Greetings from the beautiful and sleepy town of Louang Prabang in Laos! I am no longer in Vietnam after 2 days of solid, and extremely dusty travelling on buses. There are some almost immediate differences between the two countries, most likely contributed by the fact that the population in laos is significantly less to that in vietnam! For example, barely any one uses their horn (if you've ever been to Vietnam you would understand, horns are used ALL THE TIME!). And the roads are so quiet there is hardly any traffic either. It is going to take a while to get used to the symbols though - while Vietnam used letters similar to English, in Laos it is all symbols which often look identical except for an extra mm on a wiggle!
As usual my 'plans' have changed resulting in my arrival to Louang Prabang last night at about 8.30pm. I left sapa on saturday morning at about 7.30am on a 'tourist' bus, where they packed as many people and things onto the bus as possible. Very bumpy and extremely dusty bus ride to Dien Bien Phu it was, with a bit of a crazy driver. I was seated up near the front which was good as it ended up with more space for me and a good view along the way as we passed through the mountains. I think the maximum speed we got up to was about 40km the majority of the way, with the road being dirt and extremely windy - beautiful views of the mountains but it was quite smoky/misty so photo's wouldn't have been the best. There was one vietnamese lady behind who obviously had travel sickness and threw up quite a few times, but thankfully no one else on the bus was affected. At one stage we got stuck with some traffic due to a construction site on the cliff above the road pushing rock boulders on the path. Had to wait about 10-20 minutes for them to stop then clear the road then we all jumped back in the bus. I've learnt that you do not stray far from the bus ever, as they will not wait for you to get back on the bus - on multiple occasions up to 2 or 3 people would be jumping on the bus as its starting off. This bus trip was extremely dusty - we all got out covered n dust from head to toe and our bags... well if they had colour to start with, they all ended up being a red/brown colour!
I met a young Australian couple on the bus who were hoping to cross the border that night and if we'd arrived a bit earlier we probably would have tried by getting a taxi to the border and then walking from there, but no one at DBP seemed to know when the border shut, and as we didn't get to DBP until 4.30pm, we ended up staying the night to catch the 5.30am bus to Muang Khua in the morning.
I realise that the majority of people are not going to believe me when i say this, but it literally took me 8 hours yesterday (Sunday) to travel the 80 something kilometres from Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) to Muang Khua (Laos). Quite a comical journey really, good thing I'm patient as the first hour was pretty much wasted. We left DBP at 5.30am, drove about 15km and stopped for 20minutes while the driver and a few others got out and had a cigarette break. Fair enough. We travel another 10km and the driver then gets on the phone, stops and starts chatting away. All the smokers hop out again and have another smoke... shaping up to be an interesting journey if this is what the rest of it will be like we are thinking. It is only 36km to the border from DBP and 55km from the Laos Border to Muang Khua. So, everyone jumps back on the bus and we turn around!! WHAT??! we are all thinking. We had about 4 empty seats on the bus at this time mind you. We head straight back to DBP and 1 hour later after starting we are back at exactly the same place with 7 new vietnamese guys jumping on the bus. I was in one of the back side seats for this trip and it was a bit amusing (would have loved a photo of this), as there were 2 guys sitting in the seat beside me, adn 4 squashed on the back seat next to 2 packs and a suitcase. Not a particularly comfortable ride, we were all squished in, i was above the wheel so meant my feet were quite high as well. This road was all tarred though, so it wasn't too bumpy in that regards.
So we continue on our journey and safter an hour or so (windy roads=40km/hr driving) arrive at the Vietnamese border to check out. One of the guards spoke excellent English, so that was very helpful. I was happy as he helped me to change my remaining dong. I had almost 1 million dong left over (due to a miscalculation in the amount I would need and a discovery of 800,000 dong I had hidden for safety purposes...) that i hadn't been able to change in DBP. He changed it into kip at a rate that wasn't too bad, so I was happy about that.
We wasted about an hour at the border, jumped back on the bus and continued the windy mountainous roads to the laos border which is a few km further on. Got a bit more complicated here, but I had already purchased my visa when in Hanoi so I got through relatively quickly (ie in half an hour or so). We all had to be checked for H1N1 by a machine that tests the surface temperature of our heads (somehow i really doubt this would be that effective but okay...). Only got charged 9000kip in fees (overtime, the h1n1 test and whatever other fees they imposed) so that wasn't too bad, particularly as i already had kip by this stage. Some people hadn't gotten visa's already so this delayed us further, but it was good to know what the border was like to inform others thinking of this trip in the future.
Once we crossed the laos border the road from there on is just dirt, which means yet again dust and more dust. Personally I didnt' think the roads (or the bus journeys) were all that bad, yeah a bit bumpy but definitely nothing more than you would get on a 4wd trip. And as I've been on many 4wd trips adn lived in africa, these roads were relatively smooth in comparison! There is alot of construction work going on in the laos side of the road. i'd been warned by a few girls travelling the opposite trip that I could get stuck for a few hours so i was prepared with food and drinks and things. However we were really blessed with no construction stops at all ( I think it was because it was a sunday they had mostly all stopped). The guy at the border had predicted we'd arrive at Muang Khua at about 5pm. Fortunatley, we arrived earlier at 1.30pm, 8 hours after originally leaving DBP and travelling around 80-90km in total!!
I was originally going to head over towards Huay Xai near the northern Thailand border and do something called the Gibbon Experience, but decided that I won't do that anymore as it will end up taking at least 7days to get there and back and there is still so much more country to explore. So I agreed to join the group to get to Luang prabang by last night whatever means (and as cheaply as possible). We had the option of a boat, and bus ride adn it turned out that the cheapest (and fastest) and subsequently most comfortable option was to hire a mini-bus to take us the remaining distance. We left Muang Khua about 2pm and arrived into Luang prabang about 8.30pm so another 6 hours or so, but this time it was in airconditioned comfort!
So, now I am in Luang Prabang, think I'll chill out here for a few days, explore some caves and waterfalls, do a cooking lesson - mmmm foood :) and look at doing a homestay from here perhaps. We'll see. Then I'll head off to Phonsavan as I'd really like to see the plain of jars.