17.06.2012 - 19.06.2012 28 °C
Leaving Luang Nam Tha
It's 7.30 in the morning and we're heading further north to Phongsali. We've hired a minibus as in theory it will cut our journey time by four or five hours compared to public transport. The journey will still take around nine hours though. We are joined by a delightful Australian couple, Leanne and Paul who we met in Luang Nam Tha. Whatever they did in their past lives this journey will be the ultimate penance.
8.30 - winding around the mountain roads Paddy and Rosie have both had to puke in a plastic bag. Joe looks a bit sheepish too.
10.30 - Breakfast in Oudomxai. Nothing on the menu that the kids will eat. I search the town for some bread and eventually manage to find six bread rolls.
12.30 - Rosie needs a wee so we stop in a town where there's a market going on. Caroline gets surrounded by some Akha women who sell her some bracelets she doesn't want. We move from a semi-reasonable road surface to nothing more than a dirt track. The driver informs us that its 165 kilometres of this to Phongsali. This is going to be fun. I can't imagine how it might be to take the public bus. When I was younger I used to complain about the 4 hour trip to Donegal, this trip is putting that into some perspective. At least when I passed through Belturbet and Swanlinbar the kids had clothes.
5.30pm - After an arduous journey we finally arrive in Phongsali. We try a couple of guesthouses, the first has a man on a respirator in the kitchen which the kids don't take kindly to. The next place tries to charge us double the high season rate even though its low-season and is empty. The third refuses point-blank to take us. The fourth place, a Chinese run place is in bits but at this stage we've no choice so we book in.
6.30pm - My stomach is doing cartwheels. I go to bed whilst the rest go out to try and find food. Phongsali is becoming an increasingly unattractive place to be. Whilst I'm in bed there's some tears with the kids. They ain't digging Phongsali and I know how they feel. The kids new surrogate parents Paul and Leanne are playing a stormer and keeping spirits high.
Monday 18th June
4.00am - I'm woken by the sounds of about fifty roosters trying to outdo eachother. My stomach is still in flitters and there's no light in the bathroom. Things are not good on many fronts.
6.00am - Now I'm hearing some Laos music followed by public service announcements broadcast over the town tannoy system. I don't understand what they're saying but it seems to be something along the lines of 'get up'. This continues for a full hour.
We decide that its better to spend the day recuperating and looking around than to embark on the rest of our travels. Its taken us such a journey to get here that we feel obliged to do so. We take a look around the town and its obvious they are not used to travellers. We are the objects of interest and disinterest in equal measures and its really only the children who say hello. We dine in the hotel and Caroline remarks that it reminds her of Romania in the early 1990's. I think she's being a bit unfair to the Romanians.
Thoughts on Phongsali
This place feels like the very edge of Laos. In fact it feels like China. Most of the old town is made up of old Chinese shophouses and you're either rich enough to drive a Toyota Hi-Lux 4x4 or nothing at all. The former all appear to be of Chinese origin. The town has a couple of endearing qualities - a small bakery in an old ladies house, the majestic views from Phou Fa mountain and the road out of the place. It is not a place that is geared for tourists let alone those with four children. On the morning we left we were once again woken by the tannoy system at 5am and then the dawn chorus of throat clearing from fellow hotel guests. These guys and gals like nothing better than a good spit.
Tuesday 19th June
We left Phongsali with gladness in our hearts. We caught the bus to Hat Sa at 8am and shared it with the locals and a guy with a submachine gun who was apparently a police officer. It must have been dress down Tuesday as he was in flip-flops and a tracksuit top. The supposed one and a half hour journey only took 45 minutes which isn't very Laos at all. We then caught the boat to Muang Khoua and it took a leisurely five hours. It was quite a buzz if a little sore on the backside. Health and safety didn't appear to be of primary concern to the boatmen but in fairness the boatman was expert in his navigational skills. There were lots of drop-offs along the way and a few pick-ups including one lady who looked like she'd contracted malaria. Eventually we landed in Muang Khoua and its an altogether delightful place. Situated on the Nam Ou river not too far from the Vietnamese border its a pretty cosmopolitan place compared to where we left. Harry and Joe whiled away a couple of hours watching the local guys play Petang (a variation on the French game of Boules). We also had our first taste of Euro 2012 when we watched a replay of Ireland v Italy. We're only here for the night and we move on again tomorrow. The nadir of Phongsali now feels a world away. It feels good to be back in the real Laos again.