Happy holidays! I just got done spending a nice, albeit brief, Christmas at home. It was good to be home for a week and to see family and friends.
The blog is about three weeks behind and I am currently writing this post as I take a MegaBus from Iowa City to Chicago. I fly to Colombia tomorrow and will be spending the next 13-14 weeks heading south through South America. I will return just in time to attend my buddy, Keith Turner’s, wedding in New Orleans on April 6, 2013.
Back to the action in Sam Neua. In actuality there was not much going on in Sam Neua but after two days of hellacious travel from Mai Chau “not much going on” was exactly what Ben and I needed. We slept in and took it easy all day, save a little hike I took to the top of the town in the afternoon.
Sam Neua is set in a relatively flat area in otherwise mountainous Northern Laos.
Two main bridges provide transport over the river that runs through the town.
Like Vietnam, Laos is a communist country. In the morning a truck rolls rides by the town’s diamond-shaped sculpture and from a megaphone-type-device plays a recording of that morning’s communist propaganda for the town’s citizens to hear while they wake up.
A mural behind the diamond sculpture depicts groups of Russians and Laos people – the two communist countries are allies.
My hike in the afternoon took me farther along the river that runs through the towns.
The road I was hiking on sloped upwards and led to a hill overlooking the outskirts of the town.
I passed by several women with full back-baskets patiently making their way down the hill.
At the very top of the hill I found a bus station, some antennae towers and a great view over the town.
I spied a temple in the distance on the opposite side of the hill I had scaled.
Just as every town or city in (primarily Catholic) Europe has a church every town or city I visited in (Buddhist) SE Asia had at least one temple, usually between 5 and 10 depending on the size of the city or town.
Just as I had become desensitized to the beauty of churches in Europe after seeing 30 of them, by the time I reached Sam Neua I was not fully appreciating the splendor of temples in SE Asia.
Dark clouds loomed over nearby farmland but rain never came that day.
On my way back down the hill two young Laos girls were very curious to see a white man walking by. Like Mai Chau and Quan Son in Vietnam Sam Neua is a not a place where tourists come, making me an interesting thing for the locals to watch as I walked by.
By the time I got back to the town the sun was starting to set.
Ben and I took another easy night in and got rest for what ended up being a brutal 14 hour bus ride to Nong Kiaw the next day.
In the morning, instead of climbing the hill I had climbed the day before to get to the bus station we hopped on a songthaew. A songthaew is a pickup truck that has been converted into a vehicle used to transport people, simply by adding bench seats in the bed and rails on the side of the truck. I saw more songthaews in Laos than anywhere else in SE Asia.
Rides in songthaews are not priced by person. Instead you must pay for the whole vehicle itself, so ideally you have as many passengers (within comfort) as possible to make the price cheaper for everyone.
It took me less than 30 minutes on the bus ride to realize that Northern Laos is the least flat place I’ve ever been in my life. It is the exact opposite of Iowa. The mountain range that is Northern Laos has no 14,000 foot peaks but the steep green karsts roll along forever.
The views out the bus window were tremendous, but they flew by fast.
The steep mountainous terrain and the small winding (basically one lane) road makes the “bus” ride more like a roller coaster.
Front, back, side to side. Front front, back back, side to side.
Then sway right, sway left, sway hard right again. For fourteen hours.
Within an hour of leaving Sam Neua our bus hit a major traffic jam.
The small road was not designed for long industrial trucks and the driver of this truck tried to cut a corner just a bit too close.
A serious crane was required to get the truck back on the road and it would be a long time before any crane would be coming so we needed to find a way around the truck in order to pass. At first our driver and his fellow bus operator were resigned to the fact that we would not be able to get around until a crane moved the truck.
But then they decided an attempt was worth it. Attempting to get our bus around the truck proved to be a serious challenge involving very narrow margins. Missing the margin on the right meant the bus would end up tipping into the ditch and missing the margin on the left meant the bus would end up rolling off the cliff to the left.
Thankfully we had some crafty bus operators. After about 15 minutes of careful navigating and lots of forward-turn-reverse-turn-forward-turn-reverse-turn-forward they were were able to navigate our bus around the truck.
Though we were unfortunate to be the first bus stuck at the traffic jam (right after the truck got stuck) we were also fortunate to be the first bus stuck because on either side of the traffic jam there were 10-15 busses waiting their turn to navigate around the truck. The people on the buses at the back would probably end up waiting for hours to pass and only if they were lucky enough for another bus not to get stuck.
My fellow bus riders and I enjoyed our successful pass but the success was short lived. Within 40 minutes our bus broke down in a small mountain town.
As I’ve mentioned before every bus driver (and each of his assistant money collectors) in South East Asia doubles as a mechanic. This fact makes sense because our bus ended up breaking down at least four more times on the 14-hour bus ride. When you know your bus is going to break down you also know you will need someone to fix it when it does.
While we were stopped in town one of the bus driver’s assistants went to the town’s well spout and hooked up a hose to draw water into the bus for the engine.
Minutes later a few locals were using that very same well spout to take their daily showers.
Eventually they got our bus fixed up and we were on the road again.
In such a mountainous region every square meter of flat land is used by locals as farmland.
After the traffic jam and multiple engine breakdowns we still had yet to experience the worst part of the trip. With about 6 hours to go the already-full bus stopped at a location and let about 20 more people on. Because there were no more open seats left they packed the new arrivals (and their sacks of grain) in the aisle of the bus. An’ they packed ‘em on tight.
To add to the fun the new arrivals had brought more than grain sacks on the bus. They also brought violent illness. Everyone that had just got on the bus that was now sitting within two meters of us was seriously sick, particularly the man who sat right next to Ben and who would end up vomiting for the next six hours straight.
I’m not sure if these locals get motion sickness or are stick from one of the countless other things you can get sick from over here. Either way, this was the second time in three days that Ben and I had to sit in extremely close proximity to multiple people forcefully blowing chunks into clear plastic bags that were way too small hold the payload. After enduring these vomit-rides through local Vietnam and Laos, I will never be able to complain about a bus ride again. Even Megabus seems like luxury right now.
Needless to say it was an extreme relief when we finally reached Nong Kiaw. I will bring you up to speed on Nong Kiaw in my next blog post.