Antique smuggling, travel writing and a jaunt around Luang Nam Tha

Fruit for sale in Luang Nam Tha

When your day starts with a bowl of offal you just know it is going to get better and better — as mine did when I found the above fruit vendor as I choked down the last of the intestines…

I’d caught up the previous evening with a researcher for another travel publisher and had swapped notes on Laos and gossip on where the industry is headed. Against the odds, the most common complaint isn’t so much about the money as much as the time restraints — publishers are often expecting ridiculous coverage in short periods of time.

This gelled neatly with another researcher I had met the previous week in Bangkok who does a lot of work for a very well-known US travel guide publisher. Their “letter of appointment” included a line explaining that just 20% of the properties needed to be revisited — I bet they don’t brag about that on the half cover!

But jokes aside, if you’re effectively allowing someone three weeks to cover all of central Thailand (from Sangkhlaburi in the west to Ko Kut in the east — including Bangkok) then that is probably going to show in the finished product.

Back to the fun side of travel.

I lapsed and opted for the tourist minibus service over the local bus from Huay Xai north to Luang Prabang, but with only three passengers it seemed like 400B very well spent (even if it did leave an hour late). The trip, striking more or less straight north for the duration passes some scenic secondary forest and quite attractive mountain vistas — all the easier to enjoy as I wasn’t crammed into a local bus. The trip was over and done with after just three hours — a fraction of the 12 hours it took me last time.

Last time, none of the road was sealed, rather it was packed red dirt — or dust. In dry season it was one of the dustiest trips in Southeast Asia, in wet season one of the muddiest. But I was in luck. Hanging out in a cafe in Luang Nam Tha I met a Swiss aid worker who offered me a ride in his six wheeler “personnel carrier”. I jumped at the chance, all I needed to do was buy the guy a beer and I didn’t even need to pay. Afterall, he was carrying what he described as “special cargo” and I was intrigued.

The special cargo wasn’t a pound of smack but rather something ever more valuable (in my eyes anyway). An ancient frog drum and it’s Thai dealers. They’d purchased it off a minority village north of Luang Nam Tha and were sneaking it out of the country — a highly illegal activity. They’d paid the village a mere US$500 for the drum, while the middle man they’d pass it over to in Chiang Khong was paying them $1,500 for it. Final destination was perhaps Rivercity in Bangkok or a savvy private collector who’d snap it up — it was in mint condition, and you’d expect a significantly higher final value at end of sale.

Sad days indeed — a priceless artifact leaves Laos forever for essentially just $500.

Luang Nam Tha scenery

The trip took us 12 hours — I hate to think how long it was taking regular transport — but a friend who did the trip a year earlier (without six wheels) saw it take two full days — with an overnight stop in Vieng Phuka.

Why has this road improved so much? There’s a large coal mine near Vieng Phuka and as in most Lao cases the roads are built to assist the extractive industries — be it Route 3 for coal, or the eastern routes for lumber to Vietnam. Yes the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang has improved over time, but this was always an arterial route and probably (guessing here) the first sealed long distance route in the country.

Enough of roads.

Luang Nam Tha is often put on stage as the poster child for eco tourism in Laos. This was largely kicked off by considerable efforts coming out of the Boat Landing Guesthouse and today there is a wealth of trekking activities operating out of the provincial capital.

Around Luang Nam Tha

One of the easiest things to do is hire a bicycle and ride around the outskirts of town — something I’ve just done. I have no idea how long the ride was — it felt like about 600km, but it was probably more like 20-30km and the first third of it was lovely. Lots of, dare I say, bucolic paddie scenery with the hills rising behind them, and absolutely no shortage of chatty Lao students who’ll ride along with you for an impromptu English lesson. It’s a relaxing and peaceful ride.

Tomorrow I’m going back to my backpacker roots, doing a two day trek — should be interesting. It’s a two day walk that starts only 15 minutes out of town and is run by well regarded Green Discovery Tours. Green Discovery get a bad rap from a lot of budget travellers because of their higher prices, but it seems we’ve got close to a full contingent of eight punters, so it isn’t toooo expensive.

More to come after the jungle adventure!

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