Monday, 23 June 2008

Sunday 8th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two

Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Two
Woke up in my 40,000 kip a night room feeling reasonably well rested. The plan today was to ride to Xam Neua (also spelt (and pronounced) Sam Neua - rather confusing spelling doesn't seem very important to Laotians, and place names are often spelt differently by different people. Xam Neua is the capital of the Houa Phan Province in the far north east of Laos. After breakfasting on sticky rice, stir fried vegies, more free 'soup' (water with something like MSG added and the odd ringlet of spring onion) and some water I bid farewell to Ennau and at the fork in the road turned left following the signpost to Sam Neua some 150km north east of Vieng Thong. Oh yes, and it turns out that the place where I am staying is Vieng Thong, my intended target, so the 'Vieng Thong' village I refueled at many kms back down the road was indeed a fake!

Biking from Vieng Thong to Sam Neua
On the outskirts of Vieng Thong is a commercial petrol station which generally afford the best rates of fuel, currently 11,500kip per litre (70p-ish). Entreprenurial (or opportunistic, but you don't think of that when you're down to your last couple of drops in the middle of nowhere) villagers also sell fuel out of drums or pre-measured in plastic bottles. I filled up The Baja, whose chain was still lose and slapping about on the chainstay and climbed up a semi-sealed road. Dark clouds heavy with rain were pushing in through Vieng Thong which was now engulfed in the familiar grey vertical strands of rain. I was heading east, roughly the direction of the clouds and so attempted to outrun the wet front. It seemed to work. The cloud was slow moving, meaning that even on a road that hugged the contours of the mountain so closely, producing a thousand tight bends, I could just about stay out of the rain. This meant that photograph stops were few and far between, each time I stopped it was a case of whipping the camera out, grabbing a couple of snaps of a valley basking in sunshiiiiine on my right, and a valley about to be drenched on my left, and then jumping back on the bike as the gentle pitter-patter of rain became heavier and heavier. Upon reaching the top of the climb, maybe 15kms into the ride, you ride along a ridge on a semi-sealed road. The seal is broken up at times either by subsidence or tree roots. There were several recent landslides that had partially blocked the road - boulders the size of TV sets sat strewn across the single lane road meaning that you had to be somewhat cautious in your approach to blind bends and summits. Once off the ridge, a long flowing descent through yet more bamboo hut villages lined with waving children, pigs, goats, cows, chickens (who seem to have less road sense than any other creature on earth) etc. drops you down to a T-juntion that thankfully has markers indicating 94k left to Sam Neua and 150k right to Phonsavan. Infact, on this leg of the journey, navigation is at it's most straight forward, you can't really go wrong if you have your eyes open. It was to be a left turn onto Route 6 - a wider and more predictable road that unfortunately took me north east and straight into the thunderstorms that I had so cunningly avoided for the last couple of hours. Should I stop now and find a shelter until the rain had passed, or would I be waiting all day? With the weather around here at this time of year I could be holed up under a thatched roof goofily smiling at intruiged locals for weeks so I decided to push on into the storm clouds. It would be a good test for my waterproof luggage system that I'd devised in Luang Prabang. Route 6 drops you steeply down towards Houa Muang and a whole host of other villages, which all begin with the word 'Ban' which I can only assume means village or somesuch. The majority of villages only have their names in Lao, so the signs are absolutely useless to most farang. After five minutes on this road the heavens opened and in no time I could hardly see a thing as the rain stung into the rest my face and legs which were exposed - I don't have any leathers and no one in Thailand or Laos seems to have heard of knee pads or elbow pads. I tried to purchase some in Luang Prabang but the nearest I got was a sports shop selling ankle supports! The lad in the shop sheepishly explained that there wasn't much call for motorcross gear from the locals. Message understood. Route 6 has handily placed kilometer markers indicating the distance to Xam Neua. When the heavens opened I had 85km to go, it was going to be a long afternoon! My mountainbike jacket held up well, but my ungloved hands became cold and white-finger set in every now and then making it hard to judge how hard I was pulling on the brake/throttle/clutch as I'd lost feeling in my fingers. This can make cornering and slowing down for bends a bit tricky as swtching down a gear and releasing the clutch quickly can cause the rear wheel to skid and slide sideways on the wet surface, a movement which needs correcting pretty quickly. A quick blast of heat from the exhaust pipe sorts that problem out though. I passed through some fantastic low-level scenery as I neared Sam Neua, through my misted sunnies I had spied rice terraces, pagodas, charcoal and copper-coloured karst formations, misty mountain peaks emerging from dense jungle and finally the town of Sam Neua nestled in a valley a couple of hundred meters below. The 'Welcome to Sam Neua' sign was indeed a welcome sight. Ahh, civilization! Food! Hot Shower!

Sam Neua
Arrived in Sam Neua, the capital of Houa Phanh province. Laos is the poorest country in SE Asia by some distance and Houa Phanh is the poorest area of Laos. At this stage I was somewhat wet and bedraggled it was now 4pm meaning I'd covered 150k's in 4.5 hours - slow going indeed but any quicker and I'd have been scraping myself up off the road which had turned into a stream. The weather still looked rather iffy and my sightseeing excursion for the day was another 30k's east at Vieng Xai (the 'X' in this case is prounounced 'sch', note: also spelt Viang Xay) and so I hunted around for a suitable guesthouse. There are at least 5 guesthouses and 3 hotels in Sam Neua, and only a couple of farang a day pass through, I haven't seen a single westerner yet. I opted for a hotel perched on the eastern edge of the Nam Xam bridge overlooking the river (the word for water/river is Nam in Lao). The hotel (Hotel Sam Neua) is a beauty, I garnered a room on the third (top) floor overlooking the river and indeed the whole town. It has only been opened six months (since Jan 2008) and is plush even by western standards - the stairwell is a work of art in itself with carvings of Buddhist dragons/serpents (naga) lining the stairs in ornate fashion. My room was clean and airy and for 120,000 kip ($12) I could hardly grumble, even at twice the price of the nearby guesthouses. Oh, and the hot shower was out of this world.

I ate at the Lonely Planet recommended Dan Nao Muang Xam restaurant, just across the bridge from my hotel and was quickly pounced upon by a lad called Boonthan who spoke very good English. He was infact something of a chatterbox and proceeded to explain that he was an English teacher and also a local guide. No doubt he could explain the caves at Vieng Xai better than anyone else. My ears pricked up a little when he said he was scheduled to do some tutoring this evening. I listened some more and after ascertaining that he was a genuine sort, I asked if I might be able to help him. His eyes lit up an explained that he'd really like me to come and demonstrate to his students how the farang speak English around at his house this evening. This, I thought, would be a learning experience for all of us.

Hand Loom Weavers
Darkness fell on the sleepy town of Sam Neua where I don't think a great deal has happened since the Americans flattened it during the Vietnam war. Subsequently it has been rebuilt so I guess, the river aside, I'm looking at a Laotian New Town, crickey, I'm back in The Nage! At 7pm I returned to 'The Dan' restaurant and lapped up a tasty dish of noodles in soup with beef and vegies and no small amount of chillies. Boonthan arrived and, seeing my lather, kindly dished out tissues. A minute's motorbike ride away we arrived at Boonthan's (very) humble abode. He lives with his two sisters who from what I can gather take it in turns on the loom all day to create long rectangular pieces of cloth that are woven with patterns. The process looked painstaking and indeed was using technolgies that were pre-Industrial Revolution. As a boy at school I remember visiting cotton mill museums (which ofcourse were the life blood of Lancashire for many decades, erm, the mills, not the museums) and seeing demonstrations of how the hand loom weavers would sit at their looms and create garments out of cotton. Arriving at Boonthan's I really got the feeling that I had stepped back into an era that I thought had vanished hundreds of years ago. The girls would set the pattern, with all sorts of colourful threads being woven onto a black background and then pass the wooden shuttle from one side of the weaving frame/loom to the other. Boonthan said it would take two to three days to produce one 'garment', which can be worn in multiple different ways - over the shoulder for example when visiting a temple, as a scarf, a skirt etc. and these would sell for 50,000kip. By my maths that's one pound per day. I declined to buy one for my 'girlfriend in Engrand' (which somehow I had acquired, the same way I acquired a wife and two children last night) simply because I am living out of a 20litre rucksac for seven days and cannot physically carry it with me, which is a shame.

Engrish Ressons
Boonthan's English is quite good, he has a Thai-English dictionary and a tatty English phrase book dated 1955. Boonthan was proficient enough at the language to be concerned with grammar, phonetics, tone and sense-stress which are all very different to the Lao way of speaking. I could see that he'd been giving lessons already today as he had a list of words on the blackboard that all sounded alike, even though their meanings were competely unrelated, eg. wine, time, shine, line (I began to wonder if he was a secret Oasis fan!). He asked me to pronounce the words slowly and then at normal speed and he would copy me and then the two students would copy him. He struggled a little with 'th', 'ch', 'w', 'l' and 'gg' sounds but we got there. He was very pleased to have a farang help show him and his students the correct pronunciation, well the pseudo-Lancastrian one at any rate! The students were 'By Eck'-ing like little good 'uns by the time I'd finished with them. Sengdao hailed from Sam Neua and Lee was born here too but his family is from the Hmong tribe, immigrants from China I believe. They were both 17, although due to their height and complexion looked about 13. They were both very attentive and somewhat shy, they'd only been learning Engrish for a month or so. I tried to be as encouraging as possible to help them speak up and practise. During the two hour session they gradually became more confident and by the end of the evening we were able to role play asking each other our names, ages, where we were from, if we could speak Lao or English and so on. As the boys carefully took notes in Lao and English it gave me a little time to ponder on the impact the learning of English would have on their lives. Would it be all positive (they'd be able to converse with farang and therefore have better access to money), or would it turn them into the sort of Laotian I'd met in Luang Prabang who abandon their own values and ways of life (even if they are hundreds of years 'behind' the west) and transform themselves into pests who rather than work with the Farang are always trying to rip them off? Was my intended good deed going to work out for good or for bad? My conclusion was that all good things can be used or abused, just about every scientific and tehnological advancement has proved this (see Nobel's dynamite, Oppenheimer's nuclear bomb, genetic modification of crops, animals and humans, Tim Berners-Lee internet and so on). I'll leave it up to Sengdao and Lee to choose their path. For me it felt good to help these kids have a brighter future than subsistance farming.

Beer Lao Style
As is happens, Lee's family run a little shop and they sell beer, so to pay for the lesson he'd brought a couple of bottles of something like Beer Lao but not quite. Boonthan explained that when Laotians drink, they open one bottle and share the same glass. Warning, warning, warning! The spectre of catching Hep B or some jungle fever that these lads were immune to sent alarm bells firing off all over my head. I would quite happily not participate but it seemed I had no choice. They poured a mouthful each and in turn we drank, I taught them 'cheers' and they taught me 'gnok' (pronounced 'nyuk'). We shared two bottles between four of us. The little fellas were visibly tired - Laotians rise with the sun around 5 or 6am usually, so we shook hands, I grabbed a photo in front of the white board 'from Thailand, 83,000kip, cheap cheap' beamed Boonthan. Cruised back to my hotel and began to count my lucky stars I was born in England. Had another wrestless nights sleep despite being in very comfortable surroundings, I wonder if that is attributable to Doxy? I don't even get to the stage where I get bad dreams.

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