Quick Eats: Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh

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I was in the Sin Ming area for car servicing, so I had to check out the famous bak kut teh stall there. Rong Cheng has excellent clear, peppery soup. The flavour is probably one of the best I’ve had. Too bad that the ribs themselves were a bit tough. I also liked that they had fresh vegetables (tang oh AKA garland chrysanthemum)  as a side dish in addition to their decent rendition of salted vegetables. The braised ter kah (pork trotters) were tender and yummy, though nothing mindblowing. A good place to go if you’re in the area.

Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh
Blk 22 Sin Ming Road (the coffee shop right at the corner)

Quick Eats: Sembawang Hills Hawker Centre

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DC and I thought we’d do something a bit healthier and go for the HSBC treetop walk at Macritchie Reservoir. Before that we of course had to stop somewhere for sustenance. The Sembawang Hills hawker centre nearby did the trick. I did a very unwise thing and queued for the famous “inventor” fish soup where the owner had lots of little contraptions for serving his customers better. There was a curved dispenser so that we help ourselves to spoons hygienically and a coin sorter that helped him with his change. Needless to say, the queue was horribly long and DC said he’d go for the salted duck noodles instead. I persevered and got my fish soup with instant noodles (everyone else seemed to be ordering that too) and added some fish roe to it.

My verdict? It wasn’t worth the queue. While the fish was decent, there wasn’t a great deal of flavour and the noodles were a bit too soft for my taste. I could have done better cooking it myself at home.

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DC was prescient enough to take this shot before he started. By the time I got back to the table with my fish noodles, most of the duck and noodles were gone! Still, I managed to wrangle some over from him. Oh my, the duck was very good! The salt had cured the duck somewhat and intensified the flavour of the duck, also giving it a firm, smooth texture. And the noodles! I’m not normally a fan of yellow noodles (sek mee) but this version was still very much firm to the bite. DC had to restrain me from buying my own set of duck noodles after the disappointing fish ones.

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Next time we go to Macritchie I know what I’m having!

Fresh Fish Soup
#01-36

Ah Ee Traditional Hokkien Salted Duck
#01-28
590 Upper Thomson Road
Sembawang Hill Food Centre

Quick Eats: Bedok North Hawker Centre

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I like Bedok North Hawker Centre quite a bit because while there’s plenty of good food, it’s also unpretentious and doesn’t have super long queues. I like the ban mian a few stalls down from Joo Chiat Chiap Kee. It has a clear, robust stock that tastes like there’s both pork bone and chicken in it. They use round spinach (bayam) in it, giving the soup a special fragrance. The noodles are decently chewy and don’t get too soggy after sitting for a while. I also like how the ikan bilis and onion bits taste like they’re fried in-house rather than taken from factory-made industrial-sized packs.

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For dessert, I love the taufa quite a few stalls down. It’s soft and silky and slightly creamy at the same time. I couldn’t ask for more.

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Bedok North Hawker Centre
Blk 216 Bedok North St 1

July in Vietnam: Arguments and the Overnight Bus

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The motorbike ride didn’t end quite as I would’ve liked it to. Just as we were about to enter Cuc Phuong National Park, Hu told me that we had only a few hours left. I was taken aback because my understanding with the travel agent in Sapa was that the whole point of the trip was that Hu would take me to  Tam Coc andCuc Phuong National Park, then drop me off at Ninh Binh, a transit town a few hours south of Hanoi. However, on the second night Hu told me that there wouldn’t be time for me to do Tam Coc as well as Cuc Phuong and I opted to drop Tam Coc in favour of the monkeys.

On the day we were in Cuc Phuong, we got lost finding the right entrance and wasted about an hour going the wrong way. When we finally got to Cuc Phuong, Hu told me that we only had an hour there because he needed to get back to Hanoi to catch his train back to Sapa. I was furious because the whole point of the trip was to give me flexibility to explore the national park at leisure. If time really was tight, half day would have been fine, but an hour was pushing it. Besides, I’d made it clear while making plans with my tour agent that I’d wanted to spend time in both Tam Coc and Cuc Phuong, so the agent should have budgeted enough time even though we were delayed by an hour. I’d paid for this, and expected them to carry out their side of the agreement. After an increasingly heated phone call to Sapa, the tour agent agreed that Hu would take me round Cuc Phuong, drop me off at Ninh Binh and then his job would be done.

However, Hu waited till we finished lunch and the Big Tree visit before insisting that there wasn’t enough time and that he would have to leave me in the middle of the national park if I didn’t leave with him that instant. I adamantly held my ground, firmly told him to stop as we rolled past the Primate Centre, and got off the motorbike. Leaving my pack strapped to the bike, I stalked into the Primate Centre, and got two tickets. I figured that he might as well go in since it was also his first time in Cuc Phuong. Hu refused the ticket and sulked while I returned to the Centre, determined that my trip wouldn’t be affected by his behaviour.

I made good progress and was very soon back on the back, with Hu griping away about missing the train. I talked through his schedule with him and reasoned that he would make it with sufficient time. Even if he did miss the train, the travel agent would make sure that he would get on the next one and that there would be contacts in Hanoi that would take him in for the night. Each time, I countered his resentful complaints and persuaded him to continue the trip. The last heartstopping, frustrating moment came when he stopped again by the side of the road, this time only 3km away from Ninh Binh to say that he had to stop now and drop me off by the road so he could go home. I almost screamed but doggedly pressed him onwards.

Thankfully, mercifully, he managed to get me to Ninh Binh in one piece and scooted off after I reluctantly (my turn now) tipped him. I hope he made his train in time.

Next, I cleaned up at a guesthouse that arranged for overnight buses to Hue and got myself a very nice dinner of goat meat wraps with tree leaves! No pictures, but it was very tasty and filling. Quite special and a very unique experience eating stringy tree leaves and tasty but tough goat. Quite soon, it was time to hop on the night bus. Look how cool their utilisation of space was! It’s structured in such a way that there’s just barely enough room for a midget to lie almost prone. There’s a little cubby hole to stick your legs into that fits under the head of the person in front. Stacked up in a double decker, three columns of these beds filled up the bus. Quite a few people fit in and I found it far more comfortable than crouching at the back of a motorbike. After such a long journey, I slept quite soundly, waiting to arrive in Hue in the morning.

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July in Vietnam: Monkey Business

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Having been inspired by my previous Gibbon Experience sans gibbons, I figured that it would be good to at least catch a glimpse of one of these creatures on my jaunt through Southeast Asia. The entry on in Lonely Planet described a gibbon sanctuary in the middle of Cuc Phuong National Park and I knew that I had to somehow make it there. It was great that my travel agent in Sapa thought of this fantastic solution of getting me there by motorbike, giving me plenty of flexibility to linger. Or so I thought.

I started off in Cuc Phuong doing the rainforest walks. As it was mainly dense secondary rainforest, this hardly seemed any different from any other national park in the region. I’d seen this and more in Thailand and Malaysia. Nonetheless, it was a handsome patch of forest.

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Supposedly, no visit to Cuc Phuong is complete without paying homage to the Big Tree, a 1000 year old whopper so big that I couldn’t capture it on only one photo.

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Having dispensed with the formalities, I hotfooted it to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. (There was a bit of a hairy moment here with Hu as he threatened to abandon me at the National Park, but more later.) Here, primates recovered from smugglers and illegal traders were rehabilitated and slowly reintroduced to the wild.  I walked past little cages full of stick insects, marvelling at how realistic their mimicry was. These were meant for the monkeys’ meals (can’t remember which particular species). They were so finicky that they had to eat the insects live, yet another reason not to keep endangered animals as pets.

First, I saw a large enclosure with Delacour’s langurs. These were the cutest monkeys with black and white coloring patterned so that it looked like a black monkey wearing furry white short pants.

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Photos don’t do them justice, hopefully this rather low-quality video helps a teeny bit.

And then there were the douc langurs.

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I’m really sorry that I couldn’t get any good pictures as they were rather shy and it was hard to get up close to them, even while they were in the enclosure. Perhaps it’s a bit disrespectful, but with their wispy white beards they look like miniature Ho Chi Minhs.

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And most magnificently, there were the southern white-cheeked gibbons. It’s absolutely gobsmackingly amazing how the male is pitch black and the female a creamy white. I don’t know how they camouflage themselves in the forest and how they could hide from predators. But they definitely wouldn’t have any doubt at all in mating season!

Even though I spent only half an hour or so at the Centre, it left quite an impression and the images are very much still fresh in my mind.

July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.

July in Vietnam: The Madcap Motorbiking Adventure

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Maybe my hide had been toughened by the experiences of the last week, maybe my sense of reckless adventure got the better of me, but still I don’t know what got into me. After being harangued for my previous experience, the travel agent suggested I take a motorbike ride down to my next stop, the Cuc Phuong National Park, where I was up to more monkey business. He assured me that the motorbike driver, Hu, was absolutely proper and wouldn’t even try to touch me. Excellent that we got that sorted out and we were off.

Our route took us past the spectacular Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) where I spent ages gawking and trying to figure out whether the water droplets falling on me were from the drizzle or the splash of the waterfall.

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It was a steep but very scenic walk up to the top…

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… and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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We went past Tram Ton Pass which, according to Lonely Planet, divided the warmest and coldest places in Vietnam, Lai Chau and Sapa. As expected, when hot and cold met, you really could see air. It was mistily beautiful and mysterious, one of those places that has to be seen while you’re there. I couldn’t get any pictures because my camera was hopelessly fogged up. As we headed downslope, the mist cleared up slightly and I managed to catch some of the amazing scenery in pixels.

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Some parts of the hills gave way to little pockets of land flat enough for padi. It was the first harvest season and villagers were working hard to dry their harvest along the road, …

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… and subsequently thresh it by hand.

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It was tough work in the fields and it was also tough work staying on the bike. It was my first time for long at the back of the bike. Astride behind Hu, I had to hold myself straight and not grab onto him for propriety’s sake. It meant a mean day-long workout for my abs and thighs. When my abs were tired, I stood up slightly on my knees and when my knees were going to give way, I held my abs in to straighten up. The only alternative to this tough workout was to slump with my face against Hu’s back and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Boy was it tough going. I was so glad to get off the motorbike when we came up to a river crossing.

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Here, there were geese on the banks waiting for us. They must have thrived on the grass growing along the muddy banks.

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After waiting for enough customers at a little shop/tea-shack and chatting with the proprietor to pass the time, we got on board the little boat to get across.

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And after a short two-hour ride more, we were at a village homestay where the pigs very enthusiastically greeted us in the dusk.

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It was also where I very enthusiastically tackled my food (yes, the portion in the picture is only for two!) after a long day’s workout and passed out in the roomy common room of the stilt house.

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More next post.

The Hottest Chicken Wings in Singapore

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One Friday evening, DC and I headed out to Seletar to have a cosy little night out at Sunset Grill, famed for having the hottest dish in Singapore: its buffalo wings. I remember reading an article in The Sunday Times about an intrepid reporter hunting down the hottest dish in Singapore and the Level 30 chicken wings landed her in hospital! I was so chicken (!) that I asked the waiter whether they’d serve me Level 0.5 wings. He obligingly let me have two regular wings and four Level 1 wings in our order of half dozen.

The regular wings were pretty good as they were, well seasoned by pepper and they came hot and crispy. I’d definitely eat these without the chilli again.

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I realised that the hot chicken wings were painted with chilli sauce and I suppose the level goes up according to the number of times the spicy, slightly vinegary sauce was painted on. This made the chicken less crispy, but still good. I couldn’t eat two at one go and ended up alternating between that and the plain ones. It was just spicy enough for me to handle without gasping for water, a good start to dinner.

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I chose pork chops for the main course and found them a little bit dry, especially away from the bone. I liked the canned apple sauce that came with it, but the rest of it wasn’t remarkable at all.

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DC went for the special of the day, deepfried tenderloin steak with potato and vegetable. It was surprisingly well done as the steak wasn’t greasy but slightly crisp on the outside and still very rare on the inside. I liked that the meaty taste came out nice and clean. Thumbs up!

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I’d definitely return for the lovely ambience as the place is practically in the middle of nowhere. It’s next to the Singapore Youth Flying Club and overlooks the runway, so you’ll see the occasional plane landing or taking off. The sun sets directly in front of the place and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a spectacular sunset. We weren’t as it was a bit cloudy that evening, but it was still lovely sitting under the one large raintree in the area and after that going for a stroll to walk off the worst of dinner.

Sunset Grill and Pub
140B Piccadilly
Singapore Flying Club
Tel: 6482 0244

June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.

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The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.

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Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.

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And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.

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On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.

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Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!

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Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.

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It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.

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I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.

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March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.