A few years ago, I embarked on a unique adventure and spent 6 months doing the nomad thing from Saipan, several cities throughout China, as well as in Laos and Singapore! I had a great time, met a lot of great people, and chronicled it through email updates to my mailing list of followers! With travel restrictions now in effect, I’ve created a weekly email to give YOU a chance to re-live the adventure just as if you were there! Simply sign up to the Jamaican in China “Reloaded” email, then sit back and enjoy the ride in your email inbox every three or so days!
Beginning with tours in Luang Namtha, Laos, Discovering Laos has begun offering all-inclusive one, two or three-day packages or individual tours that include kayaking, rafting, trekking, bicycling, cultural and eco tours, overnight camping in the National Protected Area, and accommodations including home stays with local villagers.
DiscoveringLaos co-founder and nomadpreneur, Walt Goodridge explains how he discovered Laos. “I was in Jinghong, China at the end of my first entry of a double-entry visa. Rather than take an expensive trip to Hong Kong, I decided to go south to Laos instead, and I’m so glad I did! I ended up staying longer than I had planned! These tours are for people like me who want to escape the concrete and congestion of big cities and experience nature and life and people the way they’ve been for centuries.”
Laos is home to 49 different ethnic groups or tribes, 17 of which are in Luang Namtha province. Most are living the way they have lived for hundreds of years. However, the realities of a money-centered world have intruded on life even there.
“Villagers earn money for the things they cannot grow or raise by selling crafts to visitors,” explains Discovering Laos vendor-partner, Vanxai Inyasone (of the Tai Dam tribe and owner of the Namtha River Experience). “There’s no obligation, of course, but a simple purchase can help a villager buy pens, pencils, clothing for her children.” In recognition of this reality, the Discovering Laos website was donated (designed, hosted and maintained free of charge) to the vendors and tour guides it serves.
To encourage visitors for these unique tours, DiscoveringLaos will provide pick up from the bus station or airport or will meet clients at the Luang Namtha airport or bus terminal, or the Thailand or Chinese borders. Vegetarian/Vegan travelers can request special meals prepared by a Tai Dam chef.
For additional ecotour details and offerings, or to donate to help villagers purchase clothing and school supplies, visit www.DiscoveringLaos.com
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Let it be known by one and all that…
On December 8, 2010, at approximately 10:20am, Walt F.J. Goodridge became the first Jamaican to cross from Laos into China!
It all started innocently enough with an early morning rise to catch my 7:30am tuk tuk ride to the bus station. As this would be the last time I would have unrestricted access to Facebook (as well as Youtube, Twitter, Blogspot and other subversive US media), I penned a special goodbye to my facebook friends which read:
A COUNTRY WITHOUT FACEBOOK??
“Please note: effectively immediately (upon boarding the bus from Laos to China), I will no longer have access to Facebook. My email–email@example.com–will be the ONLY way to reach me.
I know this is difficult to imagine for those who are now among the facebook-addicted, but when I’m in China, and I type facebook.com into my browser, unlike you, I get a blank screen with an error message.
That means I cannot see wall posts. I cannot reply to messages. I cannot reply to any of your friends’ friend requests. I cannot effectively poke or be poked.
Of course, there are ways around the block they call “The Great Firewall of China,”, but these aren’t dependable and functionality is limited.
So, when thoughts/conversations arise on why I haven’t responded to people’s friend requests or comments (“I thought you said he was a nice guy!” or “How rude! I asked him a question and he just ignored me!”) Remember the following (please rehearse now:) “That’s right. I remember. Walt cannot read this. He’s in China, the country without Facebook.” “
And with that, I was on my way to check out of the Zuela Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos. The tuk tuk would pick me up at Minority Restaurant, so I would have a chance to say a final goodbye to Vanxai.
Vanxai Inyasone, owner of Minority Restaurant. Check out the website to meet his wife and staff.
After a short tuk tuk ride to the station, the bus to Jinghong arrives, passengers board, and we’re soon on our way!
at the bus station. “Hope this helpful stranger gives me back my camera before the bus pulls out.”
We drive for about 1.5 hours… We arrive at the Laos Immigration departure station, and get quickly processed through and, as I did when entering Laos a few days earlier, walked the few meters separating the two nations’ border crossings toward the Xishuangbanna, China Immigration center, so I could speed up the process.
And then, it happened.
On December 8, 2010, at approximately 10:20am, I became the first Jamaican citizen to attempt to cross from Laos into China!
I know this because the border agents told me so. And soon, everyone else on the bus would know it, too, because since the border agents had never seen or processed a Jamaican passport ever before at this port, the processing of my re-entry into China delayed the entire bus load of people for almost an hour! Yes, a bus load of Lao, Chinese, two Americans, and an (equally annoyed) bus driver were camped outside in the parking lot waiting for the border agents to do whatever it is that border agents do when they encounter a passport they’ve never seen before.
Wait a moment, please. Please have a seat. I will go upstairs.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to practice my Mandarin with the agents who were waiting with me. (Always willing to educate border guards to learn more about Jamaica than Usain Bolt!)
As time dragged on, however, I realized that I had to do something. This could turn into an overnight trip. I was already feeling bad about delaying the other travelers, so, when the bus driver edged ever closer to the immigration checkpoint, and started giving me an encouraging sign to go upstairs to where the agent had taken my passport, I was in agreement with him and headed upstairs to put a little pressure on the process.
I started wandering around the second floor of the Immigration Center peeking into each open door to find the lady agent who had disappeared with my passport.
Soon, another guard spotted me in the (official/restricted) area, and approached me. I communicated to him that my passport was being held up in a process, and I pointed down to the waiting bus driver and passengers some of whom had gathered at the Immigration exit area to see what the delay was.
“Do not worry,” the guard said, “the bus will wait for you.”
“I know they’ll wait. That’s just it. I don’t WANT them to have to wait. The whole bus is being delayed because of something that I know has nothing to do with the authenticity of my paperwork–since my passport is valid, and I have my valid entry-permit, but most likely has to do with the administrative stuff in YOUR computer system.”
(Of course, that’s what I WOULD HAVE said had I been able to speak fluently in Putonghua. Instead, I just said, <<“I know.”>>
Soon, the young lady agent who had been scrolling through microfiche for that hour saw me outside her door, and came outside. The guard communicated to her the delayed bus situation, and, quite agreeable, she told me she would photocopy my passport and continue what it is she needed to do while she let me go through the immigration processing.
I retrieved my passport from her, headed quickly downstairs, and, whoaaaa! I then encountered a long line of passengers from another incoming bus who were attempting to go through Immigration. Not wanting to wait any longer, I called to a guard and asked (signs and gestures) if he could assist.
He understood my intentions and told me to go to the front of the line, and then explained to the waiting queue (I imagine that’s what he said) that I was to be next on line.
“You go first.”
NOTE: Um, by the way, as one of the guards told me earlier, there’s no photo-taking allowed inside the immigration area. I have no idea how those last two photos got into my blog post! Wikileaks?
One rubber stamp later, I was out the door and–along with the driver and few other passengers by my side–heading towards the parking lot and back on the bus. To tell you the truth, no one on the bus really seemed that perturbed, but I didn’t like delaying the “3-hour-trip-that-takes-6-hours” bus ride any more than it had to be delayed!
So, please make note of this new bit of international Jamaica-China-Laos foreign-relations trivia. Here it is, again, in case you missed it: On December 8, 2010, at approximately 10:20am, Walt F.J. Goodridge became the first Jamaican passport-holder to SUCCESSFULLY cross from Laos into China! (There may be a test later, or it may come in handy for a “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” question. Pay attention, and you won’t need to use one of your lifelines!)
So, about an hour later, we’re on our way! Over hill and dale. Ever northward through scenic southern China….
scenic southern China
Back to Jinghong City, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, China!
Back “home” in Jinghong! What’s that, you ask? Ha! THAT’S nothing! Wait until I show you a photo of FOUR people on a moped! You think I’m kidding?
By now, I’ve established a daily routine…
Up at about 5am to work on the computer until sunrise.
At the computer
Head out to the market
Luang Namtha Morning Market
Watch puppies and monkeys playing…
“Which way did ‘e go? Which way did ‘e go? This little chimp is making a monkey out of me!”
Make new friends…
Tik, from Minority Restaurant on her way to evening English class.
More cycling on Day 7
Cycling and sunning
Photo opps to remind myself I was in Laos
Eat at Minority Restaurant.
Big Noodles & Vegetables (2) Fried veggie spring rolls, (3) Tofu Soup
But, I’ve also started to talk with Minority Restaurant owner, Vanxai about Jamaica, about Saipan, about Laos, about America, and about the tourism industry in Luang Namtha. I offer to update the webpage for the restaurant a bit to make it a bit more appealing, and give a few tips on places to promote the restaurant on the web.
Introducing Vanxai to HappyCow.net
He also teaches me about the eco-tourism/adventure business and we agree to keep in touch upon my return to Jinghong.
Make sure you go Kayaking with Vanxai. That’s his passion!
Tomorrow morning, I return to China!
I’m in Luang Namtha, Laos. NOTE: Since you may not be inclined to do the research yourself, I’ve invited the prototypical, documentary-style, voiceover man to over-dub a few excerpts from wikitravel.org as well as the namtha-river-expericence-laos.com website for today’s episode. see text in blue. Okay, narrator, you’re up!
Luang Namtha lies on the banks of the Nam Tha river, and the meaning of the name is “The area (luang) around the Tha river (nam Tha)”.[Wikipedia]
Now, that I’m here…What to do. What to do.
The international award-winning Nam Ha Ecotourism Project was established in 2000 as the first community-based ecotourism project in Laos. …. organize community-base ecotourism-forest trekking, Hiking, Kayaking, Rafting, Biking, River trips and Village home-stays-designed to produce economic benefits for local people, protect cultural heritage and raise funds for environmental conservation. [namtha-river-expericence-laos.com]
So, let’s see. I could go trekking. Luang Namtha is known for its trekking adventures. I could do a 1, 2 or 3-day trek.
No. I like to be on my own clock. Maybe next time.
I could go whitewater rafting. I did that once many years ago with some college friends. It was fun. Been there. Done that.
I could rent a moped and go out on my own and see the countryside. Now that’s appealing, except, it’s a bit noisy, and based on the way I like to travel, it’s a bit cumbersome.
Waitaminit! I know! Just at the street entrance to Zuela Guesthouse, I saw some bicycles for rent. It’s only 10,000 kip/day to rent one.
Now, 10,000 of anything is a lot of things, but that’s about $1.20US. I can deal with that. It’s quiet, easy to maneuver, plus I can get some exercise and work up a sweat, and an appetite. And, I’ll still be contributing to the local economy! Yep. cycling through Laos. That’s the ticket!
I’ll head north out of Namtha towards Muangsing.
Luang Namtha is a mountainous province, located in northwestern Laos bordering Myanmar (Burma) and China with 5 districts (Namtha, Muang Sing, Vieng Phoukha, Muang Long and Nalea) and a total land area of 9,325 square kilometers. The population in 2005 was about 152,285 people or some 16 people per square kilometer. [namtha-river-expericence-laos.com
Lush vegetation, clean air….
Dam. That’s a lot of water. (get it?)
These kids’ bicycle chain had come off and gotten wedged between the gear and the wheel. I pulled it free for them while they stared and pointed at me. What? Haven’t you ever seen a Jamaican in Laos before?
Most people in Luang Namtha live in small rural villages and practice agriculture as their main occupation. There are over 17 ethnic minority groups in the province, making it perhaps the most ethnically diverse place in the entire country. [namtha-river-expericence-laos.com]
Forget the glass house in the desert. My new dream home is a wooden summer retreat in the mountains of northern Laos.
Ended up riding 30 kilometers….15 out
….and 15 back
Luang Namtha province has a wide range of guesthouses. With the prospects of getting more tourists with the new No.3 Road and the upgraded international airport, many new guesthouses have been built in recent times and new hotels are being planned in the center of Luang Namtha town. in Luang Namtha Province there are about 73 hotels and guesthouses with 951 beds and 144 restaurants. [namtha-river-expericence-laos.com
And, speaking of restaurants, after a day of cycling, there’s nothing better than to replenish the nutrients than with a Minority Restaurant Happy Meal!
Fried rice with vegetables….(I’ve found it a challenge to get brown rice at restaurants, so white will have to do this time)
I think I had a third dish, but I really got into it and forgot to have it pose for a photo.
To do my part to make life more pleasant for vegan nomads as well as the restaurateurs who serve them, I tweaked the Wikitravel.org mention of Vanxai’s Minority Restaurant and added a link to his website. Check it out at: https://wikitravel.org/en/Luang_Namtha
You know what? I haven’t been in a sauna since leaving Saipan. And you know what else? I’ve never had a professional massage.
It’s something I had wanted to do in Beijing, Kunming and Jinghong, but just never got around to finding a location. Well, here in Laos I found one.
There’s an Herbal Massage and Sauna spot located on the same lot as Minority Restaurant. So, since I’m here, there’s no need to put it off any longer!
So today’s agenda is simple:
Sit in the sun.
‘Laxin’ in Laos
Get a massage.
Do the sauna.
The sauna room is constructed of bamboo. It’s a little hut that sits atop some wood columns. Out back, behind the sauna hut, there’s a huge pot sitting over a fire, with a hollow bamboo pipe positioned to direct the herbal steam into the hut. It gets pretty hot in there. Dare I say “oppressive!”
The sauna engine room out back
No Minority Restaurant today since today was one of those days I didn’t eat. The sauna shop opens for business at 4:00pm each day. I kept an empty stomach all day in preparation for the massage and sauna. They finished squeezing and boiling me at about 7-ish, which is too late in the day for me to eat.
I’ll eat tomorrow.
So, I’m walking down the main street in Luang Namtha checking out the scene. Every other entrance is a guest house, with a restaurant and trekking, but I’ll talk more about the local economy later. Now, we have more pressing concerns.
Just a few feet south of the entrance to Zuela Guesthouse I pass the entrance to a place called Minority Restaurant. Minority?? I’m offended! I’m appalled!…..I’m hungry.
I’m attracted by the notice on the sidewalk billboard that states they have vegetarian meals. So, I take a look.
sidewalk entrance to Minority Restaurant
I walk down a passageway…
20 meter passageway to the restaurant
…and at the other end I’m greeted by the owner.
“Sawadee” (Hello) Vanxai Inyasone, owner of Minority Restaurant,
I get a good, calm vibe from him, and the place. We chat for a bit. (Vanxai speaks English fluently, by the way) I tell him what I DON’T want in my dishes (MSG, dairy, eggs, meat, seasoning salts, butter, sugar, etc.), and he says no problem. So, I look over the menu and choose a few items.
Whistle a happy tune while I wait.
Get served in good time. (No one else in the restaurant at 3pm in the afternoon)
And prepare to enjoy my first meal in Laos.
Care to join me?
(1) Fried Big noodles & Veggies, (2) Fried river seaweed, (3)Black Mushroom and vegetable soup.
slurp< >smack< aaaaaahhhhh! All done.
Actually, please don’t take those sound effects literally. Having grown up in a British-influenced society of impeccable manners and meticulously- enforced “proper” eating habits, the worst offense one could commit in my presence is to make noise when one chews. Chewing while talking to me on the phone is another unforgivable transgression in the same category. I’ve disowned friends and even a few family members because of this. (And, I’ll hang up the phone…politely, of course.) It’s a deal breaker for a potential relationship if on a first date, my date slurps and smacks while eating. Yep, ranks right up there with pretty feet as one of the “non-negotiables.” But, forgive me. I digress.
Back to the meal.
It was fabulous! It’s the best meal I’ve had in a long time! (Hmmmm…maybe I should change that line. It doesn’t reflect well on my own cooking, does it?)
I think my plans have changed. I WAS going to spend just two days in Laos and then head back to China. However, the fried seaweed has thrown a random, unexpected element/loop/monkey wrench into my plans.
I think I’ll be staying in Laos just a wee bit longer.
15,000kip for the seaweed
15,000kip for the noodles
15,000kip for the soup
45,000kip TOTAL (approx $5.50US, or 37RMB)
Yep, Minority Restaurant gets five stars from Walt the Wandering Vegan!
You can read more about the restaurant and the reason for the name by checking out the website: https://www.namtha-river-experience-laos.com/our_restaurant.htm
While you do that, I’ll be having dreams of sugarplum fried seaweed fairies dancing around in my head! You think I’m kidding, don’t you? You have no idea.
I know EXACTLY what I’ll be doing tomorrow.
So, here’s the deal. As you may recall, I have a multiple-entry visa for China. That means each time I enter the country, I can stay for up to 90 days. Well, the maximum stay of my first entry to China has ended, and I must depart China in order to return for my next entry stay. This is a relatively simple process compared to what people who are looking to start a new life in a different country have to go through. I’ve heard that if you want to immigrate to the United States, that you may be required to fill in some forms, one of which could be the i751 document. These documents and precautions have to be put in place though, or everyone would decide to move to the country. I’m glad I got my visa sorted in quick fashion for my time in China.
When I was envisioning this journey back in August, I had anticipated that a trip to Hong Kong might be in the cards for my first exit, since no visa is required for Hong Kong and I thought I’d be in Shanghai by now. However, since I’m actually in southern China–Yunnan Province– I decide to head to Laos for few days. Laos is just a 6-hour bus ride from where I am now in Jinghong City, Xishuangbanna (Yunnan Province), and the cost of the ticket is only 70RMB (approx $10US; much cheaper than a round trip ticket to Hong Kong)
The bus from Jinghong to Luang Namtha, Laos departs at 7:00am each day.
Jinghong borders Laos
I got my ticket the day before. Just so you know (for when YOU take the same trip), the earliest you can purchase your ticket is the DAY BEFORE your expected date of travel. At that point, they will know whether the bus driver from Laos is coming to Jinghong and can be added to the day’s schedule. The reason? There are (usually) two buses between Jinghong, China and Luang Namtha, Laos each day. There’s a Lao driver who comes from Laos with a load, then picks up passengers in Jinghong to return to Laos. And, there’s a Chinese driver who leaves from China with a load, picks up passengers in Laos, then returns to China.
Taxi pickup at 6:30. Short ride to the bus station.
Gi me di Morning Ride! (inside joke for Jamaicans)
Packing the undercarriage. I always like to see what’s going on with my luggage
Mountain morning mists over Jinghong
Sunrise on the road to Laos
In America, practically NO ONE would dare smoke in an enclosed space like an elevator or a bus! The awareness and acceptance that cigarette smoking, and more importantly second-hand smoke is hazardous to one’s health is widespread and gets government endorsement AND enforcement. Smoking is even prohibited in restaurants and office buildings! In winter time, your American coworkers have to take breaks and go stand outside in the cold to do their smoking.
And when someone DOES break the rules, we get to be smug and condescending and flash them mean, disgusted looks and ostracize them because they’re not playing by the rules! We can TELL them to put the cigarette out. Or, we can call the waiter or bus driver and have him/her do it. And he/she will! In America, the non-smokers have the power! [*by popular demand from my Chinese readers who want to know what life is like in America.]
However, I’m in China. And, not wanting to be the pushy, out-of-sync foreigner, I would just bear it and not say anything like most every other Chinese person. However, the fellow on this bus who was smoking was in the seat in front of me, and I just couldn’t fathom the thought of 5 hours of inhaling second hand smoke wafting back to me.
So, at one of the rest stops along the way, a fellow traveler named Logan–the American on the bus told me how to say “body” in Chinese, so, while we were sitting inside the bus waiting for the driver to return, I tapped the smoker on the shoulder, bowed and said with a smile, “Ni Hao. W? bù huì shuo p?t?nghuà, dàn w? xi?ng shu?: W? bù x?huan x? y?n. W? de sh?nt? bù h?o.” Rough translation: “Hello. I don’t speak Mandarin (well), but I’d like to say that I don’t like cigarette smoke. My body is not good.”
I didn’t like “lying” (ie. My body is actually, um.. perfect. hee hee.), but I figured I would soften any perceived chastisement, and save him any lost face by appealing to any sympathy he might have for my “failing health.” It’s not in my nature to impose a Western standard of behavior on others. In America, feeling well within my rights to insist that others follow the stated law for the benefit of my health, I might say, “Excuse me sir, would you mind not smoking, please?
And he would comply. However, such a scene would never even happen in America, for, as I said, by now, everyone’s on the same page with the smoking rule.
So, here’s the cool part. That was actually my first completely expressed, multiple-sentence, unsolicited thought to a male stranger here in China*….AND HE UNDERSTOOD ME! Yay! Which means my tones were correct–or close enough–and I got my message across. At first he replied that he wasn’t smoking at that exact moment. (In other words, “Hey, it’s not me!”), but his seat-mate added a bit of clarification on my behalf, and then he understood that I was asking him not to smoke for the rest of the trip.
So, I achieved successful Mandarin communication, PLUS no more smoke (at least from him) for the duration of the journey! YAY! A double victory of sorts.
*I know it’s pretty basic, but hey, in my defense, I’ve sort of been letting the language grow in me organically through immersion and necessity. I’m definitely getting better, but I’ve had a lot of English-speaking Chinese friends and I’ve gotten into the habit of using sign language rather than forcing myself to practice my vocabulary.
Anyway, we get to the border, go through China Immigration departure, and emerge on the other side.
Across the border
Logan, who has done this trip several times, explains. Once through the CHINA Immigration departure terminal, we have a choice. We could wait for everyone on the bus to finish their processing, re-board the bus and then drive the few hundred feet to the LAO Immigration arrival terminal, get off the bus…. Or we could walk there and get things done a bit quicker. Easy decision.
At the entry border to Laos, I get through rather quickly as I had purchased my entry permit visa from back in Jinghong. (210RMB, or $30US; still cheaper than a round trip ticket to Hong Kong!)
We reboard the bus, and about 1 hour later, we pull into the Luang Namtha, Laos bus station. I ask the bus driver to change 100 RMB of my money into Lao currency, and he tells me I need to take a shuttle into town. 1 US dollar = 8080kip 1 RMB = 1200kip
Travel websites and schedules say this is 6-hour bus ride. For the record, I’d say it’s actually 3 hour bus ride that TAKES six hours! Um….guys? :-)
The Mekong Cafe in Jinghong recommended Zuela Guesthouse. So that’s where I was headed. I hadn’t been able to contact them by phone to make a reservation, but I was told there would be many guesthouses within walking distance of each other, and that finding accommodations shouldn’t be a challenge.
So from the bus station, with Logan’s help, we got a waitress who know of the Zuela cafe to write the name and location in Lao, and then I found a ‘tuk tuk” to take me to town. A tuk tuk is a small open sided van ( a pick-up with a cover) used for local transport. It’s what we might call a “Jolly-bus” in Jamaica back in the old days! A ride in a tuk tuk costs 10,000 kip. Of course, I ascertained this from the bus driver ahead of time, so I didn’t fall for the old “charge the foreigner 5 times the going rate” trick that one driver tried to pull.
Logan and I say our goodbyes, as he’s continuing further south, and I head to the tuk tuk.
at the bus station; Tuk Tuk to the right.
The tuk tuk takes me to town (say that 10 times fast), I get to the guesthouse strip of town, check in to the Zuela Guesthouse.
The daily rate is about 70,000 kip/day (about $9US/day) It costs more if you want air conditioning. I don’t.
My room (#22) is above the restaurant. That’s my balcony just under the coconut tree branch.
Where I’ll spend the next few days in Laos
Zuela Guesthouse, Luang Namtha, Laos
So, now I’m in The Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos.
Let me get my checklist again.
Internet access? Check!
Kitchen? None. But, I’ll be heading out into town shortly to find a good restaurant for my short stay!