Published: July 5th 2010July 5th 2010
Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua, 12th - 14th May 2010
The bus journey flew by especially with so much people watching to do. We felt that we were heading off the beaten track once more, always a sure sign when you’re nearly the only westerners on the bus. Having winded our way along country roads stopping for the obligatory toilet stop (side of the road, everybody goes and pees in the bushes, women and all) then driving once more, this time climbing into more mountainous territory before finally arriving into the little town of Nong Khiaw. It was a fantastic little town set in the middle of mountains nestled either side of the Nam Ou River that passes through the middle with a huge bridge to join the two sides of the town together. We knew the moment we stepped off the bus we were off the beaten track simply as the main road into the little town was nothing more than a dirt track and even though the bridge was massive and concreted the rest of the town looked like it had barely changed in years with lots of wicker built houses with very basic brick work.
set off to find some accommodation for the eve and decided to walk over the bridge as information told us that was where most of the guest houses were. Having reached the other side we called into the first guest house on the left which offered basic bamboo and wicker style huts with their own little balcony (complete with hammock) overlooking the river below and at a bargain price of 50,000 Kip (about £4). We took it straight away. The room was great although very basic with none of the luxuries of air con or a proper toilet etc. It did have a mozi net over the bed and a couple of live in geckos that sat on the walls or roof waiting for a mozi or fly that may come their way.
Feeling hungry we dumped our bags and headed to the little restaurant opposite and ate a much needed lunch. Once we were fully re-energised we decided to go for a walk and check out a little more of the town. Crossing back over the bridge we walked up through the town stopping to watch a local man making a brush (which was quite amazing I’ll have
you know) then wandering further down to the local school which looked somewhat disorganised and the amount of litter outside was quite shocking. Walking back we spotted a room housing two pool tables with a couple of locals playing inside so we decided to stick our heads in and have a game. We very quickly gained an audience to whom I’m not sure if they were more interested in the game or the two westerners playing on their tables. With Bowks beaten and none of the locals wanting a game we set off again, this time stopping off down at the small river harbour to check out the possibility of catching a long boat 7 hours up the river allowing us to get to our next desired location of Muang Khua the next day. After prising the boat agent from his game of chequers which seemed to be far more important than any trade, he was only able to tell us that we should come down at 8 am and if there was enough people to make the journey at 11 am we would go and if not we would wait until the next day. Fairs fair I suppose, you
can only go if it is worth your while.
The day as most had been for some time was roasting so we decided to go and cool off and take a swim in the river which although looked a little murky many of the locals were in there and if it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for us. We bathed in the water watching the daily river goings on, a man fishing off his long boat, throwing out his weighted net, the children playing in the water and the women washing their produce. Then we headed back to our bamboo hut to sit and relax in the hammock and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. Nong Khiaw certainly gave the feel that it had a really nice, simple way of life.
We ate that night at of all places a little Indian restaurant (they do seem to crop up everywhere!) and while sat eating watched some locals on a karaoke machine which certainly provided our entertainment for the night, it was hilarious! Then after a bit of a wander to walk off our dinner and withdraw some money (getting cash back at a hotel
as there weren’t any ATM’s) we headed to bed under the mosquito net and under the watchful of a few geckos.
We awoke early to check out and head to the river harbour in hope of catching the river boat up stream but on arrival we were told nobody had come yet and it would be better if we came back later.
Bowks writing now...
To pass a bit of time we went for breakfast at Delia’s cafe in the town centre and looked into other options of getting to Muang Khua one of which was an 8 hour local bus journey which didn’t really appeal. We went back to the harbour an hour later to hear slightly better news. There were a few people heading part of our route but it was still going to cost us 600,000 Kip (£48) which was over double what we wanted to pay. Although, he did say some more people may come. A few more backpackers arrived and we pounced on them asking where they were going but to our disappointment they were only going to Mong Ngoi, an hour away and that would only reduce our journey by 20,000
With about 20 minutes to go and the prospect of an 8 hour journey becoming ever closer we decided to hedge our bets and offer 300,000 Kip, half of what they wanted. The ticket man said he’d ask the captain so for a couple of minutes we sat waiting with fingers and toes crossed. Luckily for us the captain gave the thumbs up, we were on the boat!
We cruised up the river chatting to a few other back packers and looking at the beautiful scenery. We changed boats at Ngoi onto a slightly more comfortable one and where it was just us and the locals. After I’d beaten Doddy at backgammon he decided to challenge to one of the locals to a game, not quite sure how much (if any) they understood but they seemed to enjoy it all the same. We also learnt to exercise caution when offering the locals crisps from our packet. Most just took one or two but two ladies took massive handfuls leaving us with just the crumbs in the bottom and empty tummies.
The boat ride was really nice and a refreshing change to a bus. The river, although
not more than 20 meters wide could be quite choppy and have strong rapids in places. However, other parts were really calm and it was in these parts we saw loads of children playing in the water. When they saw the boat approaching they would scramble out of the water onto the river banks and stand watching as the boat approached. When they spotted us westerners on board they would wave and shout hello. After the boat had dropped off/picked up passengers and was on its way again the children would run back into the water laughing, shouting and splashing water at us.
About 6 hours later we arrived into Muang Khua. It was quite a small town but everything you would need for the night. It didn’t take us long to realise that it would be an early start the following day as all the guests houses had signs up that anyone catching the bus to Vietnam would need to be on the other side of the river by 4 am. We decided to get an early dinner, choosing somewhere that would provide a nice cooked meal before a full day’s travelling but we chose wrong, as I
found not one but two flies in my dinner! After a stroll round the town we went to bed, again under mosquito nets, but also this time with a towel stuffed in the window as there was no glass or mesh covering it.
At 3.15 am, after a bad night’s sleep we awoke to the sound of the alarm. We dragged ourselves out of bed and were soon feeling quite sprightly after a shower. Fifteen minutes later we had left the guest house and were walking the short walk down the hill to the chain ferry that would take us to the other side of the river. With no street lights it was pitch black and the only other things up and about were the feral dogs that we disturbed from their sleep. We arrived at the river’s edge at 3.45 am to be greeted by, well, nothing! It was dark and there was no-one else around, great we thought, at least we’ll be first in the queue to get a seat. We put our bags down and waited. Maybe everything comes to life at 4 am? The minutes passed by and we waited, listening to all the different
noises of the night including some very heavy breathing which we think was coming from a pig. 4.15 am soon came and still nothing. We shone our torch over to the other side of the river to try and get a response but still nothing. Maybe it was 5 am we were supposed to be there we thought, so made the executive decision to head back to the guest house and wait there.
Back at the guest house we climbed back under the mozi net to put our heads down for 5 minutes and Doddy set the alarm for 4.45 am. We were woken by a knock on the door, a quick look at our watches showed it was 5.10 am! In his sleepiness Doddy has reset the time on his alarm and not the alarm function. The guest house owner knew we were getting the bus so had woken us up. We went back down to the chain ferry where it was now daylight and everything was in full swing, although the chain ferry still wasn’t in operation so a man in a little boat took us across the river for 2,000 Kip. Across the other side we
could now see the bus and went to buy our tickets. When we asked what time it was leaving we were told it was leaving immediately and it had been waiting for us as we were late, but we weren’t quite sure how that figured as we had initially been there at 3.45 am plus they didn’t know we were wanting to get the bus until we got there five minutes before and bought the ticket. Anyway, we got on the bus and took our seats for what was the beginning of a very bizarre 24 hours.
After about 10 minutes on the bus we pulled over and half the people got off. I looked out of the window to see what was going on to be greeted with the sight of a freshly slaughtered pig, cut into pieces and laid out on a ground sheet, next to three buckets of blood. Every part of the pig was there including the head. The locals bartered over the meat/body parts they wanted and then got back on board with purchases in plastic carrier bags, oh great, the bus was to smell like a butchers again!
An hour later we
stopped in a small village for breakfast. There was a market with cockerels and chickens for sale in little wicker baskets. One cockerel started picking on another cockerel so the lady took it out, scratched its beak on the floor a few times and then put it back in, the cockerel had learnt its lesson! A chicken that had been selected for purchased was pulled out of the basket, grabbed by its feet and its head whacked on the floor a few times, job done. Keen not to see any more dead animals we got back on the bus where the music videos of UK and USA dance videos, complete with girls in bikinis were still playing.
Soon we were back moving again but not for long. After about 15 minutes driving along a freshly carved road, still at the gravel stage and passing through a few creeks, the bus stopped. As we peered out the front we could see a huge lorry parked diagonally across the road, no worries we thought the driver will just get in and move it. We couldn’t have been more wrong. 1.5 hours later and we were still waiting, the workers with the
lorry just kept on working and the rest of the people on the bus chatted to each other and watched various programmes on the TV. We couldn’t believe how calm everyone behaved especially as the temperature started to rise and there wasn’t any shade. Eventually we got on the move again only to stop metres ahead for another lorry that had a punctured tyre. Luckily that was only a 10 minute delay and we could get going again. The road, although it could hardly be called a road, as it was just a gravel track with massive dips continued along for the next 6 hours. There were some really hairy moments as the track got thinner and there was a huge, steep drop to one side. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that we survived the journey and made it safely to the Laotian border at Sop Hun where exit procedures went smoothly and we were even ushered to the front of the queue presumably as we were the only westerners there.
Back onto the bus we drove to the Vietnamese border control and with only 34kms to go we were feeling hopeful that we’d be in Dien Bien
Phu within the hour. But no, yet again we were wrong and we sat waiting in the Vietnamese border office for, well, nothing really. The border officials just seemed happy to stroll around making us wait until they were ready. When the time came we were again ushered to the front of the queue. The last 34kms then took another hour as although the roads had improved they still weren’t great. Eventually, after a 10 hour bus journey we arrived in the northern Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu.
There are more photos below