again..and asked us to repair them! We sneaked away when everyone was crowding around the newly repaired bike!
We had found out that a twice monthly market at Xieng Kok on the Myanmar border (about which more later!) was to be held in a couple of days so we decided to wait for this. The temperature was pleasant and sunny during the day but pretty chilly at night ..I am pleased I brought 1 pair of jeans from Margi's (where a lot of our stuff is in storage) and I am wearing them to death. Andrew wasn't so foresighted and is back to the long socks and shirts look once more -style icon that he is!
Whilst out at the Chinese border we spotted a sign for the aptly named Mountain Over Look Guesthouse …set on a hill with a beautiful clear view over the hills to China. We investigated and met Vern a Laos man who has returned to run the guesthouse having lived for years in America. Vern and his family (William Tiffany and baby May) made us very welcome and we camped up there for a couple of nights. We very much enjoyed sitting around the open camp fire at nights. Vern runs the property as a farm growing bananas, oranges paw paw and rubber trees as well as jothnopa the plant it is hoped will help save the planet by helping make bio diesel. We would recommend it as an unspoilt place to stay, details of which are in the local tourist office. If you make it this way it's the only guesthouse right next to the border you can't really miss it.
One of the young indigenous boys who help out and live at the farm shocked us one morning. Everywhere we had seen kids (some tiny) with sling shots. He disappeared with his and re-appeared with 2 tiny beautiful green birds which he proceeded to cook over the fire!
We had had a similar experience on the way down, a local waved us down holding a wild cat ..looked like a raccoon with a lovely stripy tail. He was trying to sell it to us, but got all camera shy on us (perhaps it is illegal?) when we went to take a picture, so Andrew held it up for our picture. We had hoped to buy it and set it free but it was all too late for that by the time we got there! It is a bit shocking but I guess it is the way these people have always lived and at least they are killing to eat rather than for illegal trafficking (of which more later!)
Before we left there was an interesting festival in town in the golden wat ..though we never quite got to the bottom of what it was about! The area is big on monks ..particularly young ones and you see them everywhere going to school, cycling & playing soccer in their robes.
Due to the climate they wear orange woolly hats with their robes here which are very cute! From what we gather the festival was about making (ordaining?) new monks.
As you walked in the temple there were beds laid out down one side and little boys (10 ish) all dressed and made up lay around. It was all a little bit odd to me to be honest! Lots of ladies (mums of new monks?) were there and they made us very welcome giving us food and opposite were men (dads?) who seemed to be collecting money. The lady we asked kept saying "new Buddha" ..we guess she meant monks - all a bit unusual
We drove on the 72 km to Xieng Kok (XK). On the first go we stopped to get fuel and managed to lose the petrol cap which was a costly time consuming mistake as we couldn't find it …so having said goodbye to Vern et al ..we once more returned! Next morning we set out early with more success! The drive was a bit bumpy but interesting, once more scenic views and indigenous villages everywhere!
XK is right on the Myanmar border and near China so it has long been a big centre for trade between these 3 countries and Thailand. We had hoped the market would have a lot of indigenous handicrafts but it mainly comprised cheap plastic Chinese goods which the indigenous people wanted to buy. We picked a lovely camp spot right down on the banks of the Mekong and this plunged us right into the thick of the action.
After a chilly night (wearing more clothes in bed than out of it now!) we woke to blasting fog horns, peering through the mist we could see a light and then a huge barge appeared through the shroud of fog and tied up on the beach. By the time we got up there was a huge crowd -largely indigenous ladies- gathering on the shore. The tribal people sell their labour to the Chinese and Myanmar traders.
They unload the boats carrying huge loads of goods up the banks and restacking in lorries at the top. We went for a wander around the market - the rice wine store had a huge crowd even at 8am!- and returned to relax and read our books in the sun. This is when we realized what a huge job these ladies had on.
All day long they were up and down with huge loads on their backs- young ladies from 12 to old ones of around 70 and some of the loads were incredible.
It made us feel awkward sitting there watching but there was no way I could even balance walking up the narrow path. We wished we had the Ute in its original state -before renovation-so we could help but it might not have been welcome as they were paid by the boat owners per load and so keen to do as many as possible. We set up some shade for a rest area for the workers with our tarp and provided water from our tank our water filter being a real crowd pleaser!
Amazingly be the end of the day it was all gone -including 12 or so fridges which were each carried up by 2 ladies..incredible!!
Xieng Kok was a remote sort of place and certainly not a gourmet paradise. We disproved the old adage "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" as in XK you can - the omelet we ordered was …well just fried onions and tomatoes -not an egg in sight!! The next day we ordered omelets with egg…and it was actually very good ..a bit like scrambled egg …it pays to be very specific here!!!
Due to its proximity to a) international borders and b) opium this market was once much frequented by drug smugglers. I'm sure it still goes on but we actually witnessed some different shady dealings. A barge arrived in the early hours next morning (from China we think it left before we got up) and some boxes were unloaded. Andrew wandered over whilst I was getting ready and the guys were very unfriendly and didn't want him to see them. We saw them again later and they were repacking crates full of live animals -we caught glimpses of what looked like turtles and perhaps something like armadillos-though not sure that they have them here - long scaly creatures anyway- some sort of lizard? They definitely didn't want us to get a good look. The local police man was around throughout so no doubt he was getting a cut. Poor animals they'll probably be dead before they get anywhere from the stress of it all. We took their vehicle number and plan to tell WWF but doubt it'll do any good!
Heading back west we camped at the river town of Luang Nam Tha. We found a great spot out at Ban (or village) Nam Di. This was a small village set on the river and very close to a nice waterfall.
The villagers were very welcoming and allowed us to camp (and importantly share their fire..it's freezing again!) for a small fee. The village is renowned for making paper out of bamboo pulp. They soak it in barrels and then spread the pulp out to make rustic sheets of paper - though none was at the "spreading out" stage when we visited so we had to just look in the barrels!
The paper is much prized by the handicrafts industry. The village was also a centre for silk weaving and I bought a scarf ..you can see my "before and after" picture, the finished product laid out on the initial raw material! Thankfully we'd once more been to the stationery store and the village kids were thrilled with their books and pens and drew us lots of pictures.
On the way out we drove to the hill top and saw the new golden Buddhist temple currently being constructed as we'd been catching interesting glimpses of it from down below. It will be a beautiful building, we looked inside where it is still being constructed and the acoustics were incredible.
We drove on back through the windy mountain roads to arrive once more at Udomxai. This time we found a nicer camp spot down by the river and rugged up once more for a foggy chilly (7 degrees) night! As at today which is (amazingly!!) the 1st of December Andrew is off seeing mechanics ..the car was making a clicking noise going up the steep hills yesterday and we want to get to the bottom of it before driving on ..and I am holed up in a café as we once more have internet access (hurrah!!!) so I am updating my news. Tomorrow we head south for the city of Luang Prabang one of our final destinations in Laos.