An October 2002 trip
to Laos by markiemark
Quote: 4 hours' drive north of Luang Prabang, Udomxai province is a rugged region home to a large number of ethnic people & boasts an interesting & colourful market.
The market has some interesting spots. At the back, very tasty and spicy Lao food can be bought to take away in plastic bags: great for the inevitably long truck or bus journeys out of Udomxai. The market is also a magnet for colourfully dressed Hmong people.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 28, 2002
There always appears to be about 10 times more children than adults in Lao villages, especially in the Akha villages. Lao families tend to be big-5 or 6 children seems common- because they know some will die before they're 5 years old usually due to parasites in their guts, particularly those in remote areas. When the kids see a "farang" (foreigner), it's usually a cue for frantic waving and shrieks of "Sabai Dii" (Hello). However, some of the younger ones have never seen a farang before and are very scared. My presence has reduced many youngsters to tears and running away and hiding! Very similar to my effect on women at home! The road from Pakbeng is very rough but yet another that alternately passes through beautiful rainforest, secondary growth and cultivated fields. We stopped at Muang Houn for lunch at noon where the market seemed bigger than the town it was in! Route 2 finally hits tarmac as it enters the intersection with Routes 1 & 4 that is Udomxai town.
The first leg of this trip began in Udomxai bus station on the first pick-up to Muang Khua at 9am. Being a bit of a travel snob and wanting to go to places and make journeys that the locals make and tourists don't, I was a little disappointed to see another tourist arriving at the same pick-up to make the same journey to Phongsali! I was less disappointed to see that she reacted the same way, so I'm not the only travel snob! The rest of the pick-up was well and truly local, and after the usual false starts—calling in at the petrol station, the driver's mates and to pick up someone's luggage—we finally left Udomxai along another god-awful, dusty road with gorgeous scenery.
The trip to Muang Khua took just under four hours, but sometime soon, it'll be half that. I met later, in Phongsali, an engineer about to start work on resurfacing this stretch of Route 4 in December. Passing roadside villages of wooden huts and thatched roofs and the ubiquitous dozens of kids, the trip was pretty uneventful, dropping us in Muang Khua at about 1pm. The other tourist and I had got chatting, and Annetta from Holland was a lot more optimistic than me about getting a boat to Hat Sa that afternoon. We were told by one guesthouse owner in Muang Khua that there wouldn't be another boat until 8am the next morning, but we found a boatman who told us he had to get back to Hat Sa that afternoon and would take us and the lone local waiting, for the normal price of 40,000 kip. A quick turn round Muang Khua market looking for lunch turned up such delicacies as squirrel and crow! I played it safe with sausage and sticky rice to eat on the boat (but who knows what's in the sausage?!).
Our boat was a long wooden canoe with a very loud engine, but at last transport with leg-room! There was a lot of river activity on the Nam Ou; we were on the river at the right time of day, as the mountains start to provide shade for the fishermen from about 3pm. It meant the light was not too good for photographs, though. We passed through several sets of rapids, some of them looking alarmingly frisky as we approached! We picked up a few villagers on their way to other villages and rolled into Hat Sa, the boat jetty for Phongsali, at about 5.30pm.
Starting off in a small pick-up in Udomxai, we were all freezing when we got steamed up and the wind started whistling through the back where we all sat. I hadn't been in a vehicle that had got out of second gear for nearly a month, and here we are ripping along at a rate of knots! No time for passing waves and "Sabai Dii"s to and from the kids. They must've wondered what that momentary flash was when they looked up from their Thai soap operas as we sped by! A 4-hour dash that would have had us tested for drugs on any Grand Prix circuit got us to Luang Prabang just after lunch! I could only spend one afternoon in L.P., as my Lao visa was expiring in 2 days' time and it takes a whole day to get to Vientiane and the Thai border.
Next morning, things got very surreal. I got on an actual bus with individual seats and everything! It even left Vientaine at spot-on the scheduled departure time! Not a lot of scenery to report on here for the first half of the trip, as a torrential downpour for two hours the previous evening in L.P. had left everything thick with cloud and mist. It thoughtfully cleared as we approached Phu Pha, a fantastically rugged limestone peak still dappled with blobs of cloud. Hard to get a photograph from out of the bus window as we were winding frantically down a hillside, but my luck was in! A lorry had overturned passing over a part of the road where there'd been a mud slide. It was blocking most of the road and we had to stop. Everyone got out to survey the damage—everyone except one who hightailed it back up the road half a kilometer to get that photo of Phu Pha I'd asked Father Christmas for (see, he does exist!). After a 20-minute chat about things, it was decided that the bus could squeeze past after all and we were careering on our way downwards once again as the young chap next to me filled his fourth sickbag! (The lorry driver was OK, by the way!) We pulled into Vientiane without further ado around 3pm, and I'm now back in Thailand planning a second visa and another 30 days in Laos just to see if those roads really exist or it was a weird dream!
london, United Kingdom