Monday, January 02, 2006

Road Warriors

The next morning (see previous entry) it was time to face the music. We took a sawng-theaw the 2+ km south of town to the bus station to start our trip to Luang Nam Tha. We had been warned over and over that this was one of the (if not the) worst road in Laos. Evidently the route is sometimes done by bus, but when we got there all they had were trucks. (Effectively sawng-thaews, except even smaller than the one we had taken to the bus station.) It's just a small sized toyota pickup with benches and roof built in (and just open railings on the side). At least the bench was kinda padded....

We gulped a bit and then climbed in as our bags were strapped to the roof. We were okay with the 6 adults and one baby in the back, but then they added two more adults and two more children. (There was one other farang along with us; the rest of the 11 people in the back and 6 people in the cab were Lao). Along with the spare tire and a couple of sacks of rice it got a LITTLE bit cozy, if you know what I mean. Actually, it would have been fine except for our knees on down, which were bent in very uncomfortable positions with no place to move them.

The journey was a trip. We had two flat tires (right rear and left rear (notice the color of the road!) within the first hour, got to commune with the other roadside inhabitants while the tires went to get fixed, and we also stopped at one point to help fix another truck. With those stops and a lunch break, it was a 9 hour trip. We were good for about 6 hours of it, then the pain in our knees, calves and feet started to really bother us. The road was only paved in two parts (maybe for a couple of miles total), but a lot of the 195 km (117 miles) had been graded and flattened (we think in preparation for sealing/paving it), so there were only a couple of stretches where we were all quite literally bouncing off the roof and each other. If the whole road had been like the bad patches (which I think in the past it was) I don't know if we would have made it. We certainly would have been more bruised than we ended up being.

We had been warned how dusty it would be (since most of the road is just red clay/dirt/dust) so we had come prepared with masks. I wish I had gotten a pic of us with our masks and actually worked pretty well to keep us comfortable. Since our heads were higher than the cab of the pickup, so we got the full brunt of the dust clouds. It certainly showed in our faces and hair.

Despite the length and leg discomfort, it was a great ride. We passed through more than 20 small villages along the way, with pigs and chickens running across the road and villagers peering out of their thatched houses. (Brian and I so wished that we had a video camera in our eyes so that we could share these villages with you (and with us later), but pulling out the camera in the bouncy, jostling, dusty back of the truck just seemed like a bad idea, as well as potentially rude. So we'll just have to remember it and you'll just have to trust us that it was educational, eye opening and quite scenic).

The drive was also a great way to get a feel for the jungle landscape and to see how little of northern Laos is developed. I don't think we'd be jumping at the chance to do it again tomorrow, but we're happy we chose to come up here this way instead of flying to Luang Prabang and then taking the better road north. (Besides, we'll get to drive that road on Saturday when we leave Luang Nam Tha for Luang Prabang).

An added bonus (and 3 extra wise traveller points) was the reaction we got from all the Lao people when we mentioned how we arrived. They all would get wide eyes and say "oh, that's a TERRIBLE road". No wussy tourist routes for us!

Heading off tomorrow for 3 days of trekking in the mountains and jungles and staying with hill tribes. We purposely didn't do any trekking in Thailand as we had heard over and over about how destructive and exploitive it had been to the native hill tribe people there and how touristy the whole thing is.

Laos is a recent arrival to this sort of tourism and it appears to be learning from Thailand's mistakes. So all of the organizations talk about eco-tourism and detail the steps they take to minimize the impact on the minority villagers and the environment. We feel much more comfortable about it.

So we're off, and Brian gets to celebrate his 31st birthday trekking through the jungle....not a bad way to kick off another year.


PS any of you think you are drinking bigshots for eating the worm in the tequila? Let's see you try this.


Steven said...

Wow, what a journey... Still, you can't but have great memories, and the satisfaction of having 'done that'... And apparently, in Laos they have heard of the Internet also... Happy travels !!! I'm almost off to see Ari, Laura and David and then for some serious NBA !

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, I think that snake in the whiskey is my own personal horror show.

Quick Happy Birthday wishes to Brian - hope nobody confuses you for Johnny Damon now that he's defected and cut his hair. :)

marlynn said...

Happy belated birthday Brian!

BD said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes! Definitely my strangest birthday on record but an eventful one as well.

As for people confusing me with Johnny Damon, no problem. If people stare at me at all, they're thinking renegade monk. Of course pre-haircut, I had someone think I looked like Jeff Tweedy. So where's my painkillers?


Anonymous said...

What an adventure! Great pictures and descriptions. It reminds me of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. They set off to have an adventure, too. My 15-year-old is addicted to these books and videos, so I am reading them to help me understand his world.
- Kevin Grimes