Opium Grannies of The Golden Triangle

Rubbing shoulders with China and Burma, Luang Namtha was within the infamous opium imperium of The Golden Triangle. We would have never guessed it. It looked like so many other little towns we have seen. The only hint to the contrary were three Akha grannies walking the streets of Luang Namtha, selling hand-made bags and belts. Yet bags and belts were only a cover up. In another bag they had weed and opium and would offer it to any tourist who seemed to match the right profile. We bumped into them every day and every day we had to kindly refuse buying any plant produce however pure and organic it was. They were such colourful characters, the three of them. All in their 60s, wearing beautiful traditional Akha hats and mischievous smiles. We stopped and chatted to them a few times and every time they made us laugh. I hope it was their Lao nature rather than too much opium, that made them so merry!

The Opium Grannies were definitely a highlight of Luang Namtha, but not the only one. Our bungalow was one of a kind too! On the bus to Luang Namtha we met a Portuguese couple who recommended us a place to stay. It was a golden advice, as it was the best dig in town. We planned to stay in Luang Namtha for a week and a nice place was a key. With the name of the guesthouse and a hand-drawn map we headed to look for the place and once we found it we didn’t want to leave. We had a pretty, spacious bungalow with big bathroom, hot shower and a big terrace with a view. All that for a half of normal price! Hail Samuel Del Bello for your advice!

In the days to come I felt very fortunate that we ended up in that guesthouse not only for its views and commodity, but also because the sickness that came back two days earlier did not want to pass. To the contrary. It was getting worse with every day. First heavy nausea, then running to the toilet and unbearable stomach ache. When it got to the point that I could only lie in bed and sob, we went to the hospital. It was Sunday and all the English speaking doctors were off. Using gesture and descriptive sounds we managed to explain the problem and get help. I was given a course of antibiotics and slowly day by day my stomach calmed down. It took whole four days on the veranda of our bungalow for me to start feeling the difference though. It was the third time in one month that my stomach violently rebelled. We couldn’t figure out if it was something I ate or a virus that has persistently tortured my body. Either way, antibiotics seemed to have worked.

When I was grounded in the bungalow, Ale disappeared with photo camera or drove around the area with Riccardo, an Italian guy we traveled with since Muang Ngoi. One day they hired a motorbike and went to see local attractions – waterfalls and temples, as always. In one of the temples he drew a small scroll with a number and a prophecy. He showed it to a monk that was in the temple, who laughed merrily and showed him a thumb up. “Thirteen good number,” he said, but the way he said it made Ale laugh so much that he forgot to lower his head when leaving the temple and crashed his forehead on the door frame. This made the monk even merrier. “Ma vai a ca…!”.

They each had a lucky number and a prophecy which they couldn’t read, because it was written in Lao. They came back to town and went to a tour operator Riccardo bought bus ticket from earlier that day. The tour operator lifted the lid of mystery. Ale’s prophecy said that his first child would be male, that he would quickly find a job and that he should be careful in love life, because there might be problems, but they will be resolved. And from the last part of the prophecy a discussion erupted. The guy turned out to be a ladies man! He started telling stories about his love adventures and how he managed them in front of his wife. He also shared with them that the word “see” in Lao means “to make love”. At that point a German girl walked into his office to ask for a bus. When she was leaving he shouted “see you” behind her and grinned sheepishly. Ale and Riccardo burst out laughing. What a piece of work that guy was!

The day after Riccardo left and I got better. Bored to the limits of looking at the same view over and over again, we decided to rent a motorbike and venture out to Muang Sing 60km away. It was a little ethnically rich town surrounded by tribal villages. We were keen to meet Akha and Hmong people and maybe even see their traditional clothing if we got lucky. The scenery on the way to Muang Sing was beautiful as always. The only nuisance were big holes on the road that sometimes were not visible until the last minute. So at times we looked like riding a horse rather than a motorbike. The trip was worthwhile though. Muang Sing itself didn’t have much to offer, but the surrounding villages were interesting to see. Especially Yao minority village, where we were welcomed by elderly women wearing black embroidered turbans on their heads. As soon as they saw us, they stopped weaving and waved for us to come over. We happily bought a few hand-made souvenirs from them and carried on exploring the countryside. At one point we took a wrong turn and ventured deep into the mountains. When the road started becoming a footpath, we turned around. After all we were in the opium empire. We didn’t want to accidentally find ourselves on a plantation.

After all day of driving around the countryside we were dusty like cowboys. Plus our backs and shoulders hurt from jumping on the motorbike. When we got back to Luang Namtha, next to the place we rented the bike from, we saw a sign advertising Lao massage. We looked at each other in agreement and pampered our tired bodies with half an hour of shoulder massage. It was ecstatic. Our massagist was a little Lao girl with fingers made of iron and in no time at all she managed to soothe our muscles.

There was no way we would sit on a motorbike again soon, so the day after we rented bicycles instead. Our trusted horny tour operator told us there was a small festival in a nearby temple and sweating like steam trains on cheap city bikes, we pedaled a few kilometers out of town. What we found were a few make-shift stalls with food and games, and of course lovely Lao people having a good time. We stayed for an hour or two, engaged with locals and monks and took advantage of their friendliness to take a few portraits. We wished we could stay longer to drink lao lao with them (Ale, because I was still on antibiotics), but going back at dark on bicycles without lights was not the best idea.

On our last day in Luang Namtha we met one of the Opium Grannies again. She disarmed us with her playfulness and sense of humour and we gave in. No, we didn’t buy opium. I got myself a pretty belt made of cotton and seeds. And we also managed to make her stand still for half a minute and took a shot of her amazing hat. Yay!

Meeting her right before leaving Laos was symbolic. She was an essence of all that Laos was and I’ll keep her happy face in my memory forever.




















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