Farewells are not our forte. Before we realize, it’s time to leave and all the plans to “just” try this one more dish / stock up on local coconut oil / take a walk to the other side of that pretty hill etc… quickly dissolve and the only thing that remains of the wonderful place are memories. I mean, how to say goodbye if you don’t know when you’re going to see each other again or if at all? Jumping from one spot to another doesn’t allow us to develop attachment but the longer we stay in one place the harder it gets to pack that backpack and hit the road once again without a tear rolling down the cheek.
We had a hard time saying goodbye to a few places in Laos and an estimated three-week stay became a month and then one and a half. We would love to stay here longer but now we have to make a run to the border. Our already extended visa is expiring again. We spend the last two days in the country traveling on local buses through the windy mountain roads between Phongsali and Thailand. On our way, we pass through another very interesting and wild part of Laos. I know I want to return here one day and see more of it. I feel it’s a farewell but I don’t have the time to stop, taste, see.
During these two days we mostly watch through the bus windows, experiencing what you could call Laos in a nutshell. We look at the mass slash and burn of the wild forests, captive slow lorises, women from various tribes descending from the mountains for trade, known and exotic species of animals barbecued along the roads, bamboo hut villages, soup shops, beautiful scenery and the omnipresent peace and ease. This country is a mix of the beautiful and the terrifying sometimes, and we try not to judge according to western standards but make an attempt to understand.
We’re on a ramshackle bus loaded with sacks full of rice. Local farmers display their produce along the roads and we stop on a regular basis to shop or look at the caught rare species. Into the bus go huge watermelons, bags full of young bamboo shoots, sacks of eggplants as well as grilled birds, rodents and mammals. I am amazed again and again by the small children sleeping quietly in their mothers laps all through the long journey. Two young women return to the bus with an animal resembling a weasel. It’s been gutted and now is stiff and looks like a an embalmed mummy. Attached to the front seat on a string, it merrily jumps on the curves and bumps as we go.
During one of the breaks, I get up to take a look at the ethnic minorities on the makeshift market. Scrambling through the loaded bus I discover a whole “family” of dead rodents and birds placed in a neat row under one of the seats, probably a dinner catch. I finally manage to get out of the bus, where the women in traditional dress immediately notice the only tourists around and run to me to sell the handicrafts. I believe it’s another subgroup of the Akha tribe we’ve visited, differing in their clothing style and openness. While those women were hiding from our sight, the ones here tie their bracelets on my wrists and put earrings and traditional aprons into my hands without a shade of embarrassment.
In Udomxai we have a last Lao dinner at the Souphailin restaurant. In a cute little rickety hut hidden away beneath the greenery we meet the owner who cooks, serves the guests and takes care of a child at the same time. It is the quintessence of a Lao meal in a family restaurant, where you should never come just an hour before your bus leaves. Nor an hour and half, for that matter. The cook is usually the wife herself, who prepares the dishes one after another. In the meantime she can even go to the nearby market to get some ingredients. Kids play around, taking care of their own business most of the time. While waiting for your order you can relax in a chair or on a podium full of cushions (there may be even a hammock if you’re lucky), read a book, sip your Beerlao and be happy.
In Souphailin you can try the traditional northern specialties such as dried beef with herbs or once again go for the ubiquitous laap. The young host dines with us, presenting proficient skills in using sticky rice to scoop pieces of hard-boiled egg into his mouth as well as doodling away on the blank pages of our guidebook.
The last day is an arduous drive on another, full to the brim old bus in the direction of Chiang Kong. The time passes very slowly as we climb the hills with great difficulty and descend on minimal speed. Yet this is fortunate because literally every twenty kilometers or so we pass a huge Chinese truck broken down or overturned on a sharp mountain curve. One of these carried watermelons and the smashed fruit on the road create a bloody scenery. Late in the afternoon we reach the border and before we realize, we have left Laos behind on the other side of the Mekong. We feel hungry for more but also excited to get back home soon. Dear Laos, I miss you much already!