We left the hotel quite early and followed the directions we had been given last night. I fully expected not to see a bus station and that we would have to double back. If the worst came to the worst we could always head back to the one we arrived at last night where people were touting international buses to Laos. As it turned out at the end of the day this may have been a better option that what we ended up doing but we have no way of knowing that for certain.
|Public transport, Laos style|
We had expected the bus station to be quite near by so after walking for about ten minutes we asked a policeman. He waved in the direction we were going and indicated “one” which we thought was that we needed to go one block further on. After one block the bus station was still nowhere in sight so we asked again and we waved on in the same direction. Finally a man coming up behind us said “Mohan?” the name of the border town on the Chinese side, and pointed us through an archway to the bus station. We probably would have missed it without his help. He showed us where to get our tickets and we were on the next bus with just a fifteen minute wait. It was a little minibus similar to ones we had got in South America. The main difference though was that people on this bus did not talk to each other whereas in South America everyone chatted and yabbered away non stop.
A bit after we got to the bus station a little bike rickshaw pulled in with a woman and a young girl. The woman, Helena, had matted dreadlocks and looked like she had just come from some sort of hippie commune. We have assumed that the girl, Ruth, was her daughter but never actually asked her. We ended up spending pretty much the rest of the day with them. They are from St Petersburg and they came on the Trans Siberian express to Beijing and travelled down through China. Helena wanted to bring her daughter to China because she will start to learn Chinese at school next year. After Laos they will head to Thailand and keep going until the money runs out. The little girl Ruth is only seven years old and I think she is made of pretty robust stuff. Her mum left her on her own a couple of times to look after their stuff while she went off to buy tickets, drinks or apples (which Ruth ate and then threw up on the bus!). I wished that we could communicate better as St Petersburg is on my list of places to go and visit and it would have been good to learn more about the city. You do not meet many Russians travelling around and I wondered what sort of lifestyle they have there.
We drove through more tropical forest, again cutting across the work for the new express road. It really is a massive construction project but a lot of the work still seems to be labour intensive. Next to the road men were sitting with chisels and hammers bashing away at big lumps of rock to make the stone bricks used for the supporting walls. When we finally got through the border a couple of Western men in orange high visibility jackets drove past us on motorbikes so I think that western companies are involved in the project and that Chinese labour does most of the back breaking work.
The scenery here is so unlike anything we have in the UK and it is beyond by abilities to do it justice and describe it. Trees lined the roads so we have not even been able to get many photos along the way. It reminds me of pictures you see in films like Tarzan and Gorillas in the Mist of vast expanses of hills/mountains stretching into the distance all covered in thick forest and vegetation. Clouds above mingled with steam and mist rising from the land with the sun just starting to break through.
When we reached Mohan, the Chinese border town, I was surprised to see quite a large town. Everything looked very neat and tidy with grass verges lining the roads, the first I can recall seeing in China. It is almost as if the town has been newly built in readiness for the express road coming through. Chinese immigration was easy as we just had to fill out a departure form and get a stamp in our passport. Outside the immigration office a more military looking checkpoint was set up so we had to show our passports to the guards there too. And then we were sort of out of China but not quite into Laos, whose border is three kilometres further up the road. Local entrepreneurs are on hand with dusty and dirty trucks ready to take you that distance for a couple of Yuan. It was the middle of the day and hot so it was definitely money well spent.
If you ever do this border crossing treat what Lonely Planet says about it as a great piece of fictional creative writing. Their book implies that there is a town on the other side with a bank where you can get Laos currency and easy transport connections further into Laos. It is simply not true. There is one large building which is the immigration post. The staff there live up to the Laos reputation of everyone being laid back and relaxed and I think it is only because Stef went wandering around the building to see what was behind it that they realised there were people waiting to come through. Finally someone turned up to process people’s entry.
Although you can get a visa on arrival we had applied for ours in Kunming in China. There we had been given a sixty day visa, which we fortunately had not paid extra for because at the border the maximum they would give is thirty days. Having seen the crossing I have no confidence that people applying for visas on arrival would be successful. We met an American there who had been told in Udomxai (just under four hours away) that he could get a visa extension here. He had a wasted trip because the people here refused to give an extension.
The border also gave us our first taste of the Lao people’s approach to queuing which Lonely Planet accurately describes. They have no concept of a queue and simply push in in front of you. It seems that he who is seen first is served first no matter who else is around. They also like to try and deal with three people at the same time, rather than sorting things out for one person at a time, which also slows down the overall process.
We eventually got through and then went to look for the bank and the bus. There was no evidence of either. About two hundred metres further down the dirt road, the tarmac stops between the Chinese and Laos border controls, there was a wooden shelter with minibuses and open sided trucks sat outside. As we walked down a pick up stopped and offered to take us part of the way to Na Toei. The American quickly hopped on board (a trend of western travellers in the know in Laos) but there was clearly not enough room for me, Stef, Helena, Ruth and our luggage. He did not even wave goodbye as the pickup pulled away.
We found ourselves really at the mercy of the Laos drivers. The American had warned us that they are catching on fast here to the ability to charge Western tourists different rates to the local people. They also know that when you cross the border you do not really have an accurate and up to date feel for local prices so in effect we were sitting ducks. For a private car that would leave straight away they wanted something like double the amount we had expected to pay based on Lonely Planet. Naturally we refused to pay and had to sit and wait until more people turned up for the regular trip. Stef worked out later that we were arguing the toss about £2.50. In London terms it hardly seemed the bother, especially as it is about a four hour journey. However, there is an unwritten code of responsibility to switch your mindset into the local cost of living so that you do not perpetuate tourist driven inflation that makes prices extortionately high for the local people.
The drivers said they would leave at one o’clock but about thirty minutes before that another couple of backpackers turned up also wanting to go to Udomxai so we left a bit early. This couple were a bit odd. He, Sean, was from Derby and had met Sabrina, a German who now has a Derbyshire accent, while they were both travelling. They are still in the getting to know you/young love sort of phase and made pretty irritating travel companions with constant giggling and tickling. They have both been to Laos before and like the American before hand, also know the ropes of travelling here.
We were bundled into the back of a sawngthaew, which is essentially a pick up truck that has covered bench seats fitted into the open part at the back. It was a very rocky and bumpy journey and both Stef and I bashed our heads on the roof as we went over yet another pothole. This truck took us as far as Na Toei, the junction with the main road that goes from Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai and then down through Laos. Na Toei was a small village, not much more than a collection of bamboo houses, that only seems to be there because of the road junction. Here we had to wait for just under two hours for a bus to take us to Udomxai.
With time to kill we headed for a local eatery. There a man said that a bus was leaving a bit earlier and that it was going all the way to Luang Prabang, one of the main sites and another six hours further on from Udomxai. It seemed like a good option to try and get that far so we all decided to give it a shot. When the man at the restaurant said the bus would be leaving soon, Sean and Sabrina shot off pretty quickly while Stef and Helena went to get drinks for the trip. We soon found out why. This “bus” was simply a larger sawngthaew which was already pretty full by the time we got there.
It was not so much the volume of people in the truck but the amount of stuff they had with them – huge bags of shopping, logs and rice which were all just piled onto the floor in the middle of the van, not leaving much leg or foot room for the rest of us. Sean and Sabrina sat and watched as we struggled on with our bags, so much for travellers helping each other! A couple of local men got off the sawngthaew so that we could get on and they then perched on the back, one almost not making it. I have to say that the start of that trip rates as the most uncomfortable I have done so far. My left leg was twisted between bags and my foot was wedged under Sabrina’s pack. My right leg did not fare much better. Stef was in a similar state of play and we were both getting irritable as the discomfort set in, especially knowing that we had many more hours to go. As people gradually got off we were able to get a bit more comfortable but still it was not the best of journeys.
Lonely Planet says that the road network in Laos has been improved greatly in recent years so I had expected the road from Na Toei to be in reasonable nick. Not so. It was tarmac'd but there were lots of sections where there were potholes in the road or big dips and bumps where it has subsided over the years. We soon perfected the art of crouching down each time the van slowed, knowing that a bump was coming, and not wanting to bash our heads again. These things are not designed with tall people in mind!
Most of the time we were on a gradual down hill incline, winding around the mountains and valleys. We passed through lots of small Laos villages. Here the traditional houses are built on wooden stilts. The ground floor is used for storing wood and livestock and the house itself is up a steep set of stairs. Further south I saw weaving looms also on the ground under the houses. Life looks hard here and the people looked poor but happy. There is a very relaxed and laid back atmosphere with people seeming to just sit back and watch the world go by.
It took about three hours to get from Na Toei to Udomxai by which time the only passengers left were the western backpackers. Rather than carrying on to Luang Prabang they told us that we would have to wait for another hour and then change onto a bigger bus to finish the trip. The road goes through the mountains and it would be difficult in the truck and too cold in the open back for us to go. Stef and I ummed and aheed about what to do. We had not originally planned to go as far as Luang Prabang today. We were both feeling very dusty, tired and had numb bums and the prospect of another six hours was not great.
As we pondered we met a Dutch family who said it would probably be closer to eight hours to get to Luang Prabang. That pretty much sealed it for us as neither of us wanted to arrive in a new town at two in the morning with no hotel booked, no way of getting there from the bus station and no local currency to pay a tuk-tuk (three wheeled motorbike taxi – see the pictures). Across the road from the bus station is a new hotel, not in Lonely Planet, that for 70,000 kip (about £3.50) had a clean double room with bathroom – fine by us. Helena, not having been keen on doing such a long journey with her young daughter also came across to the hotel but decided it was too expensive and went back and got the bus. We both thought she was mad.
We checked in, spent some time in our room (long enough to discover English speaking TV channels) and then headed up the road to find a local eatery. There was a place by the junction where the road turns down to the bus station. I have no idea what it is called but we had a really tasty meal there. The only other people eating there were Western tourists (four French people and a sole Dutch lady). My final gripe with Lonely Planet for the day is that it states Chinese Yuan are widely accepted throughout Laos, as well as US dollars, Thai Bhat and the local Kip currency. The people at this place were not at all keen to take Yuan so no doubt we have been well and truly stung on the exchange rate.
The staff at the hotel were all very friendly and wished us good night as we climbed the stairs again in our socks (shoes are taken off at the door here). We tucked ourselves up in bed and both fell asleep watching Pirates of the Caribbean.