As some of you may know, I spent some time over the past year in various places around Asia. One of the things I realized was how much we, in the developed world, take the quality of our roads for granted. I’ve spent entire days and entire nights on buses, and on other vehicles the locals think are buses, going at the breakneck speed of about 40 kmh (25 mph). It’s not that the these drivers were especially cautious, quite the contrary. Take a bus ride in India, and you will suddenly have a much more positive view of Israeli driving. The roads are just that bad. In many places you couldn’t see the road for the potholes. Literally.
Of all the places I’ve been around the world, the country with the absolute worst infrastructure was Laos. (For the somewhat geographically challenged among you, Laos is a landlocked country in southeast Asia, just north of Thailand and west of Vietnam). Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in Laos, I really loved it. The city of Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The city is located at the confluence of two rivers, the famous Mekong and its lesser known tributary, the Nam Khan. The city looks like what you would expect, considering its an Asian city heavily influenced by the French. Oh, and they have great coffee. For the coffee drinking vagabonds among you, keep in mind that Asians don’t drink much real coffee. We spent days on end in Nepal in search of “black coffee”, only to be presented time and time again with Nestlé’s contribution to globalization – Nescafé. That, however, is part of another story.
I was going from Luang Prabang to Phongsali, and as you can guess, I was moving much slower than 40 kmh. I spent about 24 hours on a bus in order to traverse a distance of about just over 200 km (about 130 miles). For the sake of comparison, that is more or less the same as the distance between Philaedlphia and Washington, DC. In Israel – the distance between Be’er Sheva and Eilat is 241 km (150 miles). Not exactly a distance one thinks will take that much more than three hours.
Anyway, Luang Prabang was nice, but I was going to meet a friend of mine in Phongsali, in Laos’s far north. Phongsali is so close to the Chinese-Lao border that many of the town’s inhabitants don’t even speak Lao, they only speak Mandarin.
I didn’t know exactly when (communication in that part of the world is also pretty sparse), but my friend was supposed to be in Phongsali sometime during that week, so I decided to take a chance and just go. In fact, I bought my bus ticket only about an hour before the bus was supposed to leave. I hadn’t packed yet, and the bus station (assuming I get a tuk-tuk driver who actually goes to the right station) was about 30 minutes away. So I rushed back to my overpaid guesthouse room ($10 a night is really too much in that part of the world), stuffed my life at the time in my oversized backpack, hailed a tuk-tuk and was on my way.
Like I said, outside of the third world this is not such a daunting prospect, but this was Laos, not Highway 6. I finally left Luang Prabang at about 13:30 (the bus was scheduled to leave 30 minutes earlier, so we were more or less on time). Of course, I was the only Westerner on the bus, which made for an interesting ride. Most other passengers attempted to make use of their extremely limited English. I was repeated asked things like “You from?” and “You Phongsali?”, and when hearing that was indeed where I was headed, most were both throroughly impressed and surprised that a lone Westerner would dare or even want to make the trip up there (most of the passengers did not go nearly that far, and got off at villages along the way). After a few hours, we stopped for dinner at a rest-stop of the drivers choosing (kickbacks are big in southeast Asia):
During the break, I discovered there was one person on the bus who did speak a little conversational English, an enthusiastic college student who obviously studies in a college where English is not considered a high priority. We didn’t have any deep discussions but, at the very least, though, he could ask the “restaurant” owner at the rest-stop to describe the ingredients in the various interesting dishes she was serving. I ended up eating potato chips (no, not the seafood flavored variety) and a few chocolate bars.
NEXT: I find out that bus rides are not a nightly activity in some parts of Laos, get a welcome surprise, and encounter the wild north.