At 720am three mornings ago Alex knocked on the door to inform me that he’d just learned the bus to Luang Nam Tha was leaving in ten minutes, and would I like to go? A few frantic moments later we were on the bus, ready to head to the north of Laos. I finally leaned back in my seat to relax a little, hardly noticing a woman who had placed a sack in the aisle next to me after getting on, until I heard Alex say “hey, there’s a chicken in that sack!”
I leaned over to check, and sure enough the old rice sack had several breathing holes ripped into it. But there were definitely two chickens in there based on the squawking, which occurred every few minutes whenever the grumpy chickens decided to fight each other. The squawking and shaking from the rice sack would abate only when the lady who brought them on kicked the sack, after which she would send a glance towards my giggling that implied that of course it was normal to discipline your misbehaving chickens on a bus, as any idiot would know.
By the way, did I mention this was the V.I.P. bus?
Anyway, when I wasn’t laughing at the chickens I was busy napping or admiring the scenery, which really is quite nice-
Northern Laos has mountains that feel just right to me, interestingly enough. The reason for this is said mountains are just about the same height as those you find in Pennsylvania where I grew up, so while I obviously find myself in awe of steeper ranges these mountains are ones whose height I am quite comfortable with. Somehow this matters more than you’d think! I spent the few hours of the journey admiring the scenery, wondering just what it would be like to be born into one of the little roadside villages, assuming most of the world is like your village and places with a few thousand people are cities.
And after a few hours of admiring mountains we pulled into Luang Nam Tha, a town in Laos so surrounded by hills that it is 15km as the crow flies to China but 60km by road. Beyond the Chinese characters adorned to many signs, this mainly effects the town by having the market filled with exclusively Chinese crap. Not to complain too loudly- I picked up a pocket shortwave radio for $3.50!- it’s just I didn’t know there were quite so many ripoff products made in the world.
We spent our two days in Luang Nam Tha exploring on rented bicycles- I have been cautious about my foot and biking seemed a good low-contact activity, and Alex is a bicycle nut. As this coincided with the weekend it was great fun- plus the scenery was gorgeous!
It was impossible to pedal a few minutes without running into an elementary school gang wandering around in an attempt to make the most of their free days. You would return the greetings of “Sabaai-dii!” the kids all shout, distribute a few high fives, and press on amidst the rice fields.
A Buddhist stupa on top of one of the hills around Luang Nam Tha, recommended to us by the locals. There was absolutely no one around except for us. In ten years I’m certain it will be crawling with tourists, but for now it was all ours which was really neat.
Alex doing his best naga impersonation. Naga is a Hindu god who rescued Buddha from a terrible storm (Hinduism is to Buddhism as Judaism is to Christianity, so far as continuity goes) and thus every set of stairs leading to a Buddhist temple is flanked with nagas.
The best thing about Luang Nam Tha, though, occurred on our first night, when we had wandered towards a commotion near the night market where we saw the biggest party I’d seen in a long time, complete with announcer on the stage. We tried guessing with a pair of Israelis just what was going on until one of us figured out it was a wedding reception- and no sooner had we figured this out a kind Lao man came over and invited us to join their table! Instantly a spoon and pair of chopsticks was cleaned for each of us to try the food, while another man set to making sure our glasses were always filled to the brim with BeerLao-
If that weren’t enough, said guy also started pouring us shots of lao lao, which is the traditional rice whiskey around here. It burns. A lot. The Lao gent laughed at my reaction.
And because this was a wedding, sooner instead of later I was invited to dance! Luckily it turns out that Lao dancing is so simple you can figure it out in two minutes without paying attention. In short, you and your partner walk slowly around in a circle with everyone else, never touching but occasionally switching sides, walking rhythmically but primarily focusing on moving your hands in odd twisted positions. This has the advantage that for all I know I could have been dancing with the local creep but there was never a chance for such a thing to be discovered, but disadvantageous in that it has to be the most innocuous form of dancing I have ever participated in.
But wow, that wedding was cool. Between the food and the constant shouts of “nuk chuck!” (“bottoms up!”) and settling on an odd form of communication by a few phrases and hand signals, it was amazing. I would not believe the reality of my life if I were not the one living it.