Up to Luang Hamtha in northern Laos near the Chinese border

Ban Houie Sai at dawn is quiet & serene. At first sight Main Street is deserted. But then I spot groups of kneeling women hidden amongst the parked scooters. The sound of bells & drums comes closer and two lines of saffron monks come down the steps from the monastery and split at the bottom. One group leads off to the left down Main Street and another right. As they pass the kneeled figures sticky rice is placed in their bowls, a prayer is given and the saffron line moves along to the next group.

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The town then slowly comes to life with doors & shutters opened and stalls arranged on the pavements. Mothers pack their uniformed children off with satchels & lunches carried in plastic bags, some walking and some, as young as ten, riding motorbikes & scooters to school. The Mekong lazilly shimmers through the haze and small eddies swirl and gurgle around sandbanks. Fishing families splutter their longtail boats into the current & disturb the stillness.

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After breakfast the bus takes me up into northern Laos up to Luang Hamtha near the Chinese border. This is jungle country with high, sharp peaks & ridges covered in a tangle of groping trees and strangled vegetation. The empty road crosses rivers & streams through luxurient countryside of greens and emeralds. The Lao locals keep to the numerous ethnic minority villages which are an architectural expression of corrugated iron & banana leaf structures mixed with modern constructions of cement and tiles. As the bus crawls up sharp cornered roads, up & over peaks and down, the watching vegetation is hidden by mists, then drizzle through to torrential rain. These clear to reveal a velvet green landscape of small harvested fields of tobacco & rice & wheat surrounded by the tangled jungle before the rain cycle starts again.

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At the town market the locals are shy at first and hold back. A friendly approach from the white strangers and the sharing of photos quickly brings down barriers and giggles & laughter can soon be heard echoing across the stalls as the locals cackle in glee at their own image on the screen. They love it even more when you try local delicacies – tapioca is not so bad; frogs legs, sparrows or various bits of offal are an acquired taste!

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