October in Luang Namtha

This is our favourite time of year in Luang Namtha, September and October last year were also amazing here – with the rain finished, the rice fields green, the sky blue, the evenings cooling down and the days warm.  Around the time Tim left, (a few days before) the rainy season just stopped –  just like that – no warning, no easing off, one day it was raining and the next it wasn’t, and it hasn’t rained since.  Instantly the evenings cooled down, so that sometimes now a light jacket is needed after 6ish and the sky is just brilliant blue all the time.  We did have a few insanely hot days as well, but mainly the season has quite obviously changed overnight.

Changing Rice fields in Luang Namtha

We’ve had a really action packed few weeks; we started by having pasta night at the shop – something which we hope will be every night as soon as our cook starts!  Then one of the local schools asked us if they could use our speakers (since they are really the only ones in town!) and do a school dance performance in the main street in front of our shop.  It was really cool and after the main dancing, some of the same girls came out dressed in their traditional tribal dress and did a Hmong dance as well which was a real crowd-puller.  Soon we had the main street filled with locals and tourists watching them dance and the traffic just had to wait for them to finish!

Hmong dance from Samakee school in Luang Namtha

Then came the end of Buddhist Lent.  We didn’t anticipate that this would be such a massive event in town.  It started on the first day with everyone getting up at about 5am to pay their respects to the temple and give alms to the monks and money to the temple.  We wanted to visit our favourite stupa (the one you’ve seen a million photos of!) and that was lucky because that was also the one Thong’s family visits so we went with Thong, Paet, and also took another of our friends Manylin.  Oudone went to the temple in the old town and many people also visited the other old stupa in our town.

Representing Forest Retreat wearing green to give alms at the temple!

It was amazing to see everyone all dressed up in their beautiful Lao silk wearing a sash and carrying a silver or gold bowl filled with alms.  First we went inside the temple and edged our way on our knees to the front and then put incense, candles, money and sticky rice at the front.  By the time we got there we both thought our knees may never work again and we both had sore knees and Karen had bruises on hers for several days afterwards!  Perhaps you have to be Lao and have practised all your life to spend extended periods of time on hard floors with no cushioning – westerners are definitely too soft for this.

Giving alms in Luang Namtha at the end of Buddhist Lent

Then we had to take our bowls and line up and give money and food into each bowl along a long line of about 30 bowls until we got to the end, ad then visited the family stupa (we went with Thong to his) and then got blessed by a monk.  We also got to draw a number out of a box and got given our fortune – which amazingly came true within a day.

Then we went back into town and prepared for the evenings celebrations – the Loi Krotung festival where people send boats made from banana tree trunks and decorated with banana leaves and flowers down the river to send away any bad luck and welcome good luck into their lives.  They also let off lantens made of rice paper, so the sky is filled with glowing balls of light which is pretty cool.

Loi Krotung festival in Luang Namtha

The temple representatives (monks, the head dude and temple caretakers) then came down with their boat – the same boat that we all put the alms into that morning, and decorated it with candles and sent it down the river also.  They also let off a huge rocket with no warning and scared the living daylights out of everyone – when the rocket started spraying sparks all over people standing nearby we all ran and just hoped like hell that no one got hurt.  Which thankfully, no one did (thanks to amazing Lao safety standards of course!).  Each village then sent a boat down the river too.

Temple boat in Luang Namtha before it is released on the river

The next day was the party part of  the event – the Dragon Boat festival.  This day was ridiculously hot – around 40 degrees and really humid – coupled with thousands of people gathered together on the riverbank made us really thankful that we’d scored a space in the shade with tables and chairs in the tourism office’s tent.  Probably otherwise there would have been no way we could have stayed and watched because it was just too hot.  It was cool to see yet another Lao party – although these days we do our best usually to avoid them because they’re just so loud – but it really brings home what a peaceful country this is.  With speakers at top volume and thousands of people squashed together on one of the hottest days of the year, everyone drunk but no one disorderly – there was only happiness, cheerfulness and peacefulness.  For more info on the Buddhist Lent celebrations and more photos check out Luang Namtha Guide which Karen now writes as well.

The following day it was time to go and visit our friend Kumbai’s newborn baby boy, who was at that point about a week old.  We took a baby blanket for him and the traditional Lao present of washing powder.

We spent the following days riding around Luang Namtha taking in the beautiful rice fields before they are cut.  It is so sad when the rice is cut (although technically we shouldn’t say that because it provides food and money for all of Laos pretty much!) but the fields turn golden and then the rice is cut and left is just brown stems.  It changes the landscape so dramatically that when you see it brown it’s hard to even imagine how amazing it all looks when it’s a sea of green.  (Even if you know what it looks like).

From the Old Stupa looking over Luang Namtha

We visited the old stupa and chilled out for a couple of hours, and the new one too.  You all probably think we’ve become religious by the amount of times we go to the stupas, (not that there would be anything wrong with that!) but really it’s just to soak up the amazing views and peacefulness there.  Once up there you can usually hear nothing, apart from some insects, and so both stupas are pretty awesome places to be.  So if we had to pick a religion, it would be the religion of hanging out at the stupas looking at the views!

New Stupa looking over Luang Namtha

The first salad was made in the shop – all the time, every day, progress is taking place in the shop and there are still many, many ‘firsts’ at the  moment.  We can’t wait to get the pizza oven built (still waiting for our permit!!!), our cooks to start and then we’ll have a real cafe!  So far the food we are making is a real hit – it’s the only western food anyone can get in town and people who have been travelling for months (or sometimes days;) ) can’t get enough of real western food.  (As opposed to the dodgy Asian versions that are usually the only option if there is any attempt at western food!)  So lots has been happening, and lots is still to happen.  Step by step we will get there!  Our photos of the past few weeks are here.

Last week in Luang Namtha (for now)

Our  journey to leave Luang Namtha this time was the worst ever.  Not that we’ve had a bad journey leaving before, but if we had, this one would have topped it.  We have travelled with chickens before, goslings, songbirds, a goat, but never before a pig.  Until now.  It started off alright, we found out on the morning we left that we could get a minivan, which is always a plus because it’s usually faster and more comfortable than the bus.  It’s normal for both the buses and minivans to stop along the way, if they have room, and pick up anyone who wants a ride.  This time, one of the guys who wanted a ride had a pig.  Oh my god the smell of this pig was disgusting, even Dre (who never feels carsick), for the first time in the entire trip was almost vomiting with the smell of this pig and the winding road.  We kept telling the driver “Bor hom!”  (Smells very bad!) but it didn’t make any difference – the guy and his pig needed a ride, and the driver would make money if he gave them one, so that was that.

Finally after a couple of hours, man and pig departed our minivan and we all breathed a sigh of relief for the rest of the journey to the border.  Then, we managed to score the worst bus driver we’ve ever had in Thailand, with constant tooting (OK so you’d expect this in Vietnam, not Thailand though) and windows which were stuck open making 3 hours of gale force winds.

So now we are extremely pleased that this journey is over.  The final week in Luang Namtha was good though.  We got given honorary Lao names – Dre is Com Deng (Red Gold) and Karen is Bour Sang (Unfurling Rose emiting light).  We discovered one of the craziest fruits yet – jungle figs which are bright purple  on the outside, bright (almost flourescent) pink on the inside, with jelly in the centre.  We saw maybe the coolest moth we’ve ever seen, and Mrs Thoulasith (who we stay with) gave Karen green fabric to make another Lao skirt, so that it would match the green Forest Retreat Laos building.  (Paet then made the skirt, thanks Paet!).  And we taught Lai, one of our favourite local restauranteurs how to make hamburgers!

We also attended our good friends Alack and Deng’s graduation from English teachers training school.  This was both entertaining and gruelling – it was one of the hottest days we’ve had, topping 40 degrees and we were outside for 4 hours waiting for the ceremony to finish.  For entertainment while we waited, our other friend Bunmee decided it’d be a good idea to rent out his falang friends (ie: us) and charge his friends to have photos taken with us!  We thought this was hilarious, locals lined up to have their photo taken with their first falangs.  Then Bunmee wrapped some wire attached to a battery around his photo printer plug, and proceeded to print out photos of us and sell them for 5000 kip each.

As well as that, we rode around on motorbikes with Thong and Paet, sorted out the Forest Retreat shop with many instructions for while we’re gone, and had yet another Luang Namtha leaving party arranged by Thong and Paet.

We are quite sad to be leaving this time but also super excited to see our families again soon.  Our photos are here.

The ‘normality’ of Northern Laos

We have had to laugh numerous times in the past couple of weeks at the things that seem so normal to us now and yet still have other tourists exclaiming about.

For example – the most common traffic obstruction on the roads is the dogs.  You have to drive around them, as usually they are taking up most of the road with 10 or so of them sitting in the middile of the road.  Even if you toot they don’t move, most don’t even lift their heads to see what is coming.  The dogs are as chilled out as the people.

– seeing the ‘headlights’ on the front of trucks is really a guy sitting on the bonnet holding a torch

– eating foods sharing the same bowls at Lao’s – there is no ‘western hygiene’ of having your own plate, you just all dig in to the main bowl and it is considered completely normal.

– cooking our lettuce in noodle soups – now seems completely normal and delicious

– spending each morning on our run and most afternoons up at the temple has become a part of our daily routine.  Most people we tell think we are crazy to go back to the same place over and over, but the profound silence and the amazing views keep beckoning us back.

– having to go into shops, choose what we want, and then yell ‘Sabaidee!!!’ many times to get anyone to come and take money off us for the goods we want.

– having to go to the local market to get the shop vendor to come back to his shop, (which is fully open with all products on display) to sell us stuff.

– communicating solely with hand gestures and actions.  We are now fully versed in having quite detailed conversations and all parties understand each other and no words (or at least no words we can understand) have been spoken.

– we have now ‘conquered’ the local Akha community and we have Akha friends who have given us honorary bracelets.  (If you have been to northern Laos you will understand about the bracelets!)  In return we have bought a few kilos of oranges and fish for their families.  So instead of them trying to sell us stuff like the other tourists, they come and hang out with us and share our dinner.  It’s quite fun.

This  morning we were excited to see not one, not two, but three trekking tours leaving Thong’s office, a couple of weeks back with his old sign he was lucky to be getting one tour a week, now today he has three in one day.  We heard his voice calling out to us from in the centre of a crowd of 20+ falangs, ‘Andrej!  Karen!  Please.  I buy you breakfast.  You help me and you bring me all of this business and I want to thank you.’   So it is really, really nice to have made a positive difference for him in this town.

All in all we love this place.  We have talked about getting a house here for a while to just live in northern Laos (we even chose the place we want the house).  For now though we are going back to Thailand to stay with Ben and Christerine for the next week and after that we aren’t sure.  We will probably finally go to Vietnam after that but for now our options are open, and there is no doubt that we will find ourselves back here at some point in the not too distant future.  It is uncanny how this place has become our little home away from home in Asia and we really do love it here.

Market Madness

After a recent skype conversation with our good friends Nick and Amber, we promised Nick we would do a blog post on the foods at the local markets.   So Nick, brace yourself, here are many, many photos of the markets.  Also let it be noted, that taking photos of the meat (or should I say chopped up animals, with legs, head etc still intact) got so gruesome that Dre had to take over the photography so that Karen wasn’t sick.  Big tubs of congealed blood, eyes looking at us and hooves with skin, hair and legs still attached got a bit much for us.  The second day we wanted to take photos of the massive water buffalo skulls even Dre couldn’t do it, because the smell was so bad… so you missed out on a few pics.  Mainly these photos are of veges though – many of them unidentified….there are heaps of photos and hopefully enough to keep you happy!

Going to the markets has been a huge part of our daily life as we usually visit the morning market and the evening market and it’s so nice to see all the local people going about their daily lives, and to get delicious meals as well.  So, Nickman, and anyone else who is interested, here are your photos.

Luang Namtha

We’ve had a really fun few days back in Luang Namtha.  Our first day back we were here by ourselves and took Alek, a local Lao guy who works at our guesthouse to lunch at the nearby restaurant.  He was so happy that he decided to cook us breakfast the next morning and also offered for us to accompany him to the temple celebrations on today, as well as visit his house in his village.  We jumped at the chance to do this!

He made us an awesome Lao breakfast with 4 different vegetarian dishes and they were all awesome!  We invited Tricia to come to the morning temple celebration with us too and so we all met at 6.30am and set out.  It was amazing to be invited and we were the only white people there in amongst several hundred Lao’s and everyone was so friendly.  When the ceremony was finished Alek asked the monks if we could have our photos with them and they agreed – it was such a cool morning.  Then we went to his house and had sticky rice with some kind of yellow root vegetable.  It was so interesting to see the village and inside a traditional home; the walls were wallpapered with newspaper articles and calendars and other various pictures, and they have 4 small wooden chairs for the whole house.

We’ve been running up to the temple each morning and also visiting some days for the sunset as well because it is just so spectacular.  We’ve also found even more unidentified foods, some more fruits which we have never seen or heard of before, and the night market ladies basically know us now and we can order our ‘usual’ dish at a couple of places.  Last night we saw a small boy looking a bit dismayed so Dre went up and bought him a blow up green dinosaur and the look of pure joy and delight on his and his 2 friends faces was totally unparelleled with anything we have witnessed before and was really priceless for us.  His mother and friends were so excited and he ran around the market for the next 10 minutes or so totally elated.  It makes us want to do that everywhere we go!  It was awesome!  Eric and Emma left today for Nong Khiaw, where we were originally going to go tomorrow (before deciding that we might stay here and go back to Muang Sing for another weekend) and Tricia is going there tomorrow, so they have convinced us to go with them instead of staying here and we have all decided to catch the same boat on Sunday down to Luang Prabang.  Our photos of the past few days are here.