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.

Nov 22, 2009

Ban Ha Sip Song

Tree in front of Wat Song Buay on the way there

To kill time waiting to leave Laos I took my rental bike and drove up to the Hmong town at kilometer 52 on the road to Luang Prabang, named Lak Ha Sip Song, appropriately enough.

I stopped at Lak Ha Sip Song once before when riding up to Vang Vien with my in laws. I'd always wanted to spend a little time again looking the town over. For many Hmong in America the town is their best known destination in Laos. It's a Hmong town, but being so close to Vientiane it's accessible.

Market from the south west corner.

The bike was some old clunker I rented for four dollars a day from the guy who has a sign on a tree across from Kap Jai Duh. Both brakes weren't so great, rear ones sounded like metal on metal and they're the ones I like to use first. My usual technique for a quick stop is to lock up the rear tire then pump the front brakes letting off on them only long enough to keep the thing off the ground. It's worked so far. On this bike I had to use the front breaks a lot more than I like, oh well, just go slow and drive defensively right?

It was Saturday morning and traffic was light. The road is fairly straight and flat. The road passes through mostly rural areas but of course being the main road stores and businesses are frequent.

Alley on north side of market

Shophouses in Ban Ha Sip Song

For quite a while I followed a truck hauling an old D-7 cat on a lowboy. He was moving right along and used his air horn gently but often to clear the road of motorbikes and pedestrians. There's something about the idea of fifty thousand pounds of steel hurtling down the narrow two lane road that clears the way. He was moving faster than all the local traffic and the rich folks in SUVs and pickups were reluctant to get in front of him.

My biggest worries on the motorcycle are people entering traffic from the side blindly and others driving down the shoulder on the wrong side. Following the lowboy all I had to do to be safe was to tuck up right behind his rear tires until the road cleared out again.

Maykue Guest House next to market

Actually being there wasn't so thrilling, I was glad I hadn't wasted time actually getting off a bus and getting a room there. Just another Lao town. Ok, the people have longer faces, they are Hmong. But they wear Lao clothes and listen to Thai pop music. The market is alright but then so are the markets in a lot of towns. It's supposed to have a lot of food from the forests, I didn't see any endangered dolphins strung up to make jerky or anything. Maybe there's more to the place and I was just in a cynical, "been there done that" kind of mood.

There is a guest house, and the owner claimed they had rooms with hot water. Hot water is my new standard for hotel rooms. Place has hot water it's ok with me. If there were internet in town it would probably be a nicer place to hang out than Vientiane. Damning with faint praise.