Heading North


Sunday, February 7

I had mentioned sharing information among fellow travelers, which is how we ended up on a side-trip to Nong Khiaw, a four-hour van-ride north of Luang Prabang.

This riverside village had quickly grabbed onto tourism, and the result exploded into guesthouses and restaurants popping up like mushrooms to capture backpackers, trekkers, and tourists wanting to see the more remote areas of Laos. Of course, because there were backpackers, trekkers, and tourists flooding the area, I can’t say it felt remote, more like a fairly rugged holiday spot alongside the Nam Ou River, a river one guide called the most beautiful in SE Asia (another reason we headed north).

After a fifteen-minute walk from the bus station and across a bridge connecting the older and newer town areas we located our guesthouse. In spite of no heat (and, it was freezing at night), light hot water, and gruff hosts, the best thing about our room was its location: river views and porch neighbors Sandra and Chris from Ottawa. These inveterate adventurers were taking sabbaticals from their government positions to explore this part of the world. We agreed to meet back for the sunset view from our perch along the river bank, which we did,


being welcomed back with cold Beerlaos compliments of our friendly Canadians (actually, I don’t think there’s any need to add ‘friendly’ to ‘Canadians’ as aren’t they all?).


As the temperature dropped we decided to find a restaurant with heat, if possible. Sadly, there was no heat and almost all eateries were open-air. At the most, they had one side enclosed. But, the company and the spicy Indian food we inhaled helped stave off the chill. We trundled back to our rooms where warm blankets and wearing all of our clothes enabled us to get a toasty sleep.

Monday, February 8

Waking up to mist rising from the river…


and a woman’s scratchy voice over a loudspeaker. We later asked the owner of a tour office what she was saying. The young man said he didn’t really listen; however, he mentioned it was some government propaganda (my word not his) but every now and then he learned something. Don’t know if that was for my benefit in case speaking totally against the mornings’ speeches wouldn’t sit well with any authorities. We were careful not to probe as, unlike them, we can quickly exit. Later, we heard others speaking out against their government’s communism; however, this was more so in southern Vietnam.

We had signed up at this tour guide’s office the day before since we wanted to see some more of the countryside. The day trek promised a knowledgeable guide, river rides, village visits, and a stroll in another backpacker haven, Muang Ngoi, that had sprouted further up the river.

As we left our room we looked across and saw boats loading up with Chinese tourists here for the Tet holiday week. Throughout our five weeks we ran into Chinese tourists; and, at our guesthouse we noticed parked cars with China license plates. It was a du-uh moment when we realized we were only a car-ride away from that huge country to the north.


Helen, a solo traveller from France, accompanied us and the three set off with our guide. He had grown up in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.  His father had worked in the US embassy office hence our guide and his siblings studied and learned English. After working in the city he ended up in Muang Ngoi running tours, which is where he met and married his wife. He said he still missed this smaller town and was obviously well-known and liked measured by the greetings he received when we were there.

The temperature was still brisk as the three of us huddled in the wooden skiff as it motored up the shallow waters.


Laos, like Vietnam, has a wide variety of ethnic tribes. Our first stop was Ban Houahoy, a village set aside by the government as an example of a traditional tribal ______ .


At first it seemed more like a display for tourists but not to the extent where we felt we were in Laos Disneyland. As we walked down the dirt road our heads swiveled as we absorbed the traditional sites.

While heading towards the primary school a little boy left his mother’s side and ran towards us.


Before I knew it a wee hand crept into mine and hung on as Helen showed him photos she’d taken of him and his mom spinning. We continued our stroll to the school where we peered into a classroom.



Back to the boat where it was docked among smaller fishing boats


and motored further up the river where we began a two-hour walk through rice paddies and bamboo forests to Ban Phayong. Here, two former warring tribes, the Hmong and Khmu, have been co-existing peacefully for a long time. Each tribe inhabits its own neighborhood within this small hamlet; and, instead of one chief, there are two, one per tribe. Decisions for the village are discussed and decided within a community house. Hmm… dialoguing in a group to arrive at a consensual agreement. Sounds like a good way to govern.

We stopped here for a Laotian lunch. Our meal wasn’t quite as expansive as the bike trek one but nourishing nonetheless and a welcome repast.


Max opted to try the local firewater (my term), and our host only too happily enjoyed dosing him several shots from the bottle.


We saw some young girls using the local water source as we walked through the village.


Being a larger village we saw more prep for commerce, such as produce being weighed and loaded


and stretches of drying brush.


As we started our walk back we met a young girl with her pink cell phone carrying a bundle. She posed for us before turning and continuing her trip home.

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We spotted this brush gathering and scattering in front of homes all over Laos.



Gathered by locals it’s dried and shipped to China for manufacturing into brooms.

During both visits we felt welcomed and unintrusive in spite of standing out as obvious foreigners. The children greeted us with shouts of ‘sabai-dee!’ (Hello!).  Whenever we asked the people graciously allowed us to take photos, including all the kids.



An hour hike back to the riverside through more gorgeous countrysides,


including Max’s pose,


brought us to our boat where we carried on to Muang Ngoi, a village with a hippy-ish feel.

Helen had arranged to be dropped off here, so after strolling up and down the one-street town we said our good-byes


and returned down the river to Nong Khiaw and our Canadian Beerlao friends, passing local fisherman along the way.


After another with the Ottawans we stopped at a bar showcasing a glowing fire. Ahhh! Heat! Then we heard a shout of ‘Max and Lynnie!’. It was Meghan, our Coloradian singlehander. She had arrived earlier that night. It was so great seeing her as we hadn’t really had a chance to say good-bye in Luang Prabang.

After twenty minutes of standing in the still-cold outdoors, we exchanged hugs and wished her best of luck in her continued travels.

Just a side note, our guide and others have told us this has been the coldest winter in history in northern SE Asia. Devastating freezes have killed people and livestock, created uncertainty regarding growing seasons, and contributing to concerns over the enroaching effects of climate change. We heard this repeatedly through our journeys around this part of the continent. And, only recently we read that the Mekong Delta is experiencing the worst drought and salt water intrusion in 90 years. Not good for those relying on their annual crops for a livelihood.



Tuesday – Thursday, February 9-11

Back in Luang Prabang after arranging for a shared van with eight others, we checked into a different guesthouse, one we had found before we left for Nong Khiaw. Being Tet, the Chinese New Year, SE Asia was loaded with Chinese vacationers. We had purposely stayed out of Vietnam where we had read a lot of the country shuts down for the week, which is why we opted to stay in Laos.  What we hadn’t counted on were those celebrating Tet would travel to neighboring countries such as Laos. The only issue we had was when looking for rooms.

Which is how we ended up in a guesthouse on the fancier side of town (closest to the tip of the peninsula). In spite of this, our room was similar to the less-expensive one the previous week, only this one would occasionally run out of water. However, the balcony view was lovely. It’s here we met Carol, a former US citizen whose first husband worked in the diplomatic services in Cambodia in the early 1960s. Currently living in France after having lived and travelled throughout SE Asia, she’s authored quite a few books on Vietnam, the most recent for Hue’s 1,000 anniversary.


Another place we were looking forward to experiencing was the Elephant Village about 15 km outside of the city.  Instead of taking a formal tour, Max had discovered we could just catch a ride out there and explore on our own. So, we hailed a tuk-tuk and left for communing with these ancient animals.

Upon arriving we paid a small entrance fee and then another $1 per bunch of bananas to feed the elephants. And, man, can they eat! No sooner had we snapped a banana off a bunch, placed it in the groping trunk, than the elephant was back for more. I swear the animal ate ten bananas in less than two minutes. 

Billboards educated us on just why these animals are so magnificent, and we perused the facts as we made our way around the compound. Below is just a sampling.

  • Elephants don’t sweat except around their toes.Because of the flexible lower lip, which holds food and passes it into the mouth, makes them appear smiling.
  • An average adult elephant’s four molar teeth are each about the size of a brick.
  • The reason why they stuff their mouths at every opportunity is because they absorb vegetation diet poorly and must eat hundreds of kilos a day.
  • They can communicate over long distances often using a pitch too low for humans to hear.
  • There are only about 35,000 elephants in Asia versus approximately 500,000 in Africa.
  • and, one of the more interesting:  Thailand’s King Mongkut offered President Lincoln elephants to use in the civil war battles.

I may have mentioned this book in a previous blob blog but, if anyone would like to delve more into the magic of these animals, read ELEPHANT COMPANY by Vicki Croke, recommended to me by our friend Carol W.

We decided to look for the baby elephants across the river. With a short ferry ride and walk down a path we found two babies age 2+ years.


Once again we enjoyed feeding these animals and, once again, were amazed at their food capacity.


This village was begun by a German, Markus Peschke who, like Holgar of Hillside Resort, fell in love with Laos and settled, first opening restaurant in 1998, then “Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures” (which we used for several of our day tours) in 2001, followed by the “Lao Spirit Resort” in 2003. It was during this time he opened an elephant camp due to the plight of working elephants who were losing their habitat as the jungle diminished and losing their value as the logging industry declined. In 2008 he sold his shares in Tiger Trails and the Resort and expanded the camp into Elephant Village.

In addition to his efforts regarding elephants Peschke wanted to preserve the virgin valley surrounding the Elephant Village, and in 2009 he received government approval on a proposal that protects the valley as well as other locals an alternative means of earning a living in a sustainable way. Since then this endeavor is a private business led by Germans and managed by Laotians.

The motto of the camp is simply “Saving elephants is our mission”, a perfect fit for a country once called Land of a Million Elephants.

Back in Luang Prabang we enjoyed pizza at an excellent French cafe (sometimes one just craves a good, crusty disc :)…


visited some Buddhist temples, some buildings storing a parade of statues…


and later listened to monks chanting (please excuse the horizontal viewing; I haven’t done any editing on it).

Contemplating our leaving Laos, I realized I would miss it. Here is where we first interacted with fellow travelers, explored the countryside, shared fabulous meals, and absorbed the tranquility exhibited by a Buddhist outlook.


I had fallen under the spell of this lovely country, and I promise:  I will return.


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