North Into the Unknown

We venture to the remote north of the country, covering our first new territory in Laos in 13 months.

Days before Christmas, Typhoon Tembin (aka Vinta) made landfall in the Philippines and later Vietnam, killing 267 people across the region. In comparison, Hurricane Harvey resulted in 91 deaths in the U.S., but chances are, you’ve probably never even heard of Tembin — or Kai-Tak a few days earlier, Damrey in November, 23W in October, or Doksuri in September, which together were responsible for an additional 359 deaths across the same region. While landlocked Laos never took a direct hit from any these storms, we got (and keep getting) the leftovers.

Right now is considered the height of dry season here in Laos. Last year, we didn’t get a lick of measurable rainfall in Vientiane between mid-November and mid-March. This season’s been a little different, to say the least.

Heavy rains are forecast to last through today, into tomorrow, and maybe the next. Today is a big travel day for us. We’ll be flying up country first to Luang Prabang, then catching local transport for another 3-5 hours into the mountains to Nong Khiaw. We used to travel like this all the time, but this will be the first time living in Laos, so it’ll be a first for Noe. We’ll see how an 18-month-old does having to sit still in a small public minivan on winding roads for that period of time…

At a cruising altitude of just 14,000 feet, we fly right through the weather. Fortunately, this isn’t actually rainy season, so no thunderheads about and we’ve got low wind velocity, so our prop plane cuts through the massive sea of white like butter. When we land in Luang Prabang, it brings back memories of our first time returning in November 2016 — yuck, yuck, yuck. But seeing the “More Than Free” duty free shop upon arrival fixed all that.

Plus, we were traveling with dear friends, Caroline and Jason, visiting all the way from Birmingham, Alabama.

A short tuk tuk ride later and we were watching the rain (and passengers slowly trickle in) at Luang Prabang’s Northern Bus Station, just on the other side of the runway.

While there is a schedule prominently posted, for whatever reason they’ve made clear that today is different. No big buses today, just minivans. And they will go when full. To be honest, this is exactly what I would have expected if it hadn’t been for the signage throwing hope of a spacious and timely bus into the mix. Oh well, kind of fits the mood today.

 

 

The good news is, we’re able to confirm that our vehicle is actually some sort of minivan (as opposed to a songteau (the thing to the right of the minivan above) — I love me a good songteau ride, but not for five hours on winding roads in the rain.

Our 45-minute plane ride this morning didn’t bode well for the rest of the day. Noe was completely off his rocker much of the flight, and we found ourselves constantly (and creatively) entertaining him while desperately trying to keep him from throwing the in-flight magazines and barf bags at nearby passengers.

The minivan ride was a completely different story. I think it helped that he could see out the window. He also seemed to enjoy the motion and bumpiness of the minivan, and soon fell fast asleep on mommy for the better part of two hours.

We arrived at our home base for the next four nights: the mountain village of Nong Khiaw. From the bus station, it was a short ride on a songteau across the bridge to Ban Sophoun where the majority of guesthouses are.

We stayed at Nam Houn Riverside bungalows — rustic, clean, friendly, with a great view looking back across the Ou River towards the center of town.

 

 

 

 

As you may have noticed by now, we’re all wearing a lot more layers of clothing than we normally do — it’s a bit chilly at the moment up here, but feels great.

 

All unpacked and ready for a drink and a snack! Guess it’s time to make our way into town.

We reach the end of the side road of our guesthouse, turn left onto the main highway, and stumble upon this place.

It’s about 4pm, there’s a fire roaring and Q Bar is exactly what the doctor ordered for this wet and dreary day. The place is pretty awesome in its own right, offering a good selection of food and drink. And, hey, free welcome shot! Between the five of us, we did everything on the sign (in the same order, too).

It wasn’t long until the friendly and fashionable owner and Noe took a liking to each other.

We actually ended up here twice on our first night. Lori and I were hungry and ended up getting a plate of chicken fried rice with our cocktails and welcome shots. The Lao BBQ looked intriguing to Caroline and Jason, so they came back later to get in on that.

Lao barbecue (sin daat or Lao suki) is sort of a wet version of Korean barbecue. A large metal thing (oddly resembling a hub cap…) sits atop a bucket of hot coals in the center of the table. Broth goes in the moat, while chunks of fat go on the mountaintop, lubricating the dry island in the middle and slowly dripping its way into the surrounding broth. Thinly sliced meat goes on top, veggies in the moat. Then, everything is combined in a soup bowl.

Photo credit: Caroline M.

 

Photo credit: Caroline M.

Tonight, after Noe goes to sleep, the plan is to hunker down outside one of our bungalows with two of our favorite people — chatting, watching the village lights come up, and cracking open a healthy number of BeerLao tallboys. I can think of few better ways to spend a Wednesday night in late December.

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