About a month ago now, we drove from our city in Southern China to Laos to get our tourist visas stamped and to show Cameron’s brother and his wife a fascinating part of Asia. Before we left I packed a giant bag of food just in case we got stuck somewhere along the road. With all the construction happening along the road between our city and the Chinese border, it was hard to know whether the drive would take 13 hours or 3 hours. Thankfully, we made it to the border and passed through both customs buildings without incident. Since our Chinese driver was not able to pass through the border, it was up to us to find a driver on the Laos side to take us to our guesthouse in Luang Namtha. We had been told by friends that drivers are always waiting on the Laos side, but it was a little unnerving to cross over into Laos and not have a pre-arranged ride. Thankfully, our friends were correct and we were able to easily find someone who was willing to take us to Luang Namtha.
Luang Namtha is a small town in Laos about one hour from the Chinese border. Not many tourists make it to Luang Namtha because most of them travel to Luang Prabang which is a bigger city closer to Thailand, where most tourists begin their journey. The foreigners in Luang Namtha are usually ones who have come to do multi-day or multi-week guided treks through the jungle. It makes for some interesting people-watching, because I figure anyone who does a trek through the jungles of Laos is extremely hard-core. I was particularly impressed with their packing skills since most of them arrived with a single backpack compared to our massive rolling suitcases and carseats. In Luang Namtha, there is one small guesthouse where most foreigners stay when they come. Although my expectations were very low after seeing the pictures of the guesthouse online, it wasn’t as bad as I expected once we arrived. The room was spacious and the hot water worked (occasionally). Of course, there were still plenty of reminders that we were in a very foreign country particularly when a lady dressed in ethnic clothing approached us selling bracelets and opium.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Laos during a weekend trip with two young kids, but we were able to hire a car to drive us to a few spots around town and in the surrounding mountains. We first visited a Buddhist temple on top of a hillside overlooking the city. Then, the driver took us to a couple different villages to look around. I didn’t get to observe much of the first village because I was too busy chasing after Claire who was chasing after baby chicks. I found it ironic that we had come to observe village life, but after about ten minutes there was a small crowd of villagers watching Claire chase around chickens. Naturally, there wasn’t a modern sewer system in the village, so the dirt roads were all lined with troughs where the waste flowed. I quietly informed Claire there was poop in the troughs hoping to scare her away from them, but to my surprise she walked over to one of the troughs and hollered for all the villagers to come over and look at the poop. As everyone peered over to see what this little crazy blonde girl was talking about, I thanked the Lord that they had no idea what she was talking about.
At the next village they were in the midst of celebrating New Years (aka Songkran) and we watched as the villagers marched along the dirt roads hollering and singing. After a whole day of celebrating, most of them were quite drunk. I wanted to watch from afar, but we were immediately spotted and pulled into the middle of the dancing and celebrating. As soon as I saw Claire getting overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to hold her and take her picture, we quickly made our exit and returned to the car.
The last stop was a waterfall that was slightly underwhelming due to the lack of rainfall at that time, but it was interesting to step in to the jungle for just a second. During just the short walk down the path to the waterfall, I felt so sweaty, itchy, and freaked out by the sight of weird bugs everywhere, that it reminded me that, although I often fantasized about joining those hardcore foreigners on one of their amazing treks, I was in no way suited for that kind of journey. I was happy to return to my guesthouse with air conditioning.
The return drive home was smooth for the most part. As we neared the border of Laos, Claire needed to go to the bathroom really bad. Unfortunately, we were stuck in a long line of eighteen wheelers on both sides of a very narrow, dusty road. The driver kept telling me not to get out of the car, but fearing that Claire was about to wet her pants, I jumped out of the car with Claire and dodged my way through the eighteen wheelers just to find a small patch of grass for her to pee on. To make matters more complicated, our driver had to keep moving down the road with the traffic, so I found myself running along the side of the large trucks searching for our car. I knew we were ok, but it was one of many moments in my life when I had to laugh at the craziness of the situation.
One last interesting encounter was when we met a group of Australians at the border who were all driving small antique cars. They had a very ambitious plan to drive from Thailand, through Laos, China, Russia, the Middle East, and into Europe. I had so many questions I wanted to ask them about their journey, but we were all a little busy with customs paperwork. Again, I secretly wished I could have joined them, but the sound of fussy toddlers brought me back to reality. It is interesting that as adventurous as a weekend in Laos sounds, the sense of awe and excitement seems to be lost in the flurry of diaper-changes, temper-tantrums, and the responsibilities of parenting two young kids.