This is easily one of our favourite adventures to share with people from the pile of travel stories. Our closest friends must be sick of hearing it, but great experiences like this don’t happen very often, even when you’re backpacking for several years. It was made even better by the fact that it all happened by lucky accident.
A Simple Message Can Take You Far
It started off with a couchsurfing request to two young German guys teaching English in a school in Vientiane. We always like to couchsurf in a new city to get some local knowledge and some useful tips. When we got the address from them however, it turned out that it was in Vientiane province and was in fact a two hour drive north of the city along dirt tracks, past countless rice fields and deep into the Laotian countryside… We weren’t disappointed, we were buzzing!
We took a van from our hostel that was heading up to the popular backpacker town of Vang Vieng and jumped out halfway at a completely unknown town called Phôn-Hông. Judging by the looks we were receiving, no backpacker had ever decided to take a pit stop here before and there wasn’t much in the way of tourist activities. Either way, this was our meeting point, so we found a local family-run restaurant to wait for our hosts to show up once they’d finished their English classes.
After several beers and a game of poker; the waitress came over and through very sweet, broken English told us that they were closing now, so we had to sod off. In fact it was getting late, the sun was going down and everywhere else was closing too. So we were out on the side of the road to sit and wait, with no phones, no internet and no hotels in sight.
This was the first time that it all really began to sink in for me. The reality of what we were doing. We were sitting on the side of a road in the middle of Laos, with literally everything that we owned in the world packed into the bags lying next to us and we were waiting for two guys that we had never met before…
On reflection it sounds scary, but I didn’t feel scared or even worried. I can now see that this was the first time that I truly began to feel free.
Bor Pen Yang
Sure enough, the guys, did eventually arrive on their old run-down scooters. Martyn and Simon gave us our helmets and told us to choose who we wanted to ride with, but not before telling us that Martyn had only learned to drive a scooter a few weeks ago (and by the looks of his scabby leg it hadn’t been a painless learning curve), whereas Simon’s headlight was completely busted.
The prospect of a half hour ride down a potholed dirt-track in the dark wasn’t very appealing on either bike, but then this was our first exposure to a well known saying in Laos that we would hear time and time again, Bor Pen Yang. It means no problem! and couldn’t be better suited to the Laotian lifestyle – No problem is big enough to deserve stress. Life is for living, not worrying.
So we took our helmets and jumped on the back (sorry mum).
The Village of Nonsavang
The school was in the tiny village of Nonsavang, which can’t have been home to more than 100 people. It was so remote that it doesn’t show up on google maps and even local tuk-tuk drivers hadn’t heard of it. The village was essentially a collection of small buildings on either side of the main road passing through. There was a small shop and a family-run restaurant but you’d need to take a scooter to find much else. They certainly didn’t see falangs (westerners) around here very often and whenever we went out, we’d get turned heads from every passing scooter. People would often stop to see if we were lost or needed help and school kids would scream and wave whenever they saw us.
Martyn and Simon were local celebrities by virtue of being falangs and they were there as part of a program funded by the German government to send a few volunteer English teachers to Laos every year.
The school grounds were about as basic as you’d imagine, with a few concrete buildings in varying stages of completion. The boys lived in one building, sharing a small hotel-sized room with private bathroom. It seemed like a very basic and small place to live for an entire year, but by local standards it was considered quite fancy. It had been specially adapted for the German volunteers, with proper wooden bed frames, a western-style toilet, a shower and small indoor kitchen. In comparison, locals would typically share a room that size with an entire family, sleeping on roll-out mats on the floor each night, having a tap & bucket for a shower and using a squat toilet in the garden.
There were no locks on any doors either. The guys explained that there is an extremely strong sense of community here, with very little petty crime. If anything were to get stolen from a foreign guest, it would cause massive personal shame among the community and so they effectively all kept an eye out for each other.
The German guys had thrown themselves fully into this way of life. We spoke for the rest of the night about how simple life was here without all the modern distractions. How laid back life was when you really didn’t have any material possessions to worry about. How happy and friendly the locals were. I still felt as though I’d get bored living there after a few months, but they loved it.
They were desperate to embrace every aspect of the local life and weren’t happy about the special indoor kitchen for their room. They wanted to build an outdoor one like the locals would use. For now though, they prepared most of their meals out on the porch with a cool wood burner and a machete.
Nam Ngum Lake
On our second day the guys had planned for us to go spend the day at Nam Ngum lake. It’s a huge lake, which is a popular tourist spot for locals, but much less so for backpackers. Only half an hour from Nonsavang, the drive there goes along what must be the best kept road in the whole of Laos.
It might seem weird mentioning the quality of a road, but it still sticks in my memory. For comparison, the main road connecting the two main cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang is little more than an orange, potholed dirt-track in places, whereas this is a freshly tarmacked, super clean, smooth road.
The reason? A brand new hydroelectric power plant connected to the lake and a communist government which clearly still believes in the power of showpiece construction projects. It’s amusing to see how abruptly the road switches back to orange dirt-track just beyond the sight of any foreign dignitaries visiting the dam.
Nam Ngum itself is big, blue and beautiful. The lake is dotted with small islands rising from the water, giving it a similar feel to that of the world famous Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam. Unfortunately for us, it was really misty on the day we visited, so we couldn’t make out much from the shore.
Boat tours of the lake are very popular, but from the sellers we spoke to on that day, they seemed a bit expensive. Around the banks there are some food stalls and restaurant huts, most of which are constructed on stilts over the water. Despite the tourism, Nam Ngum lake is beautiful and peaceful, just like the rest of Laos.
After failing to find somebody who would let us rent their boar for the day, we grabbed a crate of beer, got into our swim shorts and went down to the lake for a dip.
A Warm Laos Welcome
At some point we saw guys jumping into the lake from the decking of one of the stilted restaurants, so we swam over to ask if we could too. We climbed up the ladder to the balcony and quickly realised that we had actually just crashed a private family gathering. There were about 15 locals , who all turned around to see 4 soaked white boys climbing up their ladder, panting for breath and asking to jump off their balcony…
But in their typical Laotian friendliness, they invited us in, with huge smiles, shoved Beerlao in our hands and insisted that we drink with them first!
We spent the entire day there hanging out with the family, sharing beers and jumping into the lake together. There was a huge language barrier, but that didn’t matter.A few of the Laotians spoke very basic English and the German guys spoke a bit of Laotian, so we got by with that and lots of over-the-top gestures.
Despite this, it was just like drinking with a bunch of friends and family anywhere in the world. We jumped into the lake, shared our beers and ate tonnes of food. The mum of the family kept bringing out plates of delicious food for everyone to share. I didn’t recognise a lot, but it was a typical mix of Laotian food, with plates of papaya salad, noodle soups and even some fresh fish. The guys had caught the fish that morning straight from the lake with their hand-made spear gun. They offered to take us out on a fishing trip with them the following week if we came back, which would have been awesome, but Rick and I would be in Luang Prabang by then.
When we’d eaten the fish down to the bone, the mum took the plate away and returned soon after with a surprisingly tasty soup made from the fish heads – they really don’t waste a thing here!
There were also a few bowls of deep fried crickets on the table, which at one point I caught myself mindlessly snacking on as though they were peanuts. They were delicious though and did taste a lot like roasted peanuts, much nicer than the old ones we’d tried in touristy places.
As if to prove that we really are all the same, a guitar even made an appearance. The Laotian guys had never left their town, spoke almost no English and yet they still knew one English song to play. Any guesses?
Wrong! It was Crawlin’ by Linkin Park and came accompanied by some very ‘improvised’ lyrics, akin to what you might hear from a guy singing karaoke after downing 10 pints of Stella and a bottle of vodka. It turned out later that they also knew a few Beatles songs, but the Beatles are about as universal as fake Manchester United shirts and I dislike them just as much.
When it was time to leave, the family wouldn’t accept a penny in payment for the food or beers they had given us and enthusiastically invited us back any time. Moments like that confirm something important that you learn from travelling. That most people really are nice, friendly and caring. Don’t believe everything you hear on the news.
That was just the first two of our four incredible days in Nonsavang, but this post is long enough so I’ll leave it there for now.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to leave a comment and like us on Facebook @facebook.com/wanderingblindly