Day 18 (2 Jan 2010): Sabaidee! [Dien Bien Phu – Muang Khua – Udomxai]

For your convenience, please refer to The Journey for the itinerary and the latest updates.

Weather: Fine

Distance covered today: 215km
Distance traveled from Guangzhou: 2,029km
Distance remaining to Singapore: 3,075km

Fact of the day: The Tay Trang/Sop Hun border between Vietnam and Laos (the one I used in this entry) was only opened to foreign travelers since May 2007.

The usual suspects all turned up at the bus station before the scheduled time of 5.30 am. Two more French turned up and brought the total to six. I would later find out that they were university students on exchange in Shanghai.

BP and I were browsing the stalls beside the bus stations before boarding the bus. They were open early for business and I decided to grab some biscuits as I was left with quite a bit of VND. This proved to be one of the best decisions for the trip.

My bus for the trip:

The bus to Laos

Probably first seen on Korean roads two decades ago

According to a friend who could read Korean (no prize guessing who), one of its former incarnation was a bus belonging to Hansei University.

The bus got moving before 6am but stopped off somewhere to pick up more passengers and cargo. Another French backpacker caught the bus which brought the total number of French to seven. Although the border was rumored to be 35km away, the bad conditions of both the roads and the bus made the journey seemed forever. Along the way I was treated to one of the most surreal sights in the world; felt as if we were above the clouds.

The valley engulfed by fog

It was already bright (around 8am) when the bus arrived at the immigration building on the Vietnamese side (KM 1849).

Vietnam's last outpost on this road

Tay Trang International Border Gate

The Vietnamese officials at the border were friendly and I got stamped out in no time. We would wait a while before everyone had their documents checked.

So long Vietnam

The Lao immigration building was several kilometers away. Laos would be the eight Southeast Asian countries that I visited. Only Brunei, Philippines and Timor Leste left!

Lao immigration building

The building was partly financed with Vietnam's donation

The Thai guys and I didn’t need a visa so we handed in our passports after writing the arrival forms. One of the immigration officials asked us whether we had any VND which we wanted to get rid of. I didn’t think that the exchange rate was fantastic but I got rid all my VND for some Lao Kip (LAK).

I was charged 7,000 LAK for the privilege of entering Laos on a Saturday; part of it was “stamping fee” and the other part was “extra time charge”. I forgot the breakdown but there was a proper receipt. It seemed that these fees were ‘official’ so I wasn’t too unhappy. The Europeans had it worse as they had to pay extra time charge for their Lao visa-on-arrival (on top of stamping fee plus late charge).

BP and I chatted a bit more while waiting for the rest of the passengers to be legally checked into Laos. He thought that all the extra fees seemed to be a ripoff; my (weak) explanation was that corruption in other countries (Cambodia for instance) in the region was much worse. BP didn’t like Vietnam so much as well; the Vietnamese are generally less friendlier than Thais and hardly anyone speak any English outside Sapa.

Our bus

The bus had to stop again due to road works after barely leaving the Lao immigration building.

Roadblock

Luckily we only needed to wait about 15 minutes.

The bikes had to wait too

We came across quite a number of bald hills on the windy road. It was kinda worrying as the lack of trees increases the likelihood of landslides.

Bald hill

Roadblock II

I drifted in and out of sleep for the remaining journey to Muang Khua. Although the distance between the Muang Khua and the border was only 75km, the bus’s wretched conditions meant that we rarely went beyond 20 km/h.

Lao's lush forest

The bus finally reached Muang Khua (KM 1924) at almost 2pm. We would need to cross the Nam Ou river for our onward journey.

Nam Ou at Muang Khua

Beautiful river

One had to pay 2,000 LAK to cross the river in the long boat.

Long boat

The French travelers chatting while waiting for the boat

Across the bank, we met another traveler coming from the other direction. He had arrived earlier in the day from Udomxai and pointed us the way to the bus station. BP and some of the travelers needed some local money but the bank in Muang Khua was closed on a Saturday afternoon. Arriving at the station (sawngthaew from ferry crossing point 4,000 LAK per person), I bought myself a ticket to Udomxai. I forgot the time of departure but I was quite certain that it was between 3.30pm and 4.00pm.

It turned out that not all the travelers would get on the same minivan; BP and the Thai guys would have to wait for the next departure. As I was among the last to board the bus, I got a makeshift seat on the aisle along with a few others. The minivan was definitely in a better condition compared to the cross-border bus and so were the roads. We were in Udomxai in less than the three hours expected.

The minivan would pass through Udomxai town before the bus station and I was surprised to see that many of the shops there had Chinese signs. Apparently a large number of the residents there are Chinese. Once at the bus station, I checked out the timings for next day’s buses to Luang Prabang. After noting down the time of the earliest bus, I saw two guesthouses across the street. The guy outside the one without Chinese signboard beckoned me over and asked me whether I was looking for accommodation.

He showed me the better room first (is it an essential sales tactic?) which came with attached bathroom, two beds and satellite TV. As in Cambodia, the satellite TV in Laos came from Thailand’s True Corporation. I asked that if there was anything cheaper and I was shown a room with a large bed, no TV or attached shower. The choice wasn’t too difficult as I didn’t mind watching some movies to while out the night. It turned out that HBO was showing The Dark Knight and I ended up watching quite a bit of it before convincing myself the need to find some dinner.

I went to town and decided to eat some barbecue. The girl at the store couldn’t reply to my English and I tried my luck with Mandarin. She replied in very thickly accented Mandarin (almost incomprehensible to me) about the prices and I asked for rice to go with my food. It was a welcoming meal as my last proper one was the dinner the previous night before at DBP.

Like DBP where evenings are as exciting as watching grass grow, I retreated back to my comfortable room after dinner. HBO was showing Charlie Wilson’s War and No Country for Old Men after the Dark Knight.

I caught the former but was too tired for the latter. I also made a mental note to read up about Charlie Wilson when I got the chance.

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