Stray Laos: First Leg To Luang Namtha

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Nestled in the north of mountainous Laos, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border, dusty Luang Nam Tha has a remote, cowboy town feel to it but makes an excellent base for exploring the many natural wonders of the province of which it is capital. Trekking, mountain-biking, rafting and kayaking are among the growing number of ways to enjoy the stunning scenery surrounding Luang Nam Tha.

-- TravelFish

The pick up got a bit hectic as my itinerary said 9:30 just up the street from the Lao immigration but the email I received the day before told me to go to the Gibbon Experience office for 9am pickup. As everything is within a few dozen meters of everything else in Huay Xai, that was not really an issue and Anna, our guide, grabbed me at the Gibbon office around 9:20.

Stray Bus

The minibus was parked on one of the side streets and was pretty full (I was the lucky thirteenth person). Everyone else drove up from Chiang Mai the day before so I was the newbie. We were also joined by Noy, a Native Lao guide that told us a few things about Laos history and the customs of Hmong villagers that live in the mountainous northern Laos. Our other guide was Anna - a Russian girl that has been with Stray for a year now. On the bus, we had three guys from Sweden, a girl from Scotland, two Dutch couples and another Dutch guy, and three Australian girls.

The Drive From Huay Xai to Luang Namtha

I already knew that we had another 'fun' drive ahead of us - with Luang Namta located in the mountains, it would be lots of ups and downs and twisty turns. I was hoping that my experience with 762 curves between Chiang Mai and Pai as well as 1864 curves between Pai and Mae Hong Son would make me immune to the bus sickness, but that was not the case. While the road was quite good, our Lao bus driver seemed to be on the mission to prove something to someone. Noy joked at the beginning that he is the fastest and the safest driver. He was the fastest, alright, scaling those turns and curves like nobody's business making everything and everyone slide and shift in the bus. Finally, at one of the turns, I felt the strongest g-forces yet, grabbing onto the bar next to my seat just to not fall out. At that moment we felt the bus starting to tip over with both wheels on the right side leaving the ground. Somehow he managed to keep us on the road (thankfully, there was nobody coming the other way) and after the moment of silence, Anna started to shout at him to slow down while everyone else found those seat belts and promptly bucked up. Whew!

As scary as the drive was, it was also very beautiful - the mountains, the little villages along the road, the jungle, and the rivers. It would of been great if we made a few stops along the way to take some pictures (one of the things on the itinerary for the day according to the Stray website) but it seemed that we (well, the bus driver) were in some sort of hurry to get to Luang Namta as soon as possible. Our only stop was for a quick, no frills lunch (rice or noodle soup?) after about three hours on the road.

Luang Namtha And Namdee Waterfall

The drive after lunch was not as bad (less curves and we did slow down) and after about another hour and a half we reached Luang Namtha. Anna booked us into Dokchampa hotel, which was by far the nicest place I have stayed in on my trip, while still being really cheap - 80,000 kip/$10 for a room with two beds or 60,000 kip/$7.50 for a single bed room.

After checking in, we jumped back on the bus and headed out to Namdee waterfall. It was a quick hike away from one of the Hmong villages and was not very impressive. On the way back, we walked through the village with girls being amazed at all the little piglets while I found it funny that there were huge satellite dishes installed right next to the shaky straw/bamboo huts. One of the villagers got bitten by a snake a while ago and was not getting better so when Noy was here with the previous Stray group, they collected some money for her to go to the hospital so we swung by to see how she was doing. She invited us into her house which did not have much inside - just a place to sleep and a few things used for cotton making, which is the signature product of that village.

Christmas Eve Celebration

We started our evening with a trip to the local night market. With the historic Chinese influence in the region, they had a few roasted duck stands, which were excellent. The weird moment of the night was when we noticed a men standing next to our table intensely staring at our duck pieces. He looked well groomed and dressed (by local standards) so at first, we thought that he wanted to take away the plates we were finished with. Instead he just pointed at our duck and kept staring at it, not even asking us for it. It was just weird.

After dinner, we spent some time at a cocktail lounge next to our hotel, trying various cocktails with Lao-Lao (local whiskey) instead of the traditional spirits (Laojito, Loa Island Iced Tea, etc). They were surprisingly good, given how disgusting Lao-Lao is by itself. We finished up the night by going to a Chinese disco to dance the night away (well, until the 11:30pm curfew, common all over Laos). Curiously, very few of the local girls were out on the dance floor, while it was full of Asian guys spinning, shaking and otherwise going crazy with each song.

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