I spent about ten days traveling from the north all the way to the south of Laos. Most of the time I was alone, except for some cool English guys I met in Vang Vieng. Laos is the most peaceful and quaint country I’ve been to. Time seems to slow down when you’re there and the people are very humble and kind.
Luang Namtha Bus Station – July 23rd, 2010
Left Jinghong at 6:40 this morning on a bus going across the border into Laos and arriving in Luang Namtha. While waiting for the bus to leave I met a man from Singapore named Roland that was also taking the same bus, but he was heading to Huayxai, and then on to Thailand. He was telling me that the food sucks in Laos, but the people and scenery are great.
The road to Mengla, a sleepy town on the Chinese side of the border was more like a wash since it was downpouring the whole time and there were some areas where the cig-smoking driver had to swerve to miss a fallen rock slide. On the television, he was screening back to back Jet Li flicks for the duration of the seven hour trip. There were only two other foreigners on the bus who were French, but they were in the back so I nodded off, sometimes being jolted awake by the blare of the driver’s horn.
Outside my window, we passed heavy jungle vegetation with big groves of bamboo, palms, and thick undergrowth. Rice terraces marked the hills like green steps leading up to the gray sky. We finally arrived at the border town of Mohan to go through the checkpoint and as soon as I stepped off the bus, there were older Chinese women holding folds of Laos Kip (money) saying, “Take your money! Take your money!” Yeah right. When have you trusted a complete stranger who says that? I went through the Chinese immigration smoothly and caught an 8 yuan taxi to the Laos border-check. It’s important to point out that the Chinese side was a brand new, high ceiling, tile floored building that looked as if it was just built. Yet the Laos side had much more character. The building was more like a glorified shack and as I was filling out my Visa on Arrival forms (37 USDs), the man behind the counter was busy typing away on a dusty computer that looked like it was from the mid-nineties.
Luang Prabang Restaurant on the Mekong River – July 24th, 2010
I was sitting at the Luang Namtha bus station as I was writing the last entry but was cut-off when my bus to Luang Prabang pulled up. I decided to skip the stay in Luang Namtha because of my deadline to get to Siem Reap to meet my buddies Jay and Gibby, who were coming in from South Korea. So it’s going to be a mad dash to get there and I’d asked for advice from two different veteran travellers I’ve met on the way. One, an Irishman named Brian, told me I could get stuck for weeks in Laos trying to get down to Cambodia because it’s the wet season and the roads in Laos can be pretty treacherous, causing the buses to stop if it rains heavy enough. He suggested cutting through to Thailand via the border in Vientiene because the roads in Thailand are much better, then crossing from outside Bangkok into Siem Reap.
On the other hand, I asked a Frenchman at the Mekong Cafe in Jinghong about my dilemma and he said going the Laos route would be much better. In his words, “If the roads are flooded, they’re flooded. It doesn’t matter where.” He reckons I could get from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in 7 days. Who do you trust? An Irishman or a Frenchman? Besides, I already paid $37 to get my tourist Visa for Laos (which I might say is the coolest looking Visa I’ve seen so far: full-page, complete with handwriting and a signature from the official himself) and I think it would be a waste to only stay a few days. Plus, I’ve already been to Thailand and as of now, I can say I prefer Laos over it.
There’s also the adventure factor to think about. Going through Thailand will probably not be as exciting as going through Laos because here, there’s the unknown and that’s what makes me want to travel most. So, in the end, it’s not a question of trusting either man, it’s a decision of instinct. I’m going through Laos.
Now, I just went through a ten-hour bus ride from LNT to LPB and it was awesome. I took a VIP bus, which is merely a regular coach bus but is a luxury compared to the retro jalopies that most locals take, and hauled through the mountainous jungle. Through hair-raising turns and bumpy dirt roads, we passed small grass huts with children walking beside the road looking up at the bus as if they’d never seen one before. A younger local girl sat beside me the whole way and kept falling asleep on my shoulder. At first, I tried to push her away but after many attempts to no avail, I gave up and fell asleep too.
Barely in Vang Vieng – July 25th, 2010
Crazy day today. Caught the 2pm minibus (van) from LPB to Vang Vieng. It was only supposed to take 5-6 hours, but about two hours into the trip we came upon a long succession of cars backed up along the mountain road. After not moving for about 20 minutes, many of us got out and started to walk up to see what was happening. It rained heavily the night before and there was about 2 inches of mud all along the road. When I finally reached the beginning of the traffic jam, the problem came into view. A semi-truck was stuck in a large mudslide that came down off the side of the mountian. Now I knew what the Irishman was talking about. There was also a backhoe trying to dig out the mud from under the truck while hundreds of other people, locals and travellers, looked on.
After about an hour of watching this, the truck backed up and tried to plow through the mud, but again became stuck. Then, the backhoe started to come around the back of the truck and put its arm down to push it through from the rear. To the side of the truck was a cliff dropping about 50 meters down into a ravine and the only image I could think of was the truck tumbling down the side. With luck, the backhoe successfully pushed it through to everyone’s applause. We went back and piled into the van to start moving again, but since we were so far back in line, it took another two hours to get up to where the truck was. Every car, bus, and van had to try and gun it through the half foot of mud that was still across the road. When it finally came to our turn it was well past dusk and there was about 15 or so local men who were pushing each vehicle through the mud to get to the other side. We all watched in anticipation as each car weaved and slid down towards the cliff, barely making across to safety. Finally, we were up next.
The driver floored it and we immediately started swerving towards the cliff, everyone’s knuckles white from gripping the seats. We came to a stop, shortly relieved, in the middle of the muck and all the local men surrounded the vehicle. It was a bit terrifying having all these strangers looking into a van full of tourists, and I couldn’t help but think they might try and get some money out of us. On the count of three the driver gunned it again and the men started heaving and pushing as mud sprayed in their faces; some of them even slipping and falling down. This is it! I thought, We’re going down! The van moved even closer to the edge and everyone was screaming, C’mon! C’mon! Go! Go! Go!
Breathing sighs of relief, we made it to the dry side. The local men didn’t ask for anything, they just smiled and turned around to help out the next vehicle in line. They were completely caked in mud from head to toe. Amazing. Like I said, complete hospitality. All in all, what was supposed to be a 5 or 6 hour trip, ended up taking about 9 hours. It was a perfect example of the unknown happening. I didn’t care, I was just grateful I wasn’t at the bottom of the cliff.
Pakse, Southern Laos – July 29th, 2010
I had to get the hell out of Vang Vieng. As one guy described it, “A Disneyland for twenty-somethings.” It truly is and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. I met five British guys who I ended up staying and partying with. Went tubing down the Nam Song river which is probably one of the most insane/ridiculous things I’ve ever experienced. Free shots of whiskey in bottles stuffed with dead King Cobras, rope swings from trees flying off into the rushing river, and drunk backpackers straggling down the river on tractor tubes. Since it’s wet season, the river was flowing fast and strong and I believe anywhere else in the world jumping into, let alone tubing, a river would be unheard of in this situation. It is also said that if you don’t get off your tube at the right time, there is a waterfall near the end where you could kiss your wet ass goodbye.
Supposedly a couple days before I arrived, a Laotian man, whom owned one of the riverside bars, swung off one of the swings and never came up from the water. They found his body a few kilometers downstream. I guess on an average year, 5 or 6 people meet the same fate. So, with that said, yes, I did partake for two days in the outrageous mayhem. My body was bruised and beat up, the soreness begging me to catch a bus and get the hell outta dodge. I left on the third day and never looked back. My advice, do it once and you’re gloriously stupid. Do it twice and you’re swimming with the grim reaper. Although there were a few backpackers working there who swore they had been tubing for over 300 some consecutive days. Whatever floats your tube, dude.