Friday 28th September
We exited China at the Mohan border and crossed into Laos at Boten. The process into Laos was pretty straightforward. We purchased our visas at the border (27$ each) and a 1$ tourist tax. We had a minor dispute about their wanting to use our carnet to enter with the car. We relented in the end and then they stamped the exit box instead of the entrance box! In theory this means we could lose our vehicle bond. But we assume if they stamp the entry box on exit, with the correct date, that we will be ok.
The border town itself was pretty messy and was undergoing a much needed road project. Leaving the border was tricky as it was difficult to tell which was a road building project track and which was the road! There were just a series of massive holes in the dusty red soil, which spread out over an area the size of a football pitch plus stadium!
We opted to follow the massive transport vehicles in the hope that they were not just delivering more aggregate for the road building! Somewhere in front of us, were Matthieu and Melody who had opted to enter Laos with us. Before we left the border town, beyond the mud and dust exiting the border crossing, we found various Sim Cards and cash in the rather fine new buildings in massively disrupted Boten. As we bumped and lurched our way through, Jim muttered about Chinese investment into roads in neighbouring countries and other building projects which were beyond the levels of affordability for countries like Laos. It was all going to end in tears. Or at least default on unaffordable loans.
Thanks to Melody’s prior researches, we had our sights set on reaching the nearby village of Luang Namtha where we hoped to stop for the night and have a day of doing nothing! It was not long before we found ourselves tucked in behind their Landrover, and they were quietly simmering after a further border control point out of town had torn a page out of their carnet and stamped two more entries! In theory they would potentially be losing their expensive bond! (You can only be stamped once on exit and they will need to try and get three exit stamps.)
This unfortunate occurrence was good for us, because the customs guards were so upset at having messed up Matthieu and Melody’s carnet, that they waved us through with no more stamps! Phew.
On arrival at Luang Namtha, we found ourselves back on a traveller route. There were lots of little shops offering walks, tours, rafting and bike hire. There was also the Bamboo Cafe, an enterprise employing local minority ethnic staff, who had been trained to wait, cook and serve. We were able to get really nice food and I opted for a lovely salad and banana cake pud.
We had linked up with M&M for lunch and after we parted again, Jim and I cast around for a place to stay. We found Zuela hostel, a cheap wooden chalet style set up, with an adjacent cafe. When we booked in, we found that M&M had found it too!
The following day, determined to separate and get on with our trip, Jim and I decided to set out and reach the Nam Keo waterfall which was ‘slightly’ off our route. As we drove on and on down increasingly pot hole filled roads, it became clear that the waterfall visit was going to take all day, and we had not packed food! We passed through small villages and the road weaved up through the hills and every opening of flat ground was full of yellowing rice paddies full of lush vegetation. It was stunning to see.
We eventually abandoned Landy next to a new Buddhist temple complex tucked away in the jungle in the protected Eco Sustainability forest. Jim met the monk in charge, and discovered that it had been funded largely from an Illinois doner in 2012.
We then set out on foot on an unmarked path up through rubber plantations with little plastic pots tied round the trunks to catch the smelly rubber sap which found itself collected weekly and piled in gelitinous smelly piles by the roadside for collection and visibly growing lush overhanging jungle undergrowth.
We could hear a waterfall, but after a couple of hours of sweaty uphill slog, with the waterfall constantly to our right, but barred by a tree covered ravine, we declared the outing over and walked back to the car, never reaching the waterfall.
Although the sky was darkening, the rain had held off until we returned to Landy, but when we reached the road to return again to Luang Namtha we realised that rain here had turned the red dust into red muddy rivulets which bordered the road, and the many potholes were now full of water.
Most of the roadside was covered in lush jungle vegetation but bordering the road were massive vertiginous escarpments covered in vertical vegetation. There were regular large steep red gashes roadside signs of the many landslides that had recently been cleared from the narrow roadway tucked under these cliffs by waiting road diggers.
These looming red cliffs looked even more ominous when wet!
We passed without mishap and were delighted to travel through the little villages of rural folk in this beautiful valley with the river running below. Their houses were built of flimsy wood and bamboo roadside and many supported on stilts to prevent water running through. Many were built on steeply banked land dropping down to the valley basin. Their rooms were perched on long stilts to eke out a bit more flat living space.
The little settlements were largely neat and clean. As well as many small children, their were little black piglets snuffling around, small goats, dogs and people carrying huge amounts of undergrowth and bamboo around on their backs. Even the village stores were located in these flimsy shacks which probably kept out rain but would have been useless in the cold and wind.
We eventually returned to the wood faced, brick built hostel in Luang Namtha. Hot and sweaty, we enjoyed mango smoothies and my favourite Red Curry and sticky rice for dinner and we resolved to strike out again the following day. It rained heavily all night and tomorrow there may be more stories of landslides and potholes as we venture forth in the direction of Luang Prabang.