It's all about the Jeow
Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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In keeping with my usual calamity-like trend, I happened to rock up during the aftermath of the recent floodings, so all trekking opportunities were out, plain and simple.
With such a big item crossed off the list I had to take action and so took great pleasure once more in digging around in the bottom of the 'Plan B' toolbox. It only took a bit of a shake and a shuffle and there it was, winking at me - the old trusty instrument of randomness. Guaranteeeeed to please. And if the last few days in Luang Nam Tha are anything to go by, I couldn't have plucked more randomness out of a magicians hat.
The preliminaries started off with a general steady unwind and peaceful re-adjustment back in to the old familiar Scott Woz solo-mode. With Bera gone (off playing tour guide with his freshly-landed fellow Hungarians, which incidentally means he can no longer continue with his ridiculous ongoing claim of being 'the only Hungarian in South East Asia') it's been a great opportunity to take a bit of time-out and get my head together for the new and highly exciting 'next phase' (but more on the new and highly exciting 'next phase' later..)
The Zuela Guesthouse is spot on, as good as I've seen so far - huge twin rooms finished with beautifully varnished wood and rustic brick - great beds, crisp linen, towels, attached bathroom and daily cleaning service all for 60,000 kip per night (that's about three quid). If the lairy Hungarian was here that three quid would be split down the middle. Big smiles so far.
One particular night, after pottering around the locals market sampling the local fare (skewers of stringy sinuous buffalo meat straight off the barbie, followed by buffalo liver and buffalo tongue, all washed down carefully with a cold Buffalo beer) I found myself kicking back at the far end of the market watching daily life unfold. It was at that moment that I realised that Laotians are actually the most laid back people I've ever come into contact with. With the snail-paced stressless routine that such a simple life brings I couldn't help but marvel at the simplicity.. sorry, cleverness of it all.
There wasn't a hint of misery or unhappiness in what I saw. In fact everybody seemed happy as Larry, not for any special or unusual reason, just happy to be around. And that made me happy to be around. Cos' people aren't like that where I'm from. And they should be. We have this nasty habit of over-complicating things, yet this is all so simple that it's actually too complicated for us to get our heads around. But then we're so much more 'advanced' aren't we? Thousands would walk past all this, give it the perfunctory once over and walk away nose in the air without a sniff of ingestion - and they'd miss the lot. And no one seems to mind. And neither do I.
By mid-evening I'd settled in to the Many Chan Restaurant with a book and a brew. Within twenty minutes I was sharing the restaurant frontage with a fleet of noisy backpackers (the majority flashpackers), some of whom were already starting to get picky and arsey over the menu. (Faaark, I've only been here five minutes!)
If there's one thing I needed sorely on this temporary leg of the journey it was to be void of white flesh and pretentious bullshit. Unfortunately, the two sometimes go hand in hand and doubly unfortunately for me, this was one of those times - at least it was at the Many Chan restaurant. So I paid up and headed down the road to find solitude and real-life. This came in the form of an old family-run restaurant in a dark part of town. Northern Indian cuisine was the spread of choice and so I got my self comfortable and merrily ripped in to some warm leavened bread.
In just a few minutes I was approached by a painfully attractive Laotian girl who'd just pulled up on a motorbike outside the restaurant: perfect skin, knee-dropping eyes and a smile that would keep you awake for about a week I reckon. She was in her mid-twenties and her English was good. Turns out she'd lived over there for a short stint in a past life. Poor girl. With the small talk exhausted she invited me in to sit with her and the clan for a bit of banter after dinner. Now you're talking..
There was around eight to ten of us sat round in a circle, in I guess what you'd class as the main living room. Straight away I was given a short stiff shot of lào láo - the infamous cheap Laotian rice whiskey. My central position in the room made me a kind of natural focal point, enveloped in the eyes of these alien onlookers. While the guys stared and the girls giggled I necked the whiskey, grimaced for a short moment and then breathed the heat straight back out again like I'd just swallowed a fireball. As I slammed the glass down the room illuminated with cheer and I knew then that the scene was set. And so it went. We got acquainted through broken words and amusing gestures. Great entertainment.
Ten minutes later and we were stood outside waiting for the main guy to padlock the place up so we could get away and before you could say 'flied lice' I was straddled across the back of a motorbike wrapped tightly around the gorgeous girl who started it all. While the engines roared and the other eight nutters nodded their heads in unison we started a convoy that screamed hell-for-leather down a dark pot-holed gritty side road which led us to what appeared to be Luang Nam Tha's one and only nightclub. A nightclub which understandably was insanely popular with the locals.
We were through the door and inside in the blink of an eye, and straight on the BL. I kid you not, if this place was a 19th century circus venue I'd have been, without question 'John Merrick'. Actually, I may as well have been a tiger cub in a cage on the table for the attention I was getting, just from physically being there. And the continuous strobe lighting (clearly the club's trademark) was mental. I'm talking constant streaming strobage here, the WHOLE time. It never let up once. Fill the place with epileptics and you'd have an absolute riot on your hands. So yeah, completely random, with interesting results.
Other highlights include paying a visit and making a contribution to Big Brother Mouse - a very noble scheme which provides by way of ongoing donation, opportunities for the local kids to gain access to a healthy spread of structured reading material. All good.
Then there was the bike. I took a mountain bike out for the day to scour the surrounding area. It's a great way to soak up the charms of local village life, gasp at the hilltop stupas and cool off under the waterfalls, not to mention the ongoing challenge of harsh weather avoidance and the complimentary arse-bruising you get from being on the bike in the first place.
I got miles out, and timed it perfectly to be at the waterfall shelter right on cue for the daily delivery of thrashing rain. With almost an hour of relentless pounding it was quite an experience. But this had it's consequences. The storm had caused a significant rise in river levels, which didn't help with my attempt to shimmy across the other side in my half-eaten flip flops - a move necessary if I wanted to stick my head underneath that waterfall. Within seconds I knew I wouldn't be getting so much as a lick from a waterfall. The river was just one big awkward hazard. There was no chance. Still, I did embark on a little taster and like the dick I am ended up losing a flip flop downstream. Deep breath. This created a bit of a problem. Losing a flip flop when you're riding a mountain bike isn't the greatest of moves, especially if the bike's decorated with one of those wonderfully modern sharp spiky steel pedals.
And so it went, 'One-leg Woz', all the way back to civilisation which I can tell you was an absolute BITCH of a job, especially considering the distance and the terrain involved. A subtle reminder also that my current level of fitness is on par with that of a pensioners.
The silver lining came later, in two forms - which is always nice. One came as a result of stopping randomly on the way back (for a breather as much as anything else) at an unsuspecting family home frontage, to dine on what was clearly their 'spread of the day'. (At this point I feel it should be noted in the Travelogue that this was the exact moment in my travels where I believe I might actually have eaten DOG.) Hon, the bright-faced 12yr old boy who spoke very basic English was a proper little star and made full use of the opportunity to exploit my freely given attention. He'll make a great waiter one day.
The other came shortly after. I don't know what made me wind through a labyrinth of side streets on one-leg like that but I suddenly found myself peering through a gap between two heavy-looking shuttered doors. Inside were two lads battling for their lives on the table tennis table. My oh my. Three minutes later and we're all having a tournament, in full banterous cheer while the occasional spectator popped his head round the door to see what all the commotion was about.
As for the rest of the time in Luang Nam Tha, Ha! Food of course. Being so far north in Laos opens great doors for sampling the double-take that is the Northern Lao cuisine. It's all about the Jeow you see. The Jeow is a delicate blend of locally harvested goodness (chilli based) that's smashed and pounded into an exciting bowl of wholesome flavoursome love, through which you drag freshly cooked veggies, bread, sticky rice or whatever draggable material takes your fancy. The Jeows come in various guises of course, though the Jeow of choice would have to be the Mak Kaen.
Mak Kaen is a spice from the forest which the Akha people collect and sell to the lowland Lao (think pounded green peppercorns on steroids). It has a very unusual tingly peppery bite (a bit like Kava), and mixed with just the right amounts of roasted chilli, onion and garlic makes for an absolutely blinding Jeow. Cos' it really is... all about the Jeow..
Where I stayed