We woke early to get the bus down to Luang Prabang. The bus station Bus station is a large open concrete shelter with about ten “bays” for buses to pull up. Each has sign in Lao script and English confirming where they are going so it was easy to find where we needed to be. The chap from the bus yesterday said that a bus would leave at nine in the morning today but we thought we would get there early just in case. A bus did leave at nine but it was a little minibus not a big coach style bus. By the time we had our tickets and went to the right place it was full, although that did not stop them trying to get us to squeeze onto it.
The next bus did not leave for two and a half hours but it soon pulled up into the empty bus bay. The Lao way seems to be to get on a bus as soon as it comes into the bus station and simply wait for it to go. Stef seeing this happening on other buses made me get onto the bus quickly after only one other person had got on. We stowed our bags on the floor in front of us rather than having them go up top, much to the annoyance of a woman who ended up perched on them for most of the trip. Every bus in the station seemed to be doing the same thing and there must have been a couple of hundred people who all sat for almost two hours waiting for their bus to go. It was a good ploy though because our bus was full.
It left on time and headed down yet more lumpy bumpy roads. If what we saw was the improved road surface I dread to think what this journey was like before. As in southern China our route took us high up into the hills (or are they mountains?) and we climbed for a good two hours. We twisted and turned climbing ever upwards and as we had in South America, every time I though we had got to the top a higher peak came into view around a corner. For much of the route electricity pylons lined the road, only sometimes cutting across a valley rather than following the road. What I want to know is how do they get the cables across the valley?
Here the landscape was again very green and tropical and I said to Stef that I was waiting to see monkeys and gorillas swinging through the trees. We did pass an elephant at one point although this one was no longer wild. The mist from the ground again rose up to meet the clouds in the sky but the sun only shone through when we were back down at lower altitudes. Everywhere you can see the signs of the local slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing swathes of forest land and burning the scrub to provide fertile soil for a year or two (it is then unusable for about eight years). With the population so low this is currently a sustainable practice but it leaves scars on the landscape and no room for wildlife.
We passed through more very poor villages where kids with few clothes on played in the dirt or on the streets. Pigs seem to be plentiful here, and large, with their bellies (full of piglets?) scraping along the ground as they walked. There were chickens being followed around by their chicklets and very colourful cockerels proudly strutting their stuff. The local women were also very colourful with bright patterned sarongs with gold and silver thread woven through them. It seems to be a national holiday and young girls were out in traditional dress (white trousers and a long shirt with colourful panels/aprons over the top – it is incredible that they can keep the whites white in all the dust that gets blown up) playing some sort of a game with a ball.
Our bus was so full that there were people standing in the door well and up front five people had crammed into the space for four. Between us and our bags a young man from Luang Prabang was perched on a small stall. He trained to be a teacher and studied English for three years so we chatted to him off and on. Any teaching aspirations seem to have evaporated as he is now an agricultural researcher. I do not know what it is about the maps in Lonely Planet but even this man, who is obviously educated (not something highly valued in Laos) could not make head or tail of the town centre map when we asked him to tell us where the bus would stop.
Maps and books in general seem to be luxury items and I have the feeling that most people here rarely see them. While we waited for the bus to leave Stef was writing his diary and people seemed fascinated by it and the fact that he wrote in a script different to the Laos script. The pictures in Lonely Planet also went down well and each time we got the book out to read during the journey I could sense the chaps behind us peering over our shoulder to have a look. Even the bus passing through the villages seemed to be a novelty factor even though several pass through each day. The local kids started at the bus with eyes wide open and that was before they spotted a couple of western faces near the front.
Unfortunately, the Chinese habit of spitting everywhere is also present in Laos and I suspect we will see it in Vietnam too. There was lots of spitting on the bus and I hope that it all went out the window but I doubt that is the case. One the ladies perched in the door well was travel sick, OK to start with as she was on the other side of the bus but later she switched to our side. Fortunately Stef spotted what was about to happen and shut the window before we got covered in vomit! The bus stopped a couple of times, once for petrol, once for a ten minute driver’s break and two other times for people to go to the loo. Not that there were any loos here for them to use. It is perfectly acceptable to just pee on the side of the road.
Off and on I mused about whether we did the right thing staying in Udomxai last night. The only full blown coach style bus (the VIP bus) to do this trip is the one that leaves Udomxai at 6pm. I kept reminding myself that we would have arrived in the middle of the night with nowhere to go and no way of finding and getting our bearings. Also we would have missed the chance to see the countryside around us. It was still a struggle make these factors outweigh the boredom that had well and truly set in. I really do not enjoy long bus journeys!
After five and a half hours we finally arrived at a bus station in Luang Prabang where tuk tuk’s were on hand to take you to your final destination. The local chap we had chatted with on the bus confirmed that the price they were asking was fair and waved us on our way. On the bus he had asked us how much we had paid for our bus tickets, which was the same as him. He is aware that these days tourists are made to pay higher prices than the locals something he did not think was fair. As we headed into the centre of Luang Prabang I understood why he had not been able to make sense of our map. The bus station was about ten minutes or so out of town and off the map.
As we turned off the main road and into town within minutes we had seen more western tourists than we have seen since Peru. We had chosen a guesthouse hotel out of Lonely Planet expecting to pay around USD25 for a night. When we got there they said their original building was full but they now have a second one a few minutes drive away. They are obviously doing well and have refurbished the original block too. As a result prices have gone up to USD40 a night for one of the standard rooms whereas Lonely Planet states this price for the biggest room.
Stef perched on the back of the owner’s scooter and went off to look at the room. Even though it was a good room we decided USD40 was too much to pay and decided to walk on and look at a place just up the street. Here too they were almost full but the room they had available was nowhere near as good as the first place. We decided to head back there and were met en route by the chap from reception telling us that he could after all give us a discount and let us have the room for USD35. We have no idea whether they also have a room tomorrow but no doubt we’ll find out in the morning.
The room is neat, tidy and clean and decorated very much with western tastes in mind. It has HBO and an English language film channel, air con and a mossie net. It was dark by the time we checked in but in the daytime we have a view out onto the Mekong River. We relaxed for a while and then headed out to eat, Stef in particular feeling very hungry not having eaten since last night as we were both wary about combining potentially dodgy food with a long bus trip. We ate at one of the places by the river, opting for traditional Lao food. Neither of us really thought much of it and we both left feeling dissatisfied.