Peak travel periods tend to be based around weather. People head to Southeast Asia in the fall and winter because it’s the dry season. Chances are you’ll have better vistas and sunnier weather, but have to deal with hefty crowds. Traveling during the off-season (in the case of Southeast Asia, the monsoon season) can be incredibly rewarding, though at times for reasons that were completely unexpected…like, say, intense flooding and collapsed bridges!
Rainy Season Road Travel
Back in August 2006, I set off on my first backpacking adventure for a couple of weeks in Laos. I had planned to follow what was then a basic backpacker trail (entering the country at Huay Xai and then sailing two days down the Mekong River to the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang) with one notable exception. I would take one day of the boat journey and branch off at the overnight in the town of Pak Beng. From then, I’d head northeast to Luang Nam Tha, which was not even remotely the tourist hot spot that then that it is now.
According to my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, getting from Pak Beng to Luang Nam Tha first required a stop in Udomxai to change vehicles. Each leg was supposedly 4 hours. I had met some fellow solo travelers who were heading my way and together we made arrangements to get to Udomxai via the only transit option available: a rather comfortable minivan.
I should’ve known this was short lived though, as it only ran as far as the first town and from there it was into a songthaew (pronounced sowng-taow), a pickup truck with 2 rows of covered benches in the back (literally translated it means “two rows”).
By now, the rain had started in and it was pouring, so much so that, at one point, we all had to get out and get into a boat (!) to continue down the extremely flooded road!
Another songthaew picked everyone up on the other side and we were again off. But our momentum was short lived because shortly we would encounter this:
It was immediately clear that there was no way across the swollen river. But fear not, the clever people from the surrounding villages had gathered some long pieces of bamboo and in a rather hair raising feat, proceeded to build a footbridge. Aside from adding structural supports and a hand rail, they even went as far as cutting the bark off some logs to make the bamboo less slick in the rain! The whole process took about 45 minutes and to this day remains one of the most amazing things I have ever seen!
Video of the Bridge Construction
Photos of the Bridge Construction
Once the bridge was completed, the enterprising villagers charged everyone a toll of 5,000 Lao Kip (about US$0.50) to get across. Of course, on the other side waited fresh songthaews (our 4th vehicle of the day if you’re keeping track) which (thankfully) took us the rest of the way to Udomxai. The whole journey had taken 6 hours, meaning we’d missed our connecting bus on to Luang Nam Tha.
And thus ensued one of the greatest nights of that trip, as, together with my new found friends, we explored the town that was completely devoid of foreigners (and English speakers, for that matter). In addition to checking out the plethora of imported Chinese goods, we dined with some Beerlao-drinking Lao teenagers who insisted on picking up our tab. It was, by far, the most genuinely Lao experience I had.
Memorable Travel Experiences
What’s more, this day still ranks as one of my top travel memories. Sure, it was kind of miserable being stuck in the rain, but those uncomfortable experiences always do make the best stories! And even in my most recent adventure, any time road problems arose (like having to dig the bus out of snow), I’d reference back to this story.
And to think, none of this would have probably been possible had I gone in the dry season!
Have you had any crazy road travel experiences? I’d love to hear about them!