Nov 29, 2009

The 22 hour bus ride to Luang Namtha Revisited

Pakmong a major road junction north of Luang Prabang. Go left to Udomxai and China, go right to Nong Kheaw, Sam Nua and Vietnam. Rain.

I caught the Bus to Luang Namtha again, this time jumping on in Vang Vien and getting off in Luang Namtha only to catch the morning sawnthaew over to Muang Long. The ride ended up being about 27 hours overall, 31 hours door to door.

Vang Vien has a new bus station out by the market that's pretty nice, I waited there for the bus to drive by. After a while I went out to stand by the sign at the road, the bus doesn't pull into the station, only stops for a minute. I was the only one getting on. Despite making decent time the bus didn't roll into Luang Prabang until after dark. The guard who had been sitting across the aisle from me and chit chatting most of the way got off. What a bore it must be riding back and forth to Luang Prabang day in and day out.

Vang Vien bus station

I'd been looking forward to dinner at the southern bus station in Luang Prabang for quite a while, instead it wasn't even a toilet break. The driver said we'd be stopping in Pak Mong for dinner.

In the dark of the bus, and after Luang Prabang people began to talk amongst themselves and folks wanted to know who in the heck I was, you know what's my story. Why am I speaking Lao, who do I know in Luang Namtha, that kind of thing. I could hear my answers being relayed to those too far away to hear and also being commented on and interpreted as they were passed on.

I too had questions. Like why could I understand them when they talked to me but not when they talked to each other. I'd been eavesdropping a lot since Luang Prabang and I would only recognise a few words. I understood in bits and pieces. I was only guessing as to what was being said when I heard a familiar word once in a while. It was like listening to Lao being spoken under a blanket or with a mouthful of marbles. Then when someone talked to me it was once again en clair.

Inside the bus

Lots of laughs and discussion when they finally figured out what my problem was. The older guy closest to me said, "we're speaking Lu!" more laughs. I'd been listening to them speak the language of the Tai Lu, an ethnicity common to the lowlanders of Luang Namtha. It's kind of like Lao and shares some words I guess.

At Pak Mong I bought some oranges and a bag of those Thai shrimp flavored potato chip things. I think it was raining slowly.

At Luang Namtha I recognised nothing, it was still night. A couple other people were headed for the local bus station too and I tagged along. After shivering for a little while it began to get light and I walked out to the road, the local bus station was almost in Luang Namtha itself. The internet place was closed so I wandered up to Zuelas and my friend Vong was eating breakfast, Sai brought me a cup of hot tea bless her heart and I sipped hot tea and made small talk before heading back down to the station to catch the sawngthaew over the hill.

Check point in mountains above Muang Sing

I convinced a couple of women waiting to go to Muang Sing that the sawngtheaw to Long would pass through Sing on the way by and the driver left with only 3 passengers. Being the first vehicle in the morning he was sure to pick up lots of fares, and he did.

Not too far below the highest point of the road from Muang Sing there is a checkpoint that doesn't necessarily seem like one. It's Lao style, flowers and a restroom of sorts. I didn't get the impression the two young women I was with understood that this wasn't just a stop for the toilets suplied by the government. All the vehicles traveling out of Muang Sing get checked for drugs. Beyond is one of the main opium producing areas of Laos and the major transport route for methamphetamine labs in Buma. This is the only road check within Laos that I can think of.

Goats belonging to checkpoint staff.

A couple hours later I was checking in to the Homephan Guest house in Muang Long. A brief and pleasant 31 hours since leaving my hotel in Vang Vien.

Homephan Guest House. Market and bus stop right of the third and fourth utility pole down the street.


William said...

Nice to read your blog on Namtha. There are, indeed, other check points. But none where all vehicles have stop. There used to be many - also customs check points. There is a check point just as you cross the border from Udomxai to Namtha.

The check point on Kiew Lom (Windy Pass) was set up in 2000 in response to the amphetamine trafficking. The latrines were added because when everyone would get off the buses they would pee on the side of the road and eventually it got kinda stinky. So, they put in a latrine.

Lue is difficult to understand. I learned it because it was the lingua franca of the ethnic groups in Muang SIng and Muang Long. It is probably closer to northern Thai than to Lao.

Somchai said...


Come to think of it my guide is always speaking Lue to the Akha and Hmong people of the villages.

After posting I got to thinking about those checkpoints. One down in Vientiane just below the reservoir on the main road, and also there used to be many more, like just before you head left to go to the University on the way into Vientiane, or up in Kasi.

Christay2009 said...

what did you think of Homephan? it hit the spot when i was there [room 3 i think or the third one on the way in at least]. I know you can speak some Lao, how did you find the owner? i thought she seemed quite nice but stern. However, this was with no verbal communication at all!

I seem to remember passing 2 or 3 check points on my trip but they always just waved us on after the driver slowed down

Somchai said...

She's not very talkative in any language. Friendly enough though. There used to be a guest register where you wrote down passport # etc, now that's gone. I think very few go to Muang Long now. Her husband is the local doctor, runs the clinic/hospital that is just downhill from the house. He actually speaks some English but he doesn't advertise the fact. They used to also have a pharmacy out front. When I was there a year ago she let me use the hot water shower down in the basement. Any hot water in the rooms yet?

Christay2009 said...

I didn't have to sign any register when i stayed. Funnily enough there was no hot water in our upstairs room which was
quoted as 40,000 a night but second time round they were full apart from a room that was essentially two home made
beds in her garage. Use of the hot water bathroom comes with this room for 30,000. They were full of teachers who had
all come to celebrate teacher day, not sure why they had all come to Muang Long though...

Do you think Muang Long will fade away, even further from the Lonely Planet/Tourist trail radar? It would be a shame if
what little tourist infrastructure they have crumbles. Though they seem to have survived this far on a small dribble of
tourists. I was told that there is a new guesthouse under construction to the right of the market [if you face the
market] and a new restaurant has just opened overlooking the rice fields on the road to Muang Sing but abit before you
reach the bridge/village. It's not too far to get to but i'm not sure how they'll draw tourists there unless they somehow
become experts in marketing to falang. I will definately try to go back there though, if i can. There is guy in the planning
office, next to the tourism office, who speaks great English [on a par with Tui's] and he helped us out when we were there
as the tourist office was closed all day. Tui was in Luang Nam Tha. I think everyone was quite confused when i dropped his
name into the mix, how can two falang heard of our head guide? haha

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Hi somsai (Somchai),
This is the only way I can reach you and has nothing to do with this particular post, so here goes anyway.
My wife and I are going to Northern Laos next week for 3 weeks, and I just wanted to say 'Thanks!' so much for all of the great information you post here and at the TF and TT forums. Your advice and tips have been very, very helpful to us in crafting a rough and loose itinerary.
Also, I read your post from April 2008 titled 'For My Feet' and when I saw the photo of you doing the powder mag traverse, it brought back a lot of memories. You see, I used to work with oil exploration (seismograph) crews back in the '80s as a surveyor, and we were also paid by the mile to hike in the mountains of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Montana. I worked mostly with 'portable' (helicopter aided) crews. I suspect you may have done the same reading that post and your words. We may even have met along the 'seismic trail'.
Anyway, I'm now a surveyor for the US government down here in Cortez, CO.
Enough rambling. Thanks again for all your help on behalf of us and so many's greatly appreciated!!

Caught in Time Photography

Somchai said...

Christay sorry for slow response, holidays. Eventually Muang Long will get lots of traffic, it's situation at the confluence of two rivers with nice mountains both sides still uncut will eventually lead to lots of tourists.

I still haven't seen the 07 LP book, it's in the contents I see on line but I somehow thought there is no longer a one paragraph description.

I wish it to remain how it is, but wish for prosperity for the people. There's a road going in to the South for a new copper mine, goes almost to the old Jakune Gao that should open up access to the Nam Fa.

Somchai said...

John Mumaw I worked on CGG 17 which later became 22 (I think, memory fuzzy :-)). I started in 1979 just before Tom Carter crashed up in the Snake River Range and worked sporadicaly until they closed up shop in 86 or 87. Went for a swan song in the arctic winter of 89/90. Mostly worked Pcord. I've activated my email so you can find me via my profile. I've posted siesmic photos here once in a while under the "other stuff" category.

I've mixed feelings about the forums, I feel I'm often too glib by half, I blame it on the medium. I should blog more and forum less.

I do hope tourism expands in Laos. Especially trekking in Lao Sung areas. I dred the ugly tourist syndrom but hope for the upland peoples to get some revenue and affirmation that their culture is of value. Better than rubber anyway.

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