Tuesday, January 16, 2007

travelling in rural lao...

by bus, songthaew, tuktuk, slow boat & two hindpaws in the cold & dry season - public transport in Lao is THE best way to meet locals & make new friends & to literally get a taste of (the soil of) Lao =)

away from the main Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang tourist trail that is HWY 13...
  • buses are second or third hand vehicles that spent their past lives in China
  • highways are mostly unpaved or were once paved
  • roads literally dissolve away in the rainy season
  • buses wait for bulldozers to create a path along the highway in order to pass
  • it 'rains' soil when excavators dump their diggings right on top of passing vehicles
  • the soil can be too loose for tyres to get any grip
  • tyre changes mean replacing the most flattened with the second most flattened
  • buses roll downhill when they stop on upslopes
  • buses carry a block of wood to be placed behind the tyre whenever the bus stops, so that it won't roll too far downhill
  • at steeper slopes everyone gets off to walk uphill to meet the bus at the top of the slope, if the engine is good
  • everyone gets off to help pull the bus uphill, if the engine isn't so good
  • passing vehicles kick up dust clouds that reduce visibility to zero
  • drivers have to wait for dust clouds to settle in order to see the road again
  • seats may be sacks of grain or plastic chairs in the aisle or steps at the door
  • things can be loaded & unloaded through the windows
  • small-sized locals can alight by climbing out of the windows
  • toilets are the great outdoors (beware of UXO)
  • it can take 7.5 hours (dry season) to 13 hours (rainy season) to travel less than 200km
  • speedometer needles never move beyond 0 kph, which reflects the pace of life
  • at the end of the ride, whatever people dig from their noses & the corners of their eyes is brown
  • whatever people spit out is brown
  • when you jump on the spot you create your own dust cloud
  • when you comb your hair your comb turns brown
the rougher the road, the more frequent the breakdowns, the more local passengers throw up, the more overloaded the vehicle is, the more passengers will take care of one another...
  • sharing food, drink, jackets, gloves, scarves, conversation & laughter
  • searching for plastic bags for the nauseous
  • helping to load & unload one anothers' belongings
  • helping to calm & entertain babies & kids
  • huddling together to share body heat
  • using their own body to shelter others from the biting wind
  • lending glove-less fellow passengers their jacket pockets to keep their hands warm
  • hanging onto those hanging onto the door/back of truck to prevent them from falling off
  • letting dozing passengers rest their heads on their shoulders or knees
  • alerting the driver if anyone has been left behind
  • helping the driver to repair the vehicle
  • helping you find your connecting bus/truck/boat
  • helping to make sure you are not overcharged for your fare
& drivers know every major pothole along their route to avoid, & will stop & even backtrack to pick up fallen slippers...

which more than makes up for the lack of rearview mirrors & non-punctured spare tyres =)

account of the HWY 3 journey between Huay Xai & Luang Namtha by someone who travelled along it just a few weeks before e cat did.

click on images to view larger version


[1] lunch break along HWY 1B from Pak Nam Noi to Ban Yo, Udomxai to Phongsaly
[2] lost count after 5 breakdowns & tyre changes along the infamous HWY 3, Huay Xai to Luang Namtha
[3] 'seats' for 2 more passengers on sacks of grain in aisle + standing room for 2 at door, Huay Xai to Luang Namtha
[4] Pak Beng to Huay Xai slowboat
[5] down the beautiful Nam Ou river from Hat Sa to Muang Khua
[6] afterwhich you have to remove the Nam Ou from your backpack
[7] American MIA from Xieng Kok since early 2005
[8] ugly side of tourism
[9] the 4 guys who paid for my trip


[1] breakdown along HWY 3, Huay Xai to Luang Namtha
[2] 'paved' road in Huay Xai
[3] breakdown along HWY 3, Huay Xai to Luang Namtha
[4] plants along HWY 3 can photosynthesise only during e rainy season
[5] breakdown along HWY 3, Huay Xai to Luang Namtha
[6] colour of comb after combing my hair after travelling on unpaved highways


[1] beginning of HWY 1B to Ban Yo at Pak Nam Noi
[2] travelled at 0 kph according to speedometers on most buses - usually nothing on the dashboard works
[3] 4 modes of transport - boat, bus, songthaew (opposite bank) & tuktuk, Muang Khua
[4] from Hat Sa to Muang Khua along the Nam Ou river
[5] Hat Sa, Phongsaly province
[6] removing the Nam Ou from cat belongings
[7] Luang Prabang to Pak Beng slow boats, Tha Heua Luang
[8] electrical tape - most useful item packed on this trip
[9] slightly less than half a million kip from trip to the bank, Luang Namtha

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