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Northern Lao: Phongsaly

January 25, 2012

18th January

I was in Udomxai and I took the bus to Phongsali the next morning. My friends from Muang Sing went to Nong Khiaw and other people to Luang Prabang. So I was the only “falang” (foreign) in the bus, which felt great. In the bus there was a woman who had 2 elephants, so I decided to stop and go with her to see those elephants. We dropped from the bus 11 km after Pak Nam Noi and took a little dusty path and got to a wood factory where about 20 people live and work. I saw one elephant there then another in the jungle, how cool!

Elephant in the wild

Then some guys came to pick up some wood to deliver to Pak Nam Noi and gave me a lift there. I found a pick-up going to Vietnam via Muang Khua ok to get me there and in a matter of 5 minutes I was sitting in the open air at the back with my bag, and enjoying the ride and the landscape. The only thing is my phone slipped out of my pocket during the ride. Oh well. 10 pounds phone bought 3 years ago, nevermind. I guess he was too impatient to discover Vietnam to wait any longer maybe.

On the way to Muang Khua

In Muang Khua, walking to the tourist office, I was invited by locals to drink Lao beer and play petanque with them, so I stayed there for a few hours, that was fun. Lao people are like this, they just invite you all the time to join them and play or drink with them lao-lao (local whisky) or Lao Beer in their home.

Petanque in Muang Khua

19th January

In the morning, I met José Grain who was walking around and shooting with his Leica M7. He was a photojournalist and doing a photostory about China impact in Laos at the border so going around this area for a few months. I tought that was pretty interesting! Check out his website, he has done great stuff, in Nepal, Angola, Kurdistan, India. Each set of photos gives you another glimpse of our world, another story. I look forward to seeing his work about Laos-China.

http://jose-grain.be/

I took the boat to Hat Sa, and was the only falang again. The boat trip was really nice again. I can’t believe this nature is still almost unspoiled.Here is an idea of how it looked.

boat to Hat Sa

However, you also do see trucks  starting building roads and I imagine this beautiful nature will disappear at some point, especially considered Chinese are quite involved in this area.

boat to Hat Sa

I met Anita, a young Lao girl of 18 and her sister. They were studying close to Dien Bien Phu and having now 2 weeks holiday. They were going to Phongsali to visit their grandparents and then to Ventiane to visit their parents. They shared some sticky rice with me, which was great cause I had not thought about bringing any food.

The landscape was beautiful, lots of mountains around as Phongsaly is 1,400 meters high.

near Phongsaly

In the evening, I went to the only place which seemed to be serving food to falangs in the centre, Yeehua hotel. I had dinner with a German guy and an Italian girl. She was vegan and we talked a lot about meat etc and that was pretty interesting to see her take on this.

20th January

I did nothing except sorting out my photos that day, and managed to go through a third of them keeping only half of them each time.Felt great. I had lunch at Yeehua with David, a Dutch guy who had lived in Bangkok for the past 20 years and was travelling around for a few months. In the evening, I met with 3 French, Thomas, Christian and Véronique and a German girl Christine and we decided to meet late morning the next day and go motorbiking to some Akha village close to Boun Neua.

21st January

We met at 10.30am with Véronique, Thomas, Christian and Christine and had some breakfast and rented 3 motorbikes around noon for half-day. Thomas was on his own, Christine driving with Christian behind and me driving with Véronique behind. There are 41 kms from Phongsali to Boun Neua. The road is beautiful but a bit dangerous, a lot of turns and sometimes slippery, although it was not a dusty road but had been made in an alphate road. We had some soup in Boun Neua and then went on the dusty road right. We swapped and Véronique was driving this time. It took an hour to get to a traditional Akha village where women are dressed in black. We sat with them and played with the kids and learned some Akha words with them. Here is a daddy smoking a cigarette via a “yeton” and his kid who was playing with a moto wheel.

in Akha village

It was a really remote village where people are still very shy and I didn’t feel like shooting the women straight after we arrived so here is a picture I took of a picture in the tourist office just to give you a sense of how Akha women we saw are dressed.

Akha Pixor

This is a picture of the poster on which you see a few of the hundred tribes who live in Laos, especially in Northern Laos.

Lao Tribes

On the way back, we had an accident in one turn. We almost fell in the ravine. The moto got nothing though, no damage.

the ravine

I fell on my head on the rocks, and I was extremely happy to have this wonderful helmet to protect it because I really felt the shock. I got almost nothing, just some pain the back that lasted a week and some scratch on left elbow and knee. And the screen of my D700 broke. Luckily, the camera is still working, it just turned into a film camera for the time being, basically. I will repair it in Ho Chi Min City where my friend Lung told me that I could find good service for not too much hopefully.

However, Véronique got much more serious damage, as she dislocated her left knee. Luckily the other guys were just behind us, so they went to get a car for her, Christian did the ride to Phongsali with her. They got racketed by this Lao guy who had accepted and he forced them to pay 150 dollars to take them to Phongsali. Most Lao people are amazingly great people, but some are just assholes like him like everywhere in the world who take advantage of situations. She was taken to the Phongsali hospital, given some stuff to sleep and they fixed her knee.

22nd January

In the morning, I went to photograph a bit in the old city of Phongsali. The light was gorgeous, and I was still alive and my body was fine. I appreciated more than ever having legs, breathing and having a camera working.

old city of Phongsaly

I ran into William, a Chinese Malaysian guy I had met at the bus station in Udomxai and he invited me to come in the evening to enjoy Chinese New Year with him and his Lao-Chinese wife and friends. I went to see Véronique at the hospital after. She was just exiting. On the way back, we stopped at the ATM for her to get some cash, and she fell again and her knee dislocated again because her bandage was too light. I should have gone straight to the ATM for her. Back to the hospital where she was put to sleep and her knee put again together. I went for breakfast, did some laundry and with Christian we tried to use skype to call her travel insurance but skype didn’t work. We went to the hotel around 4pm and she was back with stronger bandage and better. I went to see the sunset from the temple. I had it just for myself and that was great. Again you know, I think it was the gorgeous sunset I saw. I was alive, ALIVE and I could walk there but also continue travelling.

Phongsaly

In the evening, I met with Delphine, a French girl who is a doctor and with Sergio, a French guy really cool in his fifties who was my best student of Lao, I transferred to him all my small knowledge of it. After some soup at Yeehua falang cantin, we went to join William for Chinese New Year in the Chinese neighbourhood (couple of streets) and his friends. They offered us whisky and soda and delicious food, including fried worms which this time were actually not too bad. The fireworks at midnight were awesome and people had fun exploding petards in the street.

Pétards

23rd January

In the morning, I met at breakfast 2 Italian couples at Yeehua cantin. We had some brunch soup at the market together.The oldest one was from Milano and had been to Burma and Yunnan and told me a lot about these countries. With the youngest one from Piacenza, in their late thirties, Juzie and Fabio, and Delphine, we went for a four-hour walk nearby Phongsaly to a Punoi village. It felt great speaking Italian again all way, I love this language. Juzie and Fabio were travelling 6 months and had just been to India for 2 months in remote areas where they saw gorgeous landscape and people and zero tourists. Their travel experience was really interesting. At some point we passed some people coming back from tea plantations, like this man.

close to Phongsaly

In the evening, I went to see Véronique. She took an insurance with French insurance Mondial Assistance for 130 euros for a month, and I have to say they are really good. They organised a mini-van to come pick her up the next morning at 4am and take her to Udomxai where she had a flight to Ventiane, and someone picking her up to go to the International Hospital and do checks and then get her to Bangkok for more checks and then fly her back to Paris, all paid by the insurance. I was glad all was on track for her to get good care.

24th January

With Delphine, Juzie and Fabio, we went on a 2-days trek organised with the tourist office. We took a bus to a small village called Chicho. There we met a guide and walked to an Akha Piso village where we had lunch. We ate some sea weed, that was really good. The people were open and friendly, even if not speaking anything else than Akha. I especially liked this man, Alou, I could have stayed in that village and improved my Akha and adopt this new grandfather:

Akha Pixor grandfather

Did you know Lao people eat the “taupe” also? They had this one, but also two small ones. How strange to us. Wonder if it tastes good or not, mmm.

taupe to eat

Then we walked the rest of the afternoon and arrived in a Punoi village where we slept. Before sunset, we took a cold shower in a closed bathroom with a basket, close to the fountain where most people were showering themselves.

fountain in Punoi village

With Delphine, we tried the “betel nut”. Our hostwoman prepared it for us. It is some white paste that she puts in a leave of some tree, and then you chew that with the “écorce” and some tobacco.

Betel

It tastes actually like toothpaste or mint chewing-gum. When chewed long and for many days, it makes the teeth of people red. We were checking on each other all the time to make sure our teeth were not getting red but we were fine.

25th January

We woke up with sounds of roosters competing for being the loudest, with the sound of the small fountain, and some kid singing and some woman pilloning something.

Outside there was a meeting. Sounds like all the village was there. You could hear the man reading saying numbers (ha pan is five thousands kip, sip pan is ten thousands, etc…). The guide explained that they were listening to the money they owed to the lender, or was it the wage they were going to get for work in the sugar cane plantations nearby, who knows exactly.

village meeting

In early morning, around 7am, we walked to the nearby Akha Oma village. The women were selling us some home-made handcraft so we bought some. The children were shy and playing their favourite game of trying to run away of the camera, which meant as a photographer you had to practice being quick. I had there the biggest laugh of my trip so far, with 2 grandmothers and the kids. They were wonderful, full of humour. I was practicing my Akha (napa is ear, mianou is eyes, namnè is nose, ramè is mouth, métan is chin, bapa is cheek, etc). They had both a young kid on their back and were playing “horse” and repeating the words with me and dancing and we were all crying of laugh. I loved that magic moment. Here is the photo of one of them, to who I bought some small animals she had sewed.

Akha woman

After that, we went back to the Punoi village and had some breakfast. Then we walked for 5 hours in the jungle, nearby the river, to the main road leading to Boun Neua. There we had some lunch and continued walking and were picked up by the local bus back to Phongsali where we got around 4pm. Meanwhile, a new wave of tourists had arrived and there were more people and new faces. It was time to go away for us.

By the way, I have decided to remove the comment option. Simply because I am in touch with each of you, family and friends by email, besides the blog. This blog helps me tell you all in one go where I am, and share with you what I see and experience but when it comes to commenting, you can write directly to me and it is also easier to answer you.

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