8th February 2016
Mark Steadman and his group get caught in the ice in far northern Laos...
We already knew that our river journey to Phongsali in Laos’s far north would have to be broken by the Chinese dam that now reduces the flow of the Ou River to a trickle in places. Our plan was to drive to the other side of the dam and continue by boat along the backed up river. Overnight storms brought a new dynamic to the trip; rain, freezing temperatures – and ice!
Switching to a more robust - but open - vehicle we wrapped ourselves in blankets for the bone shaking two-hour ride up a dirt road to the new dam. We were greeted at the dam wall by a group of Laotian workers shivering around a fire and a kettle as they waited for the public boat. Commandeering two skinny boats, we sped up the Ou River in driving rain and freezing temperatures. North of the dam the waters that once flowed freely into the Mekong now rose high up the banks, drowning trees in a permanent flood. A ghostly mist rose from the river’s surface, wrapping eerily around the wooden remains of whole villages now submerged in the newly formed reservoir.
More drama followed at Ban Hatsa, the furthest navigable point north on the river, when our van failed to ascend the steep muddy track out of town. Much local amusement followed as we attempted to move the vehicle, exhausting our western improvisions until we finally persuaded a local driver to swap his bath time for a 20 km, near 2-hour mountainous drive to Phongsali.
Sub-zero temperatures and mountain fog swirled ghostlike around the former Chinese Consulate (and re-education camp) that now serves as Phongsali’s best accommodation. Inside the freezing reception room, we were met with the surreal scene of a group of drunken, lost, Thai bikers dancing around a table of bowls of nondescript meat and bones.
The following day was almost as eventful. A thick fog loomed spookily over us all day, teasing us just odd glimpses of the pretty rooftops of the old town. The hills and plantations beyond would remain engulfed in mist and fog throughout our stay. Our drive to the tea plantations was aborted in the mud as an abandoned truck and its tow vehicle blocked our path. However, a wander around the cobbled streets of the old town revealed a beautiful unseen ice world of frozen papaya trees, cobwebs and banana leaves.
Children delicately picked ice molds from banana leaves and presented them to us. Shops and restaurants closed as the town’s folk sat around charcoal braziers busily rubbing hands and wrapped in scarfs, hats and gloves. The Lao-Lao toddy was quickly conjured up from local rice wine and spices from the market, warming both our hands and spirits! As temperatures fluctuated between minus and zero degrees, we fell asleep to the sound of trees crashing down around our guesthouse from the weight of ice. It had been no ordinary day!
Laos’s far north hosts a patchwork of ethnicities, as over 80 per cent of inhabitants are non (ethnic) Lao. There are just six Mouchi villages in Laos, and Jerya, perched dramatically on a mountainside, would provide our next overnight stay. Our drivers chopped fallen trees along a dirt road and posed for photographs at newly formed ice forests before reaching the start of the trail. After a two-hour muddy trek wearing four layers of warm clothing plus a waterproof skin we arrived at our cloud village for the night. We were welcomed as guests, but not tourists, and quickly huddled around blackened kettles raised over wood fires by charred frames. Smoke choked the insides of the gloomy mud interiors where we would sleep on hard wooden beds among the families and animals. Traditionally dressed village girls prepared a wonderful meal and we further warmed ourselves with local rice wine. After dinner we witnessed a wonderful clash of cultures and technology; trendy male village adolescents exchanging photos of traditionally costumed Mouchi girls on their mobile phones.
The following afternoon we relaxed in natural hot spring baths beside the Nam Phak River at the Muang La Lodge; one of Laos’ best resorts. A taster menu of fusion food washed down with imported wine seemed a world away from the freezing temperatures, hard beds and (apparently tasty) roast pig fat of the previous night.
It’s these contrasts and surprises that make travel so rewarding, distinguishing travellers from tourists. For us it’ll be the memory of seeing the remote town of Phongsali, in a way not even many locals have, that we’ll remember most about this trip.