The crossing was a lot easier than I thought it would be, we flagged down a tuk tuk and managed to barter him down from 120 bahts each to 120 bahts for the two of us. This took us to the friendship bridge, which was so quiet and straight through the Thai immigration to hop on a bus that takes you over the bridge into Laos (at another cost of 20 bahts not that you have any other choice). And minutes later you're in Laos. The visa process should be simple but there's no structure and you have to guess which queues to join and in which order. Eventually I handed over my passport, the 35US$, a photo and the forms for processing. Somehow an entire Chinese tour group managed to jump in and get there passports back before mine. Oh well, all sorted and Ole and I are in Laos. We jumped into a tuk tuk to take us to the bus station so we could grab (a clapt out) local bus to Luang Namtha. From first impressions I felt like I was going to love Laos as it instantly felt less intense and touristy as Thailand.
The bus to Luang Namtha was a long one on a local bus, with is smashed windscreen and collapsing seats, which struggled up the windy, steep roads. The journey took around 4 hours through beautiful rich green countryside and traditional villages. At the bus station we met a few guys and grabbed a tuk tuk for the 10km into the actual town and the five of us went in search of somewhere to sleep. We stumbled across a really nice place, Phou Iu 3 and managed to get a decent room for 60,000 kip each (£5).
For the first evening we explored the small night market for food and while the it looked a bit iffy we went for it, luckily none of us got ill, and a few bottles of beerlao. The night market is an experience as while you are trying to eat you are constantly pestered by the scavenging dogs and cats looking for any scraps going and then the local women, well, they come round endlessly trying to sell you bracelets. You don't get a moments peace from the women and if you're not interested in the bracelets then they offer you opium instead. Yep, bracelets and opium seem to go hand in hand.
The next day the five us booked a three day, 2 night trek through the jungle of the Luang Namtha Protected Area for a bargain of 400,000 (£35) and it included everything. So the following day we started our trek with our guides, Zouk and Mee (who was 14 but looked 10). The first day initially started at the local food market to get fresh stuff for our meals, some interesting cuts of meat on offer, such as a cows nose! Before we started the actual trek we stopped off at a local tribes village home to the Lantens, where traditional tribal life continues, like making their own cloth and cooking from their own produce on open fires. The first half of the trek in the jungle was great and a nice start as it wasn't challenging. At out lunch break Zouk made an organic set up with a banana leaf table, banana leaf bowls and bamboo chopsticks. And the food he had prepared was just amazing! The afternoon was walking through the jungle to our camp for the night, when we got there there were some local guys already there who had already got a fire going and were using it as a rest stop from their hunting....they had managed to catch a turtle in the little river. We went and collected wood for the fire and Mee went catching crabs in the river, but they kept escaping, even after he pulled the claws off one of them. I can't imagine that crab had a good life after escaping though. Again Zouk prepared some amazing meat and rice dishes for tea and again all the tableware was all organic the same as with the lunch. That evening we slept in sleeping bags in the open jungle up on a wooden platform. It would have been an easy nights sleep had the wooden platform been a bit more comfortable and not gave me a constant pain in my hips. It was bizarrely dark in the dead of the night to the point that your eyes couldn't adjust to even make out shapes within the jungle.
After breakfast the next day we had a challenging start to the day climbing a mountain, not sweaty and worn out at all by the time reached the top, ok that's a complete lie! The rest of the days trek was also a challenge but great fun and something UK health and safety would go spare about, swinging around trees on narrow muddy ledges that had a long drop down the side of the mountains. One slip and that would be a broken leg, it just added to the fun. Later that day we arrived at the village we were staying in for the night and wow, it certainly was a proper tribal village and didn't feel like it had been adapted to suit tourists or affected by tourists passing through.
It was a funny time in the village, once we got to out homestay we were all feeling sweaty and grimy from the two days of trekking but found out that the shower was a simple pump/tap in the middle of the street where everything from washing yourself to washing the pots is done. Feeling intimidated with the crowd of inquisitive children and locals stood about I merely stuck my head under and washed my hair, but it was an experience being watched by so many. But upon arriving in the village the first thing Zouk pointed out to us were these little wooden huts on stilts which are built by boys of around 14 years old when they start looking for a wife. Apparently they go there every night and walk around the village looking for a girl and when they find a potential match they stay each night in these huts for almost a month to see whether they can marry. And if after a month they don't find a girl the family pull down the hut and wait some time before the boy can try again. Not really sure what Zouk meant by this, that evening we witnessed it. But before we met the local lads trying to find girls, Zouk introduced us to the home brew of rice wine from this village. And not introducing it to us softly he insisted, as part of their custom, we had to drink it in twos, meaning if you took one shot you had to have another. So about 8 shots and a beer later we were all very merry. But let me get back to the local lads...so these guys, starting from the age of 13 every night go out in the village trying to find a wife. The bizarre thing is they all walk around with a head torch (well it is the night) but also with a Walkman blaring out, I assume, the latest Laotian music. What I was surprised at was the number of lads just wandering about like this, as they heard there were a few westerners in the village, we had a constant stream of lads visiting the homestay. Very nicely one the lads from the trek was willing to marry me off to one of the local lads in return for fried chicken, luckily they didn't have any! I'm not sure if any of the local lads that night managed to find a girl but there seemed to be a fair few girls wandering about as well.
The following day was the last of the trek and after another tasty meal made by Zouk we headed out of the village and through the rubber tree plantations and back into the jungle. This day involved climbing a mountain, which with the humidity was very tiring but we managed all looking a bit sweaty. After about 5 hours, with yet again a tasty rice and sauce dish with our banana leaf 'table' and bamboo chopsticks, and after Zouk have us all a present - a locally made bracelet, we made it back to the start point to be picked up by the tuk tuk to take us back to town and for a much needed shower. By this point Lise and Andrew, friends I made in Thailand, had arrived in Luang Namtha so that evening was spent eating pizza and drinking beer with them and Ole.
However after the trek and also having a full day of travelling the next day to Luang Prabang it had to be an early night.