Having already done a couple of boat journeys in south-east Asia, we decided we didn’t want to spend the extra time doing another one, and looked into the bus journey. We were quoted similar options by a number of travel agents in Luang Prabang – three buses went to Huay Xai per day, one in the morning and two in the evening. Not keen on doing another sleeper bus, we chose the morning “VIP” bus, which left Luang Prabang at 9am.
In a familiar scenario to our journey from Pakse to Vientiane, 20 minutes before the bus was due to leave, we were still sat in the hotel waiting to be picked up. We asked the hotel to phone the tour agent to check that the pickup was on it’s way – only to find that once again, they had forgotten us! This seems to be a sad repeat occurrence in Laos – if we book a journey through a tour agent, we get forgotten – if we book through a hotel, it’s usually OK (but more expensive). A tuk tuk rolled around at about 8:50am – with the driver looking rather worried. We were rushed off to the bus station which was a fair drive out of town (that’s another thing – there’s loads of space in Lao towns, so why make all the bus stations so far out of them?!), and finally arrived at 9:05 – just as our bus was pulling out! We jumped out of the tuk tuk and onto the bus – to find it completely empty, bar one middle-aged woman, the driver, and the porter. Our bags got pride of place one their very own row of seats each, and off we went.
Well, despite the hairy start, the drive was very interesting. The road started off in a very good condition, following the Mekong River and meandering through low mountains. We covered a lot of distance in a short amount of time, but once we reached Pak Mong the drive got slower and the road got smaller and a bit more pot-holed (but still sealed!). This was pretty much the way it was all the way to Luang Nam Tha – the road was pretty much fine, just a bit small. The only time I can think there would be a problem with the road is if there’s a landslide – we saw evidence of quite a few, some relatively recent, but none that hampered our own journey.
And the view was fantastic – I haven’t taken the boat to Huay Xai, but surely that can’t be a better experience. We drove through numerous hill tribe villages, where normal people go about their daily lives, kids wave to the buses and hold up squirming bamboo rats, and small shops sell naturally grown produce. The landscape was so dramatic, and nowhere else have I seen such raw effects of the slash-and-burn culture which is ongoing in the north of Laos. Steep mountainsides which once held huge trees now hold banana trees and crops, but the landscape is so amazing that you can’t help but be in awe.
We were graced with a porter who thrived on spending his days watching VCD’s on bus’s onboard TV. I use the term graced in a slightly sarcastic way – most of the video CDs he put on were slightly irritating (but highly amusing) Thai and Lao music videos. Some of the Lao music videos were a bit random as well – I’m not sure who the singer was, but in a couple of the videos he actually looked like he’d forgotten the words. One of his music videos also featured a middle aged housewife having a midlife crisis and going out and getting drunk with some dirty old men, before crawling home after dark and passing out, at which point her husband threw water on her. I’m not sure what demographic the video was trying to appeal to, but it was quite interesting. There were also a few very badly choreographed videos – it’s like watching a car crash, you can’t really help yourself, and it did pass the time well. A real crowd pleaser were the Thai slapstick comedies which the porter stuck on a couple of times. Even we enjoyed them, although we couldn’t understand them. It was always a relief when the TV was off though – the porter and driver weren’t shy with the volume control.
We stopped several times along the way to pick up villagers who were travelling to Huay Xai as well, but the bus never even got half full – it was nice to have so much space to ourselves! We wondered at first why every villager that got on the bus was given a yellow plastic bag by the porter, and why we didn’t get one – we soon discovered that it was in case they were sick. I guess some of them are not used to travelling on buses, because a couple of people were sick, and one guy was sick around every 30 minutes for about 8 hours! A few of them also used the bags for spitting into – it’s amazing how much you can fill up a bag with spit!
There were quite a few characters on our bus as well. The first people to get on were a tribal woman and her child. The child (a girl) had a shaved head – I wanted to know why, but did not want to ask – but she watched the television with big brown eyes. When they got off, the woman waved goodbye to me – she was very sweet. There was also an old man sitting across from us for a while. He kept glancing over in my direction, and eventually reached across as though he was reaching for my bag. I was about to tell him to get off my stuff, but at the last minute he stroked the hair on my legs lightly, before pointing at his own which were completely hairless. He looked quite entertained by my hairy legs, so I showed him my equally hairy arms, and in turn he pointed at his hairless arms and laughed. The Lao are not known for their personal space, and I was pleased that his glances were curiosity for my hairy-ness as opposed to anything more sinister!
After Luang Nam Tha, the road was mostly good. The road between there and Huay Xai is currently being upgraded, but is almost done. The upgrades are thanks to the Chinese government, and they’re also upgrading much of the road between Pak Mong and Luang Nam Tha. However, I’ve read that this goodwill is at the expense of some of Laos’ northern forests – China apparently has some rights to log some of these over normal capacity. Still, it’s difficult not to appreciate how much the improved roads must change the lives of the villagers living along them for a better – if not for the preservation of their cultures.