Part 1 – Slow boat downriver
I forgot to mention the boat trip downriver from Hat Sa near Phongsali to Muang Khua. The trip itself was less beautiful than that from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, and considerably colder too. But it was a truly local journey with several interesting moments:
– we started off with fifteen people on board, only three of them westerners (incl. me). It was a little cosy, but not cramped. Within a couple of hours we were down to the three westerners plus an older local guy who had been sitting behind me the whole time so far. He decided to go up to sit next to the driver and share a meal, and as he passed me I noticed a shiny glint on his belt. It looked circular, several circles in fact, metallic, and somewhat familiar… and when he sat down I could see them properly: they were bullets. Five bullets on the outside of the hip holster that housed his semi-automatic pistol.
– Towards the end of the journey a man hailed us from the shore. I thought he was asking for a pickup, but when we drew closer I noticed he had a freshly killed deer slung over his shoulder. He talked with several people on the boat for a while, and a busy discussion got underway. Eventually one of our boatman agreed to buy the deer and it was casually dumped on the floor of the boat in front of us. The seller got 125,000 kip (about A$18), which is decent money in local terms and good cash income for the hunter.
Part 2 – Over the border by bus
The border between Muang Khua (Laos) and Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) has only been open to foreigners for a couple of years, but it operated long before that as the northernmost crossing for locals between the two countries. I had assumed because of the trade that must flow through this route the road would be in fairly good condition as far as Lao roads go. Wrong, wrong, wrong again…
It wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but it was a typical northern Laos thoroughfare: a rocky, unpaved, bumpy one-lane goat track that wound its way along precipitous ridges with endless switchbacks and climbs. I was used to this kind of travel by now, and thanks to the low clouds that form overnight the dust was damp and settled. I took the time to see what could be seen, the highlight of which is a beautiful village called Nam Nga only 20 kilometres or so from the border. Nestled in a valley lush with rice paddies and crops it is not listed on the map, yet in the centre of it is a large and modern-ish hotel for visitors. I think it’s for those visiting inmates at the drug rehabilitation centre just outside the village, but if you ever pass this way it makes it easy to spend a day or two in that pretty valley.
All was going well until suddenly we rounded a corner to find the road blocked by a makeshift barrier. A significant landfall had occurred during the night and more than 100 metres of the road ahead was swamped with dirt. There were already two large ditch-diggers at work clearing a path, but a glance told us that it would be at least an hour or two before we could budge again. As well as myself there was a kiwi couple on the bus, and we were not fazed by the delay. I got out a book and started reading, they got out their laptops and started typing. One local woman was more resourceful: she borrowed a machete and start chopping up a large piece of deadwood beside the bus and put the pieces on the floor between the seats. That started quite a wood-gathering run, and several times later in the journey we stopped to allow her to pick up more logs for her collection!
The road was re-shaped after 90 minutes or so, and as our bus was the first in the queue we were the guinea pigs to test the track. Unfortunately it wasn’t stabilised very well and it was steep, and one side of the bus threatened to get bogged in the dirt as we leaned hard to the left, stopped, then slid back down the hill. As there was a sheer drop to the river below just beside us this was very unsettling to say the least, and all three of us westerners insisted on getting out and walking well behind the bus for its next attempt. It made it, we chased after and climbed back in, and then we were back on our way. Why does every bus journey here have to be so eventful? Just once in a while I’d like a nice, easy, smooth and forgettable ride…