Adventure in Hongsa

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We are happily ensconced in Luang Prabang in a most gorgeous small hotel — but how did we get here? Thereby hangs a tale…

First of all, your seasoned travellers made the most elementary of errors and caught the wrong bus out of Nan. In our defence a most strident female bus conductor seized us as we staggered from the sangtheow into the bus station with our packs, our lunch, my backpack with the computer in it, the camera bag, my purse and a sizeable bag containing the groceries for Monica in Hongsa. She shouted: “Laos, Laos” so we got on — only when we were leaving the town — slowwwly picking up passengers, did we regain our senses and see what we had done. We considered getting out, picking up a sangtheow and rushing back to the bus station to catch the correct bus which by this time had probably left — but this is Thailand, everything is possible, the conductress also realizing her error (she was going NEAR the border to Laos but not right up to it) got on her cell phone, contacted the correct bus and arranged for them to pick us up at the side of the road about 2 hours hence. Of course this was not accomplished easily, she spoke no English and basically neither did anyone else on the bus, but 2 young men tried hard to help, one had gps on his iPhone but of course it was in Thai — eventually we understood, she understood, and by that time I had such a headache I got out my Kobo and buried myself in a mystery for 15 minutes to get my mind off it. The scenery was pretty good though so I gave up reading after I calmed down.

The bus we should have been on was just 15 minutes behind and we got onto that one and got the last 2 seats…This little bus dropped us at the Thai border to exit Thailand. In we went and accomplished that quickly, then out to contemplate the 1.2 kilometre “no man’s land” to the border point to enter Laos where we had to buy a visa and complete paperwork to enter Laos. Not to worry, people with motorbikes were willing to ferry anyone who would pay, but as I have described our uncharacteristically complicated encumbrances, we were standing figuring out how we would arrange us and the luggage, when a tuk-tuk drew up from the Lao side to drop someone off and Doug grabbed him for the return journey. Much easier.

We knew we had left Thailand and entered Laos the minute we entered no man’s land. For one thing, an incredible melee of switching lanes was occurring, only then did we remember that Thailand drives on the left, Laos on the right! That and the garbage and litter everywhere, Thailand is so clean now, Laos still its old messy self. Hill tribe women heavily laden with burdens on heads and backs elected the long hot walk as they headed to the market near the border station. Usa the woman who shopped for Monica’s groceries had warned us that our plan to cross on a Saturday might not be the best because the “buses” (really the open trucks with benches called sangtheows) often don’t run on that day, she and her friend had encountered the problem and had to go around the market asking if someone would give them a lift — for a considerable amount of baht as it turned out. We were not capable of doing that.

We did get a santheow but then it waited and waited and waited in the boiling heat for bags and bags of market produce — oranges, ginger in huge sacks, bed quilts, fresh produce, etc etc to be loaded by one hard case woman. The Lao in the truck waited far more patiently than we did.

Finally we were off on the bumpy road to Hongsa passing the massive Hongsa Power plant on the way. A Chinese project it involves open pit mining for coal, and eventually a considerable number of coal fired generators will be operating, over 90% of the power goes to Thailand, the Lao seem to be getting nothing but a big mess, with people displaced from their homes and massive environmental damage. Hongsa is in a valley so when the generators get going, with what we have observed of such enterprises in China, the air pollution will be untenable. Monica and the expats are planning to leave at that point.

Dropped off at the market in Hongsa (referred to as the bus station) we made our way to Monica’s Jumbo Guesthouse and the adventures began! Monica is German, born in Brazil, and has been in Hongsa about 5 years running her guesthouse. She gave us a lovely welcome, staying there is like having a room in someone’s house, as Monica lives in one of the rooms and cooks breakfast and dinner for her guests, who sit at a large communal table on the verandah. It was very entertaining and fun, we had great company as people came and went over the 5 evenings we were there. As far as I can tell from our experience, one never knows what is going to happen next! Monica shares her home with 3 permanent dogs and 1 part time dog, and 3 cats, all very healthy and well cared for. First time I’ve been able to cuddle a cat in Asia without getting fleas, don’t know how she does it. A local woman comes in daily to help with the cooking and to do the laundry. Very simple but pleasant rooms and great hospitality. An added bonus was that our room’s shutters opened directly onto the neighbour’s yard populated by flocks of chickens, ducks, geese, one turkey and three piglets. Fortunately we are so used to roosters crowing that we have not difficulty falling asleep again. Monica’s dogs barked like crazy during the day if other dogs passed but were quiet all night as they slept in bed with her!

Our first morning, as we had been the only guests the previous night, we went with Monica on her early morning constitutional through some of the surrounding village area. The air was so cool that we got the jackets out of their compression sack, what a novelty to be cold! Didn’t last long, boiling at noon. The mist imbued the surroundings with a gorgeous blue grey, and the bamboo houses I so remember from our times in the northern hills shimmered through the haze. Though it is a case of “good from far, far from good” — after Thailand the housing is really really basic. We happened on a ceremony going on in a small wat (temple), women dressed in their best silk wraps and blouses carrying offerings for the monks. The five or six monks chanted, and then a young monklet went round with a bag to take all the offerings — a bit reminiscent of trick or treating what with the large bag and all. That afternoon the young French family we had met at our guesthouse in Nan turned up, having fortunately (since the kids are 2, nearly 5, and 9) not had to wait for a transport to Hongsa. I guess Usa was right. Such cute little kids, sadly with our completely eroded French we could communicate very little with the children, but we had chatted with the parents a bit in Nan. They had ended up there for 12 days as the baby got and recovered from chickenpox, the third of the kids to get it while in Thailand. Monica asked us if we would consider taking one of the children on our elephant so that all of us could do a one day elephant trek. Of course we were delighted to, so next morning we set off on 2 elephants, the 4 French on one, and us with the oldest girl Roman between us. We had what turned out to be “the broken seat” so it was a real ordeal to hang on especially on the precipitous downhill parts. I managed enough French to tell Roman to cling to my trousers when she got worried, but actually the poor thing was so wedged between us two large farangs that there was no way for her to fall out. It was great fun, we lumbered along a trail at first past small villages and people’s fields, then over rice paddies as we marvelled at the amazing balance and agility of the large beasts. They can walk the narrow banks of the rice paddies (I have tipped off many times while traversing them) putting one foot carefully in front of the other, the bank being the width of one of their feet. When we forded streams they felt carefully for their footing, never stumbling or hesitating, just slowly proceeding as they found rocks that were stable enough to step on. The almost 5 year old boy (Basil, pronounced Baseel) like all boys his age got into complete hysterics when the elephants peed with fire hose ferocity, and when they began to poop giant cannonballs it was almost too much for him. Apparently the French for poop is kaka (sp?) we ascertained from his discussion with his dad. Roman, though amused, tried to maintain her dignity.

After about 2 hours we reached a bamboo platform where we all climbed off and the elephants were released to eat for 2 hours. The beasts eat at least 250 kilos per day as the fodder, bamboo and wood is so fibrous that it kind of goes right through, hence the cannonball production. These elephants are working elephants, they labour pulling heavy loads in lumber production and other work, so Monica told us we were doing them a favour by going on our trek, according to her they get a nice holiday and a walk in the jungle courtesy of the tourists. Could be true…they were certainly well trained, the mahouts let them go into the jungle to eat, and at the end of the time they just called them back like you would call your dog, and they appeared. On the return journey we stopped at the town river and the mahouts stripped off the saddles and blankets and sent them into the water to wash and drink. Doug and the kids helped to wash them down, it was lovely to watch them sink into the water and squirt themselves with water they picked up in their trunks.

That evening a pair of French Canadian travellers turned up in time for dinner. The kids were so relieved to have someone to speak French with, the parents couldn’t stop Basil turning cartwheels to entertain them. Poor kid had obviously been pent up for days! Fun conversations about travelling, I think anyone who washes up in Hongsa has a few travel stories from years past to tell.

Next day off we went to see an 18 day old elephant baby at the elephant handler’s farm. Horrible road, Valerie the Montreal girl came along, and also one of the German expats here working on a micro-finance project. There are 5 expats in Hongsa including Monica, I think when there are no guests she cooks them dinner! The baby was adorable. We have seen them in the wild of course, but in that case the mother and “aunties” shield the baby with their bodies as they walk, so you catch rare glimpses and mainly see just the legs. These female elephants are much used to people so were more or less okay with so many people snapping pictures. However when Monica tried to get us a bit too near the baby for the mother’s comfort, a great kerfuffle arose, all the elephants trumpeted and surrounded the baby and pushed it up a nearby bank, then stood so it was completely shielded. We should never have tried to go so close, but Monica has been visiting it since the day it was born so thought it would be okay. A bit of a fright!

The French family had left that day, so it was just the 5 of us for dinner, but as we were finishing a voice came out of the pitch dark — “Is this Monica’s?” and up hove two young Americans who had decided to try the practically impassible track from Luang Prabang to Hongsa. They had basically shredded a tire, had it patched 3 times enroute, broken off both mirrors and gone over several times. They were so covered with dirt as to be unrecognizable, but Monica just told them to take off their shoes and come in and she would make them a dinner. Fortunately the French family had left so they got a room. They are 10 months into a 17 month trip and had lots of good stories to tell. I got some great tips on the South Pacific, especially Vanuatu where they spent many weeks.

Next day off went the French Canadians (though we are meeting Valerie in Luang Prabang) and we and the Americans accompanied Monica to a bacci ceremony to which she had been invited. One of the neighbouring families was holding this dual purpose ceremony to name a baby born 3 months previously, and to marry the parents. The parents were gorgeously dressed, and all of us guests tied strings with money to their wrists as presents and to defray the enormous cost of hosting at least 200 people to the all day event. They have been saving up for this for ages, you are supposed to do it when the baby is one month old but they weren’t ready. We sat to admire the baby in the one room bamboo house where the mother had given birth, and where she and the baby were confined for a whole month after the birth. The mother was so tiny, I couldn’t help wondering what they do with obstructed labours in a village with only a clinic. The couple provided beer, pop, real whisky, lao lao, and rice whiskey, as well as an enormous lunch and a life band. The American girl, Allison and I got up and danced with the women, it was great fun, but when they began shooting lao lao and it was still just noon we made our exit.

That afternoon, John got the motorbike tire fixed yet again, and he, Allison, AND Monica set off on the small bike with the bad tires to go and see the baby elephant. The road was bad with a lot of loose dust and on one of the slopes the whole thing reared in the air and Allison and Monica landed on their butts on the ground, luckily John was able to get it down and fall over sideways, Allison thought they’d all be crushed by the bike. Monica said her bottom was like those baboons with the scarlet buttocks, and she came home and sat on an ice pack. They were very fortunate…

Sadly the day of departure was next, and after John fruitlessly attempted to get the tire fixed again, they decided to take the motor bike on the boat we were taking, so we hired a truck to take the four of us and the bike the 1 1/2 hours over the truly horrible dirty road. We had decided that the santheow was going to be just too much like misery, so we were going to hire the truck anyway, but it was nice to have someone split the cost. When we got to the river there was basically nothing there, but we schlepped the luggage down to the edge of the water, and the guys and the driver manhandled the bike off the truck (the tire was so bad by then that the driver took the tube and used it to tie the motorbike to the truck bed.) Of course the boat was late, the slow boat down from Pak Beng, full of foreigners who were in to their second day of their trip, and a few Lao who were getting on and off as we stopped at tiny villages. Glad to see Luang Prabang as it came into view after 6 hours but it was fun. I sat next to an elderly (my age) French traveller who entertained me by demonstrating some of the massage techniques he had learned in his 2 week course in Chiang Mai (just on my forearms) but when he began to expound on universal enlightenment and the oneness of all gods, I got out the trusty Kobo again. Scenery not as spectacular as on the Nam Ou which we traversed for 3 days in 2007, but so interesting to pull into the tiny villages and watch people offload things they had bought in the bustling (!) metropolis of sleepy Hongsa.

Found our beautiful hotel and have settled in for a week of self indulgence — our little honeymoon for this trip. We usually try to find one place where “we can be happy every day” as a French woman once said to me. Thanks for persisting, Your happy travellers!

Sent from my iPad

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