Back in Time to Laos

15 Feb
I made it to Laos - barely

I made it to Laos - barely

I have to say that my first impression I got of Laos is probably not the most representative image – coming into the country via the ‘back door’. The Dien Bien Phu border crossing only opened about a year ago, and besides the bus that goes 3 times per week, and the occasional lost Vietnamese car I guess nobody uses this border crossing.

So when walking across the border, it was clear straight away:

  • The roads (well, dirt tracks) in North Laos...

    The roads (well, dirt tracks) in North Laos...

    Forget about roads – they only have dirt tracks here covered in rocks and sandy patches. A hazardous occasion to drive these roads on the back of a moped, with a 13kg backpack pulling you back in every bump in the road. But I survived, barely…

  • Forget about mobile phone connection – since I sent off some last text messages from my Vietnamese phone number – I have not been in mobile phone reach for my first weeks in Loas. The networks that are there don’t allow me to register – so I cannot use them.
  • Forget about electricity – electricity only comes on for a few hours every evening (in the countryside where I am now). This maybe doesn’t seem like such a big deal, except that many things are depending on electricity: did you want cold beer? Charge your phone? Work on your laptop? Warm water? A fruit shake, you said? …
  • Internet? You must be joking, in Muang Mai there’s even no telephone, let alone internet or computers.
  • It’s back to squat toilets, but also a room for 2,5 euro per night. Mosquito nets are standard, and well needed, good thing I am taking malaria pills.
  • Shops are basically tables in front of houses with some goods put on them haphazardly – and choice is limited – and when I say limited, I do mean limited.

Muang Mai village - the market

Muang Mai village - the market

Muang Mai was a small little village, made of bamboo and wooden houses (only a few stone buildings, e.g. the Chinese hotel in which I stayed), one dirt road cutting the centre in half, and covering the goods at the market in perpetual and omnipresent dust. I went to a little restaurant overlooking the river, where people came to wash their clothes, their cars, their children and themselves, at the backdrop of rice-fields, Beautiful scenery – and biiiiig Beer Lao bottles: 660cl (strange quantity, to outdo the British with their pints?).

Maybe it was because of the release of Vietnam stress, maybe it was because the couple of short nights in a row, maybe it was because of eating too much dust on the road into Laos or being timewarped 70 years back in time, I fell ill: head ache, sniffy nose, sore throat, cold shivers even though it was not all that cold. So I decided to get myself to a bigger place A S A P, just in case I needed something. So I asked around (with phrasebook and pen and paper, cuz no English to be seen or heard) to find out

My first meal and moments in Laos, at the river of Muang Mai

My first meal and moments in Laos, at the river of Muang Mai

when the bus was going to Muang Khoa – the next village down the road, further out of the Northern Laos mountains and into civilization (well, that’s an overstatement…). The answers I got ranged between 5am, 7am and 9am. So I decided to make up my own theory, and if I wanted to catch the bus from Dien Bien Phu coming through Muang Mai on the way to Muang Khoa, and it would leave at 5h30 am in Vietnam, and in total would take 6 hours to arrive in Muang Khao according to Lonely Planet, I reckoned that the bus would arrive in Muang Mai around 8h30 – no need to get up too early either (anyway, no hot water for showering or shaving in the morning).

In the end the ‘songthew’ (literally ‘two rows’, as it is a truck with two rows of benches down the back) left Muang Mai around 9h20 for a 3 hour bone breaking ride. Before we set off though, a uniformed guy came on board to collect money of the people, even though we had already paid a ticket. So when he turned to me I just plaid stupid and handed him my ticket, which was definitely not good and caused general laughter. So next I handed him my Belgian ID card, and he looked a bit strangely at it (probably didn’t have a clue what it was), gave it back, and went on to the next person. So are locals supposed to pay ‘road taxes’ when they travel the country, or when they leave the district without an ID (their names were written down in a nice little school exercise book). Did not understand this too well, but I didn’t have to pay baksheesh and gave the Songthew a good laugh.

Me in the Songthew before it was overloaded with people and produce

Me in the Songthew before it was overloaded with people and produce

I was already not feeling too well when setting out on the trip – it was fecking cold in the morning in the mountains before the dew/mist clears up – despite the 5 layers I had put on. And the open truck didn’t really give me any protection. More the opposite, the people were piled up in the truck and left to the mercy of the state of the road, shaking and jiving to the rhythm of the bumps and holes in the road. And every time we stopped to pick and pile up more persons, the cloud of dust that was trailing behind the truck caught up with us, covering us in a blanket of ochre. (so thank Buddha that Eric recommended to me to pack clothes in big sealable zip-loc plastic bags – it keeps everything clean) Rivers were crossed, in true rallye cross fashion, wading through them, as there were no bridges strong enough to hold a car.

Laos is definitely like going back in time, but also taking things more easy. I could get used to this pace of life.



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