I get up very early and as I leave my guesthouse, it is foggy and drizzling again – a phenomenon that seems to be typical in Laos and which I still have to get used to. The already not so charming town of Oudomxai presents itself grey and depressing. Tired and weary, I arrive at the local bus station and the sight of this muddy and bland place just completes the picture. Bound for Phongsaly, the remote and wild North of Laos, I am worried if the bus will make it there. There are rumors that yesterday’s bus had to turn around due to bad road conditions. The almost antique bus is completely overloaded with people sitting on plastic stools in the aisle, others even standing and sacks of rice and other produce stacked behind the driver. With lots of luck, I secure myself a seat, send a quick prayer to heaven and the bus squeaks off for its 9 hour journey to Phongsaly.
9 hours to Phongsaly – Overloaded and squeaking over hill and dale
Surprisingly most of the farang (Asian term for Westerners) sit in the back of the bus. I meet Pablo and Deo, a spanish couple from Madrid, Chris from Germany, Terry from Canada and Liam from Ireland. We are trying to make the best of the ride and share food and good travel stories. Around midday the bus takes a break in the middle of nowhere and all the locals get out to have lunch by the road. Walking around aimlessly, a group of squatting Lao invite me to share their lunch with them. I happily accept and squat down with them. Their food is great and we try to make a little bit of conservation and laugh a lot.
The second half of the ride is very scenic with the old timer bus winding up and down hills along breathtaking mountains and valleys. We arrive around 6 o’ clock and our little group checks in the near guesthouse. The first sunset in the North ends this day on the road.
Phongsaly – A strange place above the clouds
Phongsaly itself is a very strange place. It is not Laos anymore and it is not yet China – it is something in between. It also becomes very evident that Laos is actually a communist country. Propaganda posters greet us on the way into town and we got woken up every morning by monotonous “news” out of public loudspeakers. The people themselves also seem to be different. My impression was, that they dress more uniformly and behave more distanced. Phongsaly is characterized by frequent and sudden changes of weather. The meteorological mix of thick and persistent fog in the mornings, drizzling to heavy rain and short periods of sunshine completes this image of a strange but yet mystical town in the Laos’ far North.
Trekking around Phongsaly. Old forest and a poor village
The next day Chris, Pablo, Deo and I arrange a 2 day / 1 night trek through the jungle including an overnight stay in one of the Akha villages. We originally signed up for a 3 day trek, but the guide for this trek wasn’t available. The next day we meet our guide Dui in the neighboring village of Boun Neua. It was actually sunny out but with the weather said to change soon, we hope that it won’t rain. We walk through picturesque rice paddies along a small river to enter the jungle. The Phongsaly area still features a big percentage of primary forest which makes trekking there so interesting. We pass old tree giants, wines and all sorts of flora. Once we climb higher the already familiar mists sets in, spoiling the views but adding to a very special and mystical atmosphere. Unfortunately our guide proves to be not very talkative which is always a downturn and can make or break a trek.
Around two we arrive in the village we will stay at overnight. It is inhabited by people of the Akha Hilltribe and can only be reached by the small path through the jungle we also used. The village is very simple and the people seem to be very poor. People in the village are a little distanced but the kids are very curious. However, no one likes to get their picture and after asking a few times, we gave up on it. I was still able to get a few shots while walking around, but it was very difficult and had to be quick affairs. Nothing compared to the relaxed session during the Mae Hong Song Loop. After our dinner at the village chief’s house, we found out that the next day would be the Akha’s new year. The kids were already going crazy with their fire crackers. I just had to join in since it reminded me so much of my own childhood. The night in a basic bamboo hut was cold and short, being woken up by the many animals living freely in the village. The next day we took off after a simple breakfast and made our way back to our guide’s village.
Back in Phongsaly, we arranged our boat trip down the Nam Ou River from Hat Sa to Muang Khoua with our final destination Muang Ngoi. Chis, Pablo, Deo and I decided to do that leg together. At that point we didn’t know that it would be an exhausting but very rewarding journey.
Last thoughts …
The bus ride to Phongsaly gave me a real impression of the transportation in Laos. The rides are scenic but can be very tiring and time consuming. This has definitely to be taken into account when making plans to travel Laos. The stay in Phongsaly was sort of an eye opener because there it became very clear that Laos is still a communist country with all of the negative aspects that system features. Traveling the country is very rewarding and exotic but I think it is also important to be aware of the political situation. It is easy to forget about that or not even take notice of it at all. Talking to people about these issues can be difficult, but Phongsaly definitely helped to get a better understanding.
This setting combined with the dramatic weather and dramatic nature makes it a special and mystic place. The town itself is not pretty, that’s for sure, but all the other aspects made it a very interesting side trip.