Serpent Across the Mekong: Evening of the Co-ed Wet Sarong Herbal Sauna

Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha is a podunk little town which lives mostly off tourists and trekkers on the trail from China (60 km away) to Thailand (150 km), which means it’s endowed with a fair number of places to stay and eat, and I handed over US$5 for a night at a more than acceptable guesthouse right on the main drag. Thanks to the higher altitude, it was cool enough that even the ceiling fan proved an unnecessary luxury. A tiny little photocopied and handwritten ad plastered on the wall of the guesthouse lobby caught my eye, and I set off to look for an authentically Laotian experience.

Down a little side alley was a rickety bamboo shack, one side of which was lined in plastic, dripping with water and heated with a fire in half a rusty oil barrel. It seemed precariously suspended between two elemental forces: the water stopping the fire for burning up the wood, and the fire stopping the timber from rotting away. I clambered up the ladder, played a short game of Charades with the teenager running the place, and in exchange for 10,000 kip was handed a sarong and pointed towards the changing room. Duly denuded, I tiptoed out in my wrapper, placed my stuff in a locker-cupboard and headed inside the door of mystery. (A minor faux pas, I later learned: you’re supposed to wash yourself before you enter. Oops.)

And what was inside? A dark, wet, steamy womb, where a tiny windowpane only served to illuminate the swirls of vapor. I stumbled my way to a bench and inhaled the amazing scent of lemongrass and what I could swear was oregano, so intense that my eyeballs tingled and my pores popped open. It was absolutely amazing, like a Turkish bath on steroids. I’d made sure that I entered the “MAN ROOM” side of the sauna, and was hence a bit surprised when the door opened and two wrapped-up Lao ladies joined me. But they ignored me totally, proceeding to gossip away about (I gather) a husband’s mia noi (“small wife”, or mistress), and I zoned out and felt the steam permeate my soul.

After the ladies left I took a breather as well, and the 29 degrees outside was now refreshingly cool. I sipped on my glass of weak tea (or “tea water”, naam chaa, as the Thais call it) and, within ten minutes, was dry enough to plunge in one more, this time prefaced by a token ladling of cold water from the communal water pot in the corner. And in the end, I spent the better part of two hours there, watching dusk turn into dark and realizing that the herbs even kept the mosquitoes away. Quite possibly the best $1.20 I’ve ever spent.

I decided to continue on the path of purification and opted for dinner at the aptly named Minority Restaurant, run by some Black Tai (Tai Dam) tribesmen and specializing in tribal food. Having sampled Akha cuisine a few years back in Chiang Mai, I pretty much knew what I was in for, yet the plain, somewhat bitter soup of bamboo shoot, herbs and pork, eaten with a portion of sticky rice, hit the spot. Obviously drawn in by the lone falang customer, a group of backpackers walked in… and ordered french fries, steak, Caesar salad and Pepsi. How long until the granola bars and salad wraps make their way here as well?

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