Buses and mud: getting stuck and finding kindness

I wrote this post in two stages….

August 6

I just arrived in Muang Khua, a village on the Nam Ou river in northeast Laos. It’s the next-to-last stop on a four-day journey from Sapa, Vietnam, to Luang Prabang, a tourist town in the center of northern Laos. My four travel companions and I arrived on foot, sweaty and muddy, in the late morning. Of roughly the 350 kilometers from Sapa, I’ve gone about 309 km on one of four different buses (17 hours), 40 or so kilometers (one hour) in a pickup truck, one kilometer (30 minutes) on foot, and about 100 meters (2 minutes) on a longtail boat across the river.

I arrived in Sapa on the night train from Hanoi on the last day of July. Sapa is a town birthed of tourism – before the boom it was a simple outpost where the French officials built summer cottages to escape the summer heat of Hanoi. Now it’s a town built for tourists: every building is a guesthouse or restaurant or hastily built housing for the Vietnamese who moved there to serve tourists pizza and fake North Face jackets. The town is crawling with Black Hmong and Red Dao ethnic minorities, who trek there every day to harangue the tourists into buying their embroidered bags or silver bracelets. Before I arrived my vision of Sapa was of a peaceful town nestled in the mountains, with breathtaking views and easy access to nearby hilltribe villages. I was right about everything except the peaceful part: if you’re not surrounded by indigo-clad Hmong shoving change purses in your face, you’re jumping at the blaring horns of the stream of buses and motorbikes passing through town. But if you hire a motorbike or just walk out of town, you’re rewarded with lovely views and friendly, marginally less pushy hill-tribe women.

And it is all women. As far as anyone can discern, the local men spend their time drinking rice wine, working as motorbike taxi drivers, or both. Some are opium addicts as well. The women are the ones who learn English, hand-sew the trinkets for the tourists, carry firewood for cooking, work in the rice and cornfields, and take care the of children.

In Sapa I met Su May, a 30-year-old Red Dao woman who guided me to Taufin, a nearby town where her mother-in-law, Ly May, has a homestay/guest house. We made the trek with three other travelers and their guide Cici, a 22-year old Black Hmong woman who speaks great English and is loads of fun. Taufin is out of the ordinary in that Red Dao and Black Hmong both live in the village, albeit in separate districts. It is a rather large town surrounded by hills whose forests have been burned down to make way for rice paddies and corn fields. This is a common story among the hill tribe people of SE Asia, whose only means of survival in the modern world is swidden farming. One thing I have yet to learn is: when and how did their livelihoods turn from dependence on the forest to dependence on agriculture?

In the evening Su May, her mother-in-law, and various sisters and friends and I sat down for a simple dinner and shot after shot of rice wine. Ly May would exclaim, “One hundred percent!” with each shot, meaning that we weren’t to leave any wine left our glass with each round. Their men had been invited to dinner, but they were elsewhere drinking and smoking on their own. So we spent dinner talking about how men are useless and lazy. It was Grrlz Night, Vietnam style.

Two days later I took the bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, site of the decisive battle in the war against the French colonialists. We foreigners – Wes, from Austin, TX, and Michael, from Poland – were hustled into the back of the minivan and promptly blocked in with luggage and bags of rice. We spent the next 10 hours bouncing along a muddy, heavily rutted road winding through what seemed like an endless construction site. Every few kilometers we’d have to stop and wait for the Kamaz earth-movers to finish their work and get out of our way. As it turns out, the Vietnam government will shortly dam the nearby Ron River, flooding a number of villages. They are now hard at work on a new road and new villages for the displaced. The area has an American frontier feel to it: dust, horses and new towns springing up from nothing. None of the places we passed through seemed at all inviting.

August 11

This time I’m writing, at long last, from Luang Prabang, the epicenter of tourism in Laos. I’ve spent the past 5 days mostly recovering from the arduous trip here, and fighting the insidious beginnings of the flu.

As I wrote above, I took a 10-hour bus ride from Sapa to DBP in what in hindsight seems luxurious comfort: decent leg room, and springy seats that mitigated the effects of the potholed road. After a dinner of fried rice and beer with Wes, I collapsed into bed. I awoke at 4:45 to a misty morning that smelled vaguely like damp dog. I packed quickly and raced across the street to catch the 5:30 bus across the Vietnam/Laos border, to the town for Muang Khua. That was the theory, anyway.

As it turns out, the 5:30 bus left around 5:25 (I was there in plenty of time) carrying me, about a half-dozen giant bags of rice, and 4 men. For the next 30 minutes or so we drove around town, picking up a French couple and local women and more giant bags of something-or-other. At 6:15, about 5 kilometers from our starting point, we stopped for breakfast. Agh. I would have happily slept for another hour and taken a taxi to the bus. Eh.

The bus itself was like an old school bus, but with a giant platform up front near the driver where hill-tribe women lounged and slept on mats. The aisle was lined with the aforementioned giant bags, which we stepped on to get in and out of the bus. My feet stayed firmly off the ground, as my knees had to be jammed into the seat in front of me so that I’d fit in the narrow space between rows. This wasn’t such a bad thing, though, as it kept my feet off the 10kg sack of onions and two 20-liter jugs of rice wine on the floor beneath me. In short, I wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it wasn’t the most hellish bus journey of my life. After all, it was only meant to last around 7 hours.

We followed a winding, muddy road into the hills that form the border between the two countries. We crossed the recently-opened border without incident and began the slow, terrifying descent into Laos. It had been raining steadily all day, and the steep narrow roads were slippery mud puddles. The bus skidded around corners, no more than a few feet from a thousand-foot drop into the valley.

At around 11:30 we arrived in the small town of Muang May, where I saw a large group of westerners frantically trying to wave down our bus. The bus did stop, but not for them. The river that ran through town, and which we’d have to cross without the help of an actual bridge, was too swollen from the recent rain. We were stuck until the river receded, which the locals optimistically predicted would happen around 4 pm. They were wrong. We were stuck for the night.

A few of the other westerners, who had been stuck there since the day before, managed to convince the owner of a minivan conveniently located on the other side of the river to bring them the 40-odd kilometers to Muang Khua for an outrageous $15/person, but two couples and I decided to spend the night and hope try the bus again the following morning.

Like many towns in this part of the world, Muang May is surrounded by hill-tribe villages. Due to its remote location, however, there is little tourist infrastructure (a couple of guest houses). All this is set to change, though, due to the recent opening of the nearby border to foreigners and the new road being built to link the tourist destinations of Sapa and Luang Prabang.

It wasn’t long before we met the only English-speakers in town: the delightfully giggly Mrs. Manychan and her youngest son. She already runs a guesthouse in Luang Nam Tha, Laos, and plans to expand her business to Muang May once the road opens. Manychan overwhelmed us with her kindness, helping us to find a guest house, communicating with the bus driver about when we’d leave in the morning, and – most amazingly – cooking us a Loatian feast for which she refused any sort of payment.

Over dinner she told us about her life and family, bursting into a fit of giggles between each story – even when she showed us the scars from the American unexploded ordinance, leftover from the “Secret War,” that left shrapnel in her hip and killed her husband. She’s a shrewd business woman who bought or leased the best-located land in town, and who believes in a sort of capitalist karma: “I am so lucky!” she’d repeat over and over again. “I am nice to other people, and they are nice to me. If someone wants something that my business can’t give, I tell them how to get it anyway. I always get it back!”

We spent the night in a still-nameless, under construction, but very friendly guest house on a hill above the town. Early the next morning we reported to the bus, where we didn’t find the driver but did find that the level of the river had ebbed considerably. We watched as a few pickup trucks picked their way across the river, but by 9 or so there was still no sign of our bus setting off. Instead, we flagged down the truck of a civil engineer who was monitoring work on the road, and who the others had met a few days earlier during their own trek from the border. He offered us a free ride to Muang Khua, which we eagerly accepted. He crossed the river, we threw our bags and the boys in the back and rode in relative comfort for the bumpy 40-kilometer ride. He only took us to his job site on the outskirts of Muang Khua, but it wasn’t a problem to walk the kilometer or so to the *next* river crossing – this one with handy longtail boats to shuttle us across to the town.

(Incidentally, six hours later, as my companions and I sat sipping cool-ish Beerlao at a restaurant overlooking the river, we spotted our bus, finally arrived on the other side of the river.)

The next day we took a bus to Oudomxay, an uninteresting provincial crossroads full of Chinese truck drivers on long hauls from the nearby Chinese border and Thailand. There I left my companions behind, as they headed further west and I went south to Luang Prabang. I arrived in the later afternoon and quickly ran into my obvious choice for accommodation: Manychan Guest House (no relation).

Four relatively uneventful days later, I just bought my ticket north to continue my travels. The general plan is focused on trekking for the next two weeks or so: Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing in Laos, then to cross into Thailand for a quick visit to Chang Rai, then back into Laos for the less-visited southern half of the country. Sometime in mid-September I’ll head back to Bangkok for the flight home.

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