The suffering I was talking about a little while ago? Well, it came back in full force. Two days ago we crossed the border from China into Laos and spent fourteen hours in transit -- fourteen hours, three villages, and six different vehicles were involved in getting us to Luang Prabang!
The PLAN was to catch a comfortable sleeper bus from the town of Mengla, crossing the border after a few hours, and then riding directly to Luang Prabang. What happened instead is that the bus wasn't running that day -- no idea why -- so we took a bicycle rickshaw to the other bus station in town (vehicle 1), hopped into an overcroweded minivan to the border (vehicle 2, two hours), did the paperwork on the Chinese side, flagged a tractor-wagon to the Laos side (vehicle 3), and found out there was still no bus to Luang Prabang. Then we hopped in the back of a pickup truck (vehicle 4, 30 minutes) to a small town where the bus to Luang Prabang was supposed to meet us, but never showed up, so we got into a van to Udomaxi (vehicle 5, three hours), where we finally caught an overcrowded minibus to Luang Prabang (Vehicle 6, four hours). In Luang Prabang we finally caught a tuk-tuk into town. Oh wait, that's seven.
The roads from the Laos border to Udomaxi were, well, horrible. We were sitting in the very back of the van, and it was so bumpy that BG had to crouch down so he wouldn't hit his head on the ceiling every time we caught air. There were 10 people in the minivan, our luggage strapped to the roof. The minibus to Luang Prabang was just as crowded, 16 people, but the road was better. We had one bathroom break, three hours into the five hour trip, and the toilet was the roadside. I reached a new low that day, squatting in the grass with darkness as my cover... until a car drove up, highbeams blazing. The passengers waved as they went by. We passed the time gazing out the window and admiring the lush jungle scenery and rustic villages deep in the mountains, at least when we weren't struggling against physical discomfort and sleeping limbs.
You know what, though? It was worth it. Luang Prabang is completely gorgeous. The city is right on the Mekong River. It's a tourist destination for sure, and as a result it's chock-full of beautiful colonial guest houses, restaurants, and interesting markets. It's tropical, clean, and warm, with amazing temples to visit, and friendly, relaxed people like you've never met before -- what more could you ask for in a travel destination?
The Laos people are reputed to be laid back and welcoming, and this has proven to be true in all cases so far. We've had such nice chats with people in all places, and everywhere we look, we are greeted with smiling faces and friendly words. People have gone out of their way to help us find guesthouses and restaurants, even when it was out of their way or to their detriment.
I suspect we'll stay in Luang Prabang longer than we planned, and maybe even in Laos longer than we'd planned, as the more we're here, the more we realize how much there is to do here -- elephant riding, trekking, kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, waterfall swimming, river tubing, cooking classes... I could go on. Yesterday's "activities" included a two-hour massage treatment for both of us for the steep price of $12 each and sitting at a cafe next to the river, and today we attended a Lao cooking class (that's right, BG came to cooking class) and learned to make some traditional Lao dishes. Mostly, though, we've been wandering the streets, browsing the markets, and gorging on tropical fruit.
So, yeah -- heaven.