Nam Tha

Amazing 48 hours Part II

May 26, 2005

The driver snored all night, the 20 year old rolled his legs on to mine at one point and roosters started their wakeup call at 4:15 AM. It started getting light at 5:00 AM and the village was slowly starting their day. It was a beautiful morning with the misty clouds hanging in the valley of the river. The boat was being packed by 5:15 AM.

While the family loaded the boat we had the opportunity to shoot a few photos. The kids loved seeing themselves on the screen of our digital camera. The girls giggled and would pose more enthusiastically as we continued to take pictures. I really got a kick out of showing them pictures of themselves. I wish I could have made prints for them right there. While I was taking pictures Tina was entertaining another group of kids by showing the pictures of our dogs.

The chief walked by and I presented him with our playing cards and said, "khawp jai", as I put the palms of my hands together and put my right cheek on my left hand. He raised his right hand pointing his right thumb towards his nose and said something in Lao. It sounded thankful and genuine. I imagined Bob Smith, my pool partner in Denver, saying "You're a scholar and a gentleman." Who knows he could have said, "Stupid white man, I don't know how to play any card games."

After a few more exchanges of items between the family and the tribe, such as chicks, and we took off. It was 6:00 AM, the chief was in our boat along with 4 guys from the village. We were on the river less than twenty minutes when we pulled over to another village. We were instructed to get out and head up the hill. "Was this all the farther we had to go the night before to make to the family's tribe?", we asked each other. Everybody got out of the boat except the family and the boat driver. We followed the others up the hill and back down to the river when we realized why we got off the boat. They had to shoot the boat through a narrow opening with some fast moving rapids. We stood there only a couple minutes when the boat came shooting up, the leprechaun driving the boat, the mom and the daughter in the middle, the 15 year old, and the original driver in front with their bamboo rods in hand.

They made it to the top of the rapids, but lost one of the bamboo rods in the process and couldn't continue forward because the water was too shallow. Leprechaun cut the motor back as the two in front jumped out to hold the boat. The leprechaun got a wide eyed look on his face and motioned for us to come out and help push the boat before it went back into the rapids. I ran out to the boat as I envisioned our very new, very expensive camera floating down the river with the rest of our bags. We were able to push the boat up the river out of harms way.

The chief stayed at the village, over half the people on the boat had wet clothes and it was only 6:30 PM. Within twenty minutes we were stuck in shallow water again. I got out to help push. I was at the back of the boat pushing it when I heard, "beep beep, beep beep." It was the alarm clock on my watch. I set it for 7:00 AM the day before to begin this journey. I turned it off, laughed to myself and continued to push the boat.

We pushed the boat to deeper water, before I got back in. I noticed our propeller was broke. I also noticed 6 somewhat intact propellers laying in the back of the boat. Several times the day before we stopped to fix the boat after the engine would rev up too high. I just figured out that this was happening because we were breaking off propellers all day in the shallow water. They put on a new propeller and we were off again. A couple hours later and few more times helping push the boat we made it to the family's village, the place we were suppose to stop the night before.

As we pulled up to the rocky beach a few guys building or repairing another longtail said something to the family. I took it as, "What the hell happen to guys last night?" The family started to unload the boat and we helped out. The mother motioned for us to follow her up to the village and said the word, "eat". We offered to help carry some items up to the village. I carried two bags of rice and Tina carried a squat toilet and a huge speaker, the kind used to at high school football games by the announcer.

We walked to what we think was the family's hut. Inside was a stereo system with a microphone, a tape deck and an amp. The stereo was hooked up to a 12 volt car battery with a spare sitting right next to it. I stood there observing the room as my shorts dripped water onto the floor.

A man walked in to the room and offer us a chair to sit on. He spoke some English. I grabbed my shorts to show them they were dripping wet, he acted like this was not a problem, so I sat down. Next thing I know he had out these tribal textiles trying to sell as many as possible. Feeling like we should help support their culture we decided to buy one, a table runner. We said we only had Baht, no Kip. Tina got him down to 100 baht from 150. I had to run back to the boat to get the money. I grabbed 200 baht just in case. I gave him the 100 baht and he left.

Tina and I sat in this room by ourselves while the mother was cooking food in the next room. We sat there looking around the room while talking about our adventure in Laos so far when the mother brought us some sticky rice, ramen noodles, and a bottle of our own water. She also brought over some very very hot coffee. We ate the food, I drank both coffees. We helped clean up and were getting ready to leave when the mother gestured for some money. She held up 2 fingers and we figured out she wanted 200 baht for the food and coffee. I only had the 100 in my pocket and I gave it to her. It took some pointing and grunting to let her know I had to get more money from the boat. We got up to head out, Tina used the squat toilet real quick, we started walking towards the boat when I said to Tina, "We are getting taken here".

Our original payment of 4000 baht to the BAP Guest House in Huay Xai was to cover the boat ride from Huay Xai to Na Lee, overnight lodging at the village, dinner the first night, and breakfast the next morning. Here she is getting money for a breakfast we didn't even want. She was also trying to get money for a tuk tuk driver in Na Lee. Our 4000 baht was also to include a truck ride from Na Lee to Luang Namtha, but we were not real sure that part was going to get covered. Still there is no reason we should be paying her for a tuk tuk driver.

We get back to the boat and I discover I only have a 50 baht note and several 1000 baht notes. Mother expects 100 baht and I doubt they can make change from the 1000 baht note in this village in the middle of nowhere. I show her the 50 and the 1000 baht notes. She sends another woman away with our 1000 and we hope its for change. We stand there next to the our boat not getting in it, just waiting for our change. This seemed to take forever. While we were waiting, a guy from the boat says to us, "Kip, no baht". They were all talking in Lao and laughing as they looked at us. I really didn’t think we were going to see our 1000 baht again, but they lady came back down within 10 minutes with ten 100 bath notes. Tina gave the mother a 100 and the mother started talking about the tuk tuk again. Tina said, "No, too much!" The mother dropped the conversation right there and the handed the 200 baht we just gave her for breakfast to our new boat driver. We were just sold to another boat.

"Great what's going to happen now?" we thought. We're definitely going to have to pay for the truck ride from Na Lee to Luang Namtha now. Both of us were so upset at this point that we didn't enjoy the last 2 hours of our boat ride to Na Lee. Kids would wave at us as we passed by and I wouldn't acknowledge them at all like I did the day before. Our pale skin was fried, our butts hurt from for a day and a half of sitting, we just got taken for 200 baht and we don’t know if we will make it to Luang Namtha tonight.

We get to Na Lee and a man from our boat showed us a place to sit at the restaurant of the only guest house in town. He points up the hill and says, “Taxi.” We took this as he is going to find a taxis for us. “Maybe things will work out”, I told Tina. She said, “How about a Beer Lao?” After a confusing discussion about ordering a beer and paying in Baht, not Kip, we had 650ml Beer Lao sitting in front of us. We poured two glasses and toasted to surviving our boat trip. And, at least we knew where the guest house was located if we couldn’t make it out of town tonight.

The guy looking for the taxi came back and gestured that the taxi driver was eating. We pulled out our books and drank our beer while waited to leave. After waiting for over an hour the guy said the taxi was ready to go, but he needed a 100 Baht from us. We made sure it was only 100 Baht for the both of us and not per person. Not wanting to argue in gestures and grunts and wanting to get to Luang Namtha, we just paid him.

Our taxi was a Toyota truck and what they call a Sawngthaew which literally means two-rows. These trucks have two bench seats starting running from the back of the bed to the front. These trucks also have a crude cage made from 2 inch steel pipe. These pipes are necessary for holding on to during the ride, but I don’t think they would work as roll cage.

Our trip in the Sawngthaew to Luang Namtha began by our driver tearing out of town up in the dirt path mountain road. We we’re flying up and down the hills of this dirt road topping out at 60 km/hr on road with ruts three foot deep and two foot wide. Ruts big enough to do some serious damage to the truck traveling at this speed. I held on to the roll cage as tight as I could scared for my life. To make the ride worse, the driver would swerve sometimes to slow down for all the animals crossing the road. I saw pigs, goats, chickens, and even a guy walking an ox.

I looked across the truck to a Lao kid, he was holding on to the roll cage with one hand and resting his head on his arm. He was trying to sleep during this ride. I thought I would try this since looking straight ahead scared me to death. I had my eyes closed for about a minute when I decided I would want to know if I was going to die, so my life could flash before me.

These are the reenactment pictures. I never could have pulled out my camera during the real trip.

This was the first hour of our two hour trip. The second hour our driver slowed down and the roads improved. I was able to enjoy the view at this point. We passed by several villages as the road followed the path to the Namtha river. I even noticed some of the villages had solar panels next to their huts. How cool is that? The mix of the old and the new blended together.

We arrived to Luang Namtha at 4:00 pm. Somehow we got lost in this incredibly small town looking for a guest house. We were using the map from our Lonely Planet guide book. We discovered the map was incorrect. We found a guest house for $2 per night.

After checking in I went to take a shower and discovered there was no running water. Showers consisted of dumping buckets of water over your head. This was also my first experience using squat toilets. Tina was just happy to use a bathroom without any pigs near her.

We both took our bucket showers and put on some semi-fresh clothes to go out for dinner. The restaurant we wanted to got to across the street was closed, but a local lady pointed to a place down the street. The place wasn’t hard to find, we just followed the very loud music which included a local Lao rapper and the Scorpions.

The place looked more like a bar then a restaurant, but we were hungry and exhausted. We ordered a couple of tall Beer Laos’ and two curries. We passed on the snakehead soup and the pig bowel which was on the menu. We discovered later the snakehead is a type of fish.

We sat there and talked about what a journey the first 48 hours have been in Laos. How great the journey was even thought we got taken for an additional 300 baht. 300 bath is $6, but it was the principal. Then, Tina said, “They must really need the money if they have to do that to get it.” We forgot about that part of the trip and ordered two more beers.

Next thing we know we struck up a conversation with some local Lao guys and one Chinese guy. They first invited me over to their table and poured me a glass of Beer Lao. We toasted to something and had a drink of beer. A minute later we all toasted again and had another drink of beer. This continued until my beer was gone. They filled it up right away. I looked over at our table and saw Tina sitting by herself as these guys were throwing drinks down my throat. I asked them if Tina could come over. Tina came over and we did another toast for that.

From that point on I don’t think we paid for another drink the rest of the night. We sat there all night explaining our different cultures to each other. They taught us some Lao words and we taught them some English. Their English was much better than our Lao to begin with.

We closed down the bar with them at 10:30 pm doing a toast on average every five minutes up until closing. Every so often one of them would shout the Lao word for, “half”, which meant you had to drink half the amount in your glass.

The last two guys to close down the bar with us were a policeman and a lawyer. As we were walking the 200 feet to our guesthouse were heard a moped and some yelling behind us. Moments later the policeman and the lawyer passed by us riding double on the moped with too much Beer Lao in them. We laughed, walked into our guesthouse and fell asleep as our heads hit the bed.

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