Laid Back Laos

We’ve been in the mountains of South Yunnan, China and Laos for several days. Our border crossing between China and Laos went smoothly, but we were unable to find accommodation on the Laos side; there were several hotels in Boten and all were filled with workers building two new hotels.

Lao Scene: In the northern mountans of Laos, near here, we saw men walking with  primitive bows and arrows.

Lao Scene: In the northern mountans of Laos, near here, we saw men walking with primitive bows and arrows.

The genius of central planning; in a year, all the workers will have gone elsewhere and the tourists will all be staying on the China side. Brilliant.

So, we were forced to head down the road in the afternoon sun, hoping for a place to lay our heads. As usual all the land is either too steep to camp on, or has crops growing.

Lao House

Lao House

A short 10 kilometers further, we started asking for accommodation, by pantomiming with two hands beside our heads for sleeping. People kept pointing back the way we came, and we feared they meant China, where we could not go, since we’d had single entry visas.

Finally a woman on a veranda nodded in the affirmative, Claire began her magic, and we soon had a nice clean room for $4.80. It was a very nice traditional Lao house. We left our shoes outside, per tradition, and entered a sanctuary of cool tile and warm wood. We were lucky we couldn’t find a Chinese style hotel in Boten; better to stay in a traditional Lao house in a small village on our first night in Laos.

We immediately headed for the wash up room: tile floor, two barrels of cool water, and a scoop to ladle water over our head and body. It sounds unpleasant, but after a day of difficulties, heat and humidity, it felt wonderful. There was a large metal basin on the floor for washing clothes, and a bar of laundry soap. I remember my mother doing a pre-wash in Fells-Naptha before throwing everything in the old ringer washer. The Lao haven’t gotten to those yet. Everything was very clean and our hostess went to the local store for a mosquito net once we found how to ask for it in the phrase book. We had noticed that the other three rooms were equipped with them.

Next on the agenda, was to find my first BeerLao, supposedly the best lager in SE Asia. It was certainly good, and cold from the closest store, 650ml, $.48. I’ll let you know if it’s the best after a few months.

We sat on the veranda of a woman who was old enough to have learned French under French rule in Laos, and Claire obliged, to the limits of her memory.

I enjoyed my BeerLao, and a fast developing sub-tropical rain storm beating the tin roof, releasing new exotic plant scents, and setting off the family rooster.

Welcome to Laos

Welcome to Laos

We slept well and awoke to the largest grasshopper I’ve ever seen gracing Zippy’s stem. We had a long day today, with more mountains, beautiful mountains, fecund and fragrant, so different from the Tibetan Plateau. The road turned awful; fist sized embedded rocks for kilometers at a time, or worse, a maddening 100 meter patch of bitumen every 500 meters. This was a county connector road, and we expect better very soon.

Claire has mixed emotions about leaving China. She was getting pretty good at carrying on basic conversations (I smile a lot) and now we have a new language to learn. We only have 30 days in Laos, so we won’t learn much before facing yet another language, Vietnamese.

The Internet is rumored to be slow in Laos, appropriate for a third world country, but we hope not so slow as to preclude the videos and photos we enjoy sharing with you. (So far it has taken one-half-hour to upload the grasshopper – we will hope for better in tourist towns a few days from here).

I was kind of blue at the thought of leaving China. Twice, we’ve been here now and I wonder if we’ll ever be back again. The people have been very kind to us and I hope we’ve brought them some joy, at least a giggle or a good belly laugh as they take a break from the never-ending work. I wish the best for them.

I was glad to be finished with the countless tunnels along the new highway, some of them as long as nearly four kilometers and some with no lights. Poor Bob had to just aim his light at the yellow line and try to keep his balance. The worst tunnels were the ones with bollards to keep cars from overtaking, which meant we had to stop and pull over to the right as far as we could to let trucks pass. It wasn’t a shoulder, but rather a covered drainage ditch, with some of the concrete covers broken through, so Bob had to pick the right spot to stop. The noise was deafening sometimes and the fumes were thick.

The Xishuangbanna region is definitely more Southeast Asian than it is Chinese, environmentally and culturally. It’s a good transition for us. Though we’re sweltering hot by 10:00 a.m., we expect it to start getting a little cooler over the next month.

So far, I love Laos. We’ve seen all sizes of electric blue and neon yellow butterflies; we can hear insects buzzing, frogs chorusing and birds singing; bright flowers bloom and scent the air. The children are delightful; the little ones run naked after us, scattering chickens, waving and squealing “Sabadee, sabadee!”

Change in Latitude; Arriving in Southern Yunnan

With a 13-hour bus ride, we’ve changed the backdrop of our tour from a temperate to a tropical climate. The sleeper bus was an experience we’d wanted to try after seeing them on our 2005 tour. In my research, I learned to expect a noisy, smoky and cramped ride of up to 24 hours. We found the bus fine (no smoking), though we would have both been a little more comfortable if we could have removed our feet along with our shoes, as everyone is required to do. (Stepping on the bus, the first thing I noticed is the smell of sour feet, but I can stand anything for a day.) The bunks shoehorn together with the feet of the  person behind tucking into an angled cubbyhole that props up the head of the person in front.

After a while, we learned to adjust our positions and use extra blankets to prop up our knees. We tossed and rolled through the curves and bumps of the night, glad to not be riding Zippy on these steep, switch-backed and largely unpaved roads. Being at the very back of the bus (not by choice), meant that some bumps launched me clear of my bunk, landing me in a completely different position than the one I’d carefully arranged. I finally started using my safety belt when, unable to sleep around midnight, I watched the bus driver pass fuel trucks on blind curves of a particularly mountainous road.

Lessons learned: Take advantage of every bush break or you’ll regret it later; Women: bring your funnel so you can stand on the roadside along with the men (ignore the curious stares), and never, EVER step anywhere you can’t see (I almost went over a ten-foot wall at the 2:00 a.m. stop and ended up covered in mud from catching myself).  Thirteen hours into the trip, we were just getting the hang of it, so you can imagine our surprise, when at 8:00 a.m., we learned we were already in Jinghong and and had to hastily offload and ready Zippy.  We didn’t expect to arrive until 7:00 p.m. and had planned to shoot a video, read, nap and enjoy the scenery. We’ll be glad to get back on Zippy tomorrow.

Another Transition

Another Transition

Hibiscus in Southern Yunnan

Hibiscus in Southern Yunnan

Woman cops a Nap while selling Chickens

Woman cops a Nap while selling Chickens

All we had read about these long haul sleeping buses was that the experience was torture. We are both fairly small people, and that must have helped us find reasonable positions on the tiny beds. We have a motorhome with two bunk beds at the back, and they are two feet longer and a foot wider than these bus beds. The scent was not as bad as it could have been; only one man insisted on smoking, out the window he thought, while we were stopped. I would have died in the old days when smoking was allowed anytime during the trip.

The road was very rough and I am glad we didn’t have to put Zippy through that section; he’s had enough of the fist sized rocks, deep potholes and mud, thought I expect SE Asia will provide more of that.

Besides the great change in plants and weather from 2000 meters down to 550 meters, we have noticed that many of the people do not speak Chinese, and many of the signs are in another language, perhaps Bai (Thai/Lao?). We will soon find out; off tomorrow for a few days cycling in the humid hills for the border with Laos.

I like the food here. The hot is a SE Asia hot, hot but it goes away after awhile, unlike Sichuan hot which lingers. We ate at a street fandian twice today: a bowl of rice topped with any mix of at least a dozen different selections. I picked a smokey fatty hot pork and a couple of vegetables. Yum. I think the best food in Asia is found on the street, but then we never eat at high end places for foreigners; we eat what the people eat.

We sat on a stone planter with construction workers on stools or squatting, shoveling in the good stuff. We went back this evening, tried some different toppings to the rice, and a Snow Mountain beer, as we watched the rush hour of mothers hauling young school children on bicycles, recyclers on their truck/tricycles, buses and motorcycles.

Small groups played cards on short tables under the palms, settling in for a long evening of street socializing. There is no place like Asia. I think we’re going to like this part. I’ll let you know if the hills are smaller after a few days.