Luang Namtha

We had talked with maybe a half dozen bikers who had taken the road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha at various times in the past, as well as having read a number of web accounts of it. The reviews ran the gamut from "...the worst road I've ever been on", to a guy who had ridden it a year before who said that the first hundred kilometers was really good and then " seemed to deteriorate into no road at all." Although the road traversed some wild terrain, we actually found it to be brand new, and certainly the best road we would encounter in Laos. There was a reason for this that would become apparent shortly.

The worst thing that we experienced along this route is that it got downright cool in some of the foggy passes. Without knowing what was ahead we were prepared for it to go all to hell at any minute.

Although the road was new, with the exception of the occasional satellite dish the villages were still pretty modest. When we came upon this gathering right at the side of the road we stopped to take a photo. We were quickly corralled and invited to join the festivities.

We learned that it was the second day of a wedding celebration, and we were not allowed to leave until we had eaten something and joined in the dance. In the photo below Karen shows off her 'white girl' thing with the bride and groom.

As we pulled into Luang Namtha a light mist was just beginning, but we did see cars coming from the other direction that were soaked. There was something about this town that you just couldn't put your finger on. First of all, on the way into town we passed what was shown on the map as a small airfield outside of town. Even though Luang Namtha is a town of only 35,000 (most of that rural) there was a new runway being worked on that was really W  I  D  E and about two kilometers long. We're talking 'jumbo jet' size here. This in a town where about the only people on the street beside this souvenir vendor were a handful of European backpackers. There was one other young Laotian girl in front of our hotel but she didn't seem to know it. She was sitting on the curb with her breasts falling out of her blouse picking at some imaginary bugs on her arms and shaking her head. She was the victim of a new plague in the Golden Triangle area known as "yabba". Yabba is the local name for the potent methamphetamine being made in labs set up in Burma and Laos near the Thai border. A few minutes after we snapped this photo it began to rain in earnest. We were staying in a newer four story hotel and even though the building next to us was less than two meters away the rain was being driven so hard from that direction that it was blowing in from around the frame of the closed window. We were on the second floor though, so we faired better than the people on the top floor where part of the roof caved in. We have been in monsoon rains before but I never saw anything quite like this. Minutes after the rain began a lightning strike knocked out power to the entire town. Within an hour the rain ended as quickly as it had begun. We remained without power until morning.

We had breakfast the next morning in a cafe overlooking these prawn farms. The last night's rain had brought the water levels up to where they had all but isolated this little house. It also left everything looking quite green. We were able to get a few answers here about the new airport. What we learned also cleared things up a little about the new road we had just taken up from the Thai border. You see Luang Namtha is only about forty miles from the border with Yunnan province in China. Near Boten on the Laos side the Laotian government has established a special free trade zone where the Chinese were building a large hotel/casino complex. Free trade is maybe something of a misnomer since Laotians would be free to work there but not to stay in the hotel or to gamble. We also learned that the hundred and fifty kilometers of new road we had just traveled had also been built by the Chinese. This road had become China's land access to Thailand. The fact is that work on any of the roads that we encountered that were being built or resurfaced in Laos was being done by the Chinese. This was true even in remote villages where access was previously limited to river or foot travel.

On our second day we arranged to take a boat trip down the Nam Tha to visit a few tribal villages. We thought that we were taking a guided canoe trip but when we got there it turned out that we were going in two man kayaks. Not only were we not dressed appropriately, showing up in our heavy riding pants, but neither were we prepared for the fact that the journey was self propelled. Still the villages were amazing, and the guides were very familiar with the people and gave us a pretty fair breakdown of the situation here. In the first village these girls were curious, but it took them a little while to warm up to the outsiders.

A bit further down river we found a flat spot where one of the guides cut some banana leaves for a table cloth, and laid out our lunch.

Clockwise from top left: Local women earn extra money by making hand made paper from local fibers. In this tribe when girls reach the age of fifteen they have there eyebrows shaved to indicate they are of marriageable age (they remain like that for life). Here they dry locally grown tobacco (it was only the women that we saw smoking). Elevated granaries are fitted with large wooden disks around their stilts to keep jungle critters from climbing them and getting into their precious rice stocks.

Behind the village, above a new schoolhouse built with outside funds, you can see the top of the mountain has been slashed and is drying in preparation to be burned. Chinese are coming into tiny villages like this all over northern Laos and promising to put in roads like the one at right if villagers will slash and burn around there villages and plant rubber trees. Finally we were beginning to understand why everywhere we went the mornings wore a pall of smoke.

When you compare these slashes to the wall of jungle that rises from the rivers opposite banks, and idyllic scenes like the one below, you can't help but wonder what the future holds for these gentle people.