Travelling comprises an endless series of mainly two decisions: where to stay and what to eat. To cut the number of decisions we need to make by half, and with total disregard for conventional traveller wisdom, we have taken to staying at the very first place we find, in this case the first guesthouse at the top of the road leading down to the port at Houayxai on the Laos side of the border crossing from Chiang Khong. Our guidebook for southeast Asia (Mark Elliot’s Graphic Guide to SouthEast Asia – an awesome book that takes a treasure-map approach to travel writing and refuses to promote any particular restaurant or hotel at the expense of those he simply hasn't had the opportunity to visit) is a 2003 edition and describes what you get for accommodation at three dollars a night as what one might expect for that price. At least seven years later, he’s half right: about three dollars is still the price, but we had a clean bed with bed linen, mosquito net, a fan and hardly any disease-ridden six-legged invaders.
We celebrated our first night in Laos with a curry (obviously), the dishes we ordered representing, very brightly, each of the colours of the Indian flag, which was probably the most authentic aspect of the meal. The place won’t be winning any awards for food, but the owner was a nice guy from Bombay who gave us some good advice about getting to Luang Namtha (the first stop on an itinerary that had, as usual, been planned for us by other travellers) – namely that it would be cheaper to take a tuk-tuk to the station to get our bus rather than the tourist bus from our guesthouse. The last bus I’d taken in Laos had been a very bumpy affair, which hardly mattered once we’d clambered onto the roof to see glorious views of Laos’ spectacular scenery. So, I was a bit disappointed this time when our bus’ roof was clearly intended for luggage only. Stupid improved roads. Boring comfortable buses. I slept nearly all the way.
Guidebooks don’t have much to say about Luang Namtha, other than it’s a good place to organise a hill-tribe trek from and, sure enough, it wasn’t that inspiring when we first arrived. The town is arranged around a long, wide main street lined with the usual farang guesthouses and bars and the ubiquitous whiteboards listing a variety of fruit shakes, pancakes and British, American or Israeli breakfasts. Hill tribe sellers wander up and down the street trying to sell you bracelets and necklaces and, if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, marijuana and opium. But barely 10 minutes away by scooter, heading north along the main road towards China and turning right at the first major junction to cross a bridge over a beautiful river (where, housed in a small sentry box, a policeman in a tightly fitting uniform prevents the taking of photos), you find yourself among rice paddies that stretch out to the bottom of ranges of hills that slide past each other as you ride by like layers in the pop-up books I used to get as a child. The sun and the clouds painted patterns all around that made me swear that never, ever again would I forget to take my camera anywhere. I couldn’t bear to look at how beautiful it all was.
Like everywhere in Laos, Luang Namtha has caves and waterfalls to visit that can be found along the same road, signposted on the left well before you reach the paddies. The stony track gradually made its way uphill, along a river and more paddies and what I thought was the biggest pig in the world, but what was, in fact, a pink buffalo (who knew?). Once we’d parked up and paid the 5,000 Kip entrance fee (37p), a gentle ascent up a wooded path led to a pretty waterfall where more locals than tourists were mucking about, fully clothed, in the water.
Surprisingly nice as it was, Luang Namtha was not our main destination; we’d come here to take a 1.5 hour bus ride even closer to the Chinese border and the well-known ‘traveller hub’ of Muang Sing where we planned to do some trekking. So, after three days (an extra day specifically to return to the rice paddies with my camera), that’s what we did.