Phongsali is in the remote far north of Laos and it feels like one of the ends of the Earth. It’s so close to the Chinese border that it’s actually easier to supply it from China than from Laos, and the Chinese influence is evident in everything from the food to cigarettes in shop windows to the voices on the street.
Getting here was quite an effort, and in hindsight I really wish I’d organised my cash properly so I could have taken the boat all the way from Nong Khiaw! But it’s another story to tell about new places and routes, so it’s not all bad… internet access has been quite limited in recent days so rather than do a separate post about the various stages I’ll summarise the lot here to bring this up to date:
Nong Khiaw was such a delighful place that I stayed two nights, using my extra day to finally pick up the phrasebook and learn some of the Lao language. I got lucky in that the host of the place I was staying was very keen to help me practice, so my pronounciation has been correct from the start. When I woke that day I knew only three words of Lao and by the end of it between 30 and 40, so I was very pleased with my progress. That night I had dinner with five of the other people from my boat ride from Luang Prabang, and the next day two more from that trip were on my minibus to Oudomxay. The more remote you get here the fewer travellers there are, and seeing the same faces on the street becomes more common.
Sadly Oudomxay is a necessary shithole that is redeemed by just two features: it is the main transport hub for northern Laos, and it has an ATM. The air is thick with such acrid road dust that it stings the eyes and burns the throat, and I was well-glad to be out of there the next day. The ATM mission (my entire reason for being there) was only half successful: I managed to withdraw money on arrival, but you are limited to just 700,000 kip per day (about A$100). I went back to it the next morning before my bus left, but it was “out of order”. I was leaving with enough money to get me out of Laos the following week if necessary, but it would be very tight…
Journeying from Oudomxay to Phongsali by bus is an experience, not always a pleasant one but definitely memorable! It was a gloriously local affair: out of thirty-odd passengers I was the only westerner on it going all the way to Phongsali, sharing the cabin with Lao folks of various hue, coils of steel reinforcing cable, several bags of food and – yes – even live chickens. It started smoothly enough, and we covered the first 64 kms in un-Lao-like haste. Then we turned off the main highway towards Phongsali and The Dust Storm began. The horror, the horror… I have never experienced anything like it. The road is so dry that a monstrous cloud of yellow-brown dust is thrown up by the bus, and it seeps inside through every crevice even if the windows are closed (which not all were). And the road was so bumpy that it Never. Stopped. Clattering. I was seated in the back row which seemed like a good idea at the start, as it gave me huge legroom. But the dust accumulation is worst back there, and by our first pitstop I was thoroughly over it. I mentioned to an American-Lao woman that I wished I’d brought a face mask with me, and she promptly got one out of her bag and passed it to me. What a treasure: it sure made a difference 🙂
The dusty hell lasted for 100 kms, and it took us over five hours to cover the distance. Then suddenly, like a gift from God, the road was sealed again and from there it was a breeze to the end. We arrived a little after 6pm (we left at 9am), and I was forced to walk the final three kilometres from the bus station to town to find a room for the night. It was good to move again. The hotel was crappy, but this morning I scoped the town out and found much better digs across the road for the same price (A$11 a night). After all the movement of the past few days I’m quite content just to hang up my boots for a while and relax in this small but rather pleasant northern outpost.