Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Mung Noi – Day 53 – Mung Noi, Laos
I forced my hips into the spot where a hint of bench could be seen along one side of the already-full truck. It was still a half hour before the scheduled departure of the Luang Prabang to Nong Kiaw run, but the benches running the length of both sides of the mid-sized trucks passenger/cargo (whats the difference??) area, were now cramped to capacity while, in between, a small warehouse of sacks and packages, buckets and baskets were piling up around the few people perched on tiny, tilty wooden chairs.
Todays definition of personal space was the degree to which I was able to expand my ribs while inhaling. A few metres away, nuzzled up to the backside of the trucks cab, near the front of the cargo area where we were all dripping sweat, was another traveler, an Australian woman. We exchanged greetings, but we were not conveniently positioned to talk for long. There were a dozen Lao people between us. Besides, it was only 7:00am and just forming intelligible words was a challenge.
To my right, just beyond the back edge of the truck, a Lao woman was offloading a tremendous pile of bags and boxes from a beleaguered tuk-tuk which had struggled through the mud of the parking lot to get to our position. She and the tuk-tuk driver started handing them to the man on the roof of the truck but it was soon clear that the roof rack had reached its full measure. So the Lao woman started piling her stuff into the passenger/cargo area. When a particular package wouldnt seem to fit into the three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle of parcels and bodies building up at the back of the truck, and all around me, the woman started moving my feet and legs around as if they were just another package, so that she could fit in the next piece. When she finally twisted my knee to an angle that caused me to protest, she became unpleasant and yapped at me for some time.
Eventually, somehow, following the law of Asian transport which goes something like this – theres always room for just one more Ms. Pushy got all of her things aboard and managed to find herself a flat sack of rice to ride, right in front of me.
Once seated, she turned to me and noticed my keepah (circular cap which I wear to express my Jewish tradition). She pointed at her discovery and said something which became cause for tremendous laughter for her and the people sitting around her. I smiled but I could see she was not just poking fun in jest, as had happened many times already in Cambodia and Laos. She continued her harangue, leading the guffawing too. It made me feel quite uncomfortable. Many local people have stared, smirked, and pointed at my keepah. Some have asked me what it is for. But this lady was just being plain nasty. It made the four hour truck ride feel a bit longer.
A couple of hours out of Luang Prabang, we were stopped by a group of olive-uniformed police. Half of us were made to pile out of the truck. Of this group, three or four had to submit their purse or personal hand-bag to a rigorous search by several of the police men. Fortunately for all the drug smugglers on our truck, the police didnt check their 40-kilo sacks of opium sitting on the floor of the passenger/cargo area, or the half ton of hash in the containers on the roof rack. Ok, I actually have no evidence whatsoever that any of the aforementioned quantity or type of drug was being transported by our truck. But the police search was so measly, inept and restricted as to not have been worthwhile at all. Except, I got to stretch my cramped limbs.
The road was in decent shape most of the way but around the three-hour mark, as the mountains rose all around us to the highest I had seen yet in Laos, we started to traverse fresh remnants of mudslides. Dozens of them had crossed the road and tractors and plows were at work in places clearing away the mounds. Of course it crosses ones mind that if any of those walls of mud just happens to hit a particular section of road at the same time as our truck, the mud wins; and we end up tumbling down the steep embankment to the river far below. Happily that coincidence did not occur.
At Nong Kiaw, I was very pleased to extricate myself from the rolling warehouse. Almost immediately, my attention was drawn up. ‘Way up. Mountains all around us. Sharp, steep, vertical; it was like a convention of humungous isosceles triangles. Next, my attention was drawn by a Lao man who was asking where I was going. ‘Mung Noi’ I answered and he directed me to a little hut a few metres away. My Australian truck-mate was headed for the hut as well. She introduced herself as Bronwin and we both bought tickets for Mung Noi. The ticket seller told us to be riverside by 1:30. We had about an hour, so Bronwin ordered a noodle soup in another hut and I munched on my bread.
After eating we quickly toured the town of Nong Kiaw. This involved walking about 200 metres in one direction and then maybe 300 metres along a parallel road in the other direction. Bamboo and wood shacks and huts were the lodging of choice for all (and there was quite a choice of lodging for travelers desiring to stay there). A very strange feature of Nong Kiaw, given its rather rudimentary facilities, is a massive concrete bridge, some 200 metres across which spans the river at a height of some 50 metres. It’s as if a piece of the Pacific Coast Highway was airlifted out of northern California and dropped into northern Laos. (Mind you, many other less desirable things were dropped out of the sky by America, and onto Laos during the late 1960’s and early 70’s, giving Laos the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world.) And what’s on the other side of the bridge? Well, not much, from what I could tell. But I didn’t go all the way across.
By 1:30 Bronwin and I and two lithe little Lao men of indeterminate age were folded up into the seating area of our Mung Noi ferry. We waited there for a good 45 minutes during which time no other passengers showed up and at the end of which time our pilot hopped on board and away we went. Upstream, and upcountry – – and I do mean UP-country – – the scenery was beyond breathtaking. The mountains peaked and peeked over one another forming ridge lines and fall-lines, cliffs and precipitous rock faces. Wherever the pitch of a mountain was not absolutely vertical, greenery clung to it.
Entire mountains were so drenched in jungle it looked as if a blanket of concentrated vegetation had been laid over the entire mountainside by a giant with a green thumb. In many places the trees were covered in creepers and strangler vines which drooped from the canopy, flowing down to the ground and giving the impression that the jungle was melting like so much chlorophyll wax. An enchanting ride.
Mung Noi itself is a a small village – even by Lao standards. It is encased in mountains. One dirt road parallels the river and is a few hundred metres long. On either side of the road are wooden and bamboo shop-houses. Although Mung Noi is given no mention in my guide book, it has made it to the traveler word-of-mouth grapevine. There were a dozen guest-houses sign-posted along the main street. Even so, the village does not feel over-run by travelers. Bronwin and I met the first of what we would soon discover to be dozens of Israelis who had flocked to the town, and we followed her recommendation to the Makela guest house. Here, six adjoining rooms were separated by paper thin, weaved bamboo walls. I took a room which opened onto the wood patio. My room contained an inch-thick mattress, a pillow, and a mosquito net perched above. All the comforts of home.
Bronwin and I took a refreshing swim in the muddy river, had a bite, and relaxed in the hammocks suspended from the patio. By evening my hebrew conversation skills were in full gear with any one or another of 10 or more Israelis who came by our patio for dinner, beer and smokables. There was plenty of all the above.