The Road to Houei Xai

Catching a Bus
No matter how early I go to sleep, I always have trouble waking in the morning. It is not something to really complain about on vacation, but if the day's plans involve catching a bus, it is relatively important to get out of bed. I made it over to the bus ground by seven, the time I was told a ride might be leaving. Sure enough, there was a small truck headed for Houei Xai, but the local English speaker couldn't tell me whether it was going to leave at seven, eight, nine, or tomorrow. I told him that I would run to the market and pick up some snacks for the road. He seemed okay with this, so I wandered around the market a while and picked up some of my favorite bread, cookies, fruit, etc. When I wandered back over around 7:30, the truck was just pulling out

Our Ride
The truck to Houei Xai was nothing more than a late model Isuzu light truck with a cover over the cargo area. I sat with one leg straddled over the rear gate of the bed of the truck. When more people got on, my baggage was volunteered for placement on top of the roof along with other non-perishable items including one guy's hand shovels that he was evidently taking for use or sale in Thailand or beyond. It was a long ride through beautiful forests alternating with land scarred by random logging and mining. The road was often scarred by the large trucks that carry out the logs to neighboring Thailand. I spoke to our truck driver about the minor destruction in an otherwise untouched land, and he pointed out that the Lao government encouraged such development by building this road in the first place: connecting China and Laos and making it (slightly) easier to get people and goods between all borders.

Athough later in the trip I would find the familiar sight of a Caltex station, out here the gas stands were a little more basic. They consist of a barrel of gas and a long syphon with gas married out in cups, bowls, or whatever quantity you wish to buy it in. Luckily our Isuzu seemed to get good mileage (despite the heavy payload), so the occassional top-up seemed to be sufficient for our ride. It was a long day over varying terrain, but we pulled into Houei Xai an hour or more before dusk.

Arrival at the Border City
Houei Xai is a much larger town than Luang Namtha and almost appears to have suburbs. Passengers were hopping off the truck here and there for the last kilometer or two, all with somewhere to go. Me, I was just headed for the river, so I figured I should stay on as long as possible. Eventually, the truck pulled up and stopped at a market, much like the one I had seen yesterday. Not much interested in shopping, I studied the area a bit trying to figure out where a traveler would stay. Judging by the foot traffic, it seemed that there was still a good bit of town further up the road, so I joined in the procession up the hill toward the action.

Finding a Place to Board
Sure enough, the real city was just up over the crest. And then down a bit further to my first view of the giant Mekong. Still more than a thousand kilometers from its mouth, this river was already pretty big, muddy, and menacing. I took a room overlooking the river and went down to the dock to try to book a boat for the next morning. It all appeared a bit unofficial to me, but the word was that there was a boat taking passengers the next morning. With this small word of comfort and a bite to eat, I went exploring and found myself a peaceful hillside temple.

Nighttime Visit to the Temple
Although Laos shares the same brand of Buddhism as its richer neighbors across the Mekong (Thailand also follows Theraveda, or the more traditional bread of Buddhism), there was none of the glamour and extravegance that one would find in the golden Buddhas of Bangkok. Okay, so the structures are still painted gold and the roof a bit ornate, but at least in the fading light of this quiet weekday, the campus seemed pretty calm. As far as I know, there are no regular prayer times for Buddhists around here. But there is a strong encouragement that young boys take-up the call of monk for at least a few months during their schooling. I met one of these lads as I poked around the temple.

Not only was this guy a good student of Buddha, but he wasn't bad at English either. He told that he was from the far south of Laos, near Cambodia. He will be attending university in Vientianne in the fall, but for now he is saving his parent's some money by spending the summer at this temple. He asked about my religion and my travels and was generally a pretty inquisitive guy. I was disappointed that at the end of our conversation he decided to ask me for money. I told him I had already given at the temple and headed back down the steps toward my hotel.

Laos: | Namtha | Houei Xai | Mekong | Prabang | Vientiane | Expenses | Pictures | Summary
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