Where to begin?
First of all, this was part of my first ever trip to Asia, my kids are finally old enough that I can leave them and travel on my own so I took off for four weeks in August 2006.
I planned and saved for a whole year. I knew that I would start in Bangkok, then move on to Vientiane but after that I'd left it uplanned. In retrospect I think I may have done this on purpose (safety valve - convenient to go back home and tell everyone I'd been to Chiang Mai and Ko Samui, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and of course everyone would understand because that's where everyone goes). In some ways I wanted a nice easy "normal" vacation but then again what a luxury to go totally off the beaten path, oh decisions decisions...
Anyway, as it happened, I just got so depressed doing the floating market tour out of Bangkok, being obliged to go to the gemstone store with the poor obedient and blase tourists and look at stuff I didn't want and couldn't afford....what was the point of coming halfway around the world to be herded around like just another tourist? I started to think I'd spent all this money and all this time planning and I was just going to be disapponted on my great Asia adventure.
So, once I was safely in Vientiane I went to the Lao Airlines office and asked for info on Sam Neua (because I'd read about this place and the fabulous weaving they do there and I thought that perhaps this could be interesting...), they were getting ready to close for lunch but I got the schedule and saw that flights to Sam Neua were open (at the time my guidebook was published they weren't) and that I could go the day after next, just no way to resist - I had to go to Hua Phan Province, I had to see Vieng Xai - I had to get away from all the annoying tourists and at any price, even 73 USD which was what Lao Airlines was overcharging for the flight - two hours later I'm back in the office VISA in hand and I've got my tickets.
Woohoo, let's go. Saturday morning it's off to Sam Neua and the flight was indeed exciting. You actually walk out on to the airstrip at Wattay Airport to board the little 17 seater plane with really tiny seats and you get a bottle of water with a straw but since the plane is so small there is no flight attendant, however, the door to the cockpit is open so you can watch what is happeing there... Then for the hour and some minutes that the flight lasts it's beautiful green mountains. The landing is cool too - a tiny airstrip in the mountains, really feels like flying and now I can understand the thrill. After that there is a sort of rudimentary customs thing and then you must get into town. I actually met some very friendly and nice people who pointed me to a songthaew. I indicated to the driver that I wanted to go to Boun Hom by pointing in my Footprint guidebook and so that is where we went.
Five dollars a night for a lovely, comfortable big bed in a clean room with en suite facilities, can't beat that except that as it happens the electricity had been out for the past two days...and so I read by candlelight that night, that first night in Sam Neua - what a blast. The next morning, Sunday, I got up early to get a songthaew to Vieng Xai to visit the caves where the Pathet Lao took refuge during the American war - it was no problem, even though it's not marked at the bus station the people were really helpful and I did manage to get there and back and I had a lovely conversation with a Hmong person who wanted to practice his English. Made me ashamed that I hadn't made the effort to learn some Lao.
The scenery is magnificent and so is the Sam Neua market - no tourist junk, just real stuff like fruits and vegetables and meat and and soft drinks for real people.They also sell these really tasty doughnuts that are almost exactly like the ones my grammy made when I was a kid in Massachusetts...and there is the dry market with textiles and some very beautiful weaving. That next night on Sunday the electricity came back on - and that meant cold beer! You just can't know what you miss until it's gone but then when it comes back, wow.
Early Monday morning I decided to check out the tourist office and I really had to get some cash (I travel with my VISA...) - and once again what an excellent surprise - the bank on the main road in Sam Neua gives cash advances on VISA cards, open Mon-Fri, very helpful indeed and the friendly helpful guy at the tourist office pointed me in the direction of the weaving houses where the ladies sell the most exquisite textiles on the edge of town. So, I got all the way up there and the ladies had so many beautiful things that I had to go all the way back to the center of town to get more cash and buy some more things. What a hot and sweaty morning it was. Then I had a restful afternoon and decided that Laos was a wonderful country and I had to see more so it was time to move on. Had I only known...
I didn't realise right away because the bus ride down to Nam Nouan was also very fun, taking me way out of my middle aged comfort zone (my first ever leech bite when the bus got stuck in the mud and we all had to get out and pitch in to push it out - just like in the girl scouts!) but finally, upon arriving in Phonsavan and then once again in Luang Prabang I realised that Sam Neua is a special place - it's that cold beer that you didn't know you'd miss. In comparison, Phonsavan and Luang Prabang are luke warm at best.
So thank God I came here, here to Sam Neua. No gemstone shops, no tour operators, not many tourists, just a real town with people in it (I know that sounds dumb but it's the truth). Doesn't hurt that the landscape is gorgeous as well. I love Sam Neua. This place is just going to stay in my heart forever. Perhaps someday I will get back (I hope so). If not, well that is just destiny and in any case, I'll never forget. Thank you Sam Neua for making my Asia dream come true. Sorry for being so silly and emotional but it's true.
#1 aemilys has been a member since 14/9/2005. Posts: 4