30th September 2018
We set out early towards Luang Prabang, the old Royal capital of Laos. We left behind the hostel and cafe having both had an ample breakfast. We left the scrawny cats and the small screaming geckos and the children playing in the yard.
We knew our journey may take many hours, but we had not quite predicted how many!
We weaved up and down and round many steep low lying hills surrounded by the lush vegetation, the road often hugging the very common vertiginous escarpments.
Following a night of heavy rain, these looked less stable than the previous day and indeed, even on a Sunday the road diggers were out keeping the roads open and shifting large quantities of mud from the roads as we squeezed by.
The roads were not generally well maintained and there were frequent, but unexpected potholes and in some places, totally unannounced, the road sort of disappeared into a lumpy pile of rubble. This sort of driving was up Landy’s street but even she protested at times when we hit big ruts at 50kms per hour. (Also Jim squeeked occasionally, concerned for his teeth).
The roads were shared with some cars and trucks, but many more motorcycles carrying heavy loads and passengers. Along the verges we passed many women with babies strapped to their backs lugging bags with fruit picked from the overhanging vegetation lining the route.
Many seemingly abandoned motorbikes on the roadside told of others who had ventured into the jungle to collect fruit or vegetation, who would return when their bundles were full.
We stopped for lunch at an unprepossessing market town, comprised of streets lined with stalls and cafes, showing off their wares in cages of strange looking food. Jim was brave enough to eat while I looked on, fearing for his stomach. Our friends Matthieu and Mélody later explained to us that it was jungle food and they saw toads, cockroaches, cicadas and rat meat for sale when they also stopped. This looked totally unregulated.
One stall had piles of oozing bee type husks. On closer inspection the cells had large live larvae wriggling inside and several newly hatched insects crawling on top. One of these was the size of a hornet. Totally massive. Were these for eating? The mind boggles. Perhaps they were hornets nests and not bees? Scary thought. (M&M later confirmed that these were being cooked and eaten and were indeed hornets.)
We quickly decided not to stay the night but to drive the remaining 130kms to reach the comfort of a hotel in Luang Prabang. As we were closing in on Luang Prabang, we passed new Chinese road projects, large Chinese aggregate lorries and a new Chinapower hydroelectric dam being constructed in this beautiful valley. Jim pondered again about the economics of it all and wondered who was going to travel from Boten to Vientiane and pay the motorway tolls necessary to pay back the Chinese debt? Most of the traffic seemed to be motorbikes or construction related!
The tributary being dammed flowed into the Mekong at Luang Prabang and we marvelled at the weird shaped jungle covered mountain ranges looming on all sides.
Twenty kilometres outside Luang Prabang, at 5pm, we suddenly pulled up behind an unexpected line of patiently waiting traffic. At first we wondered if there had been an accident and were preparing to wait a while whilst it was sorted out. We knew these things could take up to an hour.
However, it was not an accident and not even a landslide. Unfortunately it was a line waiting to cross the only bridge crossing the deep, wide river flowing into the Mekong in Luang Prabang.
Jim sauntered to the front of the line to inspect and returned with news, still in daylight, that the bridge was out of commission and that they were getting people and traffic across on two small ferries. The good news was, if you were a motorbike or foot passenger, they squeezed you on quite quickly. The bad news was that only 3-4 cars were being loaded each time and there were 94 vehicles in front of us. If there was no queue jumping, at that rate, we could expect to get across at 2am!
However, people being people, occasionally there was an outbreak of queue jumpers who convoyed passed us. Some of them Chinese engineering big wigs in smart cars who hoped to wangle their way through.
I screeched at the ineffective traffic police with their red plastic batons and some of these cars were forced to join the back of the line. As the night wore on, the police became less vigilant. They did not want me to block the narrow road to prevent queue jumpers and nor would they entirely prevent it.
Jim and I played Fun Bridge on our phones in the dark and exchanged messages and photos with the girls back home in London, who were relaxing with their boyfriends on a Sunday, whilst we were tiring in the fading light, waiting to cross the river.
At 10pm, Jim did another recce and estimated that we should board that night, if they did not stop the operation for evening, or if the police managed to stop the queue jumpers sufficiently. Messages were relayed back to Melody and Matthieu who still had this experience to come.
Safe to say, after 8 hours of fairly patient waiting, at around 1am we reached the front of the line and were ready to descend the steep track to the rivers edge. Close up the track was steeper and more precarious. The steep incline still had many fruit pickers shouldering their burdens, some of them bare footed women, lugging large sacks of fruit down the track into the ferry in the dark. Access was only illuminated by a few torches. Small motorbikes weaved and skidded between them, some of their loads bouncing off the back as they dipped around the large ruts to access the ramp. We lurched bravely down towards the ramp hoping our brakes would hold and that we would not bump into people or bikes (or the river).
We were eventually loaded and I eyed the small number of life jackets (and the rather larger numbers of people) hooked over a handrail in front of Landy. I reckoned that if we sank I could probably swim across, even in the dark.
When we reached the other side and all the smal trucks loaded with fruit had bumped off the wobbly ferry platform, each of them revving up massively, To give themselves the best chance of making it up the steep bank on the other side. I eyed the track up from the bank with some trepidation. Not because Landy was not built for such challenges, but because dear reader, we still have little in the way of gears! In the middle of the track was an abandoned lorry which had failed to make the gradient and Jim advised squeezing through on the right.
Safe to say, Landy (and her driver) was in her element and roared up the bank with no bother. Her passengers heaved a sign of relief and determined to reach Luang Prabang in the dark, before getting some shut eye.
We had given up the idea of the hostel for the night and just needed to raise our pop top somewhere. We eventually sidled up to our hostel which was tucked away opposite a large Buddhist Ashram and the team set about preparing Landy for bed. In spite of the hot sweaty conditions, we were very tired and fell asleep at around 2am, only to be woken at 5am by the huge rhythmic banging of large drums and cymbals. This was apparently a daily Buddhist event. Whilst normally we might have peered out at the scene, on this occasion we just buried ourselves more deeply under our covers, not yet being ready to face another day of new surprises.