Cycling in the Rice Fields of Luang Nam Tha, Laos

Laos is a dream for the experienced backpacker and so it was for me, a Romanian traveling around the world for one year. Coming from Chiang Mai in Thailand, we entered the Luang Nam Tha region by boat, crossing at dawn the mighty and foggy Mekong River.

Laos is a dream for the experienced backpacker and so it was for me, a Romanian traveling around the world for one year. Coming from Chiang Mai in Thailand, we entered the Luang Nam Tha region by boat, crossing at dawn the mighty and foggy Mekong River. Bordering China and Myanmar, Laos nourished me with a salad of mixed feelings: beginning of civilizations, end of materialism, the return to nature, but also the rise of Chinese influence and the end of innocence. Still, some things remain untouched in this magical backpacking area: the rice fields at sunrise, sunsets over golden stupas, monks in orange robes pedaling towards the monasteries, women washing their silky hair in the rivers, naked children laughing and playing freely in the spring, officials playing petanque in the sand just like in the South of France, goddesses with Asian features leading the wild scooters, old folks smoking opium in their gardens, entire families washing their clothes in the river, pharmacists selling Tiger Balm.

Lemon grass smoke on the mighty Mekong River

As soon as I crossed the border I felt like landing in a fairytale: layered hills, smoke on the waters over the never-ending rice fields, green lakes and the smell of lemon grass, cycling a pink bike through the dusty streets over a suspended image of Luang Nam Tha which made my heartbeats go slowly, adjusting to the calmness of the region and of locals’ lifestyle. I was particularly happy to see all the lovely children saluting everyone with an enthusiast “Sabadee”. Life seemed to have such a normal course in Luang Nam Tha. My body felt regenerated. Still, there are some things that you should be aware of when traveling in a traditional area like Luang Nam Tha: wear modest clothes, try to cover your body as decent as possible and try to behave respectfully, in tune with the Buddhist tradition, as Lao people are particularly sensitive at this subject.

The day starts easy in our wooden guest-house. The air is cool and I feel the fresh cold of a Laotian morning: Lao Coffee with condensed milk and French crepes, a culinary delirium, which once tried becomes an addiction. After three days in Laos I feel that the Asian experience actually begins there, with a subtle but expressive Chinese influence (expensive Toyotas just bought by rubber trees landlords) mixed with the dreamy French memories. Although affected by the war between the US and Vietnam, Laos seems to be a place not affected by time and capitalism. The time to go to Laos is now, before it will become a copy of the touristic Thailand.

Hiking while going to school

Hiking in the inlands of Luang Nam Tha is safe but much easier with a guide, sleeping in microscopic suspended villages, eating from banana leaves, meeting children who have to walk for three hours to get to school, meeting all the symbols that announce a mystical nation, connected to the rules of the nature. And everything seems so affordable, even for an Eastern European. Laos is a treat for the experimental traveler, not to mention the cycling and motor biking experience on untraveled routes that make you feel like the discoverer of a virgin planet. Still, the Chinese mercantilism is already affecting the region and all the magic of the green and luxurious forests is transformed into a vague silver glitter coming from the profitable rubber trees plantations.

And if you happen to enter a stupa in which you find all kinds of dreads and small puppets, besides the Buddha statues, expect for a baasii ceremony, which is an important part of the Lao culture. Laos is a predominantly Buddhist country, but the baasii and other elements of spirit worship exist side by side with Buddhism. While I happened to cycle around, I entered such a stupa and one of the monks started to talk slowly in an undetermined dialect which sounded more like a Shamanic mantra, while offering me white dread in order to be protected from the spirits that are surrounding us.

Laos, a financial breakthrough in your budget trip

After traveling for three sleepless days through the forests in Chiang Mai, we reached the border with Laos, coming from Thailand. There I fell completely and slept for three hours waiting to cross the Mekong River. Another realm, other customs – Laos. Travelers usually take a different route, by boat, for two days before reaching Luang Prabang, slowly brought by the dramatic Mekong waters. Sailing in the morning on the Mekong makes you think you are somewhere in a nebulous purgatory, no exaggeration here. Just crossing the river in the fog is an initiating road. We exchanged dollars in kips paid $30 and took the bus to the north, so the easier way. There are traveling agencies everywhere, some better than the ones recommended by the Lonely Planet guide – just use a bit of intuition. Going back to the route, I tried to sleep all the way but the rocks on the road made it difficult for me. The first comparison between Thailand and Laos comes with the price of the biscuits. Laos will be way cheaper, no doubt. I started smiling more relaxed. I started to like Laos and with it Asia becomes more and more breathable, financially speaking as well.

Animism, Buddhism, opium and smiles in the land of rocks and rice paddies
Cooling through the north breeze of rice paddies, herbs, massage, the smell of opium, serious mountain equipment, strong coffee and condensed milk, soft music, children greeted you with Sabadeeeee … Very relaxing, indeed. It must be Theravada Buddhism, animism or the belief in spirits and energy fields that make this nation so peace-loving? What I remember is that I entered a beautiful story.

At one point an old man comes and asks me if I want a thread. I nodded “yes”, then a whole ritual of magic formulas begins, and white threads are linked to my wrist. The sun was setting, the monks were cycling around the stupas in their way back from the small city of Luang Nam Tha. The village and I were getting ready to sleep.

Cycling through rice fields,  I fell for Laos. You can take any road you want and even as a girl you’ll encounter no problems while cycling alone. I felt safe and secure all the time, taking all the possible routes and cycling until I felt tired. You feel out there the absolute freedom, so enjoy it!