March 20 – 21, 2013
We ended up spending a couple of days in Oudomxay while Jenny recovered from a fever. Our guesthouse was comfortable and had good wifi, so it wasn’t a bad place to regroup. I spent most of my time exploring town while Jenny lay in bed waiting for ibuprofen to kick in. There were a couple of restaurants with English menus in town but there wasn’t much else geared towards tourists, which was OK with me.
There were two major markets that I came across. I spent a while searching through the Chinese market fruitlessly looking for a pressure gauge for our tires. One of the more maddening things about searching for something in a market like this is that there are about 30 different shops selling the exact same stuff with some very minor variations. This required me to describe a pressure gauge with my hands over and over again resulting in a full range of responses from complete bewilderment, mild hostility, to earnest helpfulness, though the closest thing I was offered was a low pressure gauge for a paint sprayer. The other market was a pretty large produce and meat affair, including at least one dog on offer. I was able to find bananas, sticky rice and some bread to provide Jenny with some nourishment.
The highlight of my wandering was finding a small cycle touring operation, Samlaan Cycling. There was a friendly guy there who dug up a spare Schwalbe tire that was much better than the spare tire we are carrying. He let me borrow their big floor pump which made it easier to swap Jenny’s front tire to the rear and put the new tire on her front wheel. I rode back over with the pump in the afternoon and when he saw my bike he said he had seen us way back down by Phoukoun a week earlier while he and his boss were scouting out touring routes. Pretty random! We had a good chat then I rode off to find an “herbal sauna” I saw on the local tourist map.
At the top of a short but very steep hill I found the sauna/massage spot run by the Red Cross. For a couple bucks I had the sauna all to myself. It was more of a steam room, with a boiler of sorts perched above a fire fed by long logs. The boiler had two pipes running to the separate male and female steam rooms. At first the wall of steam was overwhelming, but I was able to relax and take in the steam which was infused with local herbs. Quickly I was soaked in condensation from the steam, so I stepped out onto the porch which overlooked a small river. A man came in with a gigantic metal kettle of scalding hot herbal tea. The light breeze quickly dried me off and was a little chilling, so the hot tea was nice. I had a couple more rounds of sauna, then headed back to see how Jenny was doing.
The next morning I climbed a flight of stone stairs behind our guesthouse which led to a small plaza where a number of university students were studying. At the end of the plaza was a large building that served as a local museum. I walked in and was greeted by a young man who knew a bit of English. He turned the lights on for the exhibit hall upstairs, as I was the only guest, and walked around with me briefly describing things. The exhibits seemed a little bit random, but were interesting regardless. The first few items were a collection of pottery, drums and other ancient artifacts from the nearby Beng District. Next, there was a display of several dozen firearms from the period of armed conflict in the middle of the last century. There were also a few handmade rifles used by villagers for hunting small game. The rest of that side of the museum was an assortment of artifacts from the period of time that Oudomxay was a Chinese military base, including some typewriters (which were curiously QWERTY) a large projector from the cinema, and a collection of a Lao alphabet lead printing type for a letter press printer. Tucked in another corner was a collection of villager tools, clothing and ceremonial items, including mousetraps, wooden platform shoes used for walking on muddy fields and vertical banners attached to poles used to celebrate the birth of a child and to promote good luck. Nearby were a couple of bizarre homemade contraptions that turned out to be machines used to crush poppies for the production of opium. I left the museum and wandered around the eastern part of town where a new large concrete stadium was under construction.
When I got back to the guesthouse, Jenny was feeling a little better and decided to go back with me to the sauna in the evening. We both indulged in a Lao massage first, which was only a few dollars, then had a bunch of rounds of sauna. The place got really busy by the end, and a little weird. There was one Lao girl who kept pouring milk all over her skin, so the whole place ended up smelling a bit like rotten milk, then a crew of backpackers rolled in. One of them didn’t bother to observe his surroundings, dropped trou and started walking around stark naked in front of the locals, including women and young girls. This resulted in a pretty awkward moment, as the local people were clearly embarrassed and a little offended. We chose this exact moment to make our exit- hopefully avoiding any perceived association with this band of idiots. We were both feeling pretty good and went back to the guesthouse to put together a plan for leaving Laos.