The rhythms of life are gentle in this town, and not much different from that observed in smaller places across northern Laos. There is a rush hour of sorts from 7am to 8.30am, when scooters scoot and cars rumble through town as people go into their day. Walking around town after this you see families taking breakfast at the table outside their house: a group affair usually of sticky rice and some condiments, or perhaps a simple soup of flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, leafy greens and a few shreds of meat. I have made this last my breakfast the past few days, and it’s a good way to start the day.
I don’t know where most people go during the day, but there is little commerce in our normal sense to talk of. No factories or offices nearby, even the shops are mostly idle though they’re open from morning to night. More than once I’ve had to stir someone from a nap to buy a drink, or a meal, or soap. In fact many of the public buildings and structures are provided by foreign aid, and a sign next to each edifice proclaims its donor (usually a government, but sometimes and NGO or individual). In the villages you can assume people are in the fields, tending crops or gathering firewood, and whether townfolk do this too I cannot say. But during the day the town is populated mostly by older women and kids, or young guys endlessly tinkering with their motorbikes. At my hotel, after an early flurry of cleaning, the staff – all part of the same family – sit in the foyer doing homework, watching TV, reading, sewing or dozing.
Late afternoon and the first wisps of wood smoke waft past as fires are lit in preparation for the evening meal. Everything is cooked over fire, sometimes in a stove but mostly over an open three-pronged stone brazier. There are restaurants here but they’re not dedicated businesses as you find elsewhere, rather they’re more like homes that also offer to cook for others on request. I’ve been the only customer for some meals, as the locals don’t appear to eat out at all except on special occasions, and there are few travellers. Quality varies immensely, and in this town at least the best food is had in Chinese restaurants. Night falls sharly at 6pm, and by 8pm the streets are quiet apart from occasional youths on scooters wandering around and the distant din of music. By 10pm all are asleep.
I’ve done little here but rest and read, and it’s time to move on. Phongsali is a little disappointing but I can’t really place why…. though people can be friendly there is a soft sullenness about them, a vague air of resignation (desparation?) that subtlely infuses everything. This town is surrounded by lovely hills but it lacks the beauty and serenity of, say, Nong Khiaw which is rapidly becoming my favourite part of Laos so far. Tomorrow is an early start to get to Hat Sa, 21 kms away, where I will take a boat downriver to Muang Khua for a few days. I had to pick the dates for my visa to Vietnam well in advance, and it doesn’t start until Friday so I have no need to rush to the border. But hopefully Muang Khua will be a little more lively and interesting a place to wait it out.