The road is open, sort of – Muong Ngoi to Dien Bien Phu

The road connecting northeastern Laos and Vietnam. It was sort of open. Half hour wait while the bulldozers carved out more of the bank then leveled a way to drive through before attacking the bank once again.

When last I left you (and the internet), I was in Nong Khiaw, Laos on the Nam Ou, north of Luang Prabang. Nong Khiaw (Key-oh) is a small town now accessible by road, hence a crossroads for a variety of relatively remote routes in northern Laos.  From there one can travel north by river, some days at least, to Muong Khoia.  From this more northerly and yet more remote crossroads there is supposed to be a bus to the Laos-Vietnam border, then continue on to Dien Bien Phu, and from there go on to Sapa by a backroad mountain route.  An interesting plan, more interesting than I could have imagined.

My last internet access was in Nong Khiaw where I lingered a couple of days, seduced by the perfect little bungalow overlooking the river.  One river hour north, Muong Ngoi got three nights, and is a topic for a separate update.  Now came the fun part.

Getting upriver to the next major crossroad is not as simple as one might expect.  Sometimes the 11 o’clock boat north from Nong Khiaw continues north the five hours further on to the Muong Khoia, but more often it does not.  The alternative to hanging out day after day waiting for a connection is to charter a private boat,but this can be costly as it is based on the number of passengers.  The morning I felt I needed to move on, I had an advantage though as I’d learned the night before from a local friend that the boatman making the 9:30 run north lived upriver and wanted to get there at least as much as we did as he’d also been in waiting mode.

In the morning there were eight on the wait list at the ticket shed, plus two more – not signed up – my young friend Adam and myself.  In theory, this made ten which brought the price to its lowest level at 100,000 kip each.  In practice, the only ones who showed up ready to travel were myself and Adam.  Because the boatman really wanted to go, we were given a very fair price of 150,000 ($18 US) rather the 500,000 each for two which would be the normal case for a charter price.

So onward we went, expecting that bus connections would be possible daily upriver.

The ride was lovely – really perfect karst scenery for most of the way, passing isolated villages, and fisherman, and water buffalo, wherever the land was level enough to allow.  This was not very often really.  And along the way, twice, we also picked up a few people to transport to another village further up.  Thus the boatman was able to pay his way enough to cover fuel and some small amount for his five hours of skillful steering.  The small rapids were many and he knew every rock, every eddy, every trick the river was hiding.

We had a little laugh at the three boats moving in their own private downriver traffic jam, each with its load of organized-tour tourists, all dutifully wearing their orange life jackets.  I suppose there might have been life jackets in our boat though I knew not where, and we knew that their drivers would have been the ones not bothering with the orange vests.  Standards in SEA are completely different, but one trusts the skill of the drivers.  In fact, one quickly learns to do that, on the roads and on the rivers, as to do otherwise would simply bar you from all travel other than by air.

Apart from the chance to experience such lovely places from the river – at times smooth as glass, at times stirred into rapids – the highlight came when our boatman stopped in a village to visit with friends and have his lunch, though he had indicated only (in his very limited English) that this would be a pee pee break.  After taking our toilet break and we wandered around awhile on the river bank watching the local villagers at work and play.

It is interesting to see the games the children invent, no different from anywhere else except that here I have almost never seen any special toys, neither glossy plastic advertised, nor even homemade, purpose built. I have seen, as some examples, a game like jacks or marbles played with pebbles, games of softball played with a stick and an empty plastic water bottle, and badminton with no net.  In this case they did have rackets and a proper shuttlecock.  One little girl I saw, in a village with a baffling number of babies, played mommy using a pillow.  Here the little boys had built a fort with sticks and seaweed covering a pit in the riverbank sand, which they then proceeded to wreck with great hilarity.

One quickly gets ideas for what one might bring next time one travels to Asia to the villages – the endlessly requested pens for school and simple toys like the badminton sets.  And books!  An organization (Big Brother Mouse) in Luang Prabang has as its mission providing appropriate books to the schools in the isolated villages where many children have seen not a single book in their lives.

Eventually we realized our driver had disappeared for awhile and decided to follow him up the steep path to see the village.  We emerged to a cluster of lanes and structures, peering around shyly.  But when we were spotted, we were invited in for lunch as well, seats brought, and tea, and sticky rice and the usual condiments.  As it is so often, we almost completely lacked a common language, but the boatman’s few words of English were our bridge.  I am able to answer the question of my age in Lao, and can say thank you.  Not much more than that but lots of smiles and pantomime can take you a long way in building a bond of friendship.  In the end, we were delighted with our experience there and our host was as well.

Contacts such as this are the right kind – the kind which leave only good feelings – no exploitation, no changing of what you find, simply an opening up of both our worlds, a true sharing.  Our host was offering to guide me on a trek.  What a thrill that would have been had I had the time.

So onward then to Muong Khoia.  Here the challenges of remote travel became clear.  The banks had closed and I could get no money.  The information office had no information that was correct – what was posted on the closed office was out of date and all wrong, and I learned later that even when open they still said the same completely wrong things.

Eventually I found my way to the guesthouse with the only edible food in town, once you decided to eat only vegetarian.  My very carnivorous friend who had ordered chicken and onions, ate the onions and left the “chicken” for the cats.  And here I learned some of the truth of the next stage of my journey.  The true conditions of the road were still to be discovered, but what was known was that the daily bus had not gone for five days.  It was Tet in Vietnam, and the bus had completely ceased with no word of when it would resume for certain.

Because of the road work, it was scheduled to leave in the dark at 5 am.  First you had to get down to the landing and take a barge across the river to see if perhaps there was a bus there waiting.  So at 4:30 am the next morning, five of us were up to see.  Four other young dreadlocked Germans staying at another guesthouse (but by now eating only at our gh) had been going across the river daily.  Several others had left by chartered minivan two days earlier, not wanting to spend yet more time (and funds) stuck in a spot with so little to occupy them, and no doubt quite tired of the quite dreadful food.

That morning at breakfast the Germans were waffling, but set out after to find a minivan big enough to hold the 9 of us.  When they did not return after an hour or so, we decided to get proactive and went and found a van, negotiated a decent enough price that we felt it worth our while and 15 minutes later were all at the dock ready to leave.

The rest of the day was memorable.  The road is under construction at many locations.  We navigated around the first dozen or so spots where huge road equipment was in use, sometimes taking a wrong turn and backtracking.  And then – and then – we came to a place where there was no road at all.  We were looking at a big pile of just excavated dirt completely blocking the way.  Well nothing to do but stop alongside the motorbikes which had passed us earlier.  Surprisingly, this turned out to be only about a half hour closure – half of that for us as we’d come to it later.  Eventually the digger stopped its work and moved aside.  Then came the bulldozer from the other side, smoothing the newly dug dirt into a ‘road’.  Close behind it was a long long line of motorbikes, then some trucks, then a bus, which got stuck coming down through this mess.  Some rocks were moved to the side, and the bus was back in motion.  Finally it was time for our side to pass through.  Well, we understood why the bus (when there was one) was leaving at 5am, to try to fit through the road work.

Things went smoothly enough after that, considering the state of the road and the roadwork.  During lunch time the machinery was still and we made good progress.  By 1:30 pm we were getting close to the border crossing, perhaps another half hour with good road.  But then we were stopped cold.  Lunch was done and the crew was back at work, and in this area, there were no bypasses possible.  We were stopped now until 4 pm.  The border closed at 5 pm.  Again, nothing to do but wait.

The bigger problem came when the road did at last reopen.  Because of the conditions, a half hour turned into twice that.  You could feel the tension in the five of us, knowing that we had to reach the border by 5 or be trapped.  We reached the Lao side at 4:50 and raced to the window.  The first two people were checked carefully as is usual.  The third less so.  By the time my passport was processed, the fellow was racing through the process – write, stamp, write stamp, etc etc.  And on to the last.

The rest of us waited in the van for Ana, fingers crossed.  We knew that, having got stuck without transport in Muong Khoia, she was two days over on her visa and we still had to get to the Vietnam side which was a ten minute drive further, we thought by 5 pm, which was now impossible.   Our driver told us a few times, no problem, but with his having no more English than that, we couldn’t imagine how it was not going to be a ‘problem’..

Finally Ana raced to the van all smiles.  She was through – no penalties, no jailtimes.  All good.  Now we were told to get out of the van.  what?  Do we walk?  No no don’t, stay there.  Complete language-blocked puzzlement.  We did as indicated and saw that the van had to be weighed without us so that it could be properly certified to reenter Laos.  Now back in, we are all putting aside our worries, as what can you do anyway, stuck there on a cold mountaintop, no longer legally in Laos, not yet legally in Vietnam, and it is well after the closing time for the border.  We figure at best we will pay some bribes to allow late processing, at worst we will be incredibly cold hungry and miserable until 8 am.

Well it turned out, happily, that they had waited, and all went smoothly.  All our prearranged visas (required for Vietnam) were in order.  No one was smuggling in anything, or if they were no one was caught. Well certainly not anyway – all a clean cut bunch, no dreadlocks to stir any questions, and no one idiot enough anyway.

We orchestrated a collective sigh, and motored down to Dien Bien Phu, another 40 k down the final twisting mountain road for the day.  The challenges of DBP were all minor enough, barely adequate accommodations across the street from the bus station (bathroom not cleaned after the prior tenant, rubbish full of water and stinking cigarette butts) in a very ugly dirty town, but decent food in the little food stands below.

Naill and Breda headed for bed, Ana and Rich went off to find an internet cafe, and I cleaned Ana’s and my room so I could take shower – the first truly hot shower in weeks.  I had washed my hair in tepid water the night before, and had had only cold showers for three nights before that.  Small things take on huge value.

The morning bus on to Sapa would come too soon.  More adventures to follow.

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