On wrong shoes and river drownings

Ben Groundwater who runs the Backpacker blog on the Sydney Morning Herald has a linkbait piece (yes, we’re biting) today discussing the dangers of travel in Southeast Asia, declaring “Dangerous? Yes, but don’t try to change South-East Asia”.

Groundwater turns it around into an argument against foreign governments pressuring Laos (or Thailand/Cambodia who also indirectly get a mention) into regulating activities like tubing in Vang Vieng or the full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan. After all, Australia is so over-regulated “bouncers won’t let you into bars with the wrong shoes”.

I do agree whole-heartedly with Groundwater that Australia is over-regulated — often to a seemingly insane degree — but I don’t agree that the polar opposite is any more desirable.

The thing is Southeast Asia isn’t the polar opposite. There are laws against riding a motorbike without a helmet, driving drunk, and taking or selling a wide variety of drugs. Sure you can go ahead and ride your bike home drunk and high without a helmet in your swimmers and, should you get pulled over, pay your way out of it — but it’s misleading to say Southeast Asia is the freewheeling, anything-goes destination Groundwater paints it as. Laos is a Communist-ruled nation for God’s sake.

The thing is, often the local governments are no keener on these shebangs than the hand-wringing Australian mob. Following full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan there is often an outpouring of opinion in the Thai press demanding they be shut down, or at least better controlled. And changes have been made. There are in fact sniffer dogs at the parties and the places swarm with both undercover and in-uniform police trying to get a handle on things. Despite this people continue to die — drugs, drownings, motorbike accidents, boat sinkings, shootings — they have them all there, and it’s sometimes difficult to outwit Darwinism at work.

In the mid-noughties I remember talking to Lao tourism activists in southern Laos who were putting together tourism development plans for Savannakhet province. They used Vang Vieng as an example of exactly what they didn’t want to happen; surely that says something. Yes, even in the mid-2000s Vang Vieng was a disaster area and people were dying every year, month in, month out (in 2011 there were 22 reported deaths there).

I’ve done my share of stupid things in my travels — hell I was almost murdered in northern Laos two years ago when I put myself in a situation I probably shouldn’t have — but I was lucky and, as Groundwater did, escaped unscathed. Yet, as someone who visited Vang Vieng before tubing — when there were just a couple of guesthouses and a single restaurant — seeing the transformation from what was a sublime location to one of the best examples of all that is wrong with tourism in Southeast Asia deeply saddens me.

Nobody is suggesting that Vang Vieng be shut down to some how return to its earlier incarnation — that’s never going to happen. Nor should the shoe police get an invite, but even small changes could help to make the circus slightly safer.

Here are three off the top of my head: Stop tube hire after midday; “close” the top of the river where people jump in and/or transport to it after 3pm; stop doing the free drinks.

I’m not sure how workable any of them would be, but if enough people made useful suggestions perhaps tubing would become somewhat safer and lives would be saved.

It’s easy to trumpet freedom of choice and personal responsibility — right up to when it’s your son, daughter or old friend they find stuck under the tree roots.

The boat trip from Hat Sa to Muang Khua on the Nam Ou River in Laos

This was my first attempt at video, so excuse the shaky hand and the out of focus bit when I tried to zoom it.

Those who have been on this river in wet notice may notice just how clear the water is — in the wet it is the colour of coffee with milk.

The music is by a Khmer artist, Ros Sereysothea and the song “Chnam oun dop prammuy” translates as “I’m 16″. Nothing to do with Laos I know — it just happened to be what I was listening to as the time and seemed like a good fit.

It is a beautiful trip and I highly recommend it.

Enjoy!

On travelling in Laos

A short trip, but a good trip. Two weeks motorbiking through far northern Laos. As usual, I tried to do too much, but it was easy to pare my intentions back to something more reasonable — and importantly — enjoyable. Biking through parts of Luang Nam Tha, Udomxai, Luang Prabang and Phongsali provinces, I’d picked a mix of well trafficked and less travelled parts of the country and mostly got just what I was looking for — some feeling for the wilderness Laos offers along with a couple of cruisy days by the river supported by a steady supply of iced BeerLao.

Boat at Nong Kiaow

Sampan at Nong Kiaow

Where I went
The trip took me through Huay Xai, north to Luang Nam Tha (where I did a two-day trek) then east to Udomxai, before heading north again via Muang La, Boun Tai and Boun Neua to Phongsali. From there east again to Hat Sa, where I threw the bike on a large sampan and boated south to Muang Khua — the northern most gateway to Vietnam. From Muang Khua, south to Muang La and Udomxai before taking a sharp left and east to Nong Kiaow, where I wound down for a couple of days before riding back via Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha, where I returned my trusty bike and back to Huay Xai and out. All up around 960km by motorbike and even now, a week or so later I can still feel every pothole.

Of all the above, Luang Nam Tha and Nong Kiaow — Muang Khua at a stretch — are the only places that could be described as having any kind of a traveller’s scene. The others are traditional Lao villages and towns where foreign travellers remain more of an oddity then a stable means of income. Public transport remains basic, unreliable and time-consuming — expect early starts and late arrivals — timetables should be treated a bit like a palm reading (I see in your future a bus leaving … sometime). Arterial roads are potholed and rutted, while secondary sealed roads are often excellent. Large stretches of really awful unsealed hardbase road remain — especially in Phongsali province.

Scenery between Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai

Scenery between Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai

Beds and stuff
Accommodation varied considerably. Promised hot water was only hot on two occasions — who makes these forever broken hot water heaters to stick on walls? Mosquito nets were the exception to the rule — only two places had them. An average room cost around 50,000 kip, with the cheapies coming in at 30,000 kip and a pricey one 100,000 kip. Often not a stick of English was spoken, but if you speak at least rudimentary Thai you’ll get by — though Lao would be better!

My room at the Boun Tai Hilton

My room at the Boun Tai Hilton

Feeding frenzy
I ate a lot of pho. Every day in fact. Sometimes twice a day. I ate a lot of larp — something I’d happily eat thrice daily. Lots of fresh vegetables matched only by the copious amounts of MSG. There is no need to seek refuge in western food in Laos — the local food is great — but I’d pass on the bowl of fresh duck blood.

Staying hydrated
I drank a lot of water. A LOT of water. At least four litres a day. All day in the sun, on a bike, makes Stuart a thirsty boy.

I drank a lot of beer. BeerLao. Not four litres a day though — ok maybe once — and I found it doesn’t work as a water substitute.

I was offered laolao (local ricewine) all too regularly, at all times of the day. I don’t recommend it before breakfast, nor in the evening if you expect to be able to function (ie ride motorbike) before lunchtime the next day. I do recommend trying it — there’s more to laolao than getting pasted — it can also be a handy in with the locals.

Scenery north of Muang La

More mountain scenery

Like anywhere, I met a typical mosaic of travellers — some great people — some less so. The good thing about travelling is when you finally escape the political lecture from a French nutbag in Phongsali, you can just travel in the opposite direction.

Special note of thanks to Harma, the British traveller who offered me her jacket.

Most travellers knew very little about Laos. “We came for the tubing but stayed” was a typical refrain. Most were having a ball and everyone said it was “like Thailand 30 years ago” — even those who hadn’t hit 30 yet.

Misty morning ride north of Boun Tai

Misty morning start out of Boun Tai

On guides and gospels
Every single English speaking traveller I met was using either the Lonely Planet Laos, or the Lonely Planet SE Asia Shoestring book. On the dead-tree book front, LP own Laos as far as English speaking travellers are concerned.

Travellers complained bitterly about both — in my opinion, fairly regarding the SEA book, unfairly re the dedicated Laos book.

Most people I met had never heard of Travelfish — they all have now ;-)

Old building, Phongsali

Chinese house, Phongsali

Lingo
I was amazed how little of the Lao language travellers tried to learn. Few ventured past “Sabaydee”. Counting, thankyou and basic Q&A are not difficult in Lao — don’t worry about the tones — just try it — you’ll certainly be the exception to the rule.

Hat Sa

Hat Sa boat landing - yes, it was cold!

Words over pho: Muang Ngoi
Everyone I met who had been to Muang Ngoi had either been robbed there themselves or knew someone who had been. If you go to Muang Ngoi, don’t leave anything of any kind of value in your room.

Words over pho: Vang Vieng
Reports on Vang Vieng were mixed. People tended to start out scathing but came round to admitting they had a fun time there. Most were happy Vang Vieng was the only place in Laos that is, well, like Vang Vieng.

A lot of reports of assaults, robbery and fights alongwith some quite distressing stories of stupidly smashed people doing incredibly stupid things. Also most who had been tubing had the scars to prove it (cuts and abrasions).

River scenery an hour south of Hat Sa

On the river an hour south of Hat Sa

Trekking
Trekking in Luang Nam Tha is more expensive than in Thailand. Trekking in Udomxai is more expensive than Luang Nam Tha. Trekking in Phongsali is more expensive than trekking in Udomxai. The main challenge you will find is finding enough people to do the trek you want to do without it costing the earth — this is an acute problem in Phongsali where there are very few foreign travellers — despite there being what looks like some fabulous trekking.

There are now treks operating from Phongsali into Phou Den Din Protected Area — looked very very interesting, but a bit expensive (four-day trip starting at 1.6 million kip for two people). Your main challenge will be rustling up enough people to get costs down.

Akha village before Boun Tai

Akha village near Boun Tai

If you want to see Akha villages and Akha people doing their thing, but don’t want to go trekking, then get a motorbike and go riding — by the time I got to Boun Tai from Udomxai I’d been through a half-dozen or so villages and observed far more of the “Akha day to day living” than I saw on the trek out of Luang Nam Tha. Still, unless you’ve got an A-level in Akha don’t expect too much on the conversation front.

There are a growing number of travellers doing “apres trekking” where they just show up in an area and go for a walk in the woods to see what they find. This sort of thing is well established in Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing and Muang Long but less so elsewhere. I would give a note of caution in this regard — especially in the remoter border areas near Boun Tai and Boun Neua in Phongsali.

I met two Europeans in Boun Neua who, having arrived by bus from Phongsali planned to ditch there bags at a guesthouse and go trekking off into the hinterland, with no guide and no language skills — I narrowly escaped being murdered by bandits an hour later. This is cowboy country — get a guide — and be wary of putting yourself in a situation (as I did) where you can easily be taken advantage of — not all locals are happy smiley people who want you to have a great and fabulous time in Laos.

Kids at Samphanh

Kids at Samphanh

Boats and stuff that floats
Boat travel remains one of the best ways to really take in Laos’ beauty in a comfortable manner. Travel downriver when possible — it is faster and more comfortable. The boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua is more scenic than that from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaow. It takes the same time to get the later boat as it does to motorbike between the two via Udomxai (we had a race!).

River scenery south of Samphanh

South of Samphanh entoute to Muang Khua

There were two foreigners (including me) on the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua and five from Muang Khua to Hat Sa — it is still very much a “local experience” — and a striking contrast to the floating cattle trucks that used to ply the Huay Xai to Luang Prabang route.

I’d go as far as to say it is worth getting the bus to Phongsali just so that you can take the boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khua. Be sure to allow a day or two in Phongsali once you’re there.

Nong Kiaow sunset boat

Sunset boating

Pretty stuff
The scenery (from a motorbike) is spectacular. Despite my mishap, the Boun Neua to Phongsali road offers tremendous mountain scenery, closely followed by Sin Xai to Boun Tai and, in particular, Boun Tai to Boun Neua. Much of the Udomxai to Sin Xai road follows a river and so is quite pretty.

Udomxai to Nam Bak less so and I don’t recommend leaving Udomxai at midday guaranteeing you four hours under a scorching sun. Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai is pretty rough and ready. Some good viewpoints, but heavy roadwork making for a lot of dust and distractions.

It gets cold. Very cold. No need to pack a jacket — just buy a cheap Chinese one in Udomxai or Luang Nam Tha. Try and get one with a cool phrase like “People say Cats green now please!” emblazoned on the back.

My trusty steed

My trusty steed - 960km and not a single flat tire!

When planning your time in the north, bear in mind two things. Public transport is infrequent and it takes a long time to get from A to B. Trip times vary considerably. From Udomxai to Phongsali by bus I heard from travellers who saw the trip take 8, 10 and 12 hours — on consecutive days. Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua was taking 12 hours (due to massive roadworks on the Lao side of the border).

Travellers reported Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha taking 7 hours, yet another saw Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha (roughly half the distance) taking 8 hours due to multiple breakdowns and a truck in front of them blocking the road when it dropped a load of rubble. Travel in Laos, especially in the north, is not a strictly timetabled affair.

If you’re looking for a more unadulterated Laos, this slice of north could be what you’re after. In the scheme of things there are few other foreigners (never more than about a dozen in Phongsali) but all the basic infrastructure is there — guesthouses, restaurants, even internet — to make it relatively easy travel.

Morning mist at Nong Kiaow

Nong Kiaow

There’s no boisterous party scene, but there’s always a wedding or streetside laolao session beckoning and you’ll struggle to come across locals that are particularly jaded and sick of stooopid falang antics. It’s not Luang Prabang when it comes to sights, but the hilltop stupa in Phongsali offers tremendous views and there is a great herbal steam in Udomxai — you know — it’s the little things that can make a trip so memorable.

Bye bye Laos, Hello Thailand

Boats to ferry me back to Chiang Khong

The far north is a low key antidote to the better travelled central and southern regions of Laos. It’s difficult to put one’s finger on just what the appeal is, but most of the travellers I met were really having a good time. As an Israeli traveller I met said, “Laos lacks character but has a magic”. While I wouldn’t say it lacks character, it most certainly has a magic — go check it out for yourself.

Interesting times on the road to Phongsali

In mid February, on the road from Boun Neua to Phongsali I was the target of a violent theft attempt, which, luckily for me, didn’t work out well for the thieves.

Let me preface the following by saying that having reported the attempt to the hotel owner, the Phongsali Tourist Office and the Tourist Police here in Phongsali all three have said categorically that this is the first time they have ever — EVER — heard of something like this happening. So I want to make clear that the following is intended not to scare people off coming to Phongsali — it’s great — but more as a warning — especially to travellers on bikes or motorbikes that are travelling solo.

Scenery near new road to Samphanh

I left Boun Tai in the morning at around 06:30, arriving in Boun Neau some two hours later. Once there I stopped for breakfast (pho and a diabolical Nescafe and sweetmilk concoction) and unfroze my arms for about 30 minutes. I was at the cafe opposite the bus station and sat in the sun (in an attempt to dry my wet/frozen feet). I believe the thieves spotted me here and ascertained I was travelling alone.

I tend to ride slowish and a few kilometres out of Boun Neau I noticed a bike that was hovering a distance behind me — odd because locals tend to overtake me as I stop to take pics etc, but this bike came and went, but never passed me. I noticed it, but didn’t give it much thought. When I reached the viewpoint I stopped and climbed the stairs up to the sala thing and back down. This is when they must have passed me (though I didn’t see them).

Scenery near Boun Tai

I got going again, and a few kilometres onwards rounded a corner to see a black bike stopped and positioned partially across the road with a single male on the far side of the bike. I slowed a little and he waved, yelling “stop stop” (that he was yelling in English should have tipped me off, but it didn’t), so I pulled up right beside his bike, but (very luckily) didn’t turn off the engine. As I turned and took off my helmet to ask what the problem was I spied the other guy (no idea where he was hiding) running at me with both hands firmly gripped around the barrel of one of those stockless AK-47s that you see all over Laos.

It was very very clear to me at the time that he was intended to bash me on the back/head with the stock of the gun. I swung with my left arm, which held the helmet and knocked the gun out of his hands. I then turned, and kicked their bike as hard as I could, knocking it over (and almost myself in the opposite direction) and forcing the other guy to jump back, I then gunned my humble Suzuki, tossing the helmet in the basket and sped around the crashed bike and escaped. The entire event was over in about five seconds — though it took about five minutes for my hands to stop shaking.

I rode as fast as I could, almost dropping the bike a couple of times till I reached the next village where I slowed right down, and coasted through — if they were chasing me, I preferred they did so in a village. I never saw them again.

It is my firm belief that these loons, whoever they were, were not out to politely relieve me of some cash, they were out to disable me in a very remote area, clear me out and take my bike — leaving me for dead.

Those that know me know I’m tall but certainly not the fittest dude on the block — Fight Club material I am not! The whole thing happened so fast I can’t really explain how I did what I did. I think, crucially, I didn’t turn my bike engine off, and equally I took my helmet off — if I hadn’t there is no way I would have seen this other guy coming at me.

Mist filled valley on road to Hat Sa

So what to take out of this. I’d say if you’re a single traveller on bike or bicycle, treat any kind of “broken bike” scenario you happen to come across with extreme caution. Don’t turn your bike off. Phongsali is a beautiful province to ride in — very challenging, but beautiful and I’d definitely do it again — BUT I wouldn’t ride it alone. Motorcycles can now be rented in Phongsali, so there is no real need to ride here — unless you want to. Oh, and make sure you have travel insurance ;-)

I’d also like to note that the Tourist Police and Tourist Office here have been outstanding in their assistance — and their apologies certainly were not needed. These things happen — even in Laos unfortunately.

So that’s my story. To the family and friends that read this blog, rest assured I’m fine save a nervous tick in my right eye and a small hole in my right leg — just flesh wounds as they say!

A walk in the woods: trekking in Nam Ha NPA

Just back from a one-night, two-day trek run by Green Discovery into the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). The two-day trek was described as difficult and that two of our group of seven dropped out after the first day supports that this was quite a difficult trek. It was overall a bit of a mixed experience.

Nam Ha NPA

The trek involved around 31km walking in total over the two days with an overnight stay at the Akha village of Ban Nam Lai. It took us through primary forest, secondary forest and through vast tracts of the NPA that are being exploited by the villagers who live within the park’s confines.

For the group of seven it cost US$51 a head and that was pretty much all inclusive (except for a couple of warmish BeerLao upon arrival at Ban Nam Lai). As anyone who has been to Luang Nam Tha before will attest, there are no shortage of tour operators to choose from — all of whom offer variations upon the same base tours (albeit to different areas of the park).

Cost varies considerably and Green Discovery is one of the more expensive. I opted to go with them because they came very highly recommended but also because they had the biggest group already signed up (thus making the cost lower than two other groups that left the same day with four and five people respectively).

Crossing a log bridge, Nam Ha NPA

The trekking scene is set up in a manner not unlike that in Thailand. Many of the guides are freelancers (so may work for more than one company) and companies are not allowed to trek into the same areas, nor use the same trail networks as one another. This means it is very unlikely you will come across another group during your trip. On the downside, this means that you have a bunch of operators, all offering quite similar services, but struggling to get enough people to make the trip financially viable. There are a lot of stories of travellers, with their heart set on a particular tour, waiting for days and days for enough to sign up for the trip to be viable. So if time is short, be prepared to compromise a bit on what trip you’ll actually do.

Also, be prepared for your trip to vary considerably (without any explanation) from what you were actually promised. In our case, the order of the trip was jumbled, some services (eg Akha bird calling) never appeared and some people’s requests (“no fish please”) were ignored.

First rest stop in the Nam Ha NPA

Most importantly, just because you’re told you’ll be trekking through a NPA, don’t expect to spend the majority of your time in primary forest — you won’t. Of the roughly 12 hours of trekking, we had perhaps four hours in total in primary or very old secondary forest. The majority of the time we were either walking through exploited areas or along dirt roads and rice paddie. The walking was very strenuous.

Even taking that into consideration, I’d say it is worth doing, for the period in the primary forest is simply tremendous.

Lunch on day one of Nam Ha trek

You will not see animal life and while you may hear a lot of birds, you’ll see few — to be fair it doesn’t help when you have seven people tramping through the forest chattering away. Our guide said he’s cross his fingers for a pheasant. We lucked out.

But it isn’t about the critters, rather it is about the forest — and it is a pretty mixed scorecard in that regard.

View back up a watershed, Nam Ha NPA

The Nam Ha NPA tries to meet the needs of both protection and development. It strives to protect the interests — and lifestyles — of the villagers that have moved around in the region for hundreds of years — way before the term “National Protected Area” was ever coined. Villagers are permitted to conduct slash and burn agriculture in areas of secondary growth, but where in the past the land would be left fallow, only to be returned to in years later to be slashed and burned again, today other cashcrops go in. These are long-term crops with yields spanning into decades meaning that the park may well end up as a patch work quilt of primary forest and extractive industries.

Waterfall Nam Ha NPA

In order to try and tap down logging, villagers are permitted to use fallen timber solely for firewood and construction — they are not permitted to sell it (though I assume that still goes on illegally to an extent). What this means is when secondary forest is cleared the lumber is left where it fell. The resulting impression to the casual onlooker is vandalism. That exploited parcels of land directly abut untouched forest makes the impression seem all the starker. To leave the trees there, while I understand the thinking behind it, seems wasteful in the extreme.

Cleared forest, Nam Ha NPA

Villagers are ostensibly only permitted to clear secondary forest. Once cleared, sticky rice goes in and when the rice fails another cashcrop — we saw expansive cardarmon and rubber plots — goes in. Thicket used for brooms goes for 5,000 kip per kilo, dried cardarmon 45,000 kip — all of it pegged for export to China.

Another log bridge crossing

Competing with this, you have revenue from tourism. A per person fee is paid to the NPA and the village we stayed at also derives revenue from our stay, but this revenue must be chump change when compared to that derived from the cash crops. Tourism also employs a bunch of periphery services — we had an English-speaking Thai Lue guide and a local guide, drivers, agents in at Luang Nam Tha and so on.

Protected and not protected

The stay in the Akha village, as expected, was a bit of a human zoo-like experience. Us gawking at them and them at us. Lots of children living in grinding poverty. Our guide couldn’t speak their language so interaction and explanations was limited in both depth and value — though we did have a prolonged discussion regarding Akha love-shacks and they’re penchant for marrying very early. Some of our group decided not to visit the village at all, instead staying at our appointed accommodation a five minute walk, but still within eyeshot, of the village. With no real means of communication or interaction the visit, as with much of the hilltribe trekking in Thailand, was for many a frustrating and uncomfortable experience.

Akha Love Shacks

This could be improved on in many ways. For starters we could have been appointed an Akha-speaking guide. Perhaps with a different timing of the trek, we could have met the Akha in the fields working — and be offered the opportunity to see what they do and assist — be it clearing fields, sticking rice in the ground or cutting down the very forest we were there to admire. An hour spent interacting on this level, after which we returned to walking and saw them again at the end of the day could be a more satisfactory experience. As it was all we saw were a bunch of knackered people who appeared to have been working their arse off all day.

Akha kids hamming it up for the camera

After meal time we all got treated to an “Akha massage” by a bunch of the village girls (our guide’s “masseuse” was 11 years old) — I can say without pause an Akha massage is not worth six hours walking to reach!

We were trekking in the dry season, so some of the walking was done on dry river beds. In the wet season I’d imagine the walking to be considerably more challenging. The downward slopes were often set in a bauxite-coloured clay soil that would have been treacherous and slippery after a prolonged period of heavy rain. As it was I slipped, spraining my wrist and two dropped out after the first day because of knee problems. It was a challenging walk and while our guide said he thought it was one of the best tours — from a traveller’s perspective — he hated it because it was so much work. “I’d rather be kayaking” was how he summed it up.

Akha village Ban Nam Lai

Despite the various flaws, I’d still recommend trekking in the Nam Ha NPA because the tracks of primary forest are simply breathtaking. I wouldn’t be overly drawn to use Green Discovery again and if I was to show up in town and one of the other operators has a bigger group, I wouldn’t think twice about trying someone else.

Lunch on day two - what part of 'no fish' didn't you understand?

Some closing advice:
Check the group list to see where the other people are from and ideally meet them beforehand to see if you’ve got the same mindset.
Discuss and agree upon the pace of the trek before departure.
Ask all the questions you want. Ask how much time is in the forest, how much time is in paddie, how far by tuk tuk and so on.
If you are going to have time in a village, make sure your guide has local language skills.
If you have dietary (or any other) requirements — be very explicit.
Do your trip research as soon as you arrive and get on the list you want — the sooner you sign up, the better chance you’ll have of more people joining with you.

Just do it!

Just do it!

PS Excuse any typos – I’ve got a sprained wrist!

On Huay Xai

Wandering down to the boats at Chiang Khong

It has been quite some time (at least ten years) since I was last in Huay Xai and I was surprised by just how little it had changed — at least from a traveller’s perspective. The hilltop wat still has a bunch of monkeys — including one on a lease that the monks were getting to fight with a dog — and the main drag is still home to a gaggle of guesthouses, travel agents and hole in the wall eateries.

In comparison, the boat trip hasn’t changed one iota — costs a bit more now (30B per person and another 10B if you have luggage — dare I ask who doesn’t?) but it’s otherwise the same old one minute spin across the Mekong’s waters. Immigration is open from 08:00 to 18:00 and it is worth getting there early if you want to avoid long queues at the visa on arrival counter.

I’d neglected to get a visa beforehand and regretted it as soon as I tried to, well, get one on arrival. Despite being the first arrival of the day it still took a good 45 minutes to get that sorted out — if you can, get your Lao visa beforehand — and make sure you have the US cash (US$30 for most nationalities) as if you pay in Baht you get a very special exchange rate — special for the immigration staff — not at all special for you.

Boats at Chiang Khong

Once through I took a wander up the main drag and found a handy little soup stand just after the Lao Airlines office for a steaming morning breakfast. The lady that whipped it up was friendly enough, but she then sat opposite me for most of the meal eating chillies and baby tomatoes, while spitting on the floor and smiling at me. Odd.

I’m hanging out in Huay Xai rather than moving on as am hoping to meetup with M this afternoon fresh out of the monkey-project, so another wander up and down the drag found me some very comfortable lodgings at the Guesthouse Sabaydee. A top floor room with hot water (so they say) TV and a view over the river for 400B — certainly not the cheapest in town, but very very clean and they seem to be a friendly enough bunch. Only thing missing is the WiFi!

Down checking email I heard on the Twitter-vine that one of the slowboats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had sunk yesterday — furthermore all the boats were now cancelled. It seemed odd as when I wandered by earlier it appeared backpackers were being rustled up for the boats, but, after further enquiries it did appear one of the boats — a flasher offering than the standard backpacker boats — had had some issues. I asked a couple of travel agents — both said no more boats — heading north (to Xieng Kok) or south (to Pakbeng and Luang Prabang), while regarding the particular happening, one said that yes the boat had sunk, while the other just that it was “broken” — which brought to mind the thought, how does a broken boat float? A further comment on Twitter, that the boat had snapped in half, answered the question — it doesn’t.

Yummy larp

Anyway, importantly, the swirling rumour-pool suggested that while there were some injuries, there were no fatalities. Further discussions with yet another travel agent (who, by the way, happily volunteered that there is absolutely nothing to do in Huay Xai), suggested that it was still possible to do the boat trip but that a boat change at each set of rapids was required and that the trip may take “more days” — rather glad I’m heading north.

Rounding off what was a pretty eventful morning by Huay Xaian standards, I went for a great lunch at the oddly named “BarHow?” vaguely reminiscent of Angkor What? in Siem Reap but similarities aside, the food is great. My very generously-sized chicken larp and sticky rice at 30,000 kip wasn’t the cheapest in town, but was nevertheless very good. And they’ve got a winelist — difficult to fault.

So what does the afternoon hold? Not a lot. A bit more walking and from Chiang Khong there looked to be a large restaurant with a terrace down the other side of town that I’ll go search for once the heat backs off as it could be an ideal place for a couple of afternoon BeerLaos. Then an earlyish evening and off to Luang Nam Tha tomorrow.

Parting comments — don’t listen to the touts in Thailand — don’t make the mistake of buying your Lao bus or boat tickets in Thailand — they’re around 200B cheaper on this side of the border and stories of lack of availability are rubbish.

What I’m packing

I start my three week break from Travelfish HQ today, spending first a few days in Bangkok to reaquaint myself with really good Thai food (oh plus a bunch of meetings and attend the TEDxBKK event on Saturday) then I’ve got one night in Chiang Mai to catch up with friends and then on to Laos. The bulk of my time in Laos I’m spending in Phongsali and Hua Phan provinces before hop skipping and jumping back to Bangkok and onwards to Bali. It’s primarily a play trip rather than work (one of the reasons I’m so excited to be going) and so, as just for a change my pack won’t be full of notebooks, and I’ll have no kids in tow, here’s what I’m packing.

All the stuff I'm taking

Let’s get the gizmos out of the way first. My new MacBook, with which, having just switched from PC a month ago, I’m still enjoying a forceful love/hate relationship with. My iPod Touch (8g) which I absolutely love, and the cables for both of them. Camera wise I’m taking two — my Nikon D70 and a pocket sized Canon Ixus 860 — with related chargers and a USB cable to hook them up to the MacBook. My trusty Nokia 3-sumthin collector’s item and a charger. I’ll get a spare flashcard for photo backups when in Bangkok.

Books, I’m rereading “A History of Laos” by Martin Stewart Fox alongwith the rather inscrutable “If on a winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino that I’ve found difficult to get into and think I’ll need a few slow days in Sam Neua to really get the gist of. My red moleskin appointment book and, dare I say diary (something I’ve eschewed since 1992 when my last diary was stolen on a French train by some scumbag lowlife who is hopefully dead in a ditch somewhere). One general notepad for mapping and further notetaking should I succumb to researching madness.

Clothes, as anyone who has met me knows, I’m no fashion horse. One pair of Levis jeans, one pair of Camel cargo pants one pair of long shorts with around 362 pockets. I wouldn’t normally mention that the cargo pants are Camel brand (Camel as in the cigarette company) but their cargo pants are excellent, with lots of pockets and very hard wearing — so I just swallow their sneaky branding exercise, foreswear the ciggies and just wear the pants. Other clothes, four tshirts, four sets of underwear, handkerchiefs, no socks (see below). I’ll also be packing a bunch of Travelfish Tshirts to give to a few bods along the way. One baseball cap (Billabong branded in case that matters).

For shoes I’m taking my new lace up canvassy Crocs they wear soooo well, are very comfortable — and cool because of airholes and the light fabric. I have slip-on ones as well but when they get wet they tend to slip off far more often than slip on, so the lace-up ones work better — you just tie the laces real tight! Best thing, no socks required.

I’n not packing any guidebooks, though I do have some printouts from the TF Laos forum that answered some specific Laos questions I had, plus prints of some helpful emails I received. Will pick up a phrasebook while in Bangkok as my Lao is pretty patchy nowadays.

Other minor stuff, a small towel and standard toiletries. My miniscule medical kit includes bandaids and plaster (for blisters) and nurofen (for Beerlao and ricewine excess — especially for the Hercules Wine in Udomxai). Mosquito repellant but no malarials.

Random stuff; a ball of string (helpful for fixing mosquito nets, and, according to a travel partner, tying up annoying children). A spare pair of glasses (if I can find them) but no sunglasses (I don’t have any). A cigarette lighter (for leeches). A dog-eared Australian passport — as a complete aside, the printer the Oz govt uses for their passports needs to be drawn and quartered — they’re a complete joke.

Then the stuff you can’t see: One Bali – Bangkok – Bali eticket, one Bangkok – Chiang Mai eticket — they’re the only flights; and one World Nomads travel insurance policy. Insurance — don’t leave home without it!

Lastly, and probably more important than any of the stuff above, an open mind and as few preconceived notions as I can manage.

Oh, and what am I stuffing all this in? My very nice 40 litre Victorinox pack. Easily fits within the requirements for carry on and is about two-thirds full with all the above (assumming Nikon is on my shoulder)

So there you go.

Call me Dr Dive Bum

We’ve just added a new feature story, titled “How to become a dive instructor on Ko Tao” written by someone who knows what she is talking about — an experienced dive instructor on Ko Tao!

The story is a useful read for anyone considering following this path and includes details on the cost of the various courses, the amount of time required to learn and, importantly, what you can expect to earn working as a dive instructor on Ko Tao.

You can read the full story here. How to become a dive instructor on Ko Tao.