In Luang Prabang I was finally able to eat again and what a joy to do so. Two days on a slow boat while recovering from the mumps can do funny things to one’s brain. I had begun to imagine Luang Prabang such a paradise on earth, at least in Laos, that we would be greeted off the boat with Laos women carrying steaming plates of pizza with real mozzarella or spaghetti or lasagna. (For some reason I confused Laos with Italy.) While no one welcomed me from the boat with fresh pasta, once I found a place to stay, I did find pizza that only caused my still recuperating jaw just a wee bit of trouble. Apparently, there was a bit of a scandal when this Italian place opened on the Luang Prabang main street as the town is a UNESCO world heritage site. I also found myself a bookstore, thank goodness.
I must confess I don’t remember much of what I did in Luang Prabang. It is a lovely laid-back town on the banks of the Mekong, with the dusty colonial architecture amongst dozens of Buddhist wats and temples. Luang Prabang lies between the Mekong and a tributary, almost an island. I did go to the former palace, now a museum, which was small, but enjoyable, though the opening hours were challenging. The first time I arrived just before it closed for lunch, later just before it closed for the day. My persistence paid off the third time. I did not make it to the famous Pak Ou caves or to the Kuangsi waterfall. Though I tried, I always called at the tour operator at the wrong time, too early or too late. After all that time cramped on the boat, I was just happy to wander the streets, sometimes talking with novice monks.
The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was nine hours. NINE. A friend of mine told me he had taken the trip a few years before me and at the time it took him two days in the back of a truck. I suppose nine hours was an improvement. Funny though, weeks and even years later, it is the boat ride and the bus rides that stood, and stand out. And though we were well into the digital age I traveled a bit more old school. While I saw younger travelers with electronics – Kindles and iPods – I still had just paper books and my own imagination to while away the hours.
There were twenty seats in the bus, excluding the driver seat, and yet we had 25 people including the driver and three bus attendants. I am not sure why this works like this, but there was the driver, and another guy who I assumed was the relief driver, whose primary job seemed to be either to sleep or amuse the bus driver. Then there is the guy who gets of the bus at official check points and hands over paper and puts people on the bus. If we pick up other people, he hangs out the bus door and yells at these people we pick up along the way, to check their destination and hurry them on the bus. Then there is the woman who collects the fares. I had heard the departure was 8 AM, another passenger said it was 8:30, while another insisted it was 9:00, though we were all told to arrive at the bus station by 7:30. We were full by 7:45 and just sat there. We left at 8:30, drove 10 minutes to the gas station, then drove a few meters down the road to have the tire fixed, and then another five minutes to the police checkpoint. Surely there is another way to do this?
It was a long trip. Though I slept at least half the journey, it was not easy. Whenever I began nodding off, the driver would blast Lao pop music. The second half was through the mountains–around and around and around curves. I am talking about curves with drops down hundreds of feet without a guard rail in sight. We went through many hill tribe villages — their front yards the road, their backyards the hundred foot drop. When we sped through these tiny villages we laid on the horn so anyone on the road would scatter. Besides people, there were also many animals on and alongside the road: chickens, turkeys, pigs, dogs, cattle, and goat. Once we even passed an elephant!
Like my arrival in Luang Prabang, I was extremely happy to arrive in Phonsavan. I secured a room, ate, and went to bed. Electricity at the time ran only five hours a day, from 6 to 11 pm. Reading that now, it sounds rather generous. I was in bed long before 11. The following day I had a tour of the Plain of Jars. It was really just a guy in an old Russian car who drove three of us foreigners around to the sights. And by sights, I mean we visited plains with large and small stone jars littered across them. Then I knew it only as a place of unknown purpose – though now I read it is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia. It was a good day; I was fascinated.
While in Phonsavan I also happened to stumble upon a Hmong gathering. It was the Hmong New Year’s and Hmong tribes from Laos and even Southern China, were gathered to celebrate. Young Hmong women, between approximately 14 and 20 years of age, dressed in their finest, lined up to play a game of catch. My guide informed me this was a way for the girls to find husbands. Though many of the girls were tossing the balls to each other, a man could step in and begin the ball toss with the girl. He might toss the ball and say “I do not have much money.” The girl would throw the ball back and tell him “That is okay.” He would say “You will have to work in the fields.” “That is alright,” might be the answer. And back and forth they toss the ball until some decision is made.
I had planned to head to Vientiane the following day, but the thought of another ten-hour bus journey was more than I could bear; I chose instead to take a detour to Vang Vieng. This ride was worse. The bus to Phonsavan had been small, full of foreigners. On this larger bus, I was the only foreigner. Though it was to depart at 9:30 AM, it was full by 7:45 AM. The passage in front of the door already blocked with sacks of rice that everyone had to climb over to get on or off the bus. I watched two motorcycles being loaded onto the top of the bus. We all sat there, or walked around the bus, until it left, half an hour early at 9 am. And we promptly drove to a gas station!
Most of the Laos seemed inexperienced in bus travel. Perhaps they made the trips only rarely? As a result, most passengers were sick. The bus assistants passed out plastic bags – they served the same purpose as the bags found in airplane seat back pockets. As we passed over the hills and the narrow roads with steep drops, the Lao people would ooh and aah and stand up and lean over to that side of the bus to examine the drop. I thought it would surely tip the balance and down we would plunge. The woman in front of me and a man behind me were sick out the windows, making it hard for me to look outside and try not to be sick myself. We had one pee break on top of the hill in the middle of nowhere, where each person ran off to find their own peeing bush. There was more Lao pop music– I was getting thoroughly sick of it. I was extremely happy to get off the bus at Vang Vieng seven hours later.
I meant to stay only a day in Vang Vienh, to break up the long journey to the capital. However, I ended up staying a three. I took a tube down the river with an Irish girl named Claire. I am fairly sure Claire was high as a kite for the duration, and though I do not generally relish being trapped alone with strangers for hours on end, I had not laughed so hard in ages. We made a game of our 3.5 HOURS float down driver, paddling furiously with our flip flops to maneuver around obstacles. The following day I was aching from a bad sunburn, a sore knee where I had hit a rock, and a huge scratch I received from a submerged stick. I signed up for kayaking the next day, but it poured rain and the trip was cancelled.
Then I headed to Vientiane and what a relief it was to spend only THREE hours on transport after so many marathon long trips. I spent two quiet days in the quiet capital, resting up for the travel to come, often enjoying a dinner looking across the Mekong to Thailand as the sun set. Then I crossed the Friendship Bridge back to Thailand and returned to Bangkok for the next phase of the trip.