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Kentucky Fried Bug

Kentucky Fried Bug

Oudomxay, Laos to Phongsali, Laos

Rick has this romantic idea that we are going to find a hidden village, not accessible by road, where we can relax for a few days. I have my doubts. If a village isn’t accessible by road I’m not so sure there will be electricity, wifi, running water, toilets, food, or humans. This falls outside my definition of relaxing. However I try to be supportive so as not to crush his dreams, especially after his romantic vision of the sunset horse trek was brutally shattered by reality.

The secret village is called Muang Ngoi. To get there we must take a bus to Phongsaly, a bus to Hat Sa, a boat to a dam, a mini-bus to Sampam, a bus to Muang Khua, another boat to Muang Ngoi, and then a boat ride and another bus to get out to Luang Prabang.

The Oudomxay bus station announces our departure in Lao and English. “Ladies and gentlemen, please board now and go away”.

Laos is beautiful. For the first time since leaving home I feel truely relaxed, even though we have a seven hour bus ride ahead of us to get to Phongsaly. Every inch of the huge mountains that surround us is covered with lush, green foliage. The sky is clear blue and we pass many little wooden huts with thatched roofs, others with rusty corrugated iron roofs, and people washing themselves in communal outdoor showers. I feel wonderfully content, even though my sweat is sticking my legs to my seat, my hair is stuck in the cracks in the linoleum head rest, and my Enormous Man Knees are crushed into the chair in front. Lao music is playing at full volume, but it is not as annoying as the Chinese sleeper bus. I have two seats all to myself, the windows are open and a pleasing breeze passes through. I think it would be soothing if we saw some rain.

Hour 1 and I do get a little worried when I see the driver is smoking with one hand and talking on his mobile phone with the other. Sullen clouds form overhead. Hour 2 my unease deepens as he speeds up, faster and faster, barely missing the edge of the mile high drop off on the right. No seat belts here, but with falling over a cliff I doubt they would make much difference. He starts overtaking on corners and on the opposite side of the road, honking every three seconds. Leaves hit my face as the bus swipes tree branches. Why is the driver smiling? Doesn’t he realize we are going to die!

Wait, he’s stopped smiling. He does realize we’re going to die!

Oh no! He’s started smiling again. He knows we are going to die and he doesn’t care.

Hour 3 and the bus is creaking and wheezing. There’s no way this bus is going to Phongsaly, one of us will die tonight, me or it.

Ah rats, I hate being right. Obviously as you are reading this it wasn’t me that died. Unfortunately the bus did. Up a hill it stops. Smoke is billowing from the motor and something is streaming from the engine. Rick licks it. Coolant.

Everyone jumps off and hangs out on the side of the road. No one but us seems particularly concerned. Rick tells me it is going to take a really, really long time to fix. We are hours from a mechanic. Double rats. The angry clouds break and it starts to pour with a vengeance so we all pile back in. Unfortunately everyone closes their windows and there is no air conditioning so it is stifling hot. Why did I say I wanted it to rain?

Everyone is so polite. In most other countries we’ve visited, everyone would be screaming and yelling at the driver and one another right now. The Laotians sit patiently, not demanding an explanation. I think the attitude is, don’t get upset about something you cannot change.

An hour and a half later the engine cools and the driver tries to start the bus. Eureka, it runs! We’re not sure what they filled up the missing coolant with – the driver and his buddy did disappear behind bushes with plastic bottles – but no matter, the bus is working and we continue up the mountain. The driver is taking it very, very easy. I was wrong in an earlier post when I said we could not run as fast as buses. I am no longer in fear for my life, but at this rate we won’t be there by Christmas. Then we crest the peak and my adrenaline spikes again. To avoid overheating the engine, the driver has decided neutral is the gear of choice and that brakes are a nice-to-have, not a have-to-have. The bus careens around the mountain curves, swinging wide into the opposite lane. My guess is either the brakes or the handbrake, probably both, don’t work. Hopefully a swarm of angry roosters don’t jump out and cause the driver to swerve, taking us off the cliff in a James Bond inspiring arc, to crash to a fiery death below.

Rick had been emailing a local expert on how we would do the river trip. When we finally made it to the Phongsaly bus station, nine hours after we’d left, there were no tuk-tuks and Rick’s contact, Sivangxay, kindly came and picked us up. He laughed uproariously when we asked if there was a place to get a massage. We had a conversation in his office and he showed us the ridiculously complex, multi-faceted route we needed to take to get to Muang Ngoi. He drew us a map, which rapidly because our bible. Remember The Blair Witch Project? It was a slippery slope into despair and oblivion after they lost the map. So, we planned not to lose ours least we get lost or eaten by a witch.

What we didn’t realize was that Sivangxay was going to be close to the last person that could speak English for a very, very long time. After the corruption in China we thought he would charge us a consulting fee for his help and the ride, which we would have been happy to give, but he refused to take anything! Definitely liking Laos so far, aside from the buses.

Sivangxay recommended a hotel, which was pretty dodgy (see earlier video) but one of the best in town and only $10 a night. Cracks and mold on the ceiling, an electrical unit that sparked when I inserted my charger, a sitting toilet with no flush, but kindly, a large bucket and a hose to use instead. No water to speak of in the shower (which was on top of the toilet – maybe we were supposed to use the toilet water to wash ourselves?), and the smell of mildew on the sheets. My cough was getting worse and I was exhausted so I didn’t care too much – at least no one was smoking in the room and there was no pollution.

The oddest thing. We went to two restaurants recommended by Sivangxay and they both refused to make us food, although one girl did offer us her half eaten plate. Disheartened, we wandered by a hotel which looked considerably cleaner than ours. We stopped in our tracks – there was a blonde woman at the reception desk! We hadn’t seen a westerner in days and here’s one working at a hotel in northern Laos. Of course we went in to chat. I thought she’d have some crazy Scandinavian accent but she was from Ohio of all places. What a shame we’d already checked in elsewhere. She was incredibly nice. When we enquired if there was a place to eat she called a restaurant and asked, in Lao, if they would cook tonight. When she was told no (opening hours are optional here), she directed us elsewhere.

We found the place she mentioned, a miracle these days. It was a lively outdoor pub/restaurant filled with young, hip, drunk Laotians. A big screen played YouTube videos of a teenage girl with Triple F boobs in a yellow bikini humping a giant fluffy Pokemon. We grabbed a dirty table and a friendly busboy rapidly rushed over to clean it (by sweeping everything onto the floor).

That better not have been what I thought it was, I told Rick, who told me it was a product of my imagination. In my mind’s eye the table had been covered with dead bees, and now the floor was covered with those bees and a substantial amount of toilet paper.

The smiling waiter handed us menus. Jumping jelly beans! The good news is, the detritus wasn’t bees. The bad news was, it was crickets! The menu was chockablock full of insect dishes! I’m not exactly sure how you eat a cricket. I guess it involves toilet paper and, hmmm, yeah, I’m really not sure. If you ate the whole cricket there would have been no evidence, but I can’t think there’d be much left if you were to shell it. The mysteries of travel in an exotic land.

Moving on, other choice items on the menu were grasshoppers, huge beetles, and worms. The menu also included intestines and other body parts we couldn’t identify, but a lot of which, I think, start with ‘testicl…’. Thank goodness they had pictures on the menu as there was no English and I would have had a heart attack if we’d accidentally ordered huhu bug stew or sloppy sheep ball omelette. We’d forgotten the camera, so I grabbed a couple of photos from the Internet to show you what I mean. Later, I read that Laos is rated highest in the world for the percentage of people that regularly consume insects, and some NGOs have proclaimed insect farming as a way to reduce chronic malnutrition in Lao. Fair enough, but I’d recovered from my chronic malnutrition so we selected shrimp fried rice and shrimp salad. The menu pictures were kind of fuzzy so we ended up with toilet paper, shrimp heads and pork fried rice. At least, let’s assume it was pork.


Justine Cutler's photo.Justine Cutler's photo.
Justine Cutler's photo.

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