Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Muang Sing Market - Laos Day 2

We awoke at 4:00 A. M. Tuesday morning, 26 January, to be able to leave the hotel at 5:00 A. M. for our two hour journey to the market at Muang Sing. The market opened at 7:00 A. M. and I wanted to be there to get the full experience of the place. Before going to Luang Namtha, I had done extensive research, much like I do for all our journeys, to determine places, peoples, and events of interest to visit. Visiting the markets at Muang Sing and further on to Xieng Kok were on my list of priorities for our trip.

Muang Sing is a sort of link to my past. Just as I had read and heard in elementary school about exotic venues such as Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, when I was young I had read a book about a famous American doctor in Laos during the late 1950s, Dr Tom Dooley. He founded a hospital in Muang Sing and was well known for his humanitarian efforts in Vietnam as well as Laos. He was a vehement anti-Communist and is known to have assisted the CIA in their efforts against them. His contributions were to in the arenas of publicity and propaganda. Just as I was able to visit Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu, I, as an adult, would be visiting the area of Laos that Dr. Dooley had written about.

Muang Sing is located in a broad river valley created by the Nam La River and is about 7 miles from the border with China. The area still produces opium, approximately 4 tons a year but much of it is consumed by the local minorities such as the Akha people. Young people in the district also consume heroin and amphetamines. Sometimes they sell narcotics in the market to falangs (foreigners). I had been approached in Vientiane about buying drugs during my last trip to Laos a year ago. I was not approached to buy opium, heroin, or even amphetamines, I was approached to purchase Viagra! Fortunately I have no need or interest for such "medication" so I was not interested. The same remains true on this trip - no need or interest for drugs or any variety. However some tourists do go to the area for recreational drug use. Posters in hotels and restaurants in Lao as well as English ask people to refrain from such activities.

We had hired the same "taxi" and driver that we had employed the previous day. The two bench seats in the pick up bed were about 6 inches wide and not heavily padded. The sides of the pick up bed had several small pads attached to it but hardly enough to make a two hour trip reasonably comfortable. Anticipating comfort issues, I had requested the driver the evening before to place a saht, woven reed mat, on the floor of the bed.

We set off for Muang Sing in a heavy mist typical of the weather in Luang Namtha at this time of the year. Seated on the bench seat, I was unable to see much of anything due to darkness and mist. Duang quickly decided to lay down on the saht and rest if not go back to sleep with the spare tire laying on the floor as her pillow. We bounced along the rough paved road out of Luang Namtha towards the NPA (Namtha Protected Area). The NPA is 2,224 square kilometers of preserved heavily forested lands which is home to tigers, elephants, leopards,and gaur. We took Highway 17A through the NPA to get to Muang Sing. The NPA is heavily forested with large towering trees on each side of Highway 17A, a 1-1/2 lane wide paved road.

Many small villages are situated alongside of the highway just like we encountered last year along Highway 13 to Luang Prabang. The drive was very rough. I toughed it out for about an hour on the bench seat before I joined Duang on the floor. It was interesting to watch the sun rise over the mountains of the NPA. Duang was concerned that it would rain. Before we had left home I had printed the long range weather forcast for Luang Namtha. The forecast for the day was for 80% chance of precipitation. I told Duang that it would not rain until 3:00 P. M. We had driven 1-1/2 hours and encountered only one other vehicle on the road. During the final 30 minutes of our drive, as we approached Muang Sing, traffic picked up and we saw about 6 other vehicles.
As we drove along the valley floor there were many more villages. These villages were more established than the mountain villages with concrete and brick rather than wood or bamboo structures. As the sun rose, the valley villages came to life. Women were outside of their homes starting the fires to cook the morning meal as well as warm up the family. Night time temperatures had gone down into the 50s Fahrenheit. The fresh smell of the rain forest was gradually replaced by the smoke and smell or wood or charcoal fires.

As the sun rose, our trepidation and fear of speeding along a dark, narrow, and winding road through the forest eased into an overall weariness of bumping along rough roads in the back of a very small pickup truck.

Muang Sing is not much to see and even less to write about. It was destroyed during a battle between Royalist and Pathet Lao troops in 1962. The town was rebuilt to a small extent after the 1975 revolution.

The market was very interesting. We arrived just as it was opening. The market is comprised of several buildings. Two of the buildings were permanent shops, similar to those that you encounter throughout South East Asia, that sold a variety of goods. Another building contained several restaurants where people went to have their breakfast. There was a very large open sided structure where fruit, vegetables and some clothing items are for sale. There was another building where meat was for sale. On the paved area around the vegetable and meat buildings, people had placed tarps and blankets to sell their produce. At one end of this row of vendors was the chicken vendor. She had 6 large woven bamboo baskets with 5 to 6 chickens underneath each overturned basket. These must have been hens since there didn't seem to be any fighting - just protests. There was a rooster but he was not caged. he was tied to a string around his foot with the other end of the string tied around a rock. A little toddler kept getting into trouble much to my amusement by constantly moving the rock. With a few snaps of his mother's fingers to his forehead, he was eventually dissuaded from his fun.

I was very impressed with the quality of the produce. The tomatoes were especially beautiful. They were nicely rounded and bright red - even to me and I am color blind. I found out later that the produce comes from China - a mere 11 kilometers away.

There was some excitement when a new pickup truck arrived at the market and set up a sound system. The government telephone company was selling cell phones and SIMM cards. There was a big demand for them.

The meat market section of the market was also very busy. Four separate hind legs of water buffalo were suspended on ropes from the rafters. Men were busy cutting portions from the legs as selected by the many customers. In the two hours that we were at the market, three of the hind quarters were completely sold - down to and including the hoof. I have a photograph of a man leaving the market with the lower leg and hoof slung over his shoulder. I know that it was water buffalo by the hoof and the severed head leaning up against the end of the counter.

We had not had breakfast until we arrived at the market. We found a booth selling bread, fresh French bread, and a pastry similar to what is called "Bear Claw" in the USA. Rather than spreading butter, jelly, or even peanut butter on the bread, the vendor cut the bread open and drizzled sweet condensed milk on the inside of the bread. We bought one loaf of bread the size of a Subway 12" sandwich and one Bear Claw for 5,000 Kip (around $0.60 USD). Duang bought some small diameter bamboo tubes filled with sticky rice and coconut cream called "Kao laam"- 10,000 Kip ($1.40). With two bottles of water we had a great breakfast that we ate in the back of our taxi pickup truck. So good a breakfast and so delicious that Duang went back and bought another french bread and Bear Claw for me.

It had taken us 2 hours to get to the market from Luang Namtha but the journey back took 5-1/2 hours to get back to the hotel. But that is a different story - a blog for another day.


  1. Is there a concern for preserving the meat? It would seem to me that spoilage could be quick in open air environment. fresh meat must be coooked realtively soon after its bought and then consumed. That head sure looks tasty!!!!! Jim (not sure how to post this)

  2. Marketing in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos is very different than in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Because there is no refrigeration, the meat and fish that you buy in these countries is very fresh. If it was not fresh, you would never buy it. In more developed countries we buy previously frozen, vacuum packed, and products wrapped in plastic. The buffalo for sale was most likely slaughtered the previous evening. The people will cook it upon their return home. If they want buffalo tomorrow, they will return to the market tomorrow to buy FRESH meat. It is a different mind set and style of living.

  3. Whoops - meant to write that in these local markets there is no refrigeration - there are Western style markets with refrigeration in the large cities like Bangkok, Hanoi, HCMC, ... even Udonthani.

  4. and did you see the site of dooley's hospital in muang sing ? still visible now ?

  5. If I saw it, I did not realize it. It very well could still be there and worth looking for. Ironically the market burned down a couple of years ago - I saw a youtube video of the fire. I suspect that it has been replaced in the same location.