After exploring Luang Prabang and environs, it was time to head to the karstlands of the northeast. (Note: Karstlands was not a word until I made it up just now, at least according to the people at Merriam-Webster®, but what do they know? Think about it: wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, marshlands. Why shouldn’t there be karstlands?)
Getting to Nong Khiaw, the town that would be our karsty (another new word!) base for two nights, involved a two-pronged approach: minibus and bicycle. Much of the minibus portion would be along Laos’ “Superhighway,” Route 13. Already inauspiciously numbered, it was built by the Chinese who clearly were not out to impress the Laotians with their road-laying skills.
By that last sentence, you probably surmised that the superhighway was not very super. Indeed, it was not. If you need convincing, know that it takes about three hours to drive the 88 miles from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, a distance that would take just over an hour on a western superhighway. Rutted, potholed, and pockmarked are just some of the epithets that may be used to describe this questionable piece of Sino civil engineering. If you are prone to car sickness, this is not the highway for you.
The route had it’s good points, however. First, it put into perspective the snow-and-ice-chewed, pothole-studded roadways we love to whine about back home. Second, it brought us to our guide Choy’s natal village of Ban Pak Cheak, where his family still lives and which is so small it doesn’t exist on Google Maps. We stopped first at the village’s Buddhist temple, which afforded us both scenic views and our one and only photo with a monk.
Next we paid a visit to the home of Choy’s family, where we met his father, sister, and niece. His father showed us part of the tattoo that runs from his ankles to his waist (front and back, all the way up!) that was basically compulsory when he was growing up – proof that he was a man. As we marveled over his skin art and the pain he had to endure to acquire it (and learned that he forbade Choy – and presumably any other sons – from partaking in this cultural show of manhood and masculinity) his sister was busy preparing snacks for us in the kitchen, and his little niece was playing hard to get. We are incredibly grateful for their genuine hospitality and willingness to give us even a small glimpse into their lives.
Third, the highway led us to a roadside bar/restaurant that, much to the husband’s delight, was bicycle-themed. They also got creative with beer bottles.
These eye-pleasing design elements were in stark contrast to the cigarette display at the front counter. If ever there was an incentive to quit smoking (or never start), I would think this would be it.
We made a spontaneous roadside stop was to observe a local woman preparing riverweed chips. You can pop ’em in your mouth like Pringles, but the process of making them looked laborious. It reminded me of our wedding: all that work and it was over in an instant.
Finally, the dubious thoroughfare gave the husband and tour-mate Victor (the only two people willing to brave the narrow, pockmarked road surfaces and traffic) a chance to boast that they cycled on the Laos Superhighway, where they had the first of only two snake sightings the entire trip. (The second would be a cobra on the road near Siem Reap, Cambodia, which only a few in the minibus were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of. Lucky because seeing a cobra brings good fortune, apparently. Frankly, I kinda felt lucky that I didn’t see it. Nightmare avoidance, you see…)
Anyway, we met up with the husband and Victor after we turned onto an adjoining highway that would take us the rest of the way to Nong Khiaw. Here, we all got on our bikes and cycled the remaining 18 miles to our destination. This was the first time our cycling took us out into the rural countryside past small villages. It was pure joy. We periodically passed uniformed schoolchildren walking home for lunch who always smiled, waved, and shouted either hello or sabaidee, as did the numerous scooter drivers passing by. We decided that Laos should co-opt Thailand’s nickname: The Land of Smiles.
This is where I was set to launch into the events of our first full day in Nong Khiaw, but I’ve decided this post is long enough. Instead, I’ll leave you with this photo of our first moments in the town. Karsty, isn’t it?
P.S. These events took place on Christmas Day, or what the husband and I now refer to as Karstmas. Belated Merry Karstmas everyone!
Read more about our Dust-Farm-Pail List SE Asia adventures:
- Things We Learned from the Travel Medicine Doctor: Laos/Cambodia Edition
- And We’re Off…
- Southeast Asia to Midwest America Jet Lag: What Fresh Hell is This?
- Blog Buddy Meet-up #1: Luang Prabang, Laos
- Laos, Days 1-2: Cycling & Sightseeing
- Laos, Day 3: The Journey to Nong Khiaw
- Laos, Day 4+: Hiking, Remote Villages, and One Really Bad Indian Meal