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Published: February 26th 2009
Luang Nam Tha to Huay Xai
We checked out and headed into the cool air of the early morning fog just after 7:15am. Our worries about finding a tuk-tuk at this hour were totally unfounded. One approached us immediately and asked the standard fare of 10,000 kip each so we clambered aboard and sped off with just the two of us as passengers. It was chilly during the 5km in the back of the small truck but we soon arrived at the fairly quiet bus station. The tuk-tuk man helpfully pointed out our bus and our rucksacks were immediately hauled onto the roof of the bus. The tickets were only 50,000 kip (£4.50) each for the four hour 180km trip. The bus was not in the first flush of youth I noticed that the windscreen had many cracks - some covered in sellotape and ducktape.The bus station is lined with small stalls and small basic cafes but none of them had bread or baguettes so we plumped for snacks for the trip such as crisps, biscuits and mandarins. Mostly locals were milling around plus a smattering of westerners. Surprisingly we set off at dead on time, at 9am but then stopped after 10 yards as a tuk-tuk full of French backpackers sped into the station. (They had thought the bus left at 9:30am). Within twenty minutes of setting off, we'd climbed sufficiently to be above the mist in the valley and a fine sunny day had begun. For once the bus was not too crowded - no one had to sit in the aisle. The first hour was through the lovely Luang Nam Tha protected area which has beautiful dense tropical forest on steep hills. Even here there are some deforested hillsides but overall it is a magnificent natural scene of steep virgin forest valleys disappearing off to the horizon. The road appears newly widened and the surface was superb and we were only slowed by the steep gradients of some of the hills which the old bus struggled to cope with being slowed to walking pace. The clutch was a bit dodgy and there was a crunch of gears every time the driver had to change into low gear. There was very little other traffic on the road. At a very small remote town we picked up about half a dozen French backpackers. There appeared to be a few guesthouses here but I could find no mention of the place in my guide book. It must be a French secret. Mid journey we passed through hilly areas with quite a lot of deforestation. There were occasional villages of primitive reed huts - some located on hill tops with amazing views. At one we halted for a toilet stop. The driver picked a strangely busy location and as I peed at the roadside with others we had to be as discrete as possible as the local school was turning out and knots of little schoolchildren were passing. The stilts of some of the rudimentary village houses sometimes have bits of tin on the legs - presumably to prevent mice or rats climbing them. We crossed into the Bokeo region and the road worsened considerably so that there were long stretches of dirt road which appeared to be being prepared in some sections for tarmaccing in the near future. The road became even steeper in some sections and at the peak of one was an abandoned bus with its engine extracted, with its cylinder head off, as if a serious repair job had been attempted at the roadside.. As our bus fought its way up the slopes, I hoped that we wouldn't suffer a similar fate. Fortunately we descended from the mountains and the road improved dramatically as we sped along a valley floor into Luang Nam Pha. The bus station is as usual about 4km out of town so we western backpackers crowded onto two tuk-tuk for the journey into town. Luckily it disgorged us near the boat ramp right by our intended guest house. We took an 80,000 kip (£7.10) room which is bright and cheerful with a view out over a patch of greenery and a limited view out over the river. (For an extra £5 we could have had a TV, a more scenic view and air-conditioning but the latter especially is unnecessary luxury now that the nights are cooler this far north). We have the most garishly bright bedclothes with cute puppies, bunnies and ducks and the blanket describes itself as 'Advanced'. The guest house is run by two elderly sisters. One of them is very feisty and seems quite eccentric. Imagine an elderly female oriental Basil Fawlty. We ventured out in the early afternoon sun. (Note : no nonsense about not checking in before a certain time in Laos - if a room if free you can check in - our earliest about 7:30am in Vientiane after the overnight bus trip). There is only really one street with a few guesthouses and restaurants plus a few shops a bank and a post office. In the middle of the street a slope goes down to the boat station for the short passenger ferry across the Mekong to Thailand. The Laos immigration office is located here. We retreated to the shade of a restaurant for lunch. We shared and swapped delicious fried rice with pineapple and a plate of pad thai. Decadently we shared a large lunchtime bottle of BeerLao and inevitably this meant soon after an afternoon snooze for me. The evening we went for another stroll as the sun set over the Mekong. We dithered over where to eat, examining the menus in about 6 or 7 restaurants (many had few or none customers) before plumping for a fairly busy one right on the riverbank. It was a good choice as the food was excellent with of course a shared BeerLaos. We played or new found obsession, cribbage, and Jen pipped me by the single point she required on one game. (I had to download the rules from the internet because it is about 10 years since I last played). Back at our guest house we had intended one night cap whilst playing cards but (as is her wont) Jen got talking with an affable and sprightly Welsh couple (after Jen had asked what part of England they came from !). They've had an interesting life having taught in the Bahamas for twenty years before retiring several years ago. They now alternate winters in S.E. Asia and India. Not a bad life. They've suggested a place to stay near Chiang Rai in Thailand, where they've just come from, which we may follow up. We had quite a few more beers whilst chatting to them. Also a lad from Manchester got talking to us four. He is one of life's natural comedians and ought to be on a stage somewhere. He girlfriend and mates have all gone down with a stomach bug but he'd avoided it so was out on his own. He told us great tale of how on a previous trip he'd had horrible sudden vomiting whilst in a dormitory which necessitated him throwing up into his rucksack for want of some other vessel. Then as he rushed again to the toilet, something in the dark bit him on the foot (whether snake or rat he didn't know) His foot then swelled up to enormous size. With the unsuccessfully cleaned sick smelling rucksack he then had to negotiate Los Angeles airport on a flight transfer with comic results. He was a hoot.
We decided after a few travelling days in the last week to spend our final full day in Laos by relaxing and doing nothing in particular. We started with a leisurely breakfast in the company of the Welsh couple who were waiting for a tuk-tuk to take them to the slow boat to Luang Prabang. We lbid them well and headed off for a circular walk around town. Once off the main road there's nothing but the residential streets where the bulk of the locals live. We headed further than intended as the cool morning gave way to the hot sun. Oddly we have a slight excess of kip which is apparently impossible to exchange to other currencies here in Huay Xai according to the guide books (although I suspect we can do an informal exchange with a Laos bound fellow backpacker once in Thailand). We therefore decided to replace my rather worn out (and dusty and stinky) day rucksack. I didn't lessen the excess kips much costing only 65,000 kip (£5.80). We're only a sort distance by river south of China so goods come cheap here. We than sat at the nearest cafe to the boat landing watching the comings and goings of the people crossing the Mekong River between here (Houay Xai) in Laos and Chiang Khong on the Thailand side.
We saw a group a very excited and happy ladies in tribal costume arrive from the Thai side. We did an hours internetting and then had a scrumptious lunch of the fried rice with pineapple and cashew for Jen and a delicious papaya salad (of just the right fieriness) with sticky rice for me. I'm really going to miss my almost daily sticky rice when we leave South East Asia. As seems to happen often we bumped into another backpacker we'd met previously - the young German from Frankfurt who we first met on the boat from Luang Prabang and saw again as he left Muang Ngoi heading south and we were travelling north In discussing his future plans it became apparent that he did not know about the land crossing visa reduction to 15 days which has caused us to change our plans. He said a very English expletive when we told him. Later we watched the sun go down over the Thai hills on the far bank of the Mekong which we will cross tomorrow and then headed for an evening meal back at the riverfront restaurant from last evening.
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