Drifting downstream: the rivers of Northern Laos

Landlocked Laos may not lie adjacent to any ocean but it more than compensates with a twisting network of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. In the rainy season, the rivers rage with wild rapids. However, visit in the drier season (I was there in March) and you’ll be rewarded with one of the jewels in the crown of Northern Laos: a slow boat trip down the Nam Ou.

From travellers I had met in Vietnam, reports of Laos did not tend to be glowing. ‘Just go for a couple of weeks,’ we were advised, with warnings that it was a bit boring. After 24 hours, we utterly disagreed. I cannot deny that Laos is hands down the most laid back place I have ever visited. Everything happens in slow motion; its languid rivers flow lazily through shallow valleys; even the dogs are more chilled out as they lounge in the shade. But I think that this is a huge part of its charm. Relax into its dreamy vibes and you’ll find yourself spending longer there than you planned.

After an exhausting journey from Vietnam, we spent the night in a guesthouse in Muang Khua which clung precariously to the sides of the riverbank, accessible only over a rickety bridge which was only sketchily nailed together. Our landlady didn’t speak a word of English but shyly smiled and showed us to our rooms. The walls were made from woven bamboo and for the first time felt homely; mosquito nets foamed down from the ceiling onto piles of blankets and from the window we could see the gentle flow of the Nam Ou. For less than £2 for a night, it was not a sore deal. Dinner was slow in coming – we would learn that everything in Laos happens in Laos time – but delicious. It was our first experience of Laos sticky rice, which generally is cooked at breakfast time and eaten with every meal.

Sticky rice is made from a specific opaque rice grain called glutinous rice and has been cultivated throughout South East Asia for over a thousand years. About 85% of all rice in Laos is of this type. It is steamed and comes in little wicker baskets with a top attached with string. Eat it with your hands, rolling it into walnut-sized balls, and dip it into whatever you choose to eat it with. Eat it all the time for every meal. It. Is. Incredible. Stay tuned on the blog for my Ode to Sticky Rice. There is an age-old debate as to whether sticky rice is traditionally Thai or Lao. Having travelled round both, I would argue that it is hands-down Lao. Sticky rice for life.

After a comfortable nights sleep, we were up bright and early for the slow boat at 8 which came at 9.30. Papaya and mango  with Lao coffee for breakfast before heading down to the stone ramp that went down to the river. We handed our backpacks down onto the boat, a long wooden riverboat painted blue with a wooden covering held down by bricks. We climbed aboard. Bags went down one end; people on the other. I folded my waterproof over to make a cushion to sit on and folded up my knees slightly to fit into the width of the boat. When everybody was on, ropes were untied and the woman driving the boat pushed off from the river bank with an oar so that we were slowly free-floating down the river.

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The scenery was beautiful as we drifted downstream. Striking karst hills carpeted in a cloak of emerald greenery flanked the Nam Ou as it wound through flat-bottomed valleys. The sky was a pale forget-me-not blue edged with wispy clouds that clung to the limestone peaks climbing upwards into jagged triangulations. The sun shone serenely through a lazy haze, warm and balmy, while a gentle breeze cooled the skin. There was an occasional spray of water as our vessel surged through rougher parts of the river.

We occasionally stopped the boat to pick people up who were waiting by the sides of the river to get a lift downstream. Sometimes they drew up alongside the boat in smaller thinner canoes, jumping nimbly across to us. After a couple of hours, a few of us desperately needed the toilet so we pulled up alongside a sand bank and disappeared into the trees, the sand burning our feet in the sun. I squatted in a bush next to some pigs who looked faintly appalled and wandered away to snuffle elsewhere. We stopped off at a riverside village called Muang Ngoi Neua, a charming place where I would recommend staying if you have the time. Although we didn’t stay here, we heard really good things about it. We grabbed lunch here and said goodbye to the people we’d met on the crossing from ‘Nam and who we’d chilled with for the last few hours on our gentle journey downstream.

It wasn’t long until we arrived in Nong Kiaw, a slightly larger town than Muang Ngoi Neua, but still a village really as it takes less than 10 minutes to walk through the whole thing. It is surrounded by the same limestone scenery that we saw from the river which we planned to explore some more the next day. Meanwhile the sun was starting to set on the river, its pinkish hue contrasting with the deep greens of the forest reflected in the slowly moving water. We ate dinner alongside the river to the last shafts of rosy sunlight which faded to a darkness punctuated by the flickering flames of the lamps on our table. We tried ‘laap’, a Lao speciality of minced meat fried with chilli, herbs, lime juice and toasted rice, accompanied by sticky rice.

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The next day was spent exploring and getting lost in the surrounding countryside, amongst the karst mountains and caves, not straying far from the road due to unexploded ordinance left in the area from the America/Vietnam War. On the way back to Nong Kiaw, we paid a visit to the Tham Pha Tok caves, which is where villagers hid out during the Second Indochina War as American bombs rained on Laos. For a time, the Luang Prabang government was also based in this cave system. Originally accessible by a rickety bamboo ladder, a new wooden staircase now rises to the cave’s entrance. Take a flashlight as you navigate the chambers of the cavern – there are a few signs about but not an awful lot of information on display. However, it is still interesting being in the caves and imagining what happened here not so long ago.

We walked back a couple of kilometres to town where we had a late lunch of Indian dosa with a Dutch girl we’d made the crossing to Vietnam with, who happened to be walking past. Stomachs full, we decided to walk up Phadeng Peak to the town’s viewpoint. In hindsight, doing it on a full stomach wasn’t the best idea. Although no Fansipan, the trek went steeply uphill in the afternoon heat. I had brought a camera rather than a bottle of water – priorities – so was dehydrated in the almost oppressive heat. We were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top but the 360° vista which awaited us at the summit was worth the walk. A pinkish sun wreathed in pale clouds was sinking slowly into the embrace of the jagged limestone hills, the light sparkling and enchanting the long loops of the river. We sat by a rice sack ‘flag’ blowing in the wind as the sun set, deciding to make our way down as the light became cloaked in cloud. It got darker as we made our way down and needed a flashlight to navigate the winding path before we reached the bottom.

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After showering off all our sweat, we went out to go eat more Lao food. I ordered Lao sausage, spiced win lemongrass and chill, which came with sticky rice (of course), greens, fried river weed with sesame seeds and a spicy aubergine dip (‘jeow’). It was washed down with a Beerlao, the national rice beer which comes in huge bottles and is actually really good. We went back to the hostel and cuddled with their kittens before heading to bed. We were reluctantly leaving the riverlands, travelling West to Nam Tha National Park,  the next day. We had actually looked to see whether we could travel there by river for it is possibly the most relaxed form of transport in the world. However, being the dry season, there was no chance and so it was that we changed from boat back to bus for the next leg.

 

Sapa O’Chau: ‘thank you Sapa’ (Hmong)

Another day, another dawn, another trek. With aching limbs and heavy bags, we walked up Sapa’s main street to the Sapa O’Chau Office, where we’d booked another trek – this time, a four day trek through Sapa’s ethnic minority villages. Fansipan was just a warm-up.

Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise, started with a dream. The dream of a young H’mong woman called Shu Tan who wanted to create a sustainable tourist organisation which was not only economically beneficial to the ethnic minority villages of Sapa but also helped preserve their culture. She began to set up homestays owned by ethnic minority people and founded an ecologically conscious trekking service, employing local guides. Traditionally ethnic minority people, such as the black H’mong or red Dao, had little opportunities beyond farming and selling handicrafts. Shu Tan set up a school to tackle illiteracy and to teach English to the people of the rice-farming villages around Sapa. These days, the grassroots organisation, which now includes a cafe and H’mong handicraft store, thrives and benefits ethnic minority people at every level of society: trekking guides, homestay owners, students, craftswomen and their families. It was on one of these treks, the ‘ultimate trek’ that we were about to embark.

On that first day, we breakfasted at the Sapa O’Chau cafe before we met our guide, Su. Su was from a H’mong village on the outskirts of Sapa. He was nineteen, his English was very good, he had an easy smile , wore trainers and carried a big yellow umbrella. As we left Sapa, we were tailed by a couple of women, wearing heavy silver jewellery and the brightly embroidered bags and sashes of the H’mong people. Su said that they would follow us to try and sell us handicrafts. When we said we may not necessarily buy any, they smiled and said they would just walk with us to their village and continued to press curious questions on us about where we came from in stilted English. It was a sunny day and the views from the edge of Sapa were oustanding. A rare panorama that lives up to the splendour of picture postcards which honestly can’t capture the scale of the spectacle beneath you: rice terraces in neat winding steps, some cracked and muddy, others bright green, some skimmed with a pinkish algae and others fringed with small blue wildflowers.

The first part of the walk was incredibly muddy and without the help of the two ladies in our company, we may not have made it down in one piece. I learnt that the H’mong word for ‘thank you’ was ‘o’chau’ and repeated it like a mantra as one of the ladies repeatedly took me by the hand to help me down the vast majority of the way down the waterfall. We stopped in the valley for a water break and watched two boys stride through a shallow stream on stilts, scattering flapping ducks in alarm. Animals wandered freely along the streets, pigs with piglets, chickens, buffalos, gentle giants despite their large horns. The dogs and cats looked surprisingly healthy (unlike the ones who stole our food in Kiau Nuluh). I asked Su how people knew which buffalo was theirs. He grinned: ‘they always come home at night because they know where the food is.’IMG_7436.jpgimg_7444In the end, we did buy some handicrafts from the ladies who’d held our hands down into the valley when we stopped for lunch. They smiled and pushed bracelets onto our wrists to say thank you: ‘o’chau’. After we’d finished lunch – fried rice with chicken and homegrown cabbage – we said goodbye to them and proceeded to walk to the next village, a H’mong village called Lao Chai. We were welcomed by a tray of tea, took off our walking boots and stretched our legs. Before they stiffened up, we decided to go for a stroll. We wandered slowly up through the village, bright handicrafts and traditional clothes blowing on washing lines, contrasting with dull concrete tracks. Guard dogs lolled with one eye open and ears slightly pricked at each house, cats miowed from unseen hollows and buffalos wandered unchecked next to cherry-pink blossoms and pens of ducks. We walked past ladies making cinnamon incense cones from fine sweet cinnamon powder and past pieces of tarp spread flat with shavings of woody matter left to try in the sun (we asked Su later and discovered it was a type of local medicine). Dinner was made by the daughter of the homestay owner, a Ms Mai who was accompanying another trek group, and we ate with her daughter and son. Towards the end of the meal, the daughter and son went to bed and were replaced by Ms Mai’s husband and two bottles of local rice wine. We drank the rice wine in rounds of shots, which were repeatedly topped up by our host. The shots seemed to never end – we wondered whether it would be impolite to refuse – but eventually we were out of rice wine (we had drunk two litres between four of us!), wished our host goodnight and wound our tipsy way up to our attic bedroom by the light of our Fansipan candle.

After a night of weird dreams, which I attributed to the rice wine, we dressed, repacked our bags and went down for breakfast: amazing thick Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and also a huge stack of pancakes with banana and honey. About an hour later than we were supposed to leave, our bags were on and we were on the road (Su didn’t seem to mind our lateness – I think he was a tad hungover). We walked the way we’d strolled the previous evening before peeling off to the right (at a place selling opium wine) and going up a straight narrow path past motorbikes making their dangerous-looking way down parallel to a stream where a younger man helped an older man to cut his hair. As we stopped to strip off some layers in the heat, we watched two buffalos fighting on the rice terrace.img_7457img_7461We walked down through a muddy bamboo forest which we managed without the help of our H’mong ladies from the day before. We crossed a bridge and walked up the other side of the valley, which sloped steeply upwards but levelled off when we reached a gravel road. Our stomachs were rumbling and it was another 2km before we reached the town where we ate lunch – coffee, noodles and oranges. The paths weren’t too bad from there, we walked down the valley next to a huge humming hydroelectric pipe at the bottom of which was our homestay in the village of Ban Ho. The owner was of the Tay minority, a man called Mr Dao van Truong, and we were welcomed by his wife who, smiling, brought us tea. We offered to help make dinner but were politely refused and ushered onto little stools just above floor level.

The house was a hive of activity: a toddler toddled round, smiling happily at the strangers sitting in front of the fire; ladies chopped herbs and vegetables, stoking the fire above which was being cooked a stock and strips of pork fat smoking over the fire above that. One of the sons of the homestay owner burnt a hole in a plastic bottle out of which emerged wriggling rice eels (caught in the rice terraces that day). We later watched him kill them, neatly but bloodily, with scissors. We went back inside to sit round a table with people who were growing steadily in numbers – it turned out that the homestay owners had invited a load of their family and friends for our visit. It was great, friendly vibes bouncing round the room, despite us not being able to speak Tay (Su only spoke a few words) and them not being able to speak English. Our host did speak a bit of English and proudly introduced us to everyone and told us all about his family of whom he was very proud. He talked about how one of his sons was a doctor, the other was in the police force and how incredibly lucky he was to have an amazing and beautiful wife. Dinner was hotpot with what seemed like everything: tofu, local mushrooms, tomato, several kinds of greens, pork, fish, beef, turned eggs, rice and the eels (which actually tasted ok; they were just very bony). It wasn’t long before the rice wine came out and we we were all clinking our glasses, cheerily wishing each other ‘chuc mung nam moi!’ (new year never ends here). Mr Dao was hilarious, admiring and complimenting Oscar’s leg hair. A cartoon played in the background for the toddler. The ladies gossiped around the fire. Su, quite tipsy, went to bed early. We stayed up later before eventually retiring, hoping we wouldn’t be hungover for the next day of the trek.

Woke up feeling ok to an incredible breakfast of rice, heart fried crisply, greens and stir-fired pork with lemongrass and vegetables. It was a harder trek day than the others had been – there was more uphill, more sun and more sweat. We stopped for a water break at a primary school where brightly coloured butterflies flitted in the sun and shy children watched us from the classroom, some waving and saying hello. We continued uphill off beaten tracks, balancing along the ledges of the rice terraces, swaying slightly with our arms outstretched to stop us tumbling into the muddy water on one side and off the ledge completely on the other. A bit of a feat with heavy bags and sore legs but definitely an adventure and a beautiful one, the terraces pepped with tiny blue and purple flowers. It was a particularly scenic day, making the uphill worth it, the rice paddies curving their marbled ways around the mountains. We stopped at a Tay household for lunch who cooked us rice with a herby omelette, crispy sausage, homegrown cabbage and fish sauce with chilli.

Our Tay homestay was only down the road from there. Before dinner, we walked down to the stream, where we took off our boots and submerged our feet in the cool mountain water. I felt very peaceful, content to just sit on the rock and think, turning a stone over and over in my hand. Oscar tried to read a bit of his book but was distracted by Su who was eagerly trying to read over his shoulder. We went back to the homestay and helped our hostess (the rest of the family were absent) to bring the food she’d cooked to the table. Everything we ate had been grown (or killed) by the lady we were staying with – none of it had been bought. It was delicious and there was a lot of it: rice with cooked bamboo, cabbage, fatty pork, pork sausage and herby omelette as well as local mushrooms. We proceeded, traditionally, to drink a lot of rice wine, probably the most potent we’d had yet. Su bantered with Oscar and taught us H’mong drinking songs; I showed him pictures of Yorkshire. It was a merry last evening and I was sad it was coming to an end – the trek had been great, the homestays welcoming and Su a legend. We turned all the lights off and went outside to look at the night sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars, tiny pinpricks of light bubbling all over the sky so that it almost brimmed over with silver luminescence. Despite our unsuccessful attempts to pick out constellations, just admiring that sea of light was a beautiful experience.

I was woken by the sun shimmering through my mosquito net. We ate egg noodle soup before setting off on the last day of the trek. We bade farewell to our hostess who smiled and wished us good health. Because of the sun of the last few days, the ground wasn’t too slippy as we climbed up through orchards of jackfruit, mangoes and oranges. Su snapped off the branch of a cinnamon tree which didn’t smell of anything but when you nibbled at the tender stalks it tasted really intensely of sweet cinnamon. We took a few twigs to put in tea; Su took the rest of the branch. We walked past a man bottle-feeding a baby horse who explained, Su translating, that the mother had died leaving behind the orphaned foal. The trek ended at a bridge where a car was waiting for us to take us back to the Sapa O’Chau office. Saying goodbye to Su was really sad; he’d been such a great guide and amazing company.

Later that evening, I sat writing my journal on the balcony of our hostel. The sun sank down behind the mountains, turning the sky pink, then lavender before the light began to fade. Lights twinkled from Sapa town in the gathering dusk. The time we had spent here had been among the highlights of Vietnam; the weary victory of Fansipan, the merry night at Mr Dao van Truong’s Tay homestay, the sweeping rice fields beneath our feet, the galactic night sky. All I have to say is Sapa o’chau. Thank you Sapa.

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New Shoes, New PBs & Nepalese Food

Your relationship with your running shoes is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes you hate them looking accusingly at you from the shoe rack, judging you; making you feel guilty that you’re not getting out there training enough. Sometimes they’re supportive friends, giving you the bounce you need to run that extra mile. On the whole, I had grown quite fond of my shoes. But they were getting pretty knackered and the time had come to say goodbye.

It’s important to change your running shoes every so often. If they become too worn, your shoes become less supportive, thus increasing the risk of injuries. For me, the bottoms of my feet had started to blister – just another pain to add to the aches and pains of running which I didn’t want to deal with. They say that you should change your shoes every 450-550 miles as a rough guide, but it does depend on other factors, such as whether you run on the road, your weight, etc. You can also look for signs such as asymmetric wearing (I run weirdly, so I had this problem) or for tears in the upper part of the shoe.

Running shoes are pretty pricey if you want some decent ones (which you really should if you’re training for a big event), but if you’re sneaky you can get some decent deals. So: the makers of running shoes churn out more shoes every season. However, more often than not, they are essentially exactly the same shoe (give or take a few enhancements) as the last season, or the one before that. So if you know the shoe type that works for you (I like Asics GT-2000) you can look them up online and buy an older model, or previous season’s colours, for a decent price. I think I saved around £20 on my shoes, and that was upgrading from the GT-2000 v2’s to the GT-2000 v3’s (I know – I am crazy). I’ve seen savings of over £50 off RRP on the web but you’ve probably got to have a bit of a shop around.

New shoes arrived the other day and it turns out they’re GLITTERY. I half expected them to have the flashing sides, like the kind that were THE THING TO HAVE when I was about eight (although I never owned a pair as my feet were weird…childhood traumas). But they’re good and I bounced along as I took them for a 5K spin. Well, I bounced for about 3K and slogged the rest. But that wasn’t the shoes’ fault. It was a hot day; I probably set off too fast and pushed myself to maintain that pace, which I did for most of the run and then died a bit in the last kilometre. I felt pretty sick actually. BUT I obtained another 5K PB of 00:23:04 and have since ran a sub 23 minute 5K. No pain, no gain. Good old shoes (well, new shoes).

After I returned, I had to rapidly de-sweat as I was meeting friends to go for a meal in York that evening. We went to the Yak & Yeti (Gurkha) Restaurant, which is a Nepalese restaurant that I’ve been wanting to go to for ages. I’d never had Nepalese food before and I was excited to try it. My sister went to Nepal earlier this year and said it was the best place she’d ever been to. Beautiful place; amazing people. She was also there for the April 2015 earthquake (another worthy cause #prayforNepal). I suppose that’s a different story and one that is still unravelling.

But cuisine-wise, Nepal is such an interesting country, due to both its cultural and geographical diversity. This is something that was reflected in the Yak & Yeti’s menu, which ranges from traditional dumplings, to rich daal, to stir-fries, to hearty curries, many of which were named after trekking feats such as Everest or Annapurna. We decided to order a load of dishes and share them so we could try a bit of everything. We started with the traditional dumplings ‘momos’, which tasted so beautiful – fresh and tangy yet with depth of flavour and spice. We then had the Everest lamb, a chicken and a beef dish, with a creamy Maakso Daal (black daal) and Bhuteko Bhat (Nepalese style rise fried in ghee with cumin, garlic and vegetables). All the food was served on little metal plates and the serving sizes were perfect. The flavours were complex and aromatic and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I would definitely recommend going there as an interesting alternative to your classic curry night or just for a good quality meal. You won’t regret it.

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