After exploring Luang Namtha, we boarded our vintage Hyundai bus and rattled along the narrow pothole-filled road onto the small village of Nong Khiaw, our last stop before Luang Prabang.
Below: our route from Thailand to Northern Laos
At one point, we made a stop to pick up a passenger and her 8 gigantic bags of bamboo shoots that were laid end to end in the middle isle of the bus, making getting in and out quite an obstacle course during pee stops.
The grueling 6-hour bone jarring ride came to a merciful end with some rewarding views. Nestled along the riverbank of the Nam Ou and towered over by forest-clad karsts, pretty Nong Khiaw was a haven of peace and we stayed there for 3 nights at a guesthouse we found upon arriving.
Above and Below: Watching the sunset from our guesthouse.
We took it pretty easy except during those 3 days except for one morning where we hiked to a viewpoint. It was good exercise but unfortunately due to the time of the year hot and very smoky.
Above: Laos was heavily bombed by US during the Vietnam war and so they warned us not to get off the path in case of unexploded bombs.
Above: Very hazy view at the top due to all the fires
We had planned on taking the slow boat down to Luang Prabang but only 1 or 2 had enough people to get chartered every week so we decided on the bus option instead. We found ourselves going to the “bus station” (more like a hang out for chickens, dogs and locals playing petanque or catching a nap) several times to inquire about bus times and prices. On the first occasion, the man manning the bus station was sleeping (and it was the middle of the day).
The other times we went, we just could not get a straight answer, basically we learned the bus would leave on a moment’s notice if there were enough people to make it worthwhile. So we got a rough estimate of the “schedule”and decided to chance it the following day.
Before leaving though, we decided to squeeze in a last minute hike up the Nam Ou river to the next village where we ran into a local who offered/negotiated to take us further up to the next village and back to Nong Khiaw on his boat, or should we call it very old canoe….in fact, he kept bailing out water the whole way… still the river route beat the hot and dusty dirt road as well as offered great views from this watery vantage point. We took a quick village walk, shared lunch with our guide by the river and headed back to make sure we got back in time to catch our bus that we were hoping was leaving that afternoon.
Above: our boat driver hauling the portable engine among other things
Above: Future brooms
We thought we had been on very local buses before but this one van to Luang Prabang beat them all. The very old Toyota van had long lost any suspension years ago and made the earlier bus ride feel like a Cadillac.
We were the only 2 tourists on board until we picked up a backpacker later on. Every bump in the road felt like the van’s last. We fully expected for either the frame to break or the tires to burst. It was also entertaining that our driver suddenly stopped on the way to do some grocery shopping from the roadside vendors – not once, but three times!
Above: our bus driver veggie shopping! Below: his first purchase
Between the van’s condition and the driver shopping, we wondered when we would ever make it to Luang Prabang. Finally, it was a tire that decided to go first (thank god not the frame) and fortunately it was during a time of letting a passenger off, and not too far from our destination.
Our driver replaced the flat with a bald spare one and we were finally back on our way…or so we thought. On the outskirts of Luang Prabang, our driver suddenly pulled over and we thought maybe the old van had given up another tire (like the bald spare). He jumped up on the roof and started handing luggage down and indicated it need to be stuffed inside the van. With the backpacker’s help, we learned it’s against the law within city limits to drive with luggage on top. This was too funny given the countless driving infractions and general lack of safety concerns we had witnessed throughout Asia thus far. To top if all off, when we reached the city, the van couldn’t/wouldn’t drop us off at the bus station as, supposedly, only real buses could go there, so we had to walk the last 50 metres. Phew, what a day!