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Published: August 6th 2007
My journey, or perhaps ordeal is a better term, to Laos began with a ten hour bus ride to the provincial city of Jinghong in southern Yunnan. Much of this first leg was on brand-new Chinese superhighways. Eventually, however, we reached the end of the finished freeway and were forced onto a two-lane highway that alternated between tarmac and dirt. Often I could see the under-construction freeway nearby. It looks like they'll have this freeway all the way to Laos in the very near future. It's amazing how they don't bother to thread the road around the topography. In this mountainous region of southern Yunnan, the Chinese are simply blasting through hillsides, bridging valleys and tunneling through anything that seems too big to blast. It must cost a fortune, but the result is a straight, level freeway through very challenging terrain. Of course, we couldn't use it yet and so we had to suffer for four hours once we left the superhighway.
Upon arrival in Jinghong, I had a really hard time orienting myself. The bus station was definitely not where the map said it should be. Eventually I just set off on a hunch and after about 15 minutes
I started coming across streets that were labeled on the map. It seems that we came into the southern bus station instead of the northern one. I managed to find a guest house after walking about 2 miles in the sticky heat. I quickly set off to get dinner and then I confirmed the location of the local bus station before heading to bed early.
The next morning I was on a local bus (read minivan) at 630 and we set off for Mengla. The bus ride took about four hours and we continued to follow the path of the new freeway. The road was rough and the bus was stuffed with people so it wasn't a particularly pleasant trip. We arrived safely though and I hopped on the back of a bicycle taxi for the 2K ride to bus station number 2. Once there I found myself wedged into the back seat on another minibus for the ride to the border. That ride took another 2 hours and I don't need to mention that the road was not improving as we went south.
Once at the border, I managed to leave China without any trouble. The customs
officials were really pleasant for once. I hopped in the back of a tuk-tuk for the 3K ride through the no-mans land to the Laos side. When I got there I was relieved to see that they had visa-on-arrival facilities and so I paid my money and got a 30 day visa. Once I had cleared customs I found myself in a very different world from China. I was back in southeast Asia and it felt good!
I bought some fruit and walked down a hill to the "bus station" which was really just an open-air area with some benches and a bunch of men playing cards. I spoke with one of them and he explained that my best bet would be to take a songthaew (a pickup truck with benches in the back) to a nearby town and then catch a bus from there to Udomxai where I would need to spend the night. Well, after an hour of waiting some people decided to stop playing cards and we got underway. That's Laos for you, though. Everything proceeds at it's own pace. We drove for maybe 45 minutes with 8 people, 4 bags of rice, a toilet (unused,
thankfully), and a live pig inside a rice sack all piled into the back of the truck. The pig made a horrible racket and the whole truck smelled like manure as soon as it was loaded on. It's bag was also followed by a huge cloud of flies that didn't disappear until we really got moving. Thankfully, I was sitting as far away from the pig as possible.
After an hour or so, we arrived in a small village where the highway forks. They told me to get out and wait for a bus to come. Well, no one spoke english very well so it was a bit unclear where I was supposed to wait and for how long. So, I started walking down the road saying "Udomxai" to everyone I passed. Finally someone acknowledged me, but he wanted $30 to take me to Udomxai. I laughed and started walking away when he called me back. A songthaew had just pulled up and there were two passengers also headed to Udomxai inside and so he got me a seat. It didn't take me long to gather that the songthaew wasn't actually going to Udomxai, it was going to drop us off somewhere where we would have to wait for a bus. We had been traveling for about 30 minutes when the driver pulled over and removed his front seat revealing part of the engine. It seems the truck had overheated and so the driver decided to pull the hot radiator cap off to add more water. Steam and hot water went everywhere inside the cab and he was lucky to escape without serious injury. Once he finally had the cap off (assisted by some roadside litter) he proceeded to dump a liter of water into the radiator and close it back up. With that, we were back on our way.
We arrived in another small village and the three of us going to Udomxai paid the driver and then sat down to wait for the bus. It took about an hour to arrive and we had to nearly jump into the road to flag it down. The bus was packed with people and their baggage, but we somehow managed to get seats. The next three hours were spent traveling through tiny villages over some seriously mountainous terrain. We picked up several more passengers until every space to sit and stand was taken. Every time the bus took a sharp curve, one of several watermelons on the floor would start rolling around. There were people sitting on sacks of rice, and all the little kids were in a group up front with the fare collector. It really was an interesting bus ride. The guy sitting next to me spoke some english and we chatted for a while before arriving in Udomxai. He was really trying to be helpful and so he pointed me in the direction of some guest houses. As it turns out, I would have been better off just staying on the bus until we got to the station, but I figured he knew best. I ended up in probably the worst place I've slept this entire trip. The room's only window looked out onto an air shaft. The toilet had worms swimming in it. I was definitely their only customer. However, I wasn't really in the mood to walk around without a map and try to find something better so I stuck it out.
I went to explore the town a bit and I found the bus station, a good twenty minute walk from the guest house. On the way back I decided to get some dinner. I found a place that was full of westerners and I was pleased to find the menu in english. I really was back in SE Asia! Dinner was good, and cheap. On the way back to the gh I bought a small watermelon for dessert.
Normally, I brush my teeth with tap water. I'm careful not to swallow it, but for the first time since I was a fresh arrival in Bangkok I decided to used bottled water to brush. Something about finding a toilet bowl swimming with little worms made it seem like the right choice. I went to bed exhausted from an arduous day of travel and slept until 8. The next morning I had breakfast and then I caught a 10am bus bound for Luang Prabang.
Stay tuned for the next entry.
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