Welcome to Laos.
What a journey we had to get here. It felt as though we were never going to arrive. The first mistake we made was in thinking that the 272 hair pin bend road must be much less hairy on the way down. How wrong we were! Our driver was an absolute maniac and drove at 100mph down the mountain in the dark of the night. It was terrifying! The wheels were spinning and with each turn it looked like we were going to fly right off the edge until he would lock the wheel into a turn at the very last minute. All whilst banging his head to the horrific sounds of Asian hair metal. It was an experience.
Part of our transfer ticket included a "free room" in a hotel for the night. Let's face it - it was never going to be a 5* hotel but man, the place was freaky. It was exactly what I imagine a sleazy American motel to be like. The place was deserted, no other guests to be found. This random man and his wife, who we assumed owned the place just signalled for everyone to go and find themselves a room as all the doors were open. We found one and we locked ourselves in. It was pretty creepy considering it was 3 in the morning. We managed to get a couple of hours sleep and the place didn't look quite as murder motel like in the morning but we were ready to leave.
The next part of our journey involved a longtail aross the river and the border into Laos. Our first impressions of the country were slightly impaired by the chaos of the visa department. It must've taken us 3/4 hours to hand in our passports for a stamp - Laos time they call it. Eventually we passed through and hopped aboard a mini bus for a three hour journey to Luang Nam Tha, our first stop in Laos. Again, the drive was through the mountains as we headed North to one of the regions worse affected by the carpet bomb operations carried out by the American's in the '70s. We had heard that the town we were visiting had been entirely destroyed and rebuilt 7km down the road in the years after the bombings. Laos is still an incredibly dangerous country as there are millions of unexploded bombs all over the country, most of which are stil active and regularly cause fatalities and injuries amongst the rural villages. I think the figure is something like one B-52 bomb load dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. Every where you go you see inactive bombs used for all sorts of things, doors, fences, plant pots, barbeques etc. You can understand why there are so many accidents as the children are so used to seeing them around the town that they can't recognise an inactive 'bombie' to an active one. More of this later...
Luang Nam Tha wasn't a particularly beautiful town, most of the builidings are of Soviet design, a concrete jungle. It's a very popular tourist town for jungle trekking. So far Dan and I have decided not to join any organised tours and have instead gone off on our own to explore. We decided to do the same in Luang Nam Tha and rather than do a jungle tour we hired a bike to drive to Muang Sing, a town close to the Chinese border. The ride was extraordinary. Two hours of riding, on the winding mountain roads through the jungle. It was so fun, albeit a little sore on the behind but there you go.
One of the other things I really liked about the town was it's night market. We ate there every evening, sticky rice, chicken and in Dan's case buffalo. It was really cheap, but very atmospheric as all the locals hung out and ate there every evening. We'd made friends with a few American travellers, one named 'Al' who was a super cool old man who worked in the forestry business and told us lots of stories about blowing up things. We hung out with these three American's the couple of nights that we stayed there, they were really well travelled and have given Dan and I lots of ideas for our trip to South America, if and when we go!