Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Golden Triangle traipsing

DIEN BIEN PHU: The Akha hill-tribe woman approached as we sat eating breakfast. They had approached before and always waved them away with a "no thank you" and a smile to their offer of handicrafts. This old woman in her traditional dress with her hat adorned with bright and shiny objects proceeded to place all her items on the table anyway.

After refusing all the small bags and bracelets she finally came close to me and whispering through her betel nut stained teeth said "Opium?". Excuse me, what did she say? "Opium?" she whispered again, closer this time.

We were in the notorious Golden Triangle. The loose area surrounding the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma intersect. The area is a bit of fable now. All the countries have tightened up their drug control but obviously poppy is still being cultivated.

There is no discernible sign announcing that you have entered the triangle, although at some point we must have. I guess we passed into the general area as we travelled up the Mekong on our slow boat and landed at the border town of Huay Xai.

In the town itself they were offering day trips to the actual point of intersect and promoting it as "The Golden Triangle". We didn't take the trip but I am betting there would be no opium there though. About as adventurous as we became during our rest day in Huay Xai, where we recuperated from the long days on the boat, was to go and visit the local Red Cross sauna and massage.

For some strange reason spending 10 minutes inside a tiny herbal steam filled room and sweating the last drop out of you is quite invigorating. And sweating is what we did but in a different way when we did a two day trek from Muang Sing to overnight in an Akha village.

Muang Sing is closer to other triangle, the one where China, Burma and Laos meet, than the Golden one to the south. The Akha had originally come across from China and in fact, as we discovered in a leisurely bike ride, the border is only 10km away.

Our trek had been organised through the local provincial government tourist agency. Apparently this is the only legitimate way to do it and in my eyes this can only be a good thing. So unlike similar "treks" that I have seen in northern Thailand and heard about in northern Vietnam, these treks in Laos are less of a tourist circus and more of a this is how we are, like it or not. There were no "long neck village - bamboo rafting trek" here.

A Belgium couple and us were the only ones in the group. Our guide was from the local area and we were joined by another guide who could speak Akha. After a short tuk-tuk ride to an accessible Akha village we set off.

On the way to our overnight stay we were told and shown the culture of Akha. They are Animists and have a strong sense of the spirits that surround them. At the edge of their villages they construct spirit gates to allow spirits and only spirits to pass. We walked around them. They are usually also adorned with items to warn the spirits not to mess with the village.

We were also told how the Akha have their own style of massage. And this later became a blessing after the 7 hours of trekking through rain and personally having to remove two bloated leeches from my legs. We were in need of some pummeling and pummeling is what we got. It seemed Akha style was more rough than gentle. It was intense but felt good afterwards.

A night with the cocks crowing in the darkness and then we said our goodbyes and trekked back to town. We were both struck by how similar Laos, in its ethnic cultures, terrain and landscape, is and yet very different to Papua New Guinea. One thing is for sure PNG just dreams about getting the sort of tourists that visit Laos.

The guesthouse
Our guesthouse and resident pigs in the village

From Muang Sing our plan was to move across the north of the country on roads less travelled and enter into Vietnam via a newly opened border near the town of Dien Bien Phu. For history lovers DBP is better known as the location where in 1954 the French suffered its catastrophic loss against the Ho Chi Minh led communists. This eventually led to the creation of North Vietnam.

To pass this way we finally experienced what we had read and heard about the bus trips of Laos. How bad they can be. The prelude to the ultimate bus adventure was when we were leaving Luang Nam Tha to get to Oudomxay, the major junction town of the north. The bus was full and my seat had had its padding replaced with a plank, which would have been fine expect the roads were some the most potholed in Laos.

On top of that the bus's front right brake decided to lock up and numerous stops were made to bash and convert water into clouds of steam by pouring it on the hot brake pad. But this was only the precursor to a real adventure ahead.

It came after we made it from Oudomxay to little Muang Khou where we had to spend two nights on the banks of the Nam Ou river – the bus for our final leg in Laos through to Dien Bien Phu only runs every second day. To kill time in this small town I had sat and watched the passing of people back and forth over the Nam Ou via little ferry boats or more riveting when two large coal trucks had to be shunted over on a barge.

It seemed that not much traffic actually passed this way - and we were to find out later why. To get the heavy coal trucks over the river involved the use of not only the small tug attached to the barge but five small river boats all attached to one end heaving and straining to push the barge across the fast flowing Nam Ou. It was a sight.

Pushing the coal truck across the Nam Ou

The next day it was our turn to cross over at a very early hour and stake our seat on the bus. After delaying for an hour or so we departed and all was well on the road for a while. True the road was more goat track than autobahn but we were steadily moving.

It was only when there was another bus broken down on an incline in the middle of a very muddy section that there were thoughts as to whether we would get there. It took over an hour to negotiate the stuck bus with everyone involved pulling on ropes. It didn't take long heaving to get a muddy ourselves. The wet season had after all now started.

Mud troubles
Passing the broken down bus on the muddy road

This was only the beginning, around the next corner was one of the coal trucks that crossed the river the previous morning parked in the middle of the road and not going anywhere. A drop off into the steep valley below was perilously close. I have forgotten to mention that this is rugged but very beautiful country and we were driving up the side of a mountain.

After getting the truck to back up we managed to pass it with more rope pulling. But of course around the next corner was other coal truck, and more pulling. By this time I was covered in mud and sweating profusely along with the rest of the bus. Did we get a discount for this? No.

In the end a journey that should have taken 3-4 hours over a 90km stretch of road from town to town, took a total of 9 hours from start to finish. An average of 10km an hour, you could almost walk it. Needless to say we were stuffed and tired by the time Dien Bien Phu arrived.

Our trip through wonderful Laos is now finished, and it is a little bit saddening. Laos is a brilliant country and the people are wonderful. It is developing but hopefully not too much. Oh and if you are wondering we didn't touch the opium.

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