Worst month of travel ever

I didn’t sufficiently update my followers on plans for the second half of 2012. In fact, I haven’t updated my followers with much at all in recent times which is more a sign of how busy I’ve been rather than a general slackness or lack of interest. Well, this post is part update on what I’m doing and part recap of the hardest month of travel I’ve ever done.

I'm loving it!
I’m loving it!

I’m in Laos right now on assignment for Travelfish (note: things have changed since I wrote this!). The plan is to be here for about 4 months doing an entire country update for their online guide which I must say is a fantastic companion to your travels here. It honestly means you don’t need a Lonely Planet especially if you have an internet connected smartphone.

Susan is with me on this trip which is a new experience for me when doing research as I’ve always done it alone. We started in the border town of Huay Xai with plans to reach Xieng Kok some 100km north in a few hours by speed boat. Great! An easy day of travel! 3 hours turned into 2 days and 2 nights including dodging armed bandits and sharing a full 20 hours sitting and sleep 2 metres from 54 buffaloes.

Military or bandits? The boat driver didn't want to find out
Military or bandits? The boat driver didn’t want to find out

Huay Xai isn’t operating speedboats upriver these days, so we had a tip to catch a bus to the town of Ban Mom instead, a short distance upriver. From here we were under the impression we could get a speedboat to Xieng Kok. After waiting 3 hours for the bus and then spending another 2 hours enroute to Ban Mom, we discovered at the Ban Mom boat dock that speed boat drivers were shit-scared. There have been recent shootings along the river and no amount of money was enough for them to take us to Xieng Kok. Others in town suggested we go to the dock early the next morning and wait for a passing slowboat.

Buffaloes moan and moan much like me really
Buffaloes moan and moan much like me really

After finding an unsigned guesthouse to sleep in, we awoke and begun waiting by the river at 7am. By 12pm, a boat had arrived carrying a cargo of buffalo upriver and we negotiated a price and hopped on board. The boat made slow progress and as the sun set over the jungle-covered hills alongside the northern reaches of the Mekong, it soon became apparent that we weren’t going to be sleeping in a hotel with AC and a comfy bed that night. The boat pulled into the side of the river, out came some blankets and a mosquito net, a bit of food and that was it. Everyone went to sleep. The crew at the back of the boat presumably in beds and 5 locals from a remote village we picked up on the way plus us a mere 2m from the insect-infested buffaloes. Those things kicked and moaned all night and we barely got any sleep. Early the next morning we arrived at Xieng Kok and I promptly did some Travelfish work and then skipped onto our next destination.

The sunset on the Mekong was phenomenal
The sunset on the Mekong was phenomenal

It all sounds so fun in hindsight, but at the time it was stressful and tough.

The second part that made this month difficult was riding a motorbike from Muang La, 28km north of Oudomxai to Phongsali. The road is long. And it’s a long and winding road. At times we felt like we were on a road to nowhere. For the majority of the journey we drove on an extremely windy and rocky road. That’s right, most of it is not surfaced. Worse, it’s also not graded meaning speeds average around the 20km/h mark and your body is tense the whole way as you fight to keep the damn bike upright. Of course, the dust was incredible and I ended up orange. But then it rained and the dust turned to mud and the road in parts became a quagmire which required me to put my feet into it to ensure the bike didn’t slide the wrong way.

The road to Phongsali is a joy to ride on
The road to Phongsali is a joy to ride on

Eleven hours later we arrived in Phongsali absolutely shattered. Of course we were on a schedule so the next day I had to get out and work. Sure, there is time to rest when you work as a guidebook writer, but sometimes visa issues mean you just have to go for it. Phongsali was one of these times. Phongsali is a great little spot by the way and the question, “Is it worth going to Phongsali?“, is one that I think requires more than a passing thought. I wrote about specifically for Travelfish.

The road to Phongsali is hard on the trucks too
The road to Phongsali is hard on the trucks too

From Phongsali the plan was to ride the bike 21km to Hat Sa and put it on the scheduled boat to Muang Khua. Unfortunately, there had been a landslide overnight 1km from Hat Sa and the road was blocked. Bus passengers walked to Hat Sa while we waited 3 hours in the blistering sun for the road to be cleared. By the time we got to the dock the boat had already left. We ended up chartering a boat for about $150 which is an absolute rip off but the boat dudes has us by the balls and they knew it. They knew we’d pay. For Travelfish it would have cost and extra day of expenses for little benefit if we had returned to Phongsali and sat around until the next day.

Amazingly they had heavy machinery to clear the road near Hat Sa
Amazingly they had heavy machinery to clear the road near Hat Sa

But that wasn’t the end of it. We waited a full 3 hours for our charter boat driver to decide to leave. Why? We don’t know. What we do know is that we got wet. Very wet. After waiting 2 hours he headed off down river. Yay! After 100m, he stopped on the river bank and it proceeded to pour with rain only like Asia does when you’re stuck in it. Slowboats offer little protection when it rains like this and we ended up soaked. The rest of the journey down river was fine except when we wanted to get the bike off the boat in Muang Khua and the driver wouldn’t do it unless I bought him and his friend 3 long necks as reward for moving the bike. I bought the long necks, but not without gritting my teeth swearing that all boatmen are shysters. And it’s probably true.

Muang Khua was rather uneventful as was Oudomxai which made a brilliant contrast to the hardships faced earlier. But worse was to come. The road from Oudomxai to Pak Mong is now 4 hours of ungraded dirt, much like the Phongsali road. It’s the same story as the ride to Phongsali, except not as long.

Once in Nong Khiaw, I burned through my Travelfish tasks and was prepared to leave for Muang Ngoi when I got a fever. I thought it must have been heat stroke due to a stupid hike up a mountain to a cave without water in 40 degree heat. The fever stayed overnight and all of the next day and I knew it was something serious. We chartered a minibus to Luang Prabang, but of course they made us wait 2 hours which meant we departed after the public minivan. And of course they touted for business the whole way so that the van was full with random passengers. Of course we argued at the end and refused to pay the agreed price and of course we caved in because I was so ill and just needed to get into our room that Travelfish had so kindly booked and paid for us. And of fucking course the hotel double booked our room (Ock Pop Tok) and we had to get another room at another hotel despite me being near death.

Me climbing out the cave near Nong Khiaw
Me climbing out the cave near Nong Khiaw

Ten minutes after checking in at our new hotel we went to the Luang Hospital or the home for the sick and dying as I like to call it. I knew it would be bad. I knew it would be really bad. But nothing could prepare me for how bad the Luang Prabang hospital really is. If you get sick in Laos, avoid Luang Prabang and get the fuck to either Vientiane or Thailand. The hospital did a blood test *gulp* and said it was probably Dengue Fever. Well, I could have guessed it was probably Dengue Fever as well, but I don’t like to work on probablies. I like to work on certainties when I’m that sick, so after another few days of fever, we decided to take the punishing 10 hour bus ride to Vientiane where I promptly received a certain diagnosis from the Aussie doctor at the Australian Embassy that I had Dengue and I didn’t have Malaria. Cost was $150. Best $150 I ever spent, to be honest.

This is the VIP room in Luang Prabang Hospital - god help those out in the general ward
This is the VIP room in Luang Prabang Hospital – god help those out in the general ward

We were lucky to be able to pay 400,000 kip to get someone to pick up the key for the motorbike from us in Luang Prabang, catch a bus to Nong Khiaw to pick up the bike and somehow get it back to Luang Nam Tha some 9 hours away. We were lucky in many respects really.

And although this whole month sounds like a bag of shit, it has actually been good. Not fun. But good in that it has been a great addition to the tapestry of my life. I’d prefer my tapestry without Dengue Fever, but I do want to be one of those people that that has thousands of interesting stories about their life. I want to be able to spin war stories and this is what I signed up for. So with that I look forward to the coming months in Laos with some trepidation, but a lot wide-eyed eagerness.

Note: the following month got a lot worse and I’m now in Indonesia on a break.

5 replies on “Worst month of travel ever”

So sorry you got sick! I remember the roads being so rough in Laos as well. I was about to say at least it can only get better but then you had to mention that the following month was worse. Enjoy your break in Indonesia!

@Laura – Yeah, more on the latest soon. Needless to say I plan to back in Laos again in January to finish the job. Should be good to head south away from some of the cold nights. 🙂

@Cole – You’re right. It’s all part of the ups and downs of life which is so much better than one flat path. Light and shade and all that sort of stuff.

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