Well there was a lot of time spent moving along the road ( and a few hours on the side of the road waiting for a new tire iron), the scenery made the time race past. The road from Vienviang to Luang Prabang was a writhing snake through some of the most unique mountains I have ever seen. They were jagged and spiked, as if some ancient race of giants had decided to build forested fortresses there. Towers and buttresses impaled the sky with sheer cliffs. The ridges between monoliths had spines covered in fin shaped protrusions. They were slumbering dinosaurs waiting to rise and shake off the eons of rock and jungle.
Farther north, the mountains around Luang Namtha were beautiful in a more subtle way. They heaved and rolled their way through rubber tree plantations and rice paddies before shimmering away into a haze.
I only spent one day in Luang Prabang as the accommodation was expensive and the tourists were plentiful. The majority of my time in northern Laos was spent in a national park outside Luang Namtha.
A side note on national parks. I cannot wait for the freedom of American ones. I took for granted how simple it was to pay an entry fee and jut explore without a guide. Do to the danger of land mines and a powerful monopoly on tourism, it's tough to enter any parks there on your own power. In retrospect, I would have done my research and entered via motorcycle, but I ran out of time. So I bit the bullet and joined a tour with some friends. I had and still have reservations about using peoples lives as tourist attractions and where the money of these tours go, but i hoped my mind would be changed.
Ramual, Edith, and I joined up with four others for a two day trek. Ramual and I have met off and on the past few weeks and traveled easily together like old friends. Edith we met in Luang Prabang and she stayed with us until our return to Thailand. Needless to say, with two more French travel partners, I think French may have been more useful than Thai in Laos.
Anyway our trek started along a shrouded jungle trail paralleling a river that cut through the foliage. The sun skipped its way through the green cathedral overhead, but we stayed cool following the bubbling water. We had a lunch served on banana leaves and eaten communally just like back at Mae Mut Garden. It was strange seeing my way of life, coworkers, and friends displayed as attractions.
Our late afternoon destination and accommodation for the night was a village spread out on a ridge overlooked the surrounded hills. As we trudged down the dusty main street, kids shrieked sabaibee and rushed to see if we had sweets or money to distribute. I decided to donate some goofy faces and attempts at language instead. The stunned looks and wide eyes when I counted to ten in Thai were worth more to me than the mad scrambles and fights over balloons and candles that others dished out. Even so, the children's eyes never shined with the complete innocence that I was used to. Their eyes were old and said that we know what death is, we know what life is, and we are trying to survive.
The home we stayed in was simple and bustling. Kids from the village and pigs big and small pushed their way through the creaking wooden gate constantly. As often happens here in Southeast Asia the lines of property and family get blended into a beautiful confusing tapestry. We were served a home cooked meal of pumpkin and tomato dishes with sticky rice. After dinner we walked through a town lit in the blue shimmer of a half moon untarnished by harsh material lights. Down in the village, the only lights were simple bulbs hanging from the rafters and flashlights wielded by children relishing in the night. The beams pierced the air and flashed like fireflies. Edith, Ramual, and I sat in the road drinking a luke-warm BeerLao as the town eventually feel asleep and the children retreated to slumber.
While the village provided some very pleasant moments, I feel I have to mention the darker side. The patriarch of the house we stayed in was one of many men in the village trapped in a haze of opium. Before the rising of the sun and long after its setting, he sat with dirty rolling paper turning to ash in his mouth. His body was so skeletal it seemed that each wisp of smoke sucked a little bit of him out into the mountain air. He was stretched thin and hollowed out like a tree eaten by termites and soon to become a log. One eye was glazed maggot white and the other drifted from focus as he paced the yard. He barked laughter often, but it was empty and morphed into a cough more often than not. He was a man crumbling away before my eyes.
I don't know a lot about the efforts to stop opium abuse in Laos, but I know that the tourism in the area isn't helping. We were asked for donations for the school at the end of our tour, but from the wooden simplicity of the schoolhouse and the amount of children who actually made it there during the day, it was hard for me to see all of the money heading in that direction. Some other tours in the area actually highlighted the use of opium. Ramual talked to one American tourist who told him of his "opium experience" on a trek.