Rocky road

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January 24th 2019
Published: January 24th 2019
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Phonsavan to Sam Neua

We are up early to catch our bus to Sam Neua. The restaurants are closed so we grab a scrambled egg roll at the bakery and buy another two plus some cake for the journey.

A tuk tuk arrives to take us through the cold morning air to the out-of-town bus station. Here, a weird man decides to rush up to hug Ian. It’s a bit of a shock but even worse when he tries kissing and licking him! He is surprisingly strong as we both try to pull him off. At first we thought he was attempting to pick his pocket, but actually it turns out to be an over friendly gesture by an unstable person.

Our bags are stashed on a minibus roof and then we are handed a carrier bag and told to remove our shoes. The seats are filled with tourists - presumably paying hiked up prices - then the locals who squeeze in occupying plastic stools in the narrow gangway and one even in the doorway. They have managed to squeeze 20 people into a 16 seater.

The bus sets off...god knows how they have managed it, but half an hour later we find ourselves back at the market in Phonsavan! The bus is full...surely they are not still circling for customers? Yep, they are! The jump seat comes down on the front seat and another local is loaded. They are also collecting letters and parcels for delivery.

Thirty five minutes has passed and we are now back in front of our guesthouse! Someone is trying to grab a lift but finally they are satisfied that we are full so he is rejected and we begin the journey proper! Honestly, I would have really appreciated that extra half hour in bed!

OK, we are finally on the road and make good progress in the first hour. But now we have got to the mountains and it’s a different story. The road snakes in and out and up and down. Given that we have a lady with a baby on the bus we get away lightly - the screaming fits are fairly short and better than we might have expected for such a tiny baby. There’s a young lad on a plastic stool next to Ian - he is not feeling well but fortunately we have all been supplied with a plentiful supply of plastic bags and his aim is good!

Our first loo stop - is a ‘watering the flowers’ stop so it’s no good being shy. The protocol seems to be men one side, ladies the other!

Now we are back on the road but stuck behind a digger which is completing resurfacing work. Rather than doing one side at a time, complete sections of road are been churned up making a very rocky ride. At one point we also take a detour as there has been a landslide. Mainly the road is tarmac, though badly potholed in places, and it’s simply compacted earth dirt track in a few places.

The bus continues its way through the mountains where we have some very nice views including some ‘in the clouds’ and ‘over the clouds’ experiences. The roadside dwellings here are mainly traditional wooden affairs with tin roofs. This is the Laos we remember from 16 years ago.

Descending into a valley town, we stop for noodle soup. And here we get a proper squat loo too!

After lunch we climb back up from the valley to yet more twists and turns. The van is insufferably hot - the air-con is all switched off and it would appear that the travellers in front don’t want to open the window - probably due to the dust being kicked up. It’s hard to assess which is the lesser of the two evils! Unfortunately the young man is also being ill again. We feel very sorry for him - especially as he is perched on that uncomfortable plastic stool.

Just when it seems we are never going to reach our destination, the bus station looms up in front. Hoorah, we are here! The caves we have come to visit had better be worth it! We disembark, handing the young man a bottle of water - we didn’t dare hand it over earlier for fear of it coming straight back up. He accepts it gratefully.

Since we are at the bus station we decide to purchase our onward tickets. We find a list of buses and decided (given the hair raising mountain bends) that we will take the day bus again back down this mountain road rather than risk the night one. Unfortunately they do not want to sell us tickets for Saturday, only today, so we are shooed away unceremoniously - so much for the ‘reservations’ part of their office title.

By this time, the only taxi in town has departed so we decide to walk the one km into town - it’s all downhill so not too difficult. We have not booked our accommodation so it’s a case of finding somewhere on the way. We have a place in mind, recommended by Mr K but we simply cannot find it. We decide to head back to his second recommendation which is on google maps. On the way we bump into two of the tourists from the bus. They have found a place and say it’s OK - they are happy to walk back with us and even offer to help with the luggage. Oh dear, we must be looking old and helpless. :-)

The guesthouse is basic but very clean and also convenient. And guess what, it looks like at least five of us from the bus are staying here. We all agree to book and share a taxi for tomorrow’s tour of the caves. Much easier than bussing and biking it, the only other option. We had always intended to take a taxi but it will be much more sociable in a small group.

Now we set off to find some dinner. There is supposed to be a night market but we don’t manage to find it. We pass a property where fish is being BBQd so we decide to eat there. Inside is one table and a couple of stools - I point to this and the young lad busily wines the table down and waves us in. His mother is busy washing greens at the sink. We honestly don’t know if this was simply a take away and we have invited ourselves inside their home but they are both smiling and seem happy to accommodate.

After our meal of grilled fish, green beans and sticky rice, we wander back to our guesthouse. The town looks very pretty at night with the bridges over the river and the town roundabout all being lit up in blue lights.

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