We reached Vientiane the 12th of April, the day before the start of Lao new year, called Pi Mai. It’s the biggest party of the year with 4-day long public holiday, loud music everywhere, lots and lots of Beerlao and most of all, a nation-wide water-fight. We listened to Anouradj’s advice and gave him the motorbike back before the party started, as the roads are not very safe during that time. We went to Thailand for about 2h that day in order to renew our Lao visa and ship some stuff back home (we wanted to send our camping gear back and the Thai post is cheaper and more reliable than the Lao one). No problem at the border and we didn’t even have to pay any extra fee for the stamps! We also bought a few things needed for the rest of out trip, like a Chinese language book. Yes, our next destination is China !
We bought special Pi Mai clothes (i.e. super-flashy disposable ones) and a water-gun, put our swim suits underneath, and we were ready! A lot of families/groups of friends put inflatable swimming pools on the streets so that they could have a good stock of water. This means that getting near to those pools would make you a perfect target to get buckets of water thrown at you. The same thing with pick-up trucks, they all had inflatable swimming pools in the back with a few people ready to throw water. We made the test, you can remain dry for about 30 seconds before someone throws a bucket over your head! 🙂
The tradition is also religious. A lot of families go to the temples together in order to throw holy water (which is infused with flowers) on the Buddha statues. The monks take part in the fun as well as they throw a bit of water on the people passing by!
The atmosphere in both the streets and the temples was very nice, people threw water just for the fun and we were pleasantly surprised with the amount of respect shown towards one another. If someone did not want to get wet or carried a camera that could be damaged by the water, they were spared most of the time. But for those dressed in Pi Mai clothes, no mercy ! 🙂 All around the city, the music was put very loud and there were even several stages, with the main one by the Mekong. Sponsored by Beerlao, it was like a big open-air club with people dancing and getting sprayed by the fire-hoses. That was fun!
A beach was set along the Mekong with activities and stages, and while the kids had fun in the water, their parents could eat and drink at the restaurant set up in the Mekong. Awesome.
As soon as Pi Mai was over, we took the night bus to Luang Prabang where we immediately took a minivan to get to Nong Khiaw. The trip was mostly uneventful, apart from 5 minutes after departure, when the driver decided to stop in the middle of the road to answer his phone (it’s dangerous to drive and phone at the same time) and then suddenly went into reverse and accelerated heavily. BAM ! After 10 minutes of discussion with the driver of the truck, we were back on the road, “confident” about our driver, and arrived at our destination 6h later.
Nong Khiaw is a village built on both sides of the Nam Ou river and surrounded by impressive karst mountains. The village has seen more and more tourists come every year and is therefore full of guesthouses, restaurants and trekking agencies. We were there during the low season so the atmosphere was rather calm and relaxing. We took some time to rest, we wrote a blog post, and prepared our time in China. We stayed at the Sunset guesthouse, and although the bungalows were a bit run-down and the staff almost invisible, we had a very comfortable bed and felt pretty good in this village.
We managed to find a bit of motivation and did a nice little hike to the top of one of the neighbouring karst mountains, from which we had an amazing view of the city and the surroundings. At the top, we ran into Ianni and Kim, the couple with whom we had crossed the Cambodian/Lao border more than a month before! As a storm was coming, we started to hike down but it was too late, we did it under the rain. Apart from the mud (a few falls might have occurred) it’s actually not too bad: now we can’t make out the difference between the sweat and the water from the rain 🙂
For those who are interested in this hike: there is someone at the bottom of the path who asks for 20.000Kip (2.5€). This is really worth it as the whole way is taken care of pretty well. Having done it under the rain, we probably wouldn’t have made it without the steps modelled in the ground and the ropes set up along the way when it’s too steep. The guy also provided us with walking sticks, which were pretty useful, and there were bins along the way (which is pretty rare here). Beware not to go out of the path, Nong Khiaw was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos.
Talking with Kim and Ianni, we realised that we were going to the same place the next day. The world is smaller than you think! The next morning we met them again in the minivan together with Alexis and Mathilde, two friends of theirs also on a long trip.
We had chosen to go to Luang Namtha for two reasons: we wanted to get closer to the Chinese border, and we we had heard good things about the trekking possibilities in the area. The town itself is not that exciting as it is made of the classic tourist recipe: one main street lined with guesthouses, restaurants and trekking agencies all offering the same things. We spent a day trying to find an exciting trek but we were not convinced by the quality/price ratio of what was on offer. We still put our names down on the list of people interested in a trek in the hope that other travellers would want to form a group (prices really go down a lot as the group gets bigger), but unfortunately as it’s the low season, we didn’t find anyone.
Instead, we joined Kim, Ianni, Mathilde and Alexis for a motorbike ride through the Nam Ha National Protected Area. The road, full of potholes, was mountainous and very pretty. It ended with beautiful rice paddies just before reaching Muang Sing, a small village close to the Chinese border. We went in a small local restaurant (meaning lots of Beerlao being drunk and karaoke blasting in the background) where nobody spoke English. Our Lao vocabulary being pretty thin, Kim took matters into her own hands and went in the kitchen to try and order directly with the cook who was roasting a snake on the BBQ. She also saw quite a few other kinds of meat that she couldn’t identify with absolute certainty… We all agreed to try to find another place to eat. In the end, we spent 45 minutes around town because at this time of the day (2pm) everyone was napping and nobody wanted to serve us food 🙂 In the end, we went to the market and found lots of little stalls selling Khao Soi, the local noodle soup. We then went back to Luang Namtha, taking in the scenery and enjoying the light of the late afternoon.
We stayed a few more days there in order to plan the next months of travelling: we started the process to get our Mongolian and Russian visas (see this page for more details). And, for the first time in a long while, we are up to date on the blog 🙂
Tomorrow we leave for China !!