The Day the Lao Bridge Collapsed (VIDEO)

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!

Rushing Water!

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.

Gas Station
Putting gas in the van!

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”).

Udomxai Bus Station
The bus station in Udomxai with the songthaew on the left

Flooding

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!

Boat Crossing the Road!
The boat that took us down the 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:

Collapsed Bridge!
The bridge had just collapsed due to all the flooding!

Bridge Down!

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

A Toll

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.

Post Bridge Crossing
View from Across the Bridge

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!

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2 Responses to The Day the Lao Bridge Collapsed (VIDEO)

  1. Bas Holland June 14, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

    My most adventurous trip looks like yours, except this was 2001. It wasn’t our longest haul, that one was 36 hours ( on schedule!) and had only taco-breaks; Mexico City to Tijuana. But Laos is something else.

    We took our first transport in Laos not by boat, as most do, but by road, we basically wanted to go from Huay Xai to -insert little village halfway- in one day, explore surroundings, then on to Luang Prabang a few days later. Unlike Thailand, nobody understood English in one shape or form. Even sign language seemed alien to them, when I asked what time (pointing at watch) the songthaew would leave they answered by miming they liked my watch. So we loitered around the place in the morning to at least catch the ride, but without being sure if A. The road was passable and B. It would still take them the 10-12 hours expected. In fact, we were kept in the dark about our chances of ever reaching our goal until we saw the sign by the road and the engine was turned off. Lucky for us( my now-ex gf and me) two English girls shared the ordeal that made one of the best travel memories after the mud and sore bottom were forgotten.
    One of the Brits, let’s name her Anne, was quite enormous, both in hight and in girth, and Laotians didn’t hide that fact for her like back home, nor their amazement that they ( small and skinny) shared DNA with That. Perhaps they recognised the reincarnation of a fat buddha, we’ll never know. Even a blunt Dutchman like me thought the reality check was a bit much, her being a peaceful guest bringing foreign capital and all. When we stopped for a river that we had to cross, like other vehicles, we had to get out as some locals helped pushing and pulling the cars across. The stream we had to cross was deep and the current pulled the cars to the left side of the road were it created a waterfall. Luckily we could cross by a similar foot bridge, but Anne was urged to help by our driver ” Falaaang! you big, you push car! Me sixty, you hundred plus, you push!” with arm gestures and big smiles. We helped push as well, in solidarity with our new beast of burden. Later, at another stream we had to wait for the water level to drop. Some kids emerged from the brush and it was clear no falang stopped here in ages. They observed us more than the flood and Anne was approached like curious meerkats or monkeys do with foreign objects. They looked silently and awestruck, and tiptoed towards her to show bravado, but scurried back to safe distance if Anne turned around. To them we were aliens, with our hight, colour and foreign dress, but they were fascinated by an obese person even moreso. Wonder what cruel jokes our songthaew master told them, maybe about eating little asian children?
    And then it became dark and after an hour’s search we were dropped off at a unnamed guesthouse for the night. Next morning we heard that the big droppings on the bedsheet probably belonged to the giant rat our English neighbours found in their room. The next day was similar, not knowing if we’d ever make it, almost losing the car on a slippery cliffside and all in all the trip was 36 hours, not 12. If Anne made it home alive remains an open question, as she wanted to get checked for rabies and the delay made her chance of survival slim, if her fear was just. She had her legs covered with mosquito bites, she scratched them open and one or more scruffy straw dogs licked these. As you can see, if a fellow traveller is worse off it makes your own trouble bearable.
    Laos, I loved the unplanned nature of what we experienced, except the wild animals they sell as pets (feisty bamboo rats,the saddest slow lorisses imaginable) or as bushmeat along the road ( civet cats, primates) Laos is in my top 3 of most authentic, culture-shock countries to return to; India, Bolivia are the other two.

    • Aaron July 2, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

      What a fantastic story! It’s moments like these that you really never forget, do you? While I had similar memories of Laos from my first visit in 2006 (where this experience came from), I returned in 2010 to a certain degree of disappointment. A whole tourist infrastructure had developed in the four years that passed making getting around really easy. It made me miss that crazy experience, though maybe I’d romanticized it in my head a little? Perhaps it was the fact that Laos in 2006 was my first real solo international trip and it made me really fall in love with travel.

      I will say that the second time I headed south of Vientiane, something I never did the first time, and that was like a whole other world from the north. It was still largely outside the backpacker circuit. Who knows what it’s like now, though. As for India and Bolivia, I haven’t made it to either yet. To your list I would also add Indoneisa. Had a truly phenomenal experience there (and I didn’t even go to Bali). Safe travels!

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