Arvid is getting restless in idyllic Luang Prabang, and we still have to spend another 2 weeks in Laos before our visas for Vietnam are effective. Our planned route is to go from here to the Plain of Jars and then to Sam Neua near the border. But those two destinations won't take up a whole two weeks. Since reading "Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma" in which Shelby Tucker describes his crossing of Burma when he was 50 years old, Arvid has been wanting to visit the Golden Triangle where Burma, China and Laos meet, if not actually walk through Burma. This is the real "golden triangle" not Houghton Lake, Higgins Lake and Lake St. Helen. Irina is quite content to enjoy the comforts of Luang Prabang for a while longer. So she decides to stay here while Arvid pursues his boys' magazine adventure in the mountains of northern Laos. Muang Sing is his destination and the first leg of the trip is to Luang Nam Tha
. The local bus leaves at 9 AM to tomorrow and costs 100 kip for an 8 hr ride and included the tuk-tuk from the guesthouse to the bus station on the edge of town.
Arvid promised to keep a journal of his side trip and report back to Irina. But that didn't last long and he had to pull most of the story together later from memory when he finally returned. So we aren't sure anything he said happened actually occurred or whether he was just making it up. But here's his story.
June 5, 2007
Luang Nam Tha
Irina had packed a day bag for me with everything she knew I would need for my adventure like I was going off to camp. In addition she doled out 1,000,000 kip for my trip. A million kip may sound like a lot but it's only $100 for me to get all the way to Muang Sing, have an adventure, and return to tell the tale.
Considering the remoteness of the territory and the poverty of the country the road from Luang Prabang to Nam Tha is in good shape. The route goes through beautiful monsoon forests clinging to cloud shrouded mountains. In between the scenery I finished reading the last chapters of "Air America: From WWII to Vietnam" by Christopher Robbins. Many of the pilots he interviewed told him that the best part of flying missions over Laos was the beautiful landscape
. This was certainly true. Also that one of the great dangers was flying in to the clouds which would suddenly hide the irregularly shaped mountain tops. And I could see how this would definitely be a problem as I saw ragged peaks one moment and the next it would be flat top mountain. It was about 5 PM when the bus arrived at Luang Nam Tha and I was immediately lost. Irina usually reads our guidebook in route so she knows how to get around the town. I hadn't more than only glanced at the guidebook until I got off the bus. I decided to look like I knew where I was going and walked through the covered market across from the bus terminal out the other side to what looked like a main street. I tried to orient myself with the town map in the guidebook, but nothing looked right. I could no longer pretend I knew where I was going or even where I was. I just kept walking out of town passing guest houses whose names did not appear in the guidebook. Nature was urgently calling as I turned into the last guest house, the name of which I can't tell you as it was written in Sanskrit on a Beer Lao sign. The lady who greeted me turned out to be the owner's daughter and she took me up to what she considered their finest room. "Lav inclu" she said, in rough English, meaning I did not have to share a bathroom. The place was depressing, but I figured I could do a lot worse in this town. So I gave her the 30,000 kip (#3.00) she asked for and she gave me the key to the padlock on the door. After using the "lav inclu" with a cold water shower I cable locked my day pack to the bed and left to find someplace to eat
. With guidebook in hand I tried to find a place called The Panda Restaurant. No matter how I turned the map around the Panda would not appear. I finally broke down and asked someone. The Panda is a favorite for traveling expats: menu in English, a good chicken sandwich on a baguette, and service that leaves you with lots of time to make conversation with the other customers who are waiting for their orders or just for the menu. Just help yourself to a Beer Lao from the cooler and relax. A local once asked me if I knew what the PDR in Lao PDR meant? "Of course" I said, " it means Peoples Democratic Republic." "Good Mr. Political Man", he replied, "but it also means Please Don't Rush." A Finnish traveler finished his soup and moved to my table. Before my sandwich arrived he had time to tell me a long story of his travels and how he had worked for three months as a truck driver in Finland to earn money for his trip and how the owner stiffed him out of the entire three months salary. He has an attorney taking care of it but he thinks the attorney will get most of it. I said I liked a story with a happy ending. By the time I got my order it was dark outside. After the Fin had left I was the only customer. While eating I had noticed an old lady squatting just outside of the doorway staring at me. Her body language communicated dependence . . . on me in particular. I readied a 1,000 kip note to the top of my pocket so I wouldn't have to fumble around for it. I expected her to stick out her hand for alms as I passed her on the way out
. But she remained squatting. So I continued out into the dark deserted street. I don't know if Irina has told you but I have a tendency to get lost even when I'm with her. I know I'm with her and she knows where we are, but that is her job. Mine is to just enjoy the trip. If she were to say, in the middle of some city, "I think we are lost" well then we are. But that never happens. I tried to remember how I had gotten here from the Beer Lao Guest House, but I had taken so many turns searching for the Panda I gave that exercise up. But I did know how I got to the guest house from the bus terminal. I had gone through the market and continued in a straight line. But where was the bus terminal. At a rational level I knew there wasn't much danger. If I walked systematically up and down every street I probably would find the guest house. It might take hours. But what if I did not recognize it; I hadn't taken a good look when I rushed in to use the "lav inclu". And the lights would probably be out at this time. I'm starting to feel a little tightening in the chest. From behind me a hand touches my arm. I turned and there is the squatting dependent women. She rubs her tummy and sticks her hand out. I hand her the 1,000 kip note poised at the top of my pocket. She dops with her hands pressed together in a prayer gesture and says kop chi. I dop back and turned around, immediately and miraculously there is the bus depot before me.
In the morning I get on a sawngthaew, which is a pickup with two benches running down either side of the bed with a roof, for the one and a half hour trip to Muang Sing. By now it is to me the legendary Muang Sing. Opium is grown in the mountains in this region and from the Air America book I learned that the Hmong General Vang Pao, had placed an order for 25 tons of the stuff from the Shan people in Burma. It was said that Shan put together a horse caravan 2 miles long to travel mountain paths to deliver it. But their Yunnan Chinese competitors ambushed them near here and the fighting went on for days. General Vang Pao, being also the "law" in these parts had to keep the peace and his army forcibly evicted the combatants on both sides keeping the opium for their troubles without paying the Shan. I would have liked to have gotten a photo of myself in a poppy field in bloom, but it apparently was not the right season and even if it were it would have cost me $100 to get someone to lead me to the nearest one. $200 if I wanted to return alive. Along the roads there are signs reading "Replanting Project to Replace Poppys." Since these are in English my guess is they are there to convince the DEA that Laos is doing its part and to keep the money coming. Who would be growing poppies in sight of the road anyway. There are reportedly 100,000 opium addicts in Laos and it is a plague on the nation. The question in my mind was whether the billions of US taxpayer dollars had any effect on the opium trade in Muang Sing? I had given myself one day to find the answer
. When my sawngthaew arrived in Muang Sing I was greeted by some women in traditional dress trying to sell me bracelets made of small colored shells. It was hard to get pass these women. One woman tied a bracelet to my wrist. When I started bargaining with her, two others pleaded with me to buy theirs also. I got them down to 1000 kip or 10 cent a bracelet. I felt guilty because it must have taken hours to make just one. I bought 10 from each one or thirty in all. They put them in a plastic bag and handed it to me with dops all around. I found a room at a nice looking guest house with a western toilet attached for 40,000 ($4). When I dumped the bag out and spread the bracelets out on the bed I was shocked to find among the loot a shiny cellophane packet about the size of a dime containing a black sticky substance. What to do? I recalled that Shelby Tucker in his autobiographical book "Among Insurgents" had described his ethical dilemma when invited by a Shan insurgent general to join him in smoking opium. He said that other than sleeping soundly that night there was no exceptional effect. I decided to think about it and stowed the bracelets and packet in my pack and locked it up.
When I left my room I immediately met a young Japanese couple who seemed to think some private joke was hilariously funny. They were having fits of uncontrollable laughter; as soon as one stopped the other started and so it went on. I thought they must know something I didn't and that my adventure would be moved forward if I found out what it was
. So I made their acquaintance. Between barely repressed bursts of mirth they said they were thinking of going to China and did I want to come along. He's name was Hiki and hers was Masako. Muang Sing is only 12k from the China boarder, but the border crossing there is open only to locals not foreigners. They knew this but they just wanted to go to the border and "see" China. We rented three mountain bikes and headed off into the mountains to find China. It is all uphill to China with little or no shade. The joint of my right big toe had been aching with gout for several days and I should have taken some gout medication while in Luang Prabang. But I only had enough medication for one course of treatment and I wanted to save it until it got really bad. It was feeling bad now. It wasn't long before whatever had caused Hiki and Masako to be so merry wore off and there was no more laughter. So I never found out the answer to that question. But they were very friendly and, other than wanting to go to a closed border, seemed lucid. Hiki was leading while Masako and I trailed behind. We had been told that it would take ½ hour to bike to the border, but after about an hour we stopped for water at a guest house and were told that we had 4 more kilometers to go. The steepest part lay ahead. We peddled up the mountain road for another 2k when we came to some guard shacks and solders. We were ordered to stop, which wasn't hard for me and I felt relieved to comply. The solders thought we were comical to have come so far just to see the border which we couldn't cross
. The border was another 2k away, but they weren't going to let us go any farther. We joked with the solders and headed back downhill.
A few kilometers back towards town we came to another guesthouse, the Adima, and stopped for lunch. From there we hiked to a Mien village and then biked to an Akha village. By the time we finished with the villages it was late afternoon. On the way back to town we hardly had to peddle at all. After returning our mountain bikes, I parted company with Hiki and Masako and stopped at a restaurant across from the Muang Sing Exhibitions building. I had a nice dinner of ginger fried chicken with sticky rice, which I thought it was the best I've ever had, but then I was really hungry. I wish I had gotten the recipe. That evening, back at the Beer Lao guest house, I was still faced with the quandary of what to do with the surprise package among my bracelets. I recalled that Harold Robbins in his book on Air America had told of a 68 year old retired Indiana farmer named "Pop" Buell who risked his life to run a one-man Christian refugee relief project feeding hundreds of thousands of Laotians displaced in the jungles during the war. He dissolved small amounts of opium in whiskey to fight frequent bouts of virulent dysentery. When I woke in the morning the pain in my right big toe was totally gone. Not even a twinge of it has left. My prescription medication had never worked that fast. Even cortisone shots given by my doctor back home had not acted that fast. The gout was gone and has not returned.