A crazy first day in Laos
I was running now, as fast as I possibly could in a pair of flip flops, weighed down by a rucksack stuffed with a million in local currency. Could you believe it, one ATM withdrawal equating to around eighty pound and I was a millionaire!
The sun was hot on my back and I was sweating hard. Running to catch a bus? Why didn’t I just take a taxi? Why did I have to budget so hard all the time? The bus station did look within walking distance on the map but after twenty minutes of running like an idiot my hopes were fading fast.
I checked my watch; twelve twenty five; five more minutes and the bus was gone; time to take some drastic action. I spotted a pick-up truck at the side of the road getting ready to pull away. I ran over to the window, out of breath and sweating profusely. Somehow, after a bit of sign language and a cheeky smile, I managed to hitch a ride to the station. She dropped me off just outside and after a quick thank you, I rushed over to get my ticket.
Two hours later and I was still at the bus station having learnt my first lesson about the Laotian people, time is of no importance – especially departure times! Thomas – the French guy I met in Chiang Khong – soon caught up with me at the station and helped ease my boredom. As we sat on the bus, baking in the heat, we heard a bit of commotion outside and looked out to see three guys manually loading a motorbike on top of the bus. I still have no idea how they did it, but after some back breaking maneuvers it was up. Why they put motorbikes on the top of public buses, I’ll never know.
The bus eventually left the station and with neither plan nor guidebook we set off into the unknown. We were heading towards Luang Namtha, well known for its National Parks teeming with wildlife and exotic animals. We were taken on a winding journey through the vast expanse of forest that makes up the majority of Laos. It seemed so pure, so innocent. Untouched by man, it thrived in such a beautiful way I was thankful that places like that still existed for us to see before greed got the better of it.
All the houses we passed along the way were a simple construction of earth from the ground and bamboo from the forest. Kids played games in the streets; old men sat outside on their wooden chairs whilst others showered with buckets of water. It looked like a simple life, considerably poorer than my own, yet simple, and from looking at the smiles on their faces, it made me think that it was probably better that way.
As dusk set in, the bus came to a stop in a small village where we sat for our first Laotian meal, noodle soup. Huge bowls landed on our table, filled with vegetables and pork, swimming in a tasty broth. Between us was a platter of herbs which we could add to further enhance the flavour. It was a delicious introduction to typical Laos cuisine.
Near to where the bus had stopped was a sign, and on it was a town and region map of Luang Namtha. “We must be close now, there’s a map here,” I said to Thomas. “It’s a bit funny why they stopped for food when were so close to the town,” I added. We boarded the bus and continued on our way passing through small villages as darkness set in. We remained hopeful for about an hour with phrases like “Shouldn’t be long now” and “Ah, those lights must be it over there” until we started having doubts. After quizzing some German passenger, we learnt that the destination for the bus wasn’t Luang Namtha, but Luang Probang, a further five hours South. I’d made the mistake in thinking Luang Namtha was a town and not some small village. We should have got off at the first stop. Anyway, not to worry, surely some of the locals could help us. Looking back, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The only people not sleeping were the driver and a guy at the front who was in charge of selling the tickets. We asked them about the direction of the bus, pointing to the next to¬¬¬¬wn on a map we’d borrowed out of the German’s Lonely Planet guide. “Are we stopping here?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied with a big smile. I wasn’t so sure. I pointed at some random town on the map and asked again. “Are we stopping here?” He smiled even bigger this time, “Yes”. I went back to the bus and sat down next to Thomas. “We’re f***d.” I said, slouching down into the depths of my seat.
We wanted to get off at Oudam Xai which we knew was along the way, but we had no idea how big it was, or when we would arrive. We made a decision to get off at the next place that looked promising for accommodation; considering it was getting on for 11 o’clock we were pushing our luck. After an hour of darkness and scattered village lights, we started to pass through a town. The big, illuminated hotel sign couldn’t have seemed more inviting as the bus came to a stop to let one of its passengers off. We grabbed our backpacks and ran to the front of the bus. “This Oudam Xai?” We asked, pointing to it on the map. They smiled back in response. “Ah f**k it, let’s get off here,” I said to Thomas.
So there we stood, at the side of the road, looking at each other in disbelief. It was past midnight, we were frustrated, tired, and to top it all off, we had no idea where we were.
As the bus pulled away, the silence returned to the town, only to be disturbed by a group of people drinking in the street just down the road. The sound of English was like music to our ears. It was coming from an old man who was talking with a Chinese girl and some locals outside a shop. “Excuse me, what’s the name of this town?” I asked, rather embarrassed by the whole situation. “Oudam Xai,” he replied questioningly. We told him what had happened on the bus and how crazy we thought it was. Then the drunk, Chinese girl overheard the word crazy and thought we were saying we were crazy. So for the next five minutes she kept interrupting and saying to him, “Are they crazy?” Through gritted teeth, we finally managed to get directions to a hotel around the corner which apparently was open all night.
A short walk later, we arrived at a massive white building aside the river which looked completely out of place amongst the other shabby buildings. As we entered into reception we were greeted by a huge room with expensive looking furnishings, contrasted by a small, tired looking man sat behind the front desk. It wasn’t so expensive considering we were sharing a room, and quite typically, not being in a position to haggle, I started haggling. After an awkward silence he dropped the price of the room and we booked into our double en-suite.
The room was in much better condition than what I was normally used to, it even had air conditioning! Somehow we had got lucky, it was better than any hotels I’d stayed at in Thailand. After a moment of reminiscing over the past events in the day, we fell asleep in our big, comfy beds. Tomorrow we would get to learn more about Laos. Whether that was going to be a good thing, or a bad thing, only time would tell…
Catch you all soon guys for another update on my travels around Laos.
Peace and love,