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Rookie mistake

Muang Khua to Luang Prabang, Laos

Unfortunately the day was not to end after the sonthaew-bus-boat-sonthaew-sonthaew experience. We found a hotel, choosing the $24 version rather than the $10 one across the street. Dinner: one of those ‘fish please’, ‘no fish’, ‘salad please’, ‘no salad’, ‘noodles please’, ‘no noodles’ types. Then made our first (okay, hundredth) rookie mistake. We realized we had run out of money! We had been counting on the kindness of ATM machines, but none had worked in Phongsaly, and none worked here. We had enough kip to pay for bus tickets to Luang Prabang, enough kip to pay for the hotel, but not enough kip to pay for both. Seriously, we’d had one MILLLLLION kip. How could it have disappeared so quickly?

We have loads of them, but American dollars don’t work very well in Laos, I don’t think they are allowed to be accepted unless the hotel is an approved vendor, and I don’t think our hotel would be approved by the local health inspector, let alone the Laotian Ministry of Finance. There are also signs at the bus stations saying they cannot accept USD. Would we be stuck in Muang Khua, miserable little town in Nowhereville forever? Or be forced to go on the run, not paying our hotel bill? Forever looking over our shoulders for the toothless old lady that offered false promises of in-room wifi?

We walked everywhere that night trying to find an ATM. All we wanted to do was go back to the hotel and relax after our grueling day. My cough had progressed into a shuddering hack and I could barely speak. I think it is bronchitis, or possibly whooping cough. We wandered through town, not able to communicate well with anyone besides the pharmacist, who sold us some strepsils and mysterious cough-cure pills. He’d told us that perhaps we could exchange USD for kip at the bank, they opened at 8am, Monday-Friday. This was helpful but not useful. A. The bus left at 8am the next morning, B. It was a Saturday. I thought we’d gotten lucky when we saw a man closing a bank door in front of an ATM, perhaps this is the bank manager and he can help us. He may have been the manager, he may have been robbing the place, but either way we did not manage to extort any kip from him despite a lot of pleading and offering to pay whatever rate he wanted.

Finally Rick approaches two guys and an old lady sitting in the dimly lit front of their shop. It’s dark now, and I’m not holding out hope that we can communicate with them, let alone exchange USD. But miraculous! One guy is a tour guide from Luang Prabang checking out the region. He totally understands our problem, says he been in the same situation himself, but they aren’t really supposed to exchange USD. It did take a lot of beseeching and ‘please, please, please’ and ‘you can have Rick’s first born child’ (sorry Ryan, we sold you for $25) but eventually he said yes, rattled off a number, and money changed hands. I checked out the rate later and he gave us a better deal than the bank! Really honest, kind people here.

Next day we pay our bill (fortunately now we are able to), find the bus station to Luang Prabang on the map, and head off to look for some form of transport to get there. As usual, nothing to be found, and because I’m a bit worried about missing the bus I suggest to Rick that we walk – about two miles. Like everything else this was miserable, the sun was already blazing down and our packs weighed a ton, especially Rick’s. On the way we did see two angry little monkeys in a cage, so now Rick thinks he’s fulfilled his promise of finding me monkeys. We think we are in the right place when we get there, although it’s nowhere near where the songthaew dropped us off yesterday. The two buses in front are a good sign.

The bad sign is that there doesn’t appear to be a bus direct to Luang Prabang. We have to catch a bus to Oudomxay (where we were two days earlier) and then a bus to Luang Prabang. So basically we did a giant loop to not get to a special hidden village, to end up in the same place we started. Tried to draw this on a map.

Note: now, instead of Muang Ngoi being where all will be right, a paradise of milk and honey, Rick tries to convince me that paradise is in Luang Prabang. Excuse me if I am a bit cynical.

Quick summary of rest of day:

Bus to Oudomxay from Muang Khua: packed full, seat in front of me broken, rests in my lap. Sitting for three hours one foot in the aisle wedged between a bag of rice and some type of dead thing. Lady in front has problems sitting in the seat that has collapsed on me and decides to use my outstretched shin as her headrest.

Bus to Luang Prabang from Oudomxay: New! Air conditioned! Legroom! Suspicious!!!! With good reason. On this supposedly six hour trip driver is going so slowly that bicycles are overtaking, and every hour he stops for thirty minutes. After 4.5 hours we are only half way there. Rick gets so mad, pulls us off the bus and into a mini-van (a REAL mini-van) that only has two other people in it. We don’t know why, but this didn’t cost us anything extra, and even though the driver’s buddy stopped every so often to buy melons and vegetables, we still exceeded the bus time by a couple of hours.

In Luang Prabang we use our remaining 60,000 kip to get a songthaew from the bus station to our hotel in Luang Prabang. The hotel is BEAUTIFUL and I am never leaving.

Hours spent in travel without a full days rest:

Changsha to Kunming by plane: 2 hours
Taxi to Kunming sleeper bus station: 30 minutes
Sleeper bus to Oudomxay: 19 hours


Bus from Oudomxay to Phongsaly: 9 hours


Songthaew to bus station: 30 minutes
Bus station to Hat Sa: 2 hours
Boat to dam: 5 hours:
Songthaew to first bus stop: 1 hour
Songthaew to Muang Khua: 4 hours


Walk from Muang Khua to bus station: 30 minutes
Bus station to Oudomxay: 3 hours
Oudomxay to Luang Prabang: 7 hours
Songthaew to hotel: 20 minutes

In total, 54 hours in transit from Changsha to Luang Prabang, just stopping to sleep. So, I ask, why didn’t we just take a 3 hour flight from Changsha to Luang Prabang? As with most things, falls under the category of All Rick’s Fault.

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