Phongsaly, Laos: at the end of a long lonely road…

20181006_061252It may or may not be the ‘end of the earth’, but it definitely qualifies as the outback of Southeast Asia, for whatever that’s worth, probably not much, so long as China keeps encroaching, as it surely will, not so long ago Vietnam probably the greater transgressor, with its oversized population, locked into such a narrow sliver of prime southeast Asian coastline, and punctuated by rivers, this the only country in the world, that I know of, that is self-defined by its water, i.e. ‘nuoc Vietnam‘, Viet-water, as opposed to Thai-land, Ire-land, Green-land, or Switzer-land, for example (if you’re familiar with Vietnamese fish-sauce, nuoc mam, then you might recognize that same word nuoc)…

But that’s Vietnam, and this is Laos, though you might not know it at the crossroads town of Udom Xai, a town of literally no more than a few tens of thousands, but with buses heading to all the four corners, i.e. China, Vietnam, and Thailand, every neighboring state except Burma, aka Myanmar, and locals can even go from Phongsaly to Luang Namtha, one part of Laos to another, via China, would that this option were only open to foreigners, and you might have a resuscitation of the backpacker market in this region…

20181006_164425Which has largely left China out of that equation, not that they’d even know or even care, given the swarms of their own locals that have largely taken over tourist sites once almost the exclusive private reserve of foreigners. But that won’t likely happen any time soon, much less the ‘Five Chiangs’ concept, of somehow re-configuring that original Tai-land…

…proto-state, with one visa for it all, splayed now over four national territories and the upper Mekong River, same as it ever was: Chiang Rung, Xieng Tong (Luang Prabang), Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Kyaingtong, which failed to thrive until reconfigured as Lan Na and Lan Xang, long before the modern states of Thailand and Laos came into existence…

And the hills of Phongsaly sit overlooking much of that. But first you have to get there, and the fact that the bus driver’s helper hands out little plastic bags before the trip should give you a clue. Hint: the bags are not for trash. And so it goes, up and up and up, but not so high, really, just twisting and turning, past the non-descript little burgs of Boun Tai (lower) and Boun Neua (upper), where much of the modern infrastructure of government is being relocated, apparently, as Phongsaly itself retreats further into the clouds…

20181006_153718Confirmed upon arrival, the curly twirly road transforms into a curly twirly town, with no real center, much less a red light, or anything fancy like that, just a few key intersections holding place notation, for what constitutes the definition of a city, a place where roads meet and business is transacted, even before houses will be built and babies will be born, far less an entertainment district upon which to flail oneself and desires shamelessly…

But there is a large pond there, serving just that purpose, it seems, though I think its prime reason for existence is the proper dispensation of poop, if I’m catching the euphemisms on the ‘no fishing’ sign correctly, something about ‘green water’, sounds ominous. But there isn’t much else to do, TBH, just cop some kao soi at the cheap eateries and take long walks…

But the temps are cool, so this would be quite nice in the hot dry season March-May, while all the lowland dogs are dizzying with parched eyes ears nose and throat. And this is still the rainy season, too, though theoretically petering out, but I’m not so sure, as the third day grows torrential, and I’m worried about that patchwork road, and it’s not so dirt cheap here, either, much less spectacular, the tribal peoples a bit dogged and tired-looking, a bit the worse for wear…

20181007_090731So I leave after four nights, after a long 6-8km/4-5mi hike down down down a long country road and back back back the same way I came, Ban Chantane I believe was the name, calves now aching from the long uphill, and after torrential rains, and forecasting more of the same, figure I might better hoof on out of the woods while I still can, ’cause if that road washes out, then I’ll be at the mercy of ditch diggers and tractor drivers, while all the fun is going on down below in the green beautiful valleys…

Ha! Luang Prabang, maybe, the pearl in Lao’s oyster, but not UdomXai, just a hard-scrabble crossing, of roads and peoples, but that’s okay, ’cause once it gets that groovy ‘travel vibe’, then it loses whatever authenticity it may once have had, but hard to calculate, because it’s just too fluid and changing to measure with any accuracy, the comings and goings of peoples on landscapes, further confused by the dimension of time, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which makes it impossible to calculate position and momentum simultaneously…

20181009_103846And sure enough it happened! We get stuck! Or almost, anyway, the bus unable to climb the muddy hill without sliding into the ditch. So it’ll take a wench and a large tractor to get us back mobile, and on into Udom Xai before nightfall, rooms at the ready, unlike the previous stop, some four days before, after midnight and all rooms full, just Mary Magdalene roaming the streets looking for something and I not about to be the one to tell her either yes or no…

It’s better this way, I recovering my travel legs after two months of four walls, steeling myself for the re-entry into China, f*cking China, full of face and lacking in grace and as inevitable as it is unfathomable. And that is my fate. But there is no rush, so first I’ll go to Luang Namtha and Muang Sing, the latter apparently fallen from grace since its heydays of the 90’s, last time I was there, too, so we’ll see…

If nothing else, it’ll be worth it for the Tai Dam peoples, one of my favorites, and the start of any serious discussion of Tai history and culture. After all I can speak this language, and that’s the Holy Grail of travel, chatting up the locals, especially here and Thailand, where people are infinitely chattable. So that’s what’s for supper tomorrow. And what did you do today?

Advertisements