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Liking Laos just a little less

Liking Laos just a little less

Phongsaly to random Bus Station to Hat Sa (start of Nam Ou river) to dam to Samphan to Muang Khua

It is hard to describe how miserable, wretched, and bleak today was. My mind boggles that we made it through so many confusing, word-defying hurdles.

Firstly, relative to China, people speak much better English here, even if it’s just a few words. However, this ends once you get closer to the extremities. As we head north the road signs stop using both Lao and Latin script and are entirely in Lao. I believe the type of script Lao uses is called ‘Abugida’ (even Apple auto-correct doesn’t recognize that) as opposed to our Latin script, the alphabet. However, a more accurate definition would be ‘Squigglish’. At least in China, which uses logographic script, in a pinch you can kind of compare the first character of a sign to the first character of a bus ticket and kind of make a guess at whether you’re on the right track. In Lao the bus tickets are handwritten which basically creates a unique squiggle language for everyone’s individual handwriting with which to compare typeface road signs which are incomprehensible to begin with. There are also multiple spellings of the same word (e.g. Phongsaly vs. Phongsali).

The point here is, it’s beyond confusing. Also, we pronounce every town incorrectly so no one knows where we are trying to go, and we never know if we are in the right place when we get there. This leaves sign language. The Laotians are slightly more willingly to try this than in China, but even this has its limitations. For instance, when asking one hotel for toilet paper I mimed sitting on a toilet. This was incredibly embarrassing in the first place, but was met with a blank stare. In retrospect I realize that I should have mimed squatting, not sitting, but even my nonexistent pride has boundaries. But back to today:

(a) Phongsaly to bus station

We woke at 4am to the sound of ten thousand roosters crowing. I.e. Really, really noisy. First, we needed to get to Hat Sa, where the boat leaves from. To get to Hat Sa from Phongsaly you need to take a tuktuk to the bus station and then a bus to Hat Sa.

1. We had not counted on torrential rain that morning; our backpacks weren’t waterproof and we had to wrap everything in cling wrap. (Side note: Justine is clever and brought a waterproof raincoat; Rick is unclever and did not)

2. We knew the bus left at 8am but we couldn’t find a tuktuk to get to the bus station

3. A flatbed truck with a tarpaulin drives by; we yell ‘Hat Sa! Bus!’ at the driver and the driver’s buddy (there’s always a buddy). They laugh, nod, and we jump in the back.

4. We realize that what we think of as a tuktuk, those cute little things with three wheels, is different from what people here are calling a tuktuk. In fact they are ‘songthaews’.

5. We are uncertain as to whether this is an official vehicle or a couple of guys letting us hitch a ride.

6. We are uncertain whether we are saying Hat Sa correctly and whether they are instead, driving us to Vietnam.

7. In the unlikely chance we have said Hat Sa correctly we are unsure whether they understood that we wanted to get to the bus station to get to Hat Sa vs. driving this contraption all the way to Hat Sa. This would be a very long, very disagreeable, very expensive ride.

8. We get increasingly nervous because we are driving further and further (grammar police, further or farther?) into thicker jungle, and it seems inconceivable that the bus station would be so far away from town.

9. It doesn’t really matter because the rain is so heavy we are going to slide off the road, which is awash in mud, and die.

But, astoundingly, drenched and miserable, we arrive at a roadside shack. We have made it to the bus station! No handy sign saying ‘bus to Hat Sa’, and no one will take our money, but there is a lone blue bus there so we figure our chances are pretty good and get on.

I am going to use the words ‘astoundingly’ and ‘miserable’ a whole lot in this post.

(b) Bus station to Hat Sa

We are first on the bus but it starts to fill up, with people and with mud. The bus is adorned with flowers, leis, wreaths in red, white, and yellow. A kid asks if he can take our photo with him. This happens more than you would think, and even more so in China (by tentative, giggling high school girls). Not sure whether to be flattered or concerned. Do I have an enormous man head to match my enormous man feet?

Before we depart Rick gets kicked off because we don’t have tickets. This isn’t really fair because we tried to pay everyone and they wouldn’t take our money, and there’s nothing resembling a ticket office. I stay dry(ish) in the bus, with its cracked windows, held together by masking tape. It is starting to smell more and more like fish. I figure someone has brought a few onboard, to sell or eat later, but no. There’s a tiny, wrinkled hundred year old lady wearing a white and pink head scarf snacking on a fish head for breakfast. For some reason this makes my stomach churn more than the bugs and intestines. If she offers me a bite I’m going to upchuck.

We buy some fried dough with jam inside. There is so much grease I don’t know whether to describe it as really disgusting or really good. Here’s how honest people here are. I mistakenly gave the dough seller 4,000 kip (~$0.50) instead of 2,000 kip. Instead of pocketing the change per some past experiences, the vendor and people on the bus cried out to get my attention that I needed to take an extra two greasy dough balls. Like I said, that five pounds is back on and growing.

There are two types of buses here. Too fast and too slow. This one was too slow. Stop start, stop start, load some lumber, load some chickens, backtrack to pick up friends of friends, you get the picture. But, a couple of hours later we arrive at the river. We think we are in the right place but we can’t see anything that looks like a passenger boat or where to buy a ticket.

(c) Hat Sa to the dam

We couldn’t take the Nam Ou river all the way to Muang Ngoi because several dams have been built in the middle. Our first river challenge was to find the actual boat. Rick wanders around Hat Sa, a four building town, while I stand near our backpacks under shelter. If this isn’t the middle of nowhere I don’t know where is. Rick sees a bunch of canoes and figures one of them might be what we want. We can’t figure out how to buy tickets, but then we realize that the shack I’d been standing under is actually the ticket office. We buy a ticket to somewhere. We aren’t sure whether we’ve bought a bus ticket, a boat ticket, or a movie ticket. We see people getting on an oversized canoe with a hundred year old engine and a tarpaulin roof. No sign, but Rick says ‘do what they’re doing’ so we hop, skip, jumped along a few rocks poking out of the river and clamored aboard without drowning ourselves. The seats, if you can call them that, are flaking blue planks lain horizontal over the base of the boat. We haven’t moved yet but the canoe is already leaking. No worries, Kerry’s boat leaks too.

Other canoes, orange, yellow, blue, are being manually hoisted to the back of a pickup truck. We wait and wait until our boat fills up, maybe 6 people besides us, including the driver. A couple of kids. We are rearranged, put to the back of the bus for weight distribution, perhaps because of my Enormous Man Head, Knees, and/or Feet. Cool. An upgrade. Instead on one blue plank we have two blue planks to sit on. A double wide! And:

The engine starts!
The engine stops.
The engine starts!
The engine stops.
The engine starts!
The engine stops.

The starting mechanism involves the driver rubbing two pieces of wire together. Sometimes successful, sometimes not. But eventually in a massive cloud of smoke and fumes we are off.

The water is brown and the river is wide. Water buffalo graze on the banks and occasionally small huts and tiny people dot the hills. I think they are tiny because of the distance, not because they are actually tiny people. Every so often other motorized canoes drift by in the opposite direction. A kind woman on the plank in front of us offers us weird fruit.

Forty five minutes in it is still very, very beautiful. Black-and-white butterflies land on Rick and try to mate with his black and white watch. Yellow butterflies flitter around and try and mate with his yellow water bottle.

It is also very, very painful and very, very loud, being at the back right next to the engine. We debate whether this is more painful than the bus (yes) or the horse ride (ye gads no). We are attacked by a horrid, giant earwig.

Once, a fancy boat goes by. Those tossers, they have seat backs and brand new life jackets. That must be the first class boat. I bet their tickets cost more than $5. Yawn, I bet they are totally bored.

Wait a minute! WE are also totally bored (Coralie – you were right!). Why did we come all this way north when all brown rivers look alike? My voice is too hoarse to speak above the engine so I use my notebook to write to Rick:

“Just to confirm, three more days of this?”
“Aren’t you the teensiest bit bored?”
“Isn’t this the teensiest bit painful?”
“Just to confirm, three more days of this?”
“Yes…but we could always skip Muang Ngoi [romantic hidden village] and catch a bus back to Luang Prabang”
“But I don’t want to destroy your idealized vacation”
“Don’t worry dear, you’ve already destroyed it”

At this moment, I love Rick as much as anyone could possibly love another person. As I quoted in my Sahara blog, “suffering has no value”.

[for the record, the notebook also includes phrases such as “You lied!” and “You tricked me!”]

We discuss what side we would swim to if the boat sank. Right about then the boat does start to sink. If we die that detestable earwig is going down with us if it’s the last thing I do. The driver doesn’t seem agitated, and as usual everyone else on board sits politely, albeit at an angle. He maneuvers to a bank on the left, hits a tree poking out of the water, kicks three guys and one child off the boat, gets rid of some ballast (bags of salt?) and starts bailing. Ten minutes and the load is lighter, there’s only a little bit of water in the boat, and after the ritual seven engine start-stops, we set off again. Not sure how the three guys, one kid, and the salt made it back, but hopefully the boat will stay afloat until we get to the dam.

(d) The dam to another ‘bus’ station

Sivangxay had told us that after the first boat ride we would need to catch a minibus to another bus station to catch a bus to Muang Khua. We’d been thinking nice cushy minibus. Like, well, a minibus. As with the tuktuk, I think minibus here is another name for songthaew – the rickety flat beds with two boards, some hand rails, and a tarpaulin. Again, no signs, no one speaks English, but there are a few people onboard a songthaew. There doesn’t appear to be any other way to gets out of here, so we cross our fingers it’s going where we want it to and climb on in. Rick nearly has a heart attack. He had stepped on a hessian sack (at least it wasn’t Chinzo’s hat) and it screeches! Is it a baby? Chickens? No, it is a live pig! And just when you thought I could get through a post without mentioning bodily functions, it defalcates (the pig, not Rick).

A glimmer of hope when the pig is offloaded, but no, it is just to make room for ten 50kg (150lb) bags of rice, a 50kg bag of sugar, three small children, several more adults, a teenager, bags of beans, three huge bushels of lemongrass, two bicycles, and a sack of pigs’ trotters. Then the smelly sack of wriggling pig gets thrown back on. Oh holy saints of all my sins, what have I done to deserve this???

Now we compare how painful this ride is to the boat. For sure this is worse. At least the boat only had wooden seats, not wooden seats, bars our backs were knocking against, bars our heads were banging into, potholes and angry defalcating pigs.

(e) bus stop to Muang Khua

We’d thought it was going to be a five minute transfer to the next bus, but over an hour later the songthaew stops. GPS tells us we are nowhere near where we think we should be – Samphan. Town doesn’t even have a name, let alone a bus station. We panic – where’s the bus station? There’s nothing vaguely official looking. But, as luck would have it, the ticket office was three inches in front of us, disguised a not-a-ticket-office. We unload our bags and buy a ticket to Muang Khua. We can’t see a bus but at least it will be better than that <<insert_expletive>> songthaew.

Everyone yells at us (in a nice way). What? The songthaew IS the bus. Four hours more in this thing?

Then we noticed a sign on the back of the truck ‘all ye who enter, abandon hope’. Should have been a dead giveaway. You’d think it wasn’t possible to get worse. But yes. My head is pounding, there’s dirt in my eyes, I have a dislocated shoulder from grabbing the overhead bar for hours, a snapped shin from the annoying teenager’s suitcase falling on me every two minutes, scars on my ankles from the pig tusks digging into them, a slipped disc from hunching over for such a long time, fractured ribs from thudding against the metal side bars, and, to add insult to injury, from all the evil potholes slamming me up and down against the wooden board, the gangrenous wounds on my sacred turf have opened up again. Oh, AND it starts to rain. AND I’m pretty sure I have pneumonia.

After umpteen billion hours we make it to Muang Khua. This time, instead of getting off the songthaew when we were supposed to stay on, we stayed on when we were supposed to get off. No one could really confirm where we were given our terrible pronunciation, but Muang Khua or not, one thing was sure, there was definitely no bus station here. But, we will worry about that tomorrow. For sure, today was definitely the worst of all days of any trip ever.

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