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Published: November 2nd 2015
I've always said to Steve that we shouldn't go to places we can't pronounce but that would mean that a lot of places would never get visited! We've struggled a bit with Laos - no-one understood our version (Layoss) but we adapted to Louse (as in hair nits) and it got better. I thought we might be OK with Phonsavan (well, the emphasis might be a bit dodgy but apart from that ...) but no. It seems the Lao language doesn't have an 'f' sound so words with a ph in them take the p sound and Phonsavan becomes Ponsavan. You live and learn ....
After our experience on the VIP bus we decided to opt for a minibus as our form of transport on this occasion. We'd heard the roads were bad and twisty and the journey would be long so we thought a minibus would be more manoeuvrable. We imagined we were being quite the adventurers moving on from the capital city and party towns of Laos and going off the beaten track to Phonsavan but of course you're never as creative as you think and our minibus soon filled up with other travellers with the same idea.
We were a mixed bunch; two young Korean girls, three young Germans, two American 'dudes', a strange young man who never said a word so I've no idea what nationality he was, a young British couple and us. You'll notice a lot of the adjective 'young'. We were unique in one respect - we were easily the oldest on the bus!
Steve was feeling somewhat better (phew, being ill when travelling brings a boatload of different considerations into play) with the drugs we'd obtained from the little old lady in the shack down the street seeming to work their magic. The minibus was more spacious than the VIP bus and, apart from A/C that couldn't muster more than an ineffective, soft susurration, it was a much better ride, especially when the windows near the front of the bus were opened by the Germans (mainly, I think, to quiet the two Yanks in the back). We stopped in a little village for our lunch break. A river ran through it and the village children played merrily in the water jumping off the rocks and putting on a display for us to watch. I waited for one of them to approach
us with outheld hand at the end but it never happened - still unsullied by the modern world. We were joined in the 'restaurant' by a couple of dogs and a chicken. I couldn't decide if they lived there or it was the owner's way of displaying the menu!
The rest of the journey took us into ever more mountainous terrain and the journey was slow over the twisty roads. According to the Americans we were on The Road To Hell but everyone else was on the Yellow Brick version. The views were stunning (predominantly green but a pleasant change from dusty red), it was peaceful and relaxed. We arrived in Phonsavan about 3 pm, 6+ hours after setting off.
When we had researched places to stay in Phonsavan from the comforts of our study at home, the internet threw up little in the way of choice. It was either a very expensive hotel or the Nice Guest House. At £9 per night for one of their better rooms, it was cheap even by Lao standards, but we could find nothing in between. So, the Nice it was. They sent free transport to collect us from the bus
station, 200 yards away, and showed us to our room which was, as expected, basic with a bedside lamp that didn't work, a huge fridge/freezer that would have graced any commercial kitchen had it not been covered in a fine layer of dust, a fan that provided the 'air conditioning', a shower so ancient that we couldn't figure out until the following day how to get hot water from it and a resident cockroach who introduced himself during the night (he doesn't live there, or anywhere, any more). After a cold water wash, we walked down the busy, dusty main road, booked a guide and transport for our trip to the Plain of Jars the next day and had a wonderful meal in a restaurant called Bamboozled, apparently owned by a Scotsman. You have to wonder why??!!
Laos has many authentic and respectable massage parlours. The one across the road from Bamboozled and three doors down from our guesthouse was doing a roaring trade and we watched the comings and goings as we enjoyed our meal. It wasn't until we were drinking our second beer that we realised we were, in fact, watching the activities at the local brothel!
I woke at 3 am. Steve had kindly decided to share his germs with me and I had a raging sore throat. I took myself down to the balcony at the end of the corridor and watched Phonsavan go by. It's like a real, wild-west cowboy town. The brothel was still going strong but now had a party going full swing as well. The local roosters were joining in with the singing (roosters are considered auspicious in Laos and every home seems to have one), the town dogs were on the prowl for leftovers, heavy goods lorries sped up and down pursued by local youths on scooters and a coach loaded up its presumably Vietnamese tourists to continue its journey from Hanoi to Vang Vieng (at 3.30 am??). It was like watching some surreal David Lynch film and absolutely wonderful. Being up in the mountains (Phonsavan proudly proclaims itself to be 1070 masl) it was much cooler, and it was lovely to see the dawn break with the mist clinging to the mountains.
At coffee the following morning I expected to find ourselves sharing our lodgings with dreadlocked backpackers and hippy sub-culture types but no, they were all clean (so were we by this stage as Steve had figured out the shower), middle-aged, kind of respectable-looking travellers like us with the occasional briefcase-carrying businessman. Who would have thought?
Now you might be thinking from the length and tone of this blog entry that I didn't think much of Phonsavan. In fact, it's just the opposite and I loved it! This is a real working town; raw, honest and unpretentious. I'd visit again in a heartbeat and I'd even stay in the Nice Guesthouse!
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