From the Nan Valley in Thailand, I journeyed north to Chiang Rai, then to Chiang Kong the next day where I crossed the Mekong River into the country of Laos. I was relieved to be back in this amazing country and eager to tackle a more adventurous route. So I arranged a bus to Luang Namtha, a town in the Northern part of the country. Travel in Laos is significantly more difficult and dangerous than Thailand. The countries are almost polar opposites of one another in terms of development with Laos being the most under-developed country in Southeast Asia. This has great appeal to me though as I was seeking a different experience than that of Thailand and immediately I was provided with just that.
In all my years of travel, never have I experienced anything like yesterday’s bus trip. I was aware that bus travel in Northern Laos can be a difficult experience as few of the roads are paved and the buses in far worse condition that those in Thailand. So as I boarded the public bus, saw the horrid condition of the seats and interior, heard the ancient engine turning itself over, and thanked God that I actually found a seat, I prepared myself for the worst. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for this adventure. Looking at the distance between Houayxai and Louang Namtha on a map, one would never imagine that it would take over 9 hours to achieve this test of endurance, but I understood why as we pulled out onto a dusty dirt road littered with potholes. Seated just above the wheel, I could tell that the shocks were in the same condition as my seat. Yet, the worst was still to come.
For over 9 hours our rickety bus lumbered over the dustiest mountain road that one can imagine. Without fan or air-conditioning, the windows had to be open for any semblance of cool air or breeze. But with the road being a hellish dust pit, the windows had to stay closed in order to save us from the thick clouds of dust that poured into the bus through any open hole. So the people next to the window played a constant game of opening-and-closing, attempting to take advantage of any moment when fresh air could be allowed in and then closing the windows when storms of dust enveloped the bus. Essentially, when the windows were closed we baked inside the bus and when they were open we were swallowed by dust. There was no getting around it. I wore my sunglasses the entire time attempting to shield my eyes and then covered my mouth and nose with a towel when dust poured through the windows. It was absolutely miserable for nearly every moment of the trip.
The ironic part was that it was the most beautiful bus ride I’ve taken yet. The mountains were astounding, covered in thick vegetation and rolling on as far as my dust-covered eyes could see. Along the way we passed through hill tribe villages where the women dressed in traditional clothing an carried everything upon their backs from babies to bundles of wood. Children looked on excitedly and waved as the bus passed by. In fact, much like Fiji, the bus’ passing seemed a high point of the day for each village. It was amazing to see so many ancient-looking people living lives far removed from civilization.
But the dust was almost unbearable. Since the road was in a near-constant state of construction, the dust was like a fine sand. It wasn’t even like a normal dirt road where the dust gets stirred a little as a car passes by. This dust was so fine that even the wind could put a cloud in the sky. But when a car (or more often, a huge truck) passed over the road, it left a literal dust storm that engulfed everything in its path. During the first five hours we were often stuck behind construction vehicles rendered nearly invisible by the cloud of dust they left in their wake. Our driver did his best to make daring passes around other vehicles, but there was no end to the misery.
We arrived in Luang Namtha well after dark and I struggled to find a suitable guesthouse in which to clean and soothe my aching body. The trip had left me with more than memories, feeling the pain that ached in every inch of my body. But it was finished and for that I could only be thankful.
Unfortunately, the pains and frustrations of public transportation would haunt me again today as I boarded a songathew for the town of Muang Sing. Songathews are small pick-up trucks fitted with bench seats which serve as the regular transportation for most of this country. Packed until people are literally hanging off at times, songathews are the most common mode of transporation in Northern Laos. Thankfully, the two-hour journey to Muang Sing was along a paved road and almost comfortable after yesterday.
Unfortunately, it would have to be repeated when I arrived in Muang Sing only to find one main street with nothing to offer and dry rice fields in every direction. The mountains that surrounded the town were invisible through the haze of smoke and the tourist/trekking office wouldn’t be open until Monday. So I called it a loss and after just 3 hours, boarded a songathew back to Luang Namtha and there saw at least four others who had done just the same.
Tomorrow I will endure at least 6 hours of public transportation as I make my way south towards Luang Prabang. I hope those experiences present less troubles than the past 2 days, but I have no doubt they will be memorable indeed. For as uncomfortable as the travel has been, Northern Laos is without a doubt the most beautiful area of Southeast Asia that I’ve seen so far.