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Into Deepest Laos, and Back (4 of 6)

TIME : 2-27 16:09:36

Tuesday: Pak Xieng – (K3,000, 1½ hours) – Vien Thong – (K3,000, 3 hours) – Mouang Viengtong – (K5,000, 10½ hours) – Phonsavanh

The day starts with dawn, although the roosters started at four a.m. After yesterday’s error in hoping for a bus that didn’t arrive, we resolve to take the first vehicle headed our way. At 6:45 we do. The grinning driver is the one who was offering us a ‘taxi’ run yesterday for K30,000 but now with us he has six passengers, not all going the full distance to Vien Thong. His price had been reasonable, in that it was about what he would make in a normal run with a load of passengers in each direction. Soon we zoom away into mist and drizzle amongst mountains and trees, passing through damp villages along a now bumpy road.

At Vien Thong there is no sign of any hotel or guesthouse offering, despite the enticements uttered yesterday. Instead there is just a slightly larger village straggling along the hillside and bridge, like Pak Xieng though less scenic. No matter. Where we stop, a truck awaits passengers heading further east. For K30,000 or maybe 20,000 we can enjoy an immediate departure for Muang Kham, but we decline. After some standing around, there is an offer of 3,000, obviously more like the standard price. We agree, and board along with the other intending passengers and are away.

Another climb up to a watershed into mist, cloud, drizzle and jungle, then down the other side to do it again. At 10:30, just after crossing a bridge, the engine falters as we start on the uphill grade, so a pause to syphon fuel from a plastic jerrycan into the fueltank.

We arrive somewhere, a large-ish village in an open valley. It is the end of this segment, but is not located at a road junction to justify that. In the café the lady in charge joins us in an attempt to figure out where we are and which way we should go, not helped by the absence of ‘somewhere’ on our map.

I go for a walk while Charles eats on, and chance on a sign proclaiming an American-Lao aid project, a covered marketplace for Mouang Viengtong. Fine, but where is that? Varying transliteration schemes for Lao-Latin alphabets confuse the issue further. It is fortunate that I had thought to have the Vannasinh’s boss write out a number of placenames in Lao script, in particular Phonsavanh. Thus, no matter how badly we pronounce it (“New York” or “Newark”?), everyone is at least clear where we want to go, if not by what route.

And in the café is a tanker driver, who has just finished his lunch. He is going to Phonsavanh, and will convey us for K5,000. This seems an inflated price, crafted especially for foreigners lost somewhere in Laos with few words of Laotian, but rather than be stuck here we accept. If we are where I think we are, the map indicates only about a hundred miles to go. Many words in high amusement from our previous driver further suspicions of a special price.

The tanker can convey six tons of fuel, and I think had passed us while we waited in Pak Xeng; at least, we saw one rumble by with passenger seats occupied. Well, there is a bench behind the seats to occupy too, so in the event, five passengers are fitted in. We roll at noon, not continuing along the valley but turning left to climb a rough road with only lace-like remnants of seal. Thus continued the day. A road surface battered almost to rubble, potholes and bathtubs, mud, slips, fallen trees, but in every case a path onwards. At two we pause by a bridge (the only flat stretch) to pressurize the tires, at 2:45 a half-hour stop in a nameless village for a snack.

The journey seems endless. We are either climbing, or else we are descending, with no idea where we are or how far to go. Mountains, jungle, mist, occasional views, but poor light and much lurching. We have been stopping often to refill the leaking radiator (it was at one such stop at eight a.m. that we’d overtaken the fuel truck), but otherwise the six-cylinder diesel engine just keeps on slogging on, through pothole, slush, and mud. Even one slush slide still oozing down the slope, over the road, and on down the mountainside.

That caused our driver a moment’s pause, but it was only flowing slowly with no big lumps and not much more than a foot deep, so he engaged a lower gear and forged on, while I looked out the side window over the cliff edge and down…

Happily, the road improved somewhat after that.

I have long since stopped regarding our fare as a high price for a short trip, and still have no clue as to our location. We pass through a road junction in the jungle that must be significant as people are waiting for rides under shelters, but as we’re full up, we don’t pause. There are no road signs or placenames. Night swallows us in complete blackness. The overcast means that there are no stars and the jungle means that there are no lights, except for our petrol tanker, steadfastly chugging through the never-ending void.

At eight p.m. we stop by a roadside house for yet more water. Now that our truck is stationary, bugs swarm into the glow from the parking lights, gyrating madly closer and closer until they strike the glass and fall stunned onto the bumper from which a continuous stream flows to the road below like thin porridge from a pot. The chooks will be happy tomorrow.

But as for us, the signs of habitation did not include Phonsavanh. More hills, potholes, rain, night. Suddenly, from atop a ridge I persuade myself that I can see a glow ahead, illuminating the cloud base beyond the next ridge. It slowly gains strength, then around 10:30 we enter a frontier town. So this is it. But where is the hotel? Our driver takes the card and asks for directions, dropping us off at what looks like a semi-closed hotel on the far side of town then departing into the night with our thanks for an amazing journey.

There are lights on, but there is no other sign of life so we walk back into town and try to make sense of the sketch map on the card. As it doesn’t include such details as the direction of North, my compass is not much help. However, one of the few people in the street confirms “That way”, and past the last lit sign in the town we spot the Ving Thong guesthouse.

We’re in. Lights out at eleven (the general power cutoff), no restaurants now, so a snack on roasted peanuts and bed.