We just had a short week in Laos this time before our planned entry into China and had decided to take it easy. We were a little tense as some of our plans for China were still not fixed, G318, the road linking Chengdu with Lhasa was blocked due to landslides which meant re-planning that part of the route, we had not all papers officially required for Mutlu and overall, the entry into China with your own vehicle is still something exciting. Northern Laos was the perfect place to take it easy. The road from the Thai to the Chinese border is mostly (one could almost say only) frequented by Thai trucks carrying fruits and other goods to China. For them time is of essence and that is the way they drive - not all of them make it however.
Other than that rice fields, caoutchouc tree plantations (mostly Chinese owned) and some pristine forests and small villages line the road.
As we had organised our visas for Laos before hand the exit and entry procedures were fast even though we had to pay 200 THB on the Thai side for the completion of some forms; at least we got a receipt but we felt nothing of the bullying and corruption others reported from this border. On the Laos side border police was actually pretty happy that I spotted a mistake with their entry date stamp - they had set the month wrong and stamped everyone in a month too early that day, good luck to them on exiting Laos but I guess a few Lao Kip will fix the problem (Laos is on place 145 of 175 on the corruption index by Transparency International). We stopped on the other side of the Mekong, in Huay Xai and enjoyed our first Lao meal on a terrace above the river. We used up our Thai data volume to finalise the China planning and moved on into the country. The road is winding and leading through the hills of northern Laos and seems to be the only artery of supplies for the area. Almost no secondary roads go left or right, most smaller valleys and hills can only be reached on foot. After 2 days we reached the only real town on our way, Luang Namtha with a population of just 3500. We decided to stay there for a while and hired a local guide to take us on a 2-day trekking through the hills and valleys to some remote villages.
Many of the villages are inhabited by local hill tribes of very different origins and even villages that are just a few hours apart by walk can be of completely different ethnicity. The hikes through the mountains and valleys are beautiful even though they don’t offer breathtaking views. The occasional rain shower didn’t disturb us and the local food mostly made of plants found on the way was delicious.
Mutlu was an exciting diversion for many of the kids in the villages and at night we drank locally distilled rice schnapps.
Coming back from our hike we decided to stay one more night near Luang Namtha but made a bad decision in choosing our camp site. Rouletout sank in with his left back wheel and even after 2 hours of digging in the dark we couldn’t move forward or backward. We decided to give it a try and walked a bit on the only road until we found a guesthouse with a few youngsters watching television. We tried to explain our situation and as they were curious enough they came with us to check Rouletout. Some Thai truck drivers that overheard our explanations also joined and decided that they can help us. A few minutes later a semi truck showed up and got also stuck in the mud. Never mind they said, we have 3 more trucks.
That said the next one came into the mud field and after some back and forth all 3 trucks were back on the tarred road. We decided to stay close to it for the next few days - we definitely had enough of red mud for the time being. We talked for a while with the selfless truck drivers but couldn’t convince them to take any gift as a thank you - thanks again guys!!
We moved further along towards Boten, the border town in Laos, stopped at the few villages on the way and were surprised to find the customs building a few kilometres before Boten. It was late afternoon and we had planned to spend the last night in Boten and run through the exit procedures in the morning, but ok, here it was. Without loosing any time our custom procedures were finished and we entered the duty free zone of Boten. This was the next surprise, Boten seems to be a Chinese outpost with duty free malls, big hotels and casinos - many of them still under construction.
We even found free WiFi but soon realised that also here, we were rather in China than in Laos, we were already behind the Chinese firewall. All that was left for us was to prepare for the next day, the day we had planned to enter China, and to get a good night’s sleep. We will be back in Laos in December to see and experience more than just a few days in the north.