Shopping for cheese by bus, boat and a ton of tuktuks

Serving high quality western food in a remote town like Luang Namtha is quite a challenge. How do you make pizza if you can’t buy real cheese in town? And how do you serve Italian pasta’s when you can only find rice noodles at the market? And then I haven’t even mentioned meats like ham and bacon… Stuff you can’t find for miles and miles.

But that’s where the cheese run comes in! It takes only four buses, twelve tuktuk rides and two boat trips to bring cheese to Luang Namtha. No problem, boh pen yang!

At 7.30 in the morning the tuktuk was waiting for us to do our first cheese run. It brought us – and our empty bag – to the Luang Namtha bus station, about ten kilometres out of town. There the bus to Huay Xai was waiting for us, already full of local people who were ready to leave. Quickly, we bought a bottle of water (we had already brought our takeaway sandwich from Bamboo Lounge) and tried to conquer a seat on the bus. We managed to get the last two seats on the bus, preventing us having to sit on tiny plastic chairs in the aisle.

Four hours later we arrived in Huay Xai. There we needed to get on another tuktuk to take us to the border. After getting a departure stamp in our passports, we were ready to cross the Mekong: the natural border between Laos and Thailand. It only takes a few minutes to get across. After the immigration formalities, we were ready for the third tuktuk ride on the cheese run. It took us to the Chiang Khong bus station where we caught the bus to Chiang Rai.

Three hours later we arrived at Chiang Rai’s bus station. Tuktuk number four awaited us to take us to our hotel. After this nine hour trip, we figured we deserved a Singha beer and went into town.

Early morning the next day it was time to actually go cheese hunting. Fully equipped with a shopping list, a floor map sketch of Makro, a Makro customer card and thousands of Thai Baht we took the fifth tuktuk of this trip to this huge wholesale supermarket. Entering the sliding doors made us feel as if we were sucked into this black hole that brought us back to ‘civilisation’. Television sets, hundreds of different flavours of crisps, biodegradable plastic bags and even frozen pizza.

But there was no time to contemplate that! It was cheese we needed! We took a big size shopping cart and drove it all around this massive supermarket. Since we were carefully instructed, we knew we had to find empty boxes first. The washing powder aisle would be the best place to find them, but the Makro-employees had it blocked to get new supplies from the upper shelves with a forklift. Luckily, the next aisle they were unpacking boxes of toothpaste and shower gel. We snatched the boxes out of the employees hands, hurled the remaining toothpaste out of the box and took them to the cheese aisle.

In this cheese heaven we loaded kilos of cheddar and mozzarella into the empty boxes until they nearly fell apart. Done! That cheese run wasn’t as hard as we thought. But wait, there was a shopping list, it wasn’t only about the cheese. Somewhere at the bottom of what I thought was my empty bag, I found the shopping list. Pasta, olive oil, caramel dip, plastic containers, switchboard electrical plugs…

OMG, where to find all that in this enormous consumer’s Valhalla?

But wait, there was the sketch of the floor map as well! We were saved, now we were able to find all the ingredients we needed to bring to Luang Namtha. We raced through the aisles, adding everything we needed to the cheesy boxes. With a shopping cart full of western ingredients we went to the cashier. It took two of them to get everything out of the boxes, scan the bar codes and put it all back again. With a smile I handed them the Makro customer card and the money.

Our tuktuk driver was fortunately waiting for us outside. All the boxes, there were seven of them, in the tuktuk and back to the hotel. The friendly staff at the hotel let us use their fridge, so that our cheese wouldn’t go to waste! But this was not the end of the journey. Makro may have nearly everything you need, but it doesn’t have capers. Therefore we had to make another trip to Chiang Rai’s shopping mall to find Tops Market. And there we found capers, imported to Thailand all the way from the Mediterranean.

Now we finally had everything we needed, the next day we could return to Luang Namtha with an easy mind.

However, it wasn’t as easy as that. Loaded with seven heavy boxes full of cheese and pasta, we had to go on tuktuk ride number nine. Once arrived at the bus station, all the boxes had to get on the vehicle. The row of seats at the far end of the bus ended up being full of boxes. And – since I got myself one in Chiang Rai – also a bicycle. Luckily the bus wasn’t too crowded, so we made it to Chiang Kong without any troubles.

In Chiang Kong we loaded all the boxes on to yet another tuktuk. But the tuktuks in Chiang Kong were a lot smaller than the ones in Chiang Rai. All the boxes fitted on to it, and one person. But hey, it’s only a few kilometres to the border, I will just bike there! When I arrived at the border, all the boxes were already loaded off the tuktuk. After getting the immigration formalities done one more time, we had to get all the boxes to the river and onto a long tail boat. We hired a motorbike carrier to help us get the boxes down the riverbank and into the boat. Bicycle on top of it all, no problem!

On the Lao side of the river we found a porter with a carriage to help us get all the boxes up the steep hill. And guess what, we needed another tuktuk to the bus station. Loading all the boxes on and off and on the bus again. Since it was already five in the afternoon, we ended up being on a sleeper bus. Dozing away, dreaming about cheese and cycling, we arrived at Luang Namtha around nine in the evening. Now we were only one more tuktuk ride away from Bamboo Lounge! Twenty minutes later the Lao staff was waiting for us, arms wide open, to help us load off the boxes one more time.

And what would be a better way to end the cheese run with a delightful cheesy pizza and a Lao beer!