In contrast to the Paris-China Border (and if you don’t know the reference, get thee to Amazon for a copy of Salinger’s Nine Stories post haste), the Laos-China Border is a very real liminal space, one which I traversed this afternoon, partly on foot and partly in the back of a saengthaew, or a truck that’s been refitted to carry passengers as well as produce in its nether regions. I had left Beijing on a 7:30am flight on Sunday, sleeping my way across the waking giant to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, through which my brother J. and I had passed on our way to Dali and Lijiang back in March. From there I hopped another plane to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in the very south of the province, verging on both Myanmar and Laos.
Last night I wandered around Jinghong for a bit, but there wasn’t really much to see, so I ended up having a quick bite to eat and lingering over the book I was reading instead. (Now, I just need to find a backpacker cafe-cum-bookstore at which to trade it for another, lighter tome.) Then I headed back to my clean but somewhat shabby room–with a leaky sink–at the Jingyong Fandian, a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended toward the center of town, but which I found pretty lacking. However, I must concede, the room only cost me 60 kuai (about $7.50), and the service was quite friendly.
I awoke this morning at 6am and hiked the 20 minutes up to the main bus station, where I boarded a bus to Mengla. From what I’d read, it was supposed to be near-impossible to get from Jinghong into Laos in the course of a day, due to poorly aligned bus schedules, lacksadaisical border guards on the Lao side, and the like. However, I figured I’d give it a go, since I didn’t have any desire to spend a night in Mengla, which promised to be even less interesting and offer even dingier accommodations than Jinghong. I got a seat on the first bus of the day (by bus I mean the small white vans that shuttle rural citizens around the countryside in China, often known by the nickname mienbao because they look like loaves of bread–and because they hold up about as well in case of a crash). It pulled into the long-distance bus station in Mengla just shy of noon; I hopped into a bicycle cart pedaled by a man who kept trying to get me to change money with him–unnecessary, since I had already done a black market deal with some guy standing outside the not-yet-open exchange booths at the Beijing ariport–while taking me to the Number 2 Bus Station. There, I bought a ticket for $2 for the two-hour ride to the border town of Mohan (Boten on the Lao side), took my seat on the bus, and settled in for a jolting ride over roads that switched from paved to dirt every five minutes or so, interrupted by hitchhikers making their way from village to village using the only form of public transportation around–the long-distance buses.
On both sides of the border, officials commented on the obscene number of Chinese visas in my passport. What can I say? Kafka would have had no choice but to write nonfiction if he’d been born Chinese. Despite some hemming and hawing, I was given exit stamps for China and prodded on my way toward Laos. I walked in that direction for a bit until a saengthaew driver convinced me to climb aboard for about a dollar. He wanted to take me all the way to Luang Nam Tha, my day’s final destination, but I decided to wait and see what forms of transport were gathered on the other side of Immigration before I committed, even though he’d nicely offered me half of his small piece of delicious citrus fruit (the first thing I’d eaten all day). I purchased a 30-day Lao tourist visa (the default length of stay was 15 days until just recently…now you can stay twice as long for the same amount of money–$35 for Americans, which came out to almost $40 for me since I decided to use up some extraneous Chinese cash instead of tapping into my small hoard of dollars). Then I ended up in another saengthaew in any case, but it turned out to be not a bad way of traveling on a warm day. The open sides of the back of the truck let in quite a refreshing breeze.
After a little more than an hour’s drive, we pulled into the bus station at Luang Nam Tha, and I was left with relative locations of guesthouses and restaurants from the meager descriptions in Lonely Planet, but no map, and no linguistic competence. I walked around for a bit, found a guesthouse that looked okay, put my backpack in a room, and went out to get some food. I couldn’t seem to find a restaurant for the first 15 minutes or so, but finally I found a place that looked okay, and I asked the waitress to bring me whatever she thought was good from the menu. She decided on khao soi, rice noodles in a slightly spicy broth with small pieces of beef and what I think was buffalo meat, topped with a pile of cilantro, and accompanied by more than half a dozen bottles and jars of sauces and seasonings. I doused mine with the chili sauce and fish sauce, added a splash of “Green Grade Gold Label Seasoning Sauce,” a dash of “pepper powder,” and a spoonful of chili oil. To that, I threw in some of the greens and string beans the waitress had brought me on a separate plate. The result was deliciously spicy, a harbinger of good meals to come.
After obtaining some nourishment, I walked around and found the main strip, decided to change to a different guesthouse–the recently refurbished Manychan, with a great location, a bustling and pretty good restaurant–and booked a two-day kayaking trip leaving tomorrow morning. We’ll kayak on the Nam Tha River tomorrow, spend the night in a traditional home in a Lanten village (I’m sure I’ll know more about what that’s like when I get back…), and then kayak some more on Wednesday before heading back to Luang Nam Tha. Then I wandered around town for a while, got lost in a residential area and stumbled upon some kids playing soccer and people walking water buffalo and goats (and kids!–of the goatish sort) on strings. Then I grabbed my backpack from the first guesthouse, apologized profusely to the nice woman in charge there with whom I’d conversed earlier in Chinese (our only common tongue), and headed for the comfort of Manychan. I had a quick bite downstairs, my first authentic green papaya salad (tam mak hung in Lao, som tam in Thai) with sticky rice (kao neaw), and then headed over to this nice internet cafe to let the family know I’d arrived safely and, oh yeah, post to my blog. I have some photos (of lunch and dinner, plus a couple random freebies), of course, but I’m going to wait until I have some more before I upload them. Perhaps when I get back from tackling the rapids.
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