Drug deals, dirt roads and pagodas

I had a very odd encounter over breakfast this morning. An Akha lady approached me whilst I was finishing my coffee in The Banana Cafe and attempted to sell me the usual Akha wares (wrist bands decorated with various beads and painted seeds). When I said no she discreetly opened her shoulder bag to reveal a huge bag of weed, which she offered me instead! It didn’t really sink in at the time just how surreal the whole experience was : member of local village tribe operating a shady undercover drug deal in street cafe! It was reminiscent of James’s arrival in Laos when he was offered opium or women (or both!) at every corner as he walked the streets of Luang Prabang.
After my surreal breakfast, I hired a bike for the day (10,000KIP) and firstly cycled up to the Hmong Village of Hat Yao. According to the information in my Lonely Planet guide, it’s an E.U Co-operative where the villagers sell a range of handicrafts – textiles, basketry, jewelry, and some clothing – at fixed prices. However I spent a good 30 minutes wandering around the village and couldn’t find these handicrafts being sold. I even asked a couple of the villagers using the Lao word for ‘shop’, but I simply received vacant looks in response. So I can only assume that the village project is now defunct . . .
I subsequently began the 9km journey to That Phum Phuk, a large stupa atop a hill surrounded by rice fields. When it was originally built in 1628 it was the most respected and famous pagoda in the Nam Tha district. However, during the 2nd Indochina war, a bomb explosion knocked the jehdii (Lao name for Buddhist stupa) on it’s side, where it remains undisturbed. In 2003 a new stupa was constructed and dedicated beside the ruins of old, and it is this gold structure that can be seen from the incredibly uneven dirt road running south from Luang Nam Tha.
The journey was well worth making, as much for the scenery and slices of village life along the way as for the actual stupa and the views from the top of the naga staircase that leads up to it.
After stopping off at The Boat House Landing Restaurant for some more of my favourite chilli paste (Jeow Mak Ken) and sticky rice, I cycled east across the Nam Tha to Ban Pa Sak. This is a Tai Dam village where you are – supposedly – able to observe Tai Dam silk weaving in action. Unfortunately when I arrived there wasn’t a lot of action going on : the weaving looms were all in place but the weaver was fast asleep beside her loom!
If you don’t mind the bad roads (which can be a little painful on your arse and the palms of your hands), Luang Nam Tha is a lovely area to cycle around : it’s very flat, the scenery is very lush and green and there are many villages scattered around the town within a 10km radius, which is easily accessible on two wheels.
Luang Nam Tha Recommendations
Best food (and at very reasonable prices as it’s off the main drag) : Panda Restaurant
Other recommendations :
Banana Cafe : you always see the same faces in here so it’s a great place to strike up a conversation with fellow travelers. For food, the service is reasonably quick and the portions are large. Their menu also features the most original spelling for scrambled eggs that I’ve seen so far : “sceembli egg”
KNT : you can grab a bite to eat, check your emails and do a spot of shopping, all in the same vicinity. Fantastic!
Photo is of That Phum Phuk and surrounding rice fields, Luang Nam Tha.
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