After filling ourselves with some grub at a noodle shop, we head to Jungle Eco-trek for our day trip to some villages in Luang Namtha at 8:00am. The friendly guy from last night is there and so is our driver/guide for the day. How we will manage with Oleg on a bike and me and the driver/guide on a motorbike, I don’t know. Perhaps, we’ll tie Oleg behind us and drag him along.
While the driver/guide take Oleg to the rental place to choose his bike, I go back to the hotel for some last-minute toilet necessities. By the time I return, Oleg had chosen his bike, been given a Hobo Map, and the motorbike is ready.
“No helmet?” I ask.
“It’s okay,” the driver/guide replies.
“I won’t go if there’s no helmet.”
Driver/guide gets off the bike, goes to a shelf in the shop and comes back with a helmet designed not to protect your skull should you come flying off the motorbike. I swear, the plastic trash bin in the hotel room would have been better protection. I put out my hand to get it but the driver/guide wears the helmet instead.
“None for me?”
He merely grins. Oh well. I guess should we meet an accident, what good is a safe passenger with a dead driver, huh?
Our first stop is the market to buy our lunch. Oleg misses the turn and heads straight down the highway to only God knows where. Driver/guide asks me get-off so he can chase Oleg down. They soon return a few minutes later and we are off again to the market on a convoy.
We find a place to park the bikes. Oleg asks help from the driver/guide to lock his to a small tree. “Give me your lock,” he asks. He then proceeds to lock the motorbike instead. I laugh and tell the puzzled and aghast Oleg that perhaps people would be more interested in stealing a motorbike than a mountain bike.
We wander down the aisles looking at the food stuffs while driver/guide buys our lunch. I find Oleg on a stall selling dessert “soups” and I join him. The driver calls us and we’re back on the bike.
From the market we proceed to a temple on top of a hill and reached by naga stairs. The crumbling ancient stupa is all that remains but there is a newer temple topped with a gleaming roof. It is very quiet and there are no monks around. In one corner of a small wooden cottage is a large drum used to announce prayers.
We stop at a small H’mong village. There is no one there except for a few children playing on the dusty field, some women, and chicken running recklessly around. The wooden houses are small and have thatched roofs. Rice storage huts look like houses but much smaller and built on stilts to keep out animals.
Leaving the village, we take on dusty roads. It’s a little ridiculous as we move along. Seeing the inconvenience should Oleg lose his way, we move at a snail’s pace until Oleg comes to sight and then we move a little faster. Between the clear blue skies and the dusty earth, there is no one else but us. We soon come to a stream which we have to wade through. I have on my all-terrain/rive shoes so I simply cross.
The dusty road leads us to the Lao village of Pya Ngam where we stop at a road-side store in front of a relatively large concrete house. I am glad to give my butt a break.
Our driver greets a plump woman who I guess owns the house and the shop. They seem to know each other quite well as they engage in animated conversation. She goes inside the house and comes back with a small steel round bowl filled with a what I first thought was a block tofu.
She wipes it with a cloth and then proceeds to cut half of it, takes it out of the bowl and puts in a plastic container filled with tap water. She then proceeds to cut-it into thick strips.
The strips are placed in round ceramic bowls and poured with a thin reddish syrup made of the fruit of the tamarind tree. She hands the bowls to us and we thank her. We are about to eat kao som, a local snack.
A bowl of chili and a bottle of msg are placed before us and we are instructed to put as much or as little as we want, depending on our preference. Driver/guide puts a lot. I am mover conservative and I just a put a little chili and totally I skip the msg as having Chinese restaurant syndrome while on the back of a motorbike and without a helmet, at that, isn’t exactly a good idea.
The taste is weird as the sourness of the tamarind syrup contrasts sharply with the chili paste. The strips of rice flour have the consistency of a rice cake and the taste of paper. Driver/guide seems to enjoy it. One bowl is enough for me.
At the doorway to the house, a woman is pounding and mixing chili into paste.
The village seems quite wealthy by Lao standards as there are lots of concrete houses and stores. Driver/guide hands the woman some money but she refuses to take it. They must be good friends.
We are back on dusty roads again and make our way to a small village where some women are distilling the local fire water known as lao-lao.
Made from the fermented sticky rice and distilled in large metal drums, this is kiss-ass liquor. One single sip and I decide I would never put my lips and throat to it. Really really strong.
The Paper People
Crossing a small bridge that spanned a stream, we come upon a Lanten woman making paper from bamboo pulp. We stop and watch.
She pours some whitish mixture from a plastic container on to the surface of large screens. Once finished, she takes the screen and props it up to dry under the sun. Already, a few screens were drying. She takes one, puts it on the wooden stand and starts to pry the paper loose with a blunt instrument. The paper is off-white and rough in texture. Apparently, paper-making from bamboo is an old-age craft of the Lanten, identified with their indigo clothing.
From the stream, we head a little uphill where another woman is drying some cotton threads under the sun.
A few meters onwards and we parkour bikes by the entrance to Ban Nam Dy waterfall. A short path along the forest leads us to the waterfall. It isn’t very pretty and looked like any other waterfall. The concrete paths and some trash added to the not-so-pretty look.
Driver/guide prepares our lunch at the viewing deck. Out comes the food he had bought at the market earlier —- grilled tilapia, sticky rice, bamboo shoots, and some other vegetable dish, and bananas. I didn’t like the vegetables very much as they were soggy.
We rest a bit then head back to the parking lot. Oleg is telling driver/guide that it is only close to 1pm and perhaps there areother places we could go to as it is too early to be heading back. I don’t really hear much of the conversation as I am too full with the sticky rice. I leave them behind as I make my way up back to the motorbike.
Abducted to Muang Sing
Perhaps I was just getting paranoid. The driver had said that we still had a H’mong village to get to. From the road to Ban Nam Dy, we turn to an asphalt road. It is windy and cold and there is not much traffic on the road. We had been going for about 10 minutes when driver/guide stops and wait for Oleg to catch-up.
“What are you doing,” he asks.
“What am I doing? I’m following you,” Oleg answers.
Driver/guide shakes his head.
I sense a little irritation.
We drive on. We are going too fast for my comfort especially since it would be impossible for Oleg to catch-up with us at that speed. I begin to feel uneasy. Earlier, on the uphill road to Ban Nam Dy, driver/guide had told Oleg that he was too slow. Indeed, he was. We had to stop and wait for him several times but he really couldn’t help himself as he was on pedal power while we were on motor. I could sense then that driver/guide was getting a little irritated with Oleg. Perhaps he wanted to speed on. Perhaps it was when Oleg missed the turn-off to the market that the driver/guide realized it was a mistake to be guiding someone on a bike while he was on a motorbike. Perhaps he wasn’t happy with us.
Whatever it was, I knew there is something not good taking place.
We continue up the winding asphalt road. Forest-cloaked cliffs line the other side. It is then that I notice the little white asphalt road signs that tell you how many kilometers left there is to Muang Sing. As the numbers drop, I realize we are heading to the direction of Muang Sing!
I banish the thought. Perhaps, he’s bringing us to village, I thought as I had overheard Oleg asking about villages near Maung Sing. As the numbers continued to drop, I knew I was not going to take chances heading to Muang Sing which was more than 50 kilometers away. I had traveled almost 60 kilometers in Rattanakiri in northeast Cambodia on a motorbike and it wasn’t really much but there was someone with us on bike!
I take advantage of an uphill curve to ask him to stop.
“Where are we going?”
“Huh? No. “
“Yes. We go to Muang Sing. You pay for motorbike and for accommodation.”
“No. We go to Muang Sing tomorrow on a trek. We don’t want to go to Muang Sing.”
“No, we go to Muang Sing.”
“Isn’t it too far? How many hours to Muang Sing.”
“One and a half by motorbike and five hours by bike.”
“Too far. How will Oleg return?
“He bike in the dark.”
“No. We’re not going to Muang Sing. We go back to Luang Namtha.”
A lump forms on my throat. I knew that my returning to Luang Namtha in one piece was dependent on this guy. On him and him alone. I look around me and see what looks like some sort of a shop with a parked tractor and a middle-aged guy fixing something on the yard. “At least there’s another person here I could ask for help should I need to”, I thought.
I try to maintain my composure and ask him again where we’re headed to.
“You from Philippines. We go to Philippines,” he tells me.
I want to scream. I’m glad I have the number of the tour agency on my phone. I am tempted to call them.
By this time, Oleg had crept up the hill and stopped.
“Did you tell him to go to Muang Sing?
“Coz he says we’re going to Muang Sing.”
“I think he’s trying to be a tough guy. It’s too early to go back to the town so I think he’s killing time.”
Oleg turns to driver guide.
“Will you be able to bring back my bike to Luang Namtha if we go to Muang Sing?
“Going to Muang Sing is out of the question,” I try hard not to scream.
I turn to driver/guide.
“We go back to Luang Namtha.”
“No, I don’t want to go back to Luang Namtha. I live in Luang Namtha. I want to go Muang Sing.”
“We don’t want to go to Muang Sing. We go back to Luang Namtha,” my voice rises a bit.
“Bring us to Luang Namtha or I will call the tour agency.”
“Ok, let’s go.”
I turn to Oleg and whisper, “I don’t trust him anymore.”
I make him turn his bike around before I get on. Thankfully, we proceed down the road. We make a slight detour at the turn-off to Ban Nam Dy. There are a few wooden houses with thatched roofs and a hanging bridge. He gets off the bike and points to the bridge.
“You cross the bridge to Luang Prabang.”
Thinking there might be a village on the other side, I cross but turn back when I get to the middle and see no village but a dirt track instead. Some kids cross and I just take pictures of them.
We are back on the road and by this time, I had taken note of every landmark to ensure that we were really headed back to the town.
I heave a sigh of relief when familiar structures appear and we finally arrive at Jungle Eco-trek.
Oleg asks for a refund as it is only 3pm which, based on number of hours of the tour, was less than a day. Driver/guide and the agency guy confer with each other. The agency guy asks me if I still want to go the village I had earlier asked about with driver/guide but I decline. Oleg insists of being refunded half the money we paid. Agency guy punches some numbers on the calculator and says he can give us $5 back. Oleg insists on $10. Agency guy explains that they have fixed costs such as bike rental and prices they paid the villages. Oleg insists. Agency guy punches some numbers and offers $7. Oleg settles.
Me? I couldn’t really care. The amount isn’t really much and the only reason we finished early was we didn’t spend too much time in the villages. Yeah, the tour wasn’t that exciting though we did see some interesting stuff, notably the lao-lao making and the paper making. Oleg did admit that he found the tour interesting and that the guide was okay but it still was under-time. Oh well. I think he was more interested in the length of the trip rather than the experience.
I don’t know why other than jokingly saying that driver/guide was bringing us to Muang Sing, I didn’t voice out my apprehension about it— that I felt he was really short of abducting us to Muang Sing. Maybe I was just too relieved to be back or something about being in familiar grounds suddenly made me doubt my own feelings. Maybe I was just being paranoid.
We are given our $7 each and in true genuine Lao friendliness, agency guy hands the receipt with the phrase “Return the fund” written on it with a large smile and a big, “Thank you, come again.”
I am happy to be out there and a little sorry for the $14 loss especially since the agency guy is really friendly and smiley.
I take a quick shower at the hotel then head to Aisha, a simple Indian restaurant run by an Indian married to a local. Food is delicious and only cost 31,000 kip for a Palak Paneer with tofu , and the biggest Garlic Roti and Stuffed Naan I’ve ever had. By the time I had wiped my fingers with the cotton checked napking, I had forgiven driver/guide.