Monday, 3 March 2014

Last Laap

The bus journey from LPB to Nong Kiaw is probably much like the bus journey between LPB and Vientiane was 5 years ago.
The road – a strip of tarmac one lane wide running down the middle, with dirt sidings making up the remainder of the width – wound around and up and over the mountains. Passing other vehicles could be nervewracking (particularly other buses) and the least potholed part of the road goes to the largest vehicle. This encourages the ever-present motorcycles to drive directly towards the bus for as long as possible, before swerving aside alarmingly to weave between potholes.

There are many villages along the road, most constructed of what look like panel walls woven from reeds or similar organic material. Strung along narrow roads – some of the houses built out from the road on wooden platforms – they looked precarious.

The journey took about 6 hours. Nong Kiaw bus station is about half a mile from the town proper, and no forms of transport to cover that distance were immediately apparent. So most of us set out on foot along the road.

I had booked no accommodation, having decided at fairly short notice to leave LPB, so I stopped a few times along the road to look at guesthouses. Finding one that would give me a private room with an ensuite hot shower for 40kip, I went with it. The building was ramshackle, and the bathroom a lean-to with a corrugated roof, but it was clean and meant I could lock the door behind me – which after LPB, I wanted to be able to do.

Not much further along the road was a hostel, where I actually ended up spending most of my time (and money), and where many of the other bus passengers ended up staying. But I was happy with my lockable door, for only 2kip per night more than a dorm bed at the hostel. My things were safe, I didn't have to worry about them while I was out, and I was pleased.

Nong Kiaw is a beautiful town. There was the opportunity to do trekking, but the temperatures in the afternoons were by this time climbing a little too high for me. The river was still very low, also, so trying to do any more kayaking was of limited appeal. But there was plenty to look at around the town for the few days I was there.

Towards the edge of the town is a path up one of the hills to a viewpoint. Two of the hostel denizens and I decided to wander up one morning.

After the climb! Steeper than expected... 

 Useful shelter at the top! The plan to bring up cooking gear and a hammock is on hold until we forget how hard it was to get up there.

Further out, there is a system of caves where the people of Nong Kiew went to shelter when excess ordinance was dropped during the Vietnam War. There are still thousands of tonnes of UXO cluster bombs in Lao, and many people are affected by them every year. NK is on the edge of the (huge) UXO zone that covers most of the northeast of Lao. Anka and I hired bikes and (after I'd fallen off mine, gashed my leg on the gear wheel, gone back to my hotel and patched up my leg) we cycled out to see the caves.

Outside the caves was this river, with a bunch of kids hanging around and playing near (and in) it. When we turned up, they gathered around us to say hello, and their nominated spokesperson asked us nervously if we had any pens and paper.
We didn't, but they accepted candied banana instead, albeit with audible disappointment.
Note to everyone, ever. Lao kids bloody love pencils and paper. Sweets are for losers.

Lastly, we cycled out to the tiny village 5km out of Nong Kiew. It was a hot day, so we decided that cycling down this hill wasn't worth the return trip. We turned around here.

I considered staying in Nong Kiaw until I left Laos, or even just heading to China from there, a few days early, but in the end I decided to take one last journey further north, to Luang Nam Tha. While I was planning how to get there, I got talking to an Englishman who'd lived in Wales for many years, and had visited Laos each year for the past decade or so. He recommended I stay in Oudomxay rather than Luang Nam Tha. My guidebook described Oudomxay as having nothing to recommend it, and suggested that, once there, you take the next bus out. I decided to have a look and decide when I got there.

Asking at the hostel when the bus went to Oudomxay, I was told that on many days it didn't, as there weren't enough people, and I should get the bus instead to Pak Mong and change there.
So I went to the bus stop to try to get a ticket for that place for the next day. Arriving with Anka (who was heading for LPB two days later for a flight) as a large number of tourists attempted to board a small bus to LPB (some of them were unsuccessful – there were not enough seats and they would have to wait until the next day – noticing the unsuccessful bus passengers, Anka resolved to arrive in very good time indeed for the bus), we waited for this crowd to disburse and then went to the ticket window. The surly guard at first could not understand where I wanted to go, and then stated that no, I did not want that bus, I would come for the one to Oudomxay and then go to Pak Mong only if it did not run. No, I could not buy a ticket in advance. Come tomorrow.

From there, we cycled to the caves and the other villages, and then I hid from the sun for the afternoon, as has become my habit. I need to head north now, if only to stop my brain from melting and running out of my ears.

The next morning I was at the bus station at 10am for the bus to Oudomxany. I asked for a ticket. “No”, said the same surly clerk, “it is not here yet.”
I asked several times over the next hour, as two buses and a tuk tuk for Luang Prabang came and went amid much chaos and changing of buses and moving of luggage. Each time “No, it is not here yet.”
And so I waited. At 10.50, two other people arrived who wished to go to Oudomxany, along with something which may have been the bus there, and another bus to Luang Prabang.
I asked again.
“No,” said the clerk, “there are not enough people.”
At this point, two of the passengers from the LPB bus asked him about Luang Nam Tha. They were not resolved on going there yet – one wanted to go there and then make their way by back trails through to Thailand. The other wanted to go to LPB and fly to Bangkok.
I needed the bus to go to Oudomxany, so for the first time this trip, I shamelessly manipulated and pressured them into taking the convoluted route that helped my ends.
I hope they enjoyed it, and had no great problems with their onward travel.

So, the bus would now run, but the clerk wanted a much higher price than that printed on the ticket office window. He argued that as there were fewer of us and the bus would not be full, we must cover the cost of a full bus between us.
I took to haggling as effectively as I've managed all trip. Apparently necessity brings out my ruthlessly mercenary streak. I didn't even know I had one.
At this point, two more people strolled into the bus station looking to go to Oudomxany. I used the addition of two more people to seal a price only marginally greater than the advertised cost (for about half the number of people), and heaved a sigh of relief as the luggage was loaded onto the roof and the bus headed north.

I needed only one look at Oudomxany to decide to go with the guidebook's advice and take the next bus out. That was leaving an hour later. I had a bowl of surprisingly good noodle soup at the station cafe, and set out for a further journey along mountain roads.
We arrived after dark, and again I had booked no accommodation. The first guesthouse we stopped at had rooms available, but was a little above what I wanted to spend – 60kip a night – so I walked around the town a bit to try and find somewhere else. Everywhere I tried, though, was full. So I went back to the first place, and stayed there. Only two days later, with only one more night to spend in Laos, did I find a hostel for only 20kip a night. Rather than lug all of my things across town twice, I decided to stay where I was.

Luang Nam Tha is not much of a town. Not as attractive as Nong Kiaw, it exists for people to use as a base for trekking in the northern jungles. I was doing no trekking – I pretty much now wanted to leave Laos, get out of the heat, get to China and head for the mountains as soon as possible – so it had little to recommend itself to me.
I spent a couple of days there, using the time to do some planning for China, and to do some of the online maths course I've started. I cannot just do one thing at a time – travelling seems as good an opportunity to refresh my maths as any.

After three nights in Luang Nam Tha, I boarded a bus that would take me across another border, and into country number 4.


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