The Churning of the (Ocean of) Stomach

This was the day that would never end. It began early in Luang Nam Tha, as I arose at 7:15 this morning, hell bent on getting a bus ticket to Luang Prabang. Of course, the bus station was now 6km from town, essentially forcing you to buy a ticket through an agency (one must wonder if the rationale in moving the bus station was strictly for the benefit of the agencies and taxi drivers). With no time to spare for breakfast, I was whisked off to the bus station in an all-too-familiar Songthaew (quite literally, “two” (song) “rows” (thaew)…basic ally a pickup truck with two rows of covered benches in the back).

The new bus station is quite a bit flashier than the little shack I remember being across from the market a few years ago. Along with the station came an upgrade in vehicle, or so I thought. “Deluxe Air Con,” (HA!) read the side of the bus, which was probably about 70% full of backpackers (with the rest being locals). I took a seat up front, in what was distinctly the Lao section and sat back for what expected to be a palatable 8 hour trip.

The driver turned on the TV mounted in front and loaded a DVD. I was getting excited…perhaps this trip wouldn’t be so dull after all! My heart sank….patriotic Lao karaoke. I should have known!

And we were off! The first hour was smooth sailing up until we hit the turn off for Boten, where I had just come from the day before. But as we turned onto the road to Udomxai, things became excruciatingly slow.

Virtually the entire 70 or so km to Udomxai (and beyond) was undergoing resurfacing. But of course, this is Laos, not the U.S., so what we have big fancy machines do, they have people with shovels and wheelbarrows. Huge piles of rocks littered the roadway, which were literally being manually struck down into pulp. We zigged and zagged around the road worked (and the mountains), making for a stomach churning journey. It was a constant battle between us and the oncoming trucks as to who’d be able to squeeze by who. B y the time we finally reached Udomxai, it had taken us 3 hours to travel about 60km ( 43.5 miles)!

The good news in this is that despite the language barrier, I got along quite well with my Lao seatmates. We shared snacks along the way and they took great interest in a book of Sudoku puzzles I brought with me. Some of them even knew how to play!

Udomxai was our stop for lunch. Now this bus station I remembered quite well, having more or less gotten stuck in Udomxai for a night trying to get to Luang Nam Tha last time around. And yes, the vendors selling intestines were still there too! Ah, memories!

Things didn’t get much better as we got back on the road. The karaoke continued and the road became dustier. So much so that passing trucks kicked up huge plumes of dust, making it nearly impossible to see (or breathe). The road wound its way around mountains in sharp turns, passing village after village before finally, after 10 pretty miserable hours (267km or 166 miles), leading into the bus station at Luang Prabang, where Songthaews awaited to carry us into town (for 15,000 kip or US$1.75).

I said in my post from Luang Nam Tha that the fact that it is the dry season would make road travel easier. I never thought I’d say this, but it was not only easier but faster and more comfortable during the rainy season! No road work then…just flooding!

But you know what? None of that matters now because today I am in the stunningly charming town of Luang Prabang. And I’m not the only one who finds it charming! UNESCO recognized the town as a World Heritage Site in 1995. The sheer beauty of its French colonial architecture, interspersed with dozens of historical Buddhist temples (Wats) struck me instantly, fading away any frustrations I had about the bus ride over. Yes, I’ve been here before (and I do remember it quite well), but it feels damn good to be back!

P.S. If anyone’s curious about the title, it’s a play on the traditional Indian mythological scene, “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.” It’s quite popular throughout Southeast Asia, and is depicted in some of Angkor Wat’s Bas Reliefs, as well as an enormous sculpture in the International section of Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport (as seen below).

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