As I said, I have to catch up here on what happened in the last few days!
Everything that you read about yesterday, happened a week ago or more already.
I am in Lao(s).
Emilie, the girl I've been traveling with for about three weeks in Vietnam continued her journey in China, and so it was only Ismael and I who went to Laos. When I first met Ismael in the Hanoi Backpackers hostel and told him about my plans, he asked me "So you really want to take Bus to Laos? They call it: The Road to Hell"
I haven't heard about that name so far, but I guess it's because eversince I finished reading my Transsiberian Lonely Planet I've become quite lazy in reading up about the places I want to go to. It would always work out anyways. Ismael said, that apperantly the Road conditions were so bad that the journey to the Lao border from Sapa would take way longer then advertized..
You hear differnt stories from different people like: People in Lao and Vietnam are not used to travel and puke all over the place.. or.. The travel agencies overbook the busses and there is no place to sit but the floor.
Everything is true as it turned out!
The plan was to go to Lao the next day after returning from Fansipan. We were so tired from hiking that we spontaniously decided to stay one day longer then planned. We had no clue that by doing this we would miss out on our reserved places on a private tourist bus to the border. The next morning we tried to leave we had to find out, that there were no places anymore and we had to take a bigger, public bus.
The little private busses are kind of vans, with 16 seats. The bigger ones start at 22 up to 35.
What I think is the problem; Not the busses, but the road conditions. The travel agency we bought the tickets at, said that it would take 8 hours to get to the border. Not counting in a flat tire, a change of bus with a waiting time of 2 hours, and waiting infront of a construction side for 2 hours. All normal. We arrived in Dien Bien Phu (the border town) after 13 hours of driving and waiting.
The border closes at five pm, and so we had to spend a night near the border. The next and only bus to Muang Khua (Lao) left at 5:00 am next morning. Why?! That trip was advertised as a 10 hour bus ride, as well not including a flat tire and 3,5 hours waiting time at the border. I think the best thing you can do when planning your trips in Lao is, to always add 30% time on what they say it will take.
We arrived in Muang Khua in the end, safe and sound. The first impressions I had about Laos were: Rural, a lot mountains, small and quiet. I like that.
Indeed, finally getting to a place where you have no internet and electricity from 6am to 10pm only, is quite new to me. I didn't expect to come to a place like that! I guess you imagine, a place like that does not have an ATM either, and that's what was the problem of all of us. Nearly nobody in our Bus had any Lao Kip, but US Dollars and Vietnamese Dong. Sunday + National Holidays. PERFECT!
After searching a possibility to find anybody to exchange or withdraw money for an hour we met a Swiss guy walking around the streets. After talking a little bit, we found out that he was going to Vietnam the next day and had MILLIONS of Kip on him (around 1000 Euros), for whatever reason :D That's what I call luck! We wouldn't even get a nice rate like that in a local bank.
During our 13 hour bus ride to Lao, all of the people in the bus became much likely friends, and so all of us had dinner together in the evening. Soon enough we figured out that most of us would head north the next morning. Phongsaly, a little town in the very north of Laos. Known for it's real rural hilltribes and spectacular trekking opportunities, was our next destination.
There are two ways to get to Phongsaly. By Bus, or by Boat. Laos is full of rivers, and so it's possible to travel around by Boat pretty much everywhere. Traveling by Boat is much more convenient then by Bus. Once because of the road conditions, and secondly because of the time. Going upstream always takes a bit longer, but might still be shorter then a busride with afew flat tires. Of course, comfort is expensive. 105.000 Kip (12 USD) for a 9 hour boat ride. Still O.K.
The Boats are very thin and long. They're running with car engines and are very loud, when you sit near to the engine. But it's worth it, considering the views you get!
Being happy to sit in a boat, getting to our destination without problems, we all got tought a lesson very soon. It's not like boats are indistructible, we had to learn. Going upstream through a few turbolances, we hit a rock and lost our stearing paddle which made our boat hit another rock. Nothing big happened, but we had to wait for a guy to get a new paddle for about an hour. Not long after that, another rock took our rotor from the engine. It seemed to be a common problem, and the guy fixed it within five minutes!
All in all, I still think traveling by Boat is more convinient, because you can still sleep (as long as the noise doesn't bother you).
More about Phongsaly in the next post.