I realized I forgot to mention something to complete the description of the Lao bus riding experience. Lao music. When you’re in the moment, trying to experience a new culture, then almost any music is fine. However, on a very long bus ride, it is an entirely different story. Bus drivers in Laos insist on playing their awful pop music at very high volumes, for the entire duration of the trip. This goes on, regardless of what time it may be. If you dare to ask them to turn it down, so that you might actually be able to sleep, they will give you dirty looks, turn it down slightly, and five minutes later turn it back up. While many of the fancier buses (this was not one of those) have air conditioning, they are also equipped with TVs, both in the front and in the back, to play ridiculous karaoke videos, ensuring you never sleep.
Lao music might actually be very good music, but it will forever be ingrained in my memory as horrendous noise. Nowhere have I ever been more exhausted and had a harder time falling asleep. An Egged bus with arsim playing music on their cell phones while the driver yaps away with an old lady, in the heat, with no air conditioning, while I’m wearing a full uniform – that’s heaven compared to a bus in Laos. The attitude I always had, when stuck in such uncomfortable situations was that when it is all over, it will make for a good story.
Anyway, I had just run into S. at the most improbable time and place, and I couldn’t be happier. I was facing another 7 or so hours on the bus, going to a very unfamiliar city where I was supposed to meet him. Where or when exactly? I did not know. The next few hours actually went by pretty quickly, I was finally able to speak with someone, and catch up with all that happened over the past month and a half.
A few hours later, the bus stopped for lunch. We got out, walked around, and found a soup stand. S. and I asked the lady running the place what was in the soup. When sawe that she had a separate vegetable stock which she poured into bowls, and then added rice noodles and some mystery meat, so we ordered soup, but without the meat. Once we were convinced she understood our request, we waited a few minutes only to be served soup… with meat. So we repeated our request of no meat, and asked for new servings of soup. The lady took back our bowls and we saw her picking the meat out of the bowls, in order to serve the same soup back to us. When we told her that was not really acceptable, she started yelling at us in a language neither of us understood and chased us out of her soup stand. I think we ended up eating cookies and potato chips.
After getting back on the bus, and spending a few more hours in the horrible mountain roads (no rain, thankfully, or we would have been stuck somewhere for yet another night), we finally arrived at the Phongsali bus station. At the bus station everyone was taking pickup truck-taxis into town, so we loaded up our much-too-big backpacks onto one of these mini trucks and headed to town. Except that we didn’t really know where to get off, and since we were charged a flat rate for the ride, the driver kept trying to let us off at places that were clearly far away from the center.
Eventually, we found a hotel of sorts, checked in, and went out to see what goes on around in Phongsali. Not much. Most people we encountered only spoke Mandarin, and did not even understand the extremely minimal Lao we had learned. There were no other travelers in town as far as we could see, and even finding a restaurant was a difficult task. We found one restaurant, which was run by a mute Lao woman, and ate all of our meals there for the two and a half days we stayed there. The fact that she was unable to actually speak with us, made it easier for us to communicate, since she was already used to relying on hand motions, and did not expect us to be able to speak in a language she would understand.
There’s really not much in Phongsali at all, but at least we got to meet each other again while escaping the heat of the southern plains. Also, seeing a place that is not used to getting visitors at all, and is so far from civilization as we know it, is really an experience. Yes, people will stare at you more than usual, but it’s also nice that you aren’t confronted by touts every step of the way. Who knows, maybe in ten years a reliable road will be built to northern Laos, and Phongsali will turn into just another backpackers’ haven?